Zero Fare

“Zero-fare” is defined as public transit service that does not require passengers to pay when using the system. Of course, someone or some entity is paying for public transit that is zero-fare to boarding passengers. These funds can come from a variety of sources, including local, state or federal funds, or partnerships. These funds take the place of the revenue a public transit system would otherwise collect from passengers.

In Missoula, a group of community partners have organized to fund a three year zero-fare demonstration project on Mountain Line.  The growing list of partners include The University of Montana, Associated Students of The University of Montana, City of Missoula, County of Missoula, the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization, St Patrick Hospital, Community Medical Center, Missoula County Public Schools, Missoula Aging Services, Missoula Downtown Association, Missoula Parking Commission, Missoulian, Southgate Mall, Destination Missoula and Homeword, Inc.

On January 5, 2015, Mountain Line’s fixed route and door-to-door services began operating at zero-fare. Along with the addition of a second high-frequency BOLT! Route 2 and Late Evening Service, the community partnership goal was to increase ridership at Mountain Line 45 percent within the three years of the zero-fare demonstration project — that’s an annual ridership increase of 400,000!  In 2015, Mountain Line has already added an additional 350,000 rides, with hopes of this growth continuing in 2016.

What’s important to know about zero-fare? Here are some of the more significant benefits that transit agencies across the nation have found in operating zero-fare systems :

Significant Ridership Increases

zero-fare-busProviding zero-fare community bus service has resulted in significant ridership increases, no matter where it is implemented. Research from the 39 communities with zero-fare systems indicates that ridership will increase from 20 percent to 60 percent in a matter of just a few months, and even more in some areas. The most recent public transit agency to go zero-fare is in Corvallis, Oregon, in 2011, which resulted in a 43 percent increase in ridership within two months, with no increase in service hours. Here in Missoula, Mountain line has already seen a 38% increase in ridership in just the first 12 months.

Livability and Public Health Objectives

Offering zero-fare service contributes to a healthier, more environmentally friendly community. Significant increases in ridership lower the carbon and other pollution produced in a community, contributing to cleaner air, reduced traffic congestion, and less dependence on gasoline and autos. Increased ridership means a more active and healthier community.

Reduction in Administrative Expenses

Zero-fare public transit allows agencies to save on a variety of costs, including fare boxes (which cost $13,000/each); acquisition, production and distribution of fare media (transfer passes, tickets, and various monthly passes and punch cards); and collecting, counting, and managing fares. These cost savings can be invested into the improvement of services.

Reduction in Dwell Time: Less Time at Stops

A zero-fare policy facilitates faster boarding, allowing passengers to board without taking the time to pay a fare or swipe a fare card. The reduction in dwell time helps to reduce travel time, thereby preserving service quality and avoiding costs associated with the need for placing more buses into service to maintain service quality.

Local note:

Mountain Line recently broke 1.25 million boardings this past year. With an industry standard boarding time of 3.0 to 3.5 seconds to pay a fare or swipe a fare card, the time savings of a zero-fare system add up quickly. This could be the difference of Mountain Line getting a customer to their workplace or other important destination on time, while also significantly decreasing operating costs in the future.

More Repeat Riders and Mode Share Shifts

Research shows that where zero-fare public transit is implemented, current customers ride more often, which translates into an increase in quality of life for riders, and buses having more customers aboard in the off-peak hours of the day.


Another added benefit of zero-fare: A percentage of the additional trips generated from operating with zero-fare (up to 30 percent) are made by people switching from other motorized modes. In more recent implementation of zero-fare public transit in the nation, it appears that these “choice” riders are more likely to use the service.

Local note: With recent improvements to Mountain Line, and additional changes on the way, Mountain Line is becoming more convenient and livable. Operating zero-fare in combination with high quality transit service is the right combination for maximizing efficiency and effectiveness.

Community Recognition and Pride

Zero-fare transit is a source of community bonding and pride that helps local communities earn positive recognition. A number of communities offering zero-fare transit have received state and national awards as “best places to live.” Additionally, zero-fare service is reported to help bridge the divides that exist in “town and gown” communities.

Essential Services for All

Removing the fare requirements of transit broadens the service, making it equally available to everyone regardless of income. When zero-fare community bus services are properly funded and maintained, the image of the buses changes from being the clunky transportation choice of last resort to the service that connects all elements of the community and provides equal opportunity to access all that a community offers.

Increased Productivity of Public Investment

With zero-fare, the funding per passenger drops significantly and the effectiveness and productivity of public investment in transit are enhanced. Think of it this way: A zero-fare Mountain Line system allows the agency’s budget and service level to stay constant while an additional several hundred thousand rides are provided.

Increased Support from Bus Operators

Bus operators are very supportive of zero-fare policies in almost all locations where they now exist. Vehicle operators often serve as better ambassadors for the system and the community when they do not have to collect and enforce fares, and can spend more time answering passenger’s questions and focusing on safe bus operation.