Desiree Collins is riding a public bus in Tucson. It’s winter in Arizona, the pandemic endures, cases of COVID-19 are spiking, and inflation is making it harder to afford groceries, pay bills and get through another month.

Desiree works at a nonprofit organization. Having access to free transportation has helped in ways she knows some Arizonans might not understand. But maybe, in a pandemic that has taken so much from so many, things are changing.

For two years, residents in the city of Tucson have been able to ride for free on the region’s extensive network of buses and streetcars.

Highlights and how to get involved

  • Contact your Tucson City Council member
  • Free rides will continue through June 30, then the city will weigh public feedback and decide how to move forward.
  • Mark your calendar to vote in the city of Tucson’s special election on May 17. A transportation funding initiative will be on the ballot. 
  • During this unexpected no-fares transit experiment streetcar rides increased.

Tucson’s public transportation system, which includes Sun Link, Sun Tran, and Sun Van services, has been free of charge for all riders since the spring of 2020. That’s when all fares were temporarily suspended as part of the city’s COVID-19 response to a local crisis in a global pandemic. 

In December, the Tucson City Council decided to keep transit rides free for everyone through June 30, 2022. To do so, the city tapped national pandemic relief funds.

The move aligns with a national discourse over reforming public transit to be a civic and societal value akin to the U.S. standard for funding schools, which taps into state and federal dollars to ensure that every child in America has access to public education.

It’s a tricky shift as traditional models have used affordable fares to help support city transit systems that struggle to sustain and grow public transit amid limited federal support.

Some transit and human-services experts say traditional fare models create systemic barriers that exclude people who are homeless. But the U.S. public health and economic crisis has revealed a deep need for public transit among people living in poverty or on limited budgets, as well as on the streets or in shelters.

The nation remains far from financial or pandemic recovery, and people in Tucson and across Arizona are appealing to their local officials for help

Still, free public transit is a rare concept in a state that has historically frowned on free rides.

In Arizona, Tucson stands out as it reimagines its public transit system. Other cities that temporarily halted bus fares have since reinstated rider fees for people using buses to get to work, doctor appointments, the grocery store and other essential needs.

Free public transit is more common in European cities. Though some U.S. cities have gone fareless — like Corvallis, Oregon, where the city saw a  37.9% increase in ridership after doing so. Residents opted for a transit operations fee, about $3.44 monthly for single-family residential utility customers. That provided a stable source of local transit funding to match state and federal funds, freeing up property taxes previously dedicated to transit services for other public services.

The Tucson City Council is now weighing Tucsonans’ transportation needs and how to pay for public transit, which has been a community service paid for primarily by taxpayers, not fares. The discussions are part of an ongoing debate on what to do when federal grant funding ends.

For cities like Tucson, which has struggled to collect enough fares to fund even a third of transit costs, free transit in the pandemic has spurred conversations about potential benefits. Those advantages include speeding up the system by not waiting to collect fares at stops, as well as providing social and economic equity in transportation access for those who can’t afford a vehicle or don’t drive.

Whether Tucson does more than imagine transforming traditional American transit models remains to be seen. For now, the transit system for Tucsonans remains free.

Nationally and locally, more transit experts and advocates are hoping more cities will consider this time of public crisis as an opportunity to reexamine the concept of public transit.

Many cities were forced to stop collecting fares as a safety protocol to keep distance between drivers and people boarding the bus. The new way of operating, literally blocking off the front door, has opened a new door for people in cities like Tucson to start a discourse about social and economic equity in funding public transit.

“This has been an unintended experiment for agencies, to see what happens when they go fare free,” says Victoria Perk, the transit research program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Free public transit for all?

Desiree relies on public transit as her primary mode of transportation, a choice that resulted from a number of factors, including the minimal cost, an aversion to driving, and concerns for the environment.

When she moved back to Tucson from Denver in August 2020, she worried about the upfront costs of transit and how she would be able to afford it as she got settled. That was before she realized it was free.

Desiree is now in a position to afford paying for her transit rides. But she worries about people who still aren’t.

“I work in fields that work with populations that are very marginalized and I definitely think about them and those decisions.” she says. “It’s going to make it a lot harder on folks” if they must pay.

Desiree wants people to understand what it is to work and still not make enough to make ends meet. To live in between payday and rent-is-due day.

“We have a large percentage of folks that are in technical poverty,” she says. “I can’t imagine trying to add that to the list of things when people are thinking about childcare and childcare deserts and food and everything.”

That concern is shared by Rhett Crowninshield, transit administrator at the Tucson Department of Transportation. It’s one of the factors Tucson considered in its decisions about the future of the city’s public transit. The issue, he says, is complex.

“We don’t have a dedicated funding source for transit,” Crowninshield says, noting the cost to operate the Sun Tran system runs in the millions each year. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has had access to additional resources to help pay for the system, including a $47 million Federal Transit Administration grant that was part of the federal government’s pandemic relief to cities.

In 2018, before the pandemic, the public transit system in Tucson cost about $65 million. Fares paid for about $11 million of those costs, about 17%, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

In 2019, the system cost $63 million and fares paid for about $12 million, or 19%.

In 2020, the system cost $65 million and fares paid for about $9 million, or 13%, when ridership dropped and the city stopped collecting fares in the pandemic.

Public transit as a public good ?

Tucson was not unique in offering free transit during the pandemic. 

Many cities in the U.S. decided to go fare-free, both for safety reasons like minimizing contact between passengers, drivers, and fare boxes, and also because the drop in ridership meant they were going to lose money on fares anyway, says Perk, the transit researcher.

Between 2019 and 2020, Sun Tran ridership fell 14%, compared to a national drop of 76%, Perk says.

Some cities have learned that free buses improve social equity by providing access to jobs, education, groceries, medical appointments, and more, Perk says. It might also make bus systems faster, because drivers aren’t waiting at bus stops for people to pay.

Now, some cities are looking for ways to continue free rides, she says. It’s a matter of shifting policy decisions and funding decisions. 

On the policy side, some cities are starting to see transit as a public good and not a profitmaker. On average in the U.S., fares cover about 30% of the cost of operating a transit system, but in places where the percentage is lower — like in Tucson — it’s easier for cities to decide to eliminate fares and find a different way to pay for that portion of the costs, Perk says.

How to pay for the bus system is part of a wider and enduring debate over how to pay for the city’s transportation needs, including road repairs and traffic-safety measures for pedestrians and bicyclists.   

Federal grant money could keep covering some fares and also some transit system improvements for five years, Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega said in a recent memo.

Without a new source of funding, the city could keep using federal grant money to help pay for the transit system, but it wouldn’t be able to expand transit service, he says.

Is transit essential?

Phoenix and Tempe are among the Arizona cities that restricted access to the fare box in response to the pandemic for safety reasons.

However, unlike Tucson, the move was not strategic. The cities, which contract with Valley Metro for bus operations, offered rear-door boarding essentially making buses free.

“This effectively cut off access to the farebox, however, fares were still required throughout the pandemic, it just wasn’t enforced the same way we normally do,” said Tempe transit spokeswoman TaiAnna Yee.  

Phoenix bus riders struggling emotionally, physically and economically were relieved by the unexpected reprieve from another monthly expense.

It was a chaotic time when people across Arizona and America were learning that a virus was spreading and killing people, yet many teens and adults still had to get on a bus and still go to jobs deemed “essential.”

Last year, as the pandemic endured, Phoenix and Tempe reverted to using front doors and fare boxes for buses. Bus operator barriers for increased safety were installed. Masks are still required. 

During the pandemic people have used the bus for “essential trips,” with 65% using it for work and 58% using it for rides to the grocery store, according to Valley Metro. 

Last fall, Phoenix officials announced the city was directing $1 million, using funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, stimulus dollars to aid economic recovery amid the pandemic, to purchase and distribute transit passes for vulnerable communities. 

“Assisting with transportation costs will be beneficial for those individuals that may need temporary help to get back on their feet, go to work, school, medical appointments, and continue moving their life forward,” officials said in a statement. “This can make a positive impact across Phoenix communities who rely on public transit in their daily lives.”

Brenda Yáñez, a Phoenix transit spokeswoman, encouraged Phoenix-based organizations interested in partnering to distribute free transit passes to contact:

Responding to Arizona Luminaria questions about investments similar to Phoenix’s funneling of federal stimulus funds into free transit for vulnerable populations, Tempe officials said the city has long directed up to $9,600 annually to pay for passes for people in need, as well as funded a program serving students, ages 6-18 in the city and in Guadalupe, with free transit passes.

Yee pointed to a separate program for transit support that also pre-dates the pandemic. Valley Metro receives federal funding and is subsequently mandated to offer reduced fares to certain vulnerable populations, including people 65 and older and people with disabilities. Valley Metro extends this reduced fare to kids 6-18, and offers savings for college students.

Tempe also has a free neighborhood circulator shuttle that operates in limited areas of the city, funded by a voter-approved dedicated transit sales tax.

Flagstaff also halted fares for safety reasons due to COVID-19. In October 2020, the city reinstated fare collections and front-door boarding after installing plastic barriers to keep riders and drivers separated.

Record-breaking ridership but what happens when federal funding ends

Once federal stimulus grant funding runs out, the city of Tucson will have to find replacement funds for public transit.

Now that schools, businesses, and events are resuming, Sun Tran General Manager Steve Spade says ridership is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels or even higher, as in the case of the Sun Link streetcar.

That means more people like Desiree are turning to public transit for personal, professional and economic reasons.

The public conversation in Tucson, comes as the Southern Arizona city appeals to voters in May to extend an existing half-cent sales tax for 10 years. Prop. 411 would fund road repairs and street-safety projects, illustrating the competing economic needs and priorities for cities that remain financially strapped.

Without fares, Crowninshield says funding to support this level of service would need to come from another area of Tucson’s budget, potentially taking away from other critical services the city provides.

In the past, the city has paid for transit from the general fund, where it vies with public safety, parks, and other needs for the same dollars.

The free rides have brought up what some view as a public transit problem and others view as a longstanding community need for human services that pre-dates the pandemic response. People without a home have long used the transit system for shelter from the chilly winter days, monsoon storms and deadly-hot summer days in Arizona. Nor is it new for people who don’t have a home to use the transit system as a place for refuge and rest.

After fares were nixed, the city also increased security to enforce safety rules and increased cleaning measures at transit centers and bus shelters.

Crowninshield says the response to free transit has been mixed among riders. However, he pointed to the Sun Link streetcar as one of the successes of the fare-free program, with record-breaking ridership numbers.

“It’s off the charts,” he says, “This is good because people get used to using public transportation for one, and they get used to operating in a high-density urban core.”

“It’s a huge positive because, generally speaking, they’re having a very good experience. And so it becomes an accepted way to move about. That’s kind of what we’re all about.”

For now, Desiree has one word to explain to anyone who cares what one less monthly expense means for people struggling to pay their bills: “Amazing.”

Executive Editor Dianna M. Náñez contributed to this story

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.

Carolyn Rousch is a freelance writer, hobby photographer, whiskey enthusiast, and quasi-outdoorsy person based in Tucson. In 2021, she left a decade-plus career in the non-profit and higher education world...