Are Cap Metro’s gains due to free rides?

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I’ve said that I’m cautiously optimistic about the ridership trends we’re seeing in the first two months after the implementation of Cap Metro’s new “high frequency” bus routes. This is what I wrote in the Chronicle last week:

Cap Metro has something to brag about. New monthly ridership figures suggest that the agency’s route overhaul has more people riding the bus. According to authority data, ridership increased by 2.8% this June, when Cap ReMap went into effect, over the previous June’s monthly tally. Ridership in July jumped 5.9% from the previous July, a stark reversal of the negative trend that appeared during the first half of 2018, when ridership was down every month compared to last year.

At the very end of the story, I devote two paragraphs to less optimistic theories for the ridership boost:

Skeptics highlight two potentially significant caveats. This summer, for the first time ever, Cap Metro is offering free rides to all K-12 students. Hemingson counted about 100,000 student rides in June and 120,000 in July. It’s not clear how many of those kids are only riding the bus because it’s free, and there is no student-specific data from prior years to compare it to.

Another potential issue is that the increase in overall boardings may be partially due to more passengers taking trips that involve transfers, as a result of route changes. Cap Metro has acknowledged that more people will take multiple-bus trips under the new system, but believes that the more logical grid-like design coupled with greater frequency will make those transfers less of a headache than in the past.

Both theories are compelling, but it really is impossible to calculate at this time to what extent they are true.

One reader noted that I should have provided context for what 100-120k free rides amounts to as a portion of overall ridership. That’s true. I provided the overall bus ridership earlier in the story but I should have more clearly communicated the kid rides as a percentage of the total. It’s roughly 5%.

Wait?! 5 percent of the ridership comes from those free student rides? That amounts to the entire ridership gain!? That means there was no ridership gain!!

Not so fast…That’s almost uncertainly true. My bet is that there are some kids who may have taken some extra bus rides as a result of the summer deal, but I think the great majority of student rides would have occurred even at the standard $1.25 rate  $0.60 rate that kids pay if they have a student ID.

If Cap Metro was able to significantly boost ridership by promoting free bus rides to kids this summer, I would frankly be impressed. My disappointment that the numbers were “skewed” by a free deal would be tempered by optimism that many of the kids who were introduced to transit by the summer gimmick will have gained an appreciation for transit that will shape their transportation choices in the future. I would expect a large chunk of them to remain transit users even if it costs all of 60¢ –– or even $1.25 –– for a ride.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that AISD students do not pay the full $1.25 fare. 

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