Sonoma County Transit’s “fare-free” bus programs have been operating for less than a year, but already some participating cities have seen ridership numbers increase by as much as 50 percent.
Sonoma Valley became the latest addition to the program when its Route 32 began offering free rides at the beginning of the year – and for the next 18 months, transit riders from the Plaza to the Springs and down to Temelec will enjoy free rides courtesy of both Sonoma County and the City of Sonoma. In its first month alone, Route 32 ridership through the Valley is already up 17 percent, according to county transit officials.
Bryan Albee, transit systems manager for Sonoma County Transit, described is as a “hop-on, hop-off program.” Each of the five participating routes are in-city loops, which means all riders pay no fare as long as the program lasts, unless they transfer over to another line.
“What we call our ‘fare-free programs’ started with Sebastopol’s Route 24 in July, then Healdsburg’s Route 67 and Windsor’s Route 66 joined in September,” said Albee.
Guerneville and Sonoma both started their fare-free rides on Jan. 1, and it’s possible other cities will follow. One of the goals of the program is to alleviate the uncertainty people have about riding the bus: When do you pay? Is it comfortable? Will it take me where I want to go? And will I be able to catch a bus back home?
Those questions form the core of what Albee, a 35-year veteran of Sonoma County Transit, calls “ridership anxiety.” And reducing that anxiety – and increasing ridership numbers – is at the heart of the fare-free program.
Sebastopol was the earliest adapted because it was there, Albee said, that the idea first took off. A series of community meetings to increase ridership and interest in the local routes led to the idea that the rides should be free – at least for a certain amount of time.
The county and the cities worked out a pay-share schedule to underwrite the bus service in the predominately unincorporated areas, like the Sonoma Valley and the Russian river communities; within city limits, like Windsor and Sebastopol, the cities pick up the tab.
For the first six months of the Sonoma Shuttle, the city is kicking in $5,625; the county’s share is $13,126 for the same period.
Sonoma City Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti, who was mayor of Sonoma last year when the project was approved, has become one of the program’s biggest local supporters.
“I was on the transportation improvement district when I was mayor, and as soon as I heard about Sebastopol’s’ program I said, ‘How can we do this in Sonoma?’”
A meeting to acquaint students, seniors and the business community with the program was held at Vintage House senior center on Jan. 30, and another meeting is scheduled for Feb. 28.
So far, if increased ridership is the goal, the programs seem to be working. In the first six months of Sebastopol’s pilot program, ridership was up 50 percent. On Route 66 in Windsor, from September to January, that increase was 77 percent; Healdsburg’s Route 67 showed a 37 percent increase in ridership.
It’s not too early to project similar popularity for Sonoma’s Route 32, where ridership is already up 17 percent in the first month of the year.
Rte. 32 schedule and map can be found online at sctransit.com
There will be a second meeting with Sonoma County Transit officials, tourism and business representatives at the Vintage House, Thursday, Feb. 28, from 2 - 4 p.m.