In 2016, the region’s voters approved a 10 year package of investments designed to gradually and strategically improve Spokane Transit service.
Naturally, the Central City Line—a frequent, easy-to-use rapid bus route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College—stole much of the press coverage, but other improvements (like later Saturday service, new transit centers and additional service on key routes) are already dramatically improving service to riders. In coming years, new, more frequent lines on Monroe, Regal, Division and Sprague will gradually roll out additional amenities and features at stops, off-board ticketing, improved reliability and new capacity.
These needed investments will make public transit an option for more residents, but by themselves, they won’t unlock our ultimate potential. We need to make choosing a bus, bike or sidewalk as easy and “obvious” as choosing a car, and to do that, we need to change the culture.
What if we did a better job of incentivizing employers to provide transit benefits? Many employers provide pre-tax commuting benefits, but in some cases that just means a free parking spot. The City, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, and STA should do more (likely through the tax code and targeted outreach) to encourage businesses to redirect these parking subsidies into fare-free transit passes. In recent years, cities heavily pushing this model have unlocked virtuous cycles, where as more employers subsidize passes, and more employees use them, increased demand allows transit agencies to add more service, which induces even more employees to ride. And of course, everyone benefits, as each additional rider is a car taken out of traffic.
What if we gave fare-free transit passes to high schoolers? Seattle’s high school and some middle school students started the academic year with new, fare-free transit cards giving them access to buses, trains and water taxis in several counties. What if we tried a similar program? Young people who ride transit from an early age are more likely to use it as adults. By providing kids and teenagers with the freedom to travel around the city, we would be encouraging independence and cultivating future riders for our growing system.
Thinking even more boldly, what if we experimented with a fare-free system? Back-of-the-envelope math suggests it would cost around $10 million per year if we went 100 percent fare-free, not counting the additional service we’d have to add to meet demand. But smaller-scale tests could grow transit ridership in a more targeted way. For example, we could experiment with a downtown fare-free zone for short hops, or choose one line—like North Division—to test whether free service would add any riders.
At the end of the day, improved fast, frequent and reliable transit service will dramatically grow ridership for years to come. But taking a few additional, strategic steps would help the city and the region maximize their return on investment.
Anthony Gill is an economic development professional and the founder of Spokane Rising, an urbanist blog focused on ways to make our city a better place to live.