If you ride the bus long enough, you notice how common it is to see people fumbling for change. Someone steps onboard — typically they don’t look flush with cash — and they dig a dollar bill or some quarters out of their pocket, trying to piece enough together for the fare.
Not only does this process take a long time, delaying the bus while the driver waits, it can be heartbreaking to see folks who can barely afford the $2.50 fare. If you take the city bus multiple times every day, the cost of fares can quickly mount — and the higher fares go, the fewer people ride transit. It gets to a tension at the heart of transit planning: how to best set fares, pricing, and enforcement.
But since the last fare hike in 2017, Metro Transit has had a little-known reduced fare program that has been quietly revolutionizing how working-class folks get around. The Transit Assistance Program, or TAP, offers those who meet income limits an easy way to get a flat dollar bus fare. If only more people knew about it, public transportation would become a lot more affordable for the people who need it the most.
TAP’s two-year anniversary
“I’ve been using TAP for a little over a year now, and it’s big; it’s saved me a lot of money and a lot of reduced stress,” said Rosalind Graham, who takes the 18 and 17 bus routes most every day around Minneapolis. “Before I started using it, I had two jobs, and was paying a double bus fare on top of a double bus fare.”
Graham used to be one of the people who had to save their dollars to get around, and for whom a flat dollar bus fare has made a huge difference.
“It’s difficult without the TAP because if you don’t have enough you’re just kind of out of luck,” Graham said.
The program was put in place in 2017, when state funding was not keeping up with rising expenses. The agency was forced to raise fares, and transit planners made a compromise decision. They raised fares, but at the same time funded a new program to reduce costs for people meeting income qualifications. For those below 50% of Area Median Income — $25K for an individual, or $46K for a family of four — they can receive a transit card that lowers all fares to a flat dollar fee, even during rush hour.
For people who know about the program, it’s been a lifesaver.
“On any given day, I was at least doing two to three trips, and if I went out again at night we’re talking three trips a day,” said Donte Curtis, who takes the Green Line, and the No. 30 bus most often. “The program saved me a lot of money, to say the least.”
Curtis began using the program when he was part of the AmeriCorps program, and estimates that the TAP fare saved him at least $75 dollars a month. He’s since used his savings to start a business.
Reducing barriers to entry (figuratively speaking)
The main challenge has been finding easy ways to enroll people. Today less than 7,000 people use a TAP card every month, though that number has been steadily growing each month as more folks get enrolled in the program.
“Based on the raw 50% AMI for the 7-county metro area, it’s over half a million people,” said Andrea Kiepe, the TAP program coordinator, explaining the program’s potential. “Not every one of those people is going to have good transit access, and transit may not make sense for them.”
Agency planners knew from the beginning that their biggest challenge would be reaching people. The idea is that, if you’ve qualified under any of the other much more stringent low-income programs, that qualification suffices for the TAP.
“I went to downtown St. Paul, and I literally took five minutes to do it,” said Donte Curtis. “Often times, with some of these other programs, there’s a lot of paperwork involved. I really appreciate Metro Transit for not making the process cumbersome, because once you get your paperwork from another place, which is cumbersome, we know you’ve been through the process.”
As Curtis describes, the program is organized to be as simple as possible. The guiding theory for the organizers, like Mary Capistrant, an agency planner who put the program together two years ago, was to simplify the application process. Metro Transit relies on other agencies, like health care or social service agencies, to be conduits to reach transit riders. Reducing complexity and the number of steps for low-income folks in the Twin Cities meant using partnerships as a model.
“The difficulty that these folks are facing [is that] there’s no one-stop shopping for social benefits,” explained Kiepe at Metro Transit. “It can be atomized, people having to go to this office and that office [and] we didn’t want to add to that. We wanted to have enough rigor to feel like we were doing a good faith effort to steward the program and make it lower barrier to entry as is reasonable.”
Once folks get enrolled, their card is registered under their name for a year, allowing them to get dollar fares at any fare box or light rail station. If you lose a card, it’s a simple matter to get it replaced at one of the Metro Transit service centers in the downtowns.
Reducing barriers to entry (literally)
For transit planning, there’s a tension between trying to get more people on the bus or train, and trying to make money from fares. This becomes especially tricky when fare enforcement is thrown into the mix; the cost of policing is often higher than the amount of additional money that might be collected from so-called scofflaws.
On the other hand, some agencies around the world are pushing to reduce the costs of transit or even make it free to all. (Estonia and Luxembourg offer the two “fare free” models, so far.) Doing so might cut revenue, but it also reduces enforcement costs and increases ridership.
The issue of policing has become more central to debates around transit planning in the Twin Cities these days, with calls for increased enforcement on light rail stations, including turnstiles and extra police. Because of the TAP program, the ironic thing about the debate is that the vast majority of people riding for free qualify for reduced fares.
“It’s a thing I’ve seen where people don’t have the money, and so then they don’t pay for their fare,” explained Donte Curtis, who has years of experience riding Metro Transit. “They didn’t pay for their fare not because they are trying to cause trouble, but because they didn’t have the money and so this is definitely a great problem.”
With the vast untapped potential of the reduced fare program, the solution to a more equitable transportation for the metro might already exist. A real “big idea” for transit in Minneapolis should focus on reducing barriers to people riding, not raising them.
“I really want people to know that everyone should use this program,” said Rosalind Graham. “It is a lifesaver. For the people who’d don’t believe it, tell them to try it.”