Before Tallinn removed transit fares, free buses linked five colleges in U.S.

Northampton, Massachusetts is one of the cities served by the Five College Bus System, fare-free since the early 1970s.

The free transit system in Tallinn profiled this week by Citiscope may be the world’s largest. But the concept of attracting riders by eliminating fares has been around for decades.

A surprising early pioneer was in the United States, in a region thick with college campuses 90 miles (150 km) west of Boston.  The fare-free Five College Bus System began in the early 1970s. It connects the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst with seven other communities and four nearby colleges. The buses are a lifeline for many of the 30,000 students and 2,200 faculty members at the schools, and an economic engine for Amherst, South Hadley, Northampton and the other communities.

As a student at UMass in the 1980s, I rode the free buses regularly. For students like me who lacked access to cars, it was the easiest way to get to around. Downtown Amherst, a long walk from my dorm, was just minutes by bus. Hampshire College, located in Amherst but far from downtown, was inaccessible without the service. My only means of visiting South Hadley and Northampton, a small city with a vibrant restaurant and arts scene, was to hop aboard.

TALLINN’S FREE RIDE

Mixed results from free transit in Tallinn
FEATURE STORY

Oded Cats on research from Tallinn 
Q&A

Free transit in the U. S., for college students
STORY

On weekends, my friends and I relied on the buses to get to and from parties at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges. The buses ran well past midnight, ensuring we had safe rides home – and nobody ended up drunk behind the wheel on dark, winding roads.

I was curious how the system is doing these days, so I reached out to past and present transit officials in the region. Mary MacInnes is administrator of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which operates a wider bus network that includes the five college service. As environmental awareness grows in the region, she says, the buses are increasingly viewed as a way to curb congestion and pollution. “Even if people don’t use the system, they support it, because they do understand the environmental impact,” MacInnes says.

Al Byam retired in 2013 as director of transportation at UMass Transit, which contracts with the PVTA to handle the free system’s day-to-day operations. Byam, whose university career spanned 35 years, recalls that major cities such as Vancouver, Canada, were among the places that sought advice on how the service was funded and run. Some college communities that inquired went on to create their own fare-free systems, he says.

Jeri Baker, the new director of UMass Transit, says the five college service has endured partly due to parallel efforts to dissuade vehicle use with parking fees in downtown and campus locations. “There has to be a cost associated with driving a single-occupancy car that makes the use of public transportation viable,” she explains.

The service is funded by the federal government, the Massachusetts state legislature, the five colleges and participating communities. In fiscal year 2013, annual ridership totaled more than 2.9 million passengers and the operating budget was $3.8 million.

Technically, the system is free year-round only for students and college employees. Since the buses don’t have fare boxes, which are costly to install, there’s no way to charge the general public when they board, though bus passes are available for purchase.

While the five college area was early with its transit experiment, Byam says cities like Tallinn now lead the way. “Europe is so far ahead of us public transportation-wise in so many ways,” he says. “We look to them more than they look to us for how to do it right.”

ALSO IN THIS SERIES

Mixed results from free transit in Tallinn

Oded Cats on research from Tallinn

Free transit in the U. S., for college students

 

Photo Doug Kerr / flickr  CC/no changes made

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