When her car recently broke down, Micaela Chavez found herself boarding a city of Albuquerque bus.
It was something she had done many times before.
Chavez had been reliant on the city’s bus system for years. She started using it at age 16 to commute between school and the homeless shelter where she stayed, and the bus stayed her only form of transportation until she got a car about six months ago.
But when vehicle trouble struck and the now 25-year-old returned to the bus, it was a slightly different experience. Passengers no longer have to pay for rides — which used to cost adults $1 each or $2 for a day pass — under a zero-fare pilot the city launched in January.
“It was really relieving because I wasn’t sure if I was going to have enough (money),” the mother of three said.
Albuquerque is now over six months into the zero-fare experiment the City Council approved last fall. Initially slated to run for a year, officials recently approved funding to keep it going through June 30, 2023. The city budgeted $4.5 million total for the project to backfill the lost revenue.
Supporters say they are pleased with the results thus far.
“I think it’s working — public transportation is meant to be just that: public transportation,” said City Councilor Klarissa Peña, who co-sponsored the legislation to create the zero-fare program.
Numerous people have spoken at City Council meetings to tout the benefits of the program. That includes a car-less single mother who said the freedom from payment has allowed her and her children to fully explore the city without worrying if they had enough money for multiple trips. It also includes an Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless employee who said the nonprofit was able to move $50,000 it would normally spend buying bus passes to other priorities.
Christopher Ramirez with Together For Brothers, an organization that has pushed for years to improve access to buses, said going zero-fare has been a “game-changer” for transit-dependent people in Albuquerque. It has eliminated some of their financial pressure and made it easier to get to school, work and even recreational opportunities, and he said all of that ultimately translates to a healthier community.
“We’ve been on buses and on bus stops collecting stories about impact of zero fares; by far, the overwhelming majority have expressed how much this has impacted them in their household. … This is a huge thing,” said Ramirez, Together For Brothers’ executive director and also the current chair of the city’s Transit Advisory Board.
But others remain skeptical of the program.
City Councilor Louie Sanchez said in a public meeting this spring that he knows bus drivers who have left the already understaffed city Transit Department because they’re having “a lot more difficulty doing their jobs” under a no-fare model.
One driver who spoke to the Journal said he quit last month because the program had made it untenable.
“I didn’t feel safe at all,” said G. Perez, who drove the 66 bus on Central Avenue and said he was regularly threatened by passengers. He said that the route encountered problems even before the pilot, but that he saw an increasing number of people who were belligerent and intoxicated after it was implemented.
Perez said he believed removing the payment requirement made passengers less accountable and that the city’s security force is “not even a fraction of what it needs.” He resigned in June, just short of eight years on the job. He said he was making $20 per hour and was hoping to eventually retire from the city, but is now working in the private sector.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Numbers compiled by the city show that both bus ridership and calls for security have increased since the pilot began, though it’s difficult to put either into context.
Total ridership for the first six months of 2022 is 36% higher than 2021 and averaging about 449,000 boardings per month; however, usage had plummeted due to the pandemic so a true year-to-year comparison is harder to make. Even without charging passengers, boarding remains about 40% short of 2019 levels.
The city transit system has generated an average of 578 calls for security a month since going zero-fare. There is no similar data for the first half of 2021, since the city did not start tracking it until fall of 2021. But the new numbers do reflect a jump from the 450 security calls per month the system generated in the three months immediately preceding the zero fare pilot.
Interim City Transit Director Bobby Sisneros noted that the security calls do not always reflect major problems. More than half of the 611 total calls in May, for example, were logged in the “security check” and “wellness/medical” categories, which Sisneros said could mean something as minor as a trip-and-fall. There were fewer incidents in other categories, such as disorderly conduct (65), intoxication (22), narcotics (11) and fights (six).
The city numbers also show the bus stops and transit stations — rather than the buses themselves — account for most of the problems. In April, for example, there were a combined 434 calls from some of the busiest transit stops, compared to 258 tied to buses. And 80% of the bus calls are attributed to just a trio of Central Avenue-based routes.
Sisneros said he will wait until the end of the pilot to render judgment on whether the zero-fare model is working well.
He said the pilot already had some positive side effects, prompting Transit to get more serious about data collection and to better collaborate with other city departments and the community.
But it also had some impact on staffing.
Transit is historically and perennially starved for bus drivers, a problem that existed well before the pilot. Since January, the department has lost 54 drivers, and Sisneros said nine cited the zero-fare initiative. The department currently has 75 bus driver vacancies.
The leader of the union that represents Albuquerque bus drivers did not respond to multiple Journal messages regarding this story.
Ramirez, who regularly rides the bus, said drivers have a hard job but that he’s seen them sometimes make sticky situations worse.
“I think the solution there is to pay drivers more and give them more training to have them be able to deal with customers in a more positive way,” he said.
The city’s starting wage for bus drivers is $15.44 per hour.
Zero-fare supporters say driving a bus could be a difficult job even before zero fares and that the problems on buses are merely a reflection of larger societal challenges that play out in other public spaces too.
“I’m sure as a driver before and after the free fares there were times a driver would’ve felt like quitting at the end of the day with some of the population we have on the bus,” City Council President Isaac Benton said.
Benton co-sponsored the zero-fare bus legislation but pushed last year to delay approval, questioning whether the city had a strong enough security plan to keep buses safe when there was no longer a barrier to ride them. Even before the pilot began, he said “it’s pretty rough out there” on the buses.
The councilor said he personally has taken the buses since they stopped charging and feels the program is a success so far. He said he’s noticed no marked change for the worse, though he believes the city should be more strategic about how and where it uses its limited security resources.
There are currently six city security officers per shift able to take calls throughout the bus system, and the Transit Department also has nine other contract security workers who help with incidents on buses. The city also has six officers assigned to the Alvarado Transportation Center in Downtown, where many buses stop.
Sisneros said he does not believe the city will “ever have enough” security officers for its roughly 180 buses and 2,750 stops, but that officials are trying new solutions. Transit is collaborating with Albuquerque Community Safety to explore the possibility of placing social workers or other outreach specialists on the buses.
Peña and others say that problems are still relatively rare on buses, particularly when compared to total passenger volume.
“For the most part people who are using public transportation are using it for what it’s intended to be used for,” she said.
Peña said the city must tackle the underlying causes of crime and other challenges to improve conditions in public spaces, and that programs like free bus service can have that long-term impact.
Chavez, the young woman who recently found herself without a car, said she may not rely as heavily on the bus as she once did, but making the service free for passengers was important enough to her that she voiced her support to the City Council during a meeting this spring.
“I wanted to show up and speak and kind of let them know that there are people right now struggling. … It’s been more than helpful for friends who I know who have used the bus,” she said.