More and more people are riding Manatee County Area Transit buses, and county officials hope the decision to make rides free for the next 18 months will continue that trend.
Recent ridership data shows that the MCAT is on a steady path to increasing popularity. Earlier this year, the Board of County Commissioners took a bold step to make the service free by May 2024.
Manatee County reports that total November travel is up nearly 5% over October. The free service started on November 1.
And the November jump is even higher than last year, said Bill Logan, the county’s information sales manager. Ride numbers are up nearly 12% from 2021, Logan wrote in an email to the Bradenton Herald.
Transit Division Manager Jason Harris, who oversees the MCAT system, was also pleased with the increase in ridership.
“It was well received,” Harris said. “Many of our riders are happy with the price break, and with growth we’ve taken on additional riders in the first month.”
Those numbers should only continue to grow as more residents discover that the bus system is free. According to Harris, a Manatee County study found that making public transit free could lead to a 10 to 20 percent increase.
However, it remains to be seen whether the free public transit program will have the impact that local officials hope to see.
An informal poll of Bradenton Herald followers on Instagram found that 64% of respondents said they were willing to take the MCAT now that the service is free.
Manatee Bus riders want expanded service
In an interview with the Bradenton Herald Wednesday afternoon, MCAT riders said they were grateful for the temporary transition to free service, but also had suggestions for how public transit could be improved.
Several riders suggested extending the service eastward. MCAT routes have limited service to East Bradenton, but they do not operate in Parrish or Lakewood Ranch.
“With all the construction going on eastbound, they’re going to have to expand service,” said Cindy Rockwood, an MCAT user who lives in Parrish.
“I wish it would go all the way to Parrish,” said Alejandra Orbea, another bus rider from Parrish.
David Sabol, an MCAT rider from East Bradenton, also urged county officials to consider routes that provide more access to the county’s outer reaches.
“I’d rather pay if it means more buses on the route,” said David Sabol. “I would definitely like to see expansion further east.”
County Administrator Scott Hopes said MCAT has more to do to improve community awareness and inform residents about the free rides.
“We are definitely ready for it, and we are also expanding the routes. Not only are we doing this without fares, but we’re also expanding our service,” Hopes said.
County officials also plan to pursue a grant that could help cover the cost of the pilot program, according to Hopes.
Free public transport has also been introduced in larger cities. Washington, D.C. officials recently announced that they will make transportation free for residents of the district next summer, the Associated Press reported. Boston and Denver city leaders have announced similar plans.
Supporters say free fares can encourage riders to take the bus and ease traffic congestion with fewer cars on the road. But critics have faulted the pilot program, calling it an unnecessary expense for the government.
“When the government makes things free, there are usually unintended consequences,” Commissioner James Satcher said during a previous discussion on the policy change.
MCAT updates routes
In early December, county officials tweaked several fixed-route services to “provide more attractive transportation options for commuters,” according to a news release.
“One of the things we’re always going to do is look for efficiencies and ways to provide additional services,” Harris said, noting that MCAT is exploring ways to provide service on Sundays and later evenings.
Trips to Samosett, East Bradenton and Manasota Industrial Park will not operate every 30 minutes all day, Monday through Saturday. Trips depart from DeSoto Station at 5:00 a.m. and 5:35 p.m.
Several adjustments have been made to the westbound lane of Ninth Avenue in West Bradenton.
The Beach ConneXion Shuttle, which runs from 75th Street West to Manatee Public Beach, will operate extended hours from 10am to 6pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The changes are meant to alleviate the problems of beach parking.
Trips on State Road 70 will no longer enter the Manatee Technical College parking lot. Instead, passengers should use the bus stop on State Route 70.
Visit www.MyManatee.org/MCAT to learn more about MCAT route schedule changes.