MCAT buses see a small increase in ridership with free service

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 keeps that trend going.

The latest ridership data shows MCAT is on a steady path to increased popularity. Earlier this year, the Board of County Commissioners took a bold step to make the service free until May 2024.

Manatee County reports November’s total ridership increased by about 5% compared to October. Fare-free service begins Nov. 1.

And compared to last year, the November jump is even higher, said Bill Logan, the county’s information outreach manager. Ridership is up nearly 12% compared to 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’s been well-received,” Harris said. “A lot of our riders are happy for the break in price and with the increase, we’ve attracted additional riders in the first month.”

Those numbers should only continue to increase as more residents discover the bus system is fare-free. According to Harris, Manatee County’s research found that making public transit free can result in a 10 to 20% increase in ridership.

However, it remains to be seen whether a free public transit program will have the impact that local officials hope to see.

An unofficial poll of Bradenton Herald followers on Instagram found that 64% of respondents said they would be willing to give the MCAT a shot now that the service is free.

Manatee bus riders want expanded service

In interviews with the Bradenton Herald on Wednesday afternoon, MCAT riders said they were grateful for the temporary shift to free services, but they also had suggestions for how public transit could improve.

Several riders suggested expanded service further east. MCAT routes have limited service to East Bradenton, but they will not operate in Parrish or Lakewood Ranch.

“With all the construction going on out east, they’re going to have to extend services,” said Cindy Rockwood, an MCAT user who lives in Parrish.

“I wish it went 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 outer reaches of the county.

“I’d rather pay if it means more buses on the route,” said David Sabol. “I would definitely want to see expansion further east.”

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MCAT public transit buses have seen a small bump in monthly ridership after Manatee County began an 18-month pilot program in November to make the buses fare-free. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

County Administrator Scott Hopes said MCAT has more work to do to improve community outreach and inform residents about the free rides.

“We’re definitely ready for that, and we’re also expanding routes. We’re not just doing this fare-free but we’re also expanding our service, as well,” said Hopes.

County officials also plan to pursue a grant that could help cover the cost of the pilot program, according to Hopes.

Larger cities have also introduced fare-free public transit. Most recently, officials in Washington, DC, announced that it will make transportation free for district residents next summer, the Associated Press reports. City leaders in Boston and Denver have announced similar plans.

Supporters say fare-free service could encourage drivers to hop on a bus and relieve traffic congestion with fewer vehicles on the roadway. But critics have found fault with the pilot program, calling it an unnecessary expense for the government.

“When the government makes things free, there’s usually unintended consequences,” Commissioner James Satcher said during a previous discussion about the policy change.

MCAT updates routes

In early December, county officials tweaked several fixed-route services to “provide more appealing transportation options for commuters,” according to a press release.

“One of the things we’re always going to do is look at ways to provide efficiency and additional service,” Harris said, noting that the MCAT is exploring ways to provide service on Sundays and later into the evening.

Route 2

Trips to Samoset, East Bradenton and the Manasota Industrial Park will not operate every 30 minutes, all day, from Monday to Saturday. Trips leave from DeSoto Station at :05 and :35 past the hour.

Route 4

Several adjustments have been made to the Ninth Avenue West route in West Bradenton.

Route 75

The Beach ConneXion Shuttle, which runs from 75th Street West to Manatee Public Beach, will operate with extended hours from 10 am to 6 pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The changes are meant to alleviate beach parking issues.

Route 12

Trips along State Road 70 will no longer enter the Manatee Technical College parking lot. Passengers will need to use the bus stop on State Road 70 instead.

Visit www.MyManatee.org/MCAT to learn more about the changes to MCAT route schedules.

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MCAT public transit buses have seen a small bump in monthly ridership after Manatee County began an 18-month pilot program in November to make the buses fare-free. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

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Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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