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Fresno Becomes the Largest City in America with Free Buses

Fresno — With the election of Councilmember Tyler Maxwell cementing a Democratic super majority in City Council, Fresno has signalled a new era in its public transit system by making all city buses free to ride. Councilmember Maxwell led the proposal, which presents a new vision of the Central Valley that embraces urban renewal through public transit and walkable streets. The “Zero Fare Clean Air” Act passed by a vote of 5-2, and provides fare relief through the end of the pandemic.

While historically a city which elects conservatives — much of Fresno is in Congressman Devin Nunes’ district — the majority of the voters in Fresno are registered Democrats. In 2020, the voters of Frenso’s District 4 elected Councilmember Maxwell with a margin of 4.6% in response to his promises for improved parks, public safety, and jobs. In his first 100 days in office, he has focused on building political will and finding the money to make the public bus system free.

Most of Fresno’s bus riders are students, farm workers, or other people who cannot afford to travel by car in the sprawling city. Free buses for these demographics will allow for more job mobility & greater productivity while taking cars off the road. This is an especially important development for the 25% of Fresnans who live under the poverty level. According to FAX’s survey of their riders, 77% of riders don’t have a car and 76% make less than $20,000 a year.

“The most common Fresno FAX riders are young women of color with children going to work or school,” Maxwell said.

During the pandemic, the city’s buses will take a maximum of 10 riders with masks. If more than 10 riders are in a bus, an on-demand shuttle will pick up the remaining passengers. While the bus fare relief was passed for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic, there could be significant political will at the end to extend the free rides indefinitely.

Only 1.8% of commuters take public transit in Fresno, and one outcome the sponsors of this Act hope for is increased reliance on the transit system to remove traffic and pollution from Fresno. According to a 2019 study by Transit Center, bus ridership increases by about 20% in cities that go zero-fare. Notably, the program does not rely on means-testing or permit applications to allocate the free-fare privilege — it is available to everyone no questions asked.

Other cities have made their public transit system free, most notably Kansas City and Fresno’s neighbors Visalia and Clovis. Though boasting a slightly larger population than Kansas City, Fresno is in many ways similar to its Midwestern counterpart in terms of its urban sprawl.

A similar idea has been proposed for San Francisco’s MUNI system by Supervisor Dean Preston, who said “With new federal funding coming from the Biden Administration and very low fare revenue right now anyway, this is absolutely something MTA can do without compromising service or negatively impacting staff.”

Photo Credit: “fresno bus fax” by jass is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Cerina runs the politics beat and can be found with at least one phone in her hand at any time. Her background is in law, but she prefers journalism; it's much more straightforward.

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