Rider Recommendations for a Successful Discounted Transit Fare Program 

PPT Hosts Fair Fares Workshops with 120+ Low-Income Riders, Develops Recommendations for the Department of Human Services Low-Income Fare Pilot

Transit riders have been organizing for years for a fare-free transit program for households that receive SNAP/EBT in Allegheny County. In September, we took one big step towards that goal: the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) announced a one-year low income fare pilot, to assess the impact and possibility of a long term, low-income transit fare program! 

Image description: participants in PPT’s #FairFare workshops raise their hands to answer straw poll questions about fare affordability.


The DHS announcement is exciting, but we need to ensure that the low-income fare pilot is an overwhelming success– both in recruiting those who most need access to affordable fares, and in assessing the vast impact of an affordable fare program. Transit riders are experts in their experiences and needs. So in late September and October 2022, more than 120 transit riders whose households receive food stamps joined PPT workshops to discuss accessibility and the impact that a low-income transit fare program would have on their lives. 

Image description: Participant shares experience about fare affordability during PPT’s #FairFare workshops

Our community of low income riders shared a lot of wisdom on how transit fares affect their lives, and on what DHS needs to do to ensure that this fare pilot is a success. We’ve broken them out into several categories, below:

Recruitment to the Fare Pilot

“My English is not very good, and I would like you to help in everything with Spanish and with internet programs”

3 of the 5 people in one breakout group did not have access to reliable internet service.

Low-income riders explained the difficulty they’ve had in accessing needed resources of all sorts. Major concerns lay around inadequate communications about available services because of lack of translation/interpretation, disability-centered accommodations, or internet or smartphone access.  

It’s our belief that without a concerted effort and resources put towards recruitment, it is likely that the low-income fare program pilot will be under-enrolled, or will have a participant pool that underrepresents those with the highest low-income fare needs and who experience these intersecting barriers to access. To ensure that this fare pilot will reach those most in need, (and for whom the fare relief will provide the greatest benefit), there should be particular recruitment targets around geographical distribution, household composition, race and ethnicity, and household income. 

Recruitment efforts should include in-person outreach, coordination with existing service providers and with multiple language access points.

Eligibility for the fare pilot (including people with existing fare discounts):

Image description: Participants and their kids at the Spanish interpretation table at PPT’s #FairFares campaign workshop

Many transit agencies around the country offer half fares to low-income riders, and there is discussion within Allegheny County about whether half fares would be sufficient to address low-income family needs. If it were, it would not be necessary to include people in the fare pilot who already receive fare discounts. To answer this question, it was important for us to include the voices of those who currently have access to half fares in our workshop – namely, people with disabilities, and families whose children receive the 6-12 year old half fare. 

Riders with disabilities on SNAP were very clear in communicating that the current half fare discounts are not affordable enough, forcing them to ration their trips that serve basic needs like food and healthcare. 

“I remember when I was riding the bus, free fares would have helped me with my medication costs, allow me get to the doctor, and allow me to choose between a greater range of service providers, not just the closest in my neighborhood. I could choose providers more appropriate for my chronic conditions located two or three neighborhoods away, ie, such as at Allegheny General or Oakland, where specialists are available for my rare and chronic conditions.” 

As a result, we believe that the fare pilot must also evaluate the benefit of a steeper fare discount, or a zero fare program for those who are in this demographic. 

At our workshops, low-income riders with dependents spoke about the gaps in accessing free or reduced fares for their children ages 6-18. They shared that the cost of taking transit to get to food, healthcare and employment was very high because children often had to accompany them and required additional fares. We believe that families should be treated as a unit for the purposes of this low-income fare pilot, ensuring that all members of the household including dependents older than 5 years old receive the same fare discount, to truly demonstrate the benefit. 

“I travel with my son, and it does cost me more money, lots of times I don’t have a babysitter and I have to take him with me, including grocery shopping and other necessary trips. And it prevents me from taking him to…trips to the zoo and other things.”

Finally, many low-income immigrants joined our workshops, and spoke of their distinct reliance on transit because undocumented people are not allowed to get a driver’s license in Pennsylvania. For many immigrants, the parents are ineligible for benefits, but the households can receive SNAP through their children. It is important to allow immigrant households to qualify to participate in this fare pilot even if only the dependents have a social security number and receive SNAP benefits.

Program Design:

“It’s like if you have cancer patients and you put one group with the treatment and one in the placebo? That is not fair if you know what my needs are. Sometimes I have to choose between eating lunch or dinner because of the money I spend on bus fares.”

Image Desctiption: Participants gather at the table for people who “Take Transit More Than 3x a Week”

We heard a lot of urgency around riders’ need for fare relief now, and the sense that the distribution of benefit– even through the pilot phase– should be equitable. There was concern about the fairness of having some participants receiving free fares and others half fares, and particularly the idea of a control group that would receive no benefit at all. 

There was also confusion about the idea of a lottery, that a participant’s assignment of a fare discount is not randomized, and actually is a reflection of eligibility or merit. We recommend looking at study designs that have all participants all receive free fares, half fares, and full fares, over a rotating period of time, so that all would receive the fare discount benefits and would be controlled against their own experience of paying full fare. 

“Also I heard for this free bus pass program, there will be a lottery, how will this affect people who need it? If I don’t get selected, I am going to keep asking, “when is it my turn”?”

Program Evaluation:

The workshops made it clear that the cost of transportation disproportionately impacts those with the greatest systemic barriers to access. There is a spectrum of poverty, even among those eligible for SNAP, and having a disability, being an undocumented immigrant or being unable to afford to live in a richly resourced neighborhood makes transit affordability much more imperative.

“I live in Uptown, which, with the Bus Rapid Transit system that’s coming in and like certain bus routes that are being canceled that normally go out to groceries stores. It’s becoming a bit of a food desert here which almost feels like they’re trying to push people out who can’t afford to pay for those bus fares like for people like me living in this neighborhood.

I’m on SSDI. You know it’s vitally important that we low income people are able to get to grocery stores, and not have to pay however much in each direction to… get back and forth. 

And also…I have a medication that I’m supposed to be taking, and it’s $30 a month because it has to go through a compounding pharmacy. I’m not taking it because I can afford

it, and that $30 a month if I wasn’t paying it on transportation. 100% I could be on this medication which would vastly improve my quality of life.

So it’s just you know it would be an absolute lifesaver to have access to that.”

It is our recommendation that the evaluation of what makes this fare pilot a success includes the effect of transit fare costs on riders’ mental health, quality of life, and even low-income people’s sense of being seen and prioritized for public investment and resources. 

There is also a need for the study team to acknowledge that the barriers to transportation access have worsened at the same time that transit costs have risen. This includes the drop in transit service frequency and reliability, and the rise in housing costs that has led to the displacement of many riders to communities with limited access to transit and CONNECT card refilling mechanisms. 

It is important for the study team to control for the availability of transit where study participants are living. Moreover, the study must assess people’s ability to refill CONNECT cards, because if participants are unbanked or underbanked and live far away from a CONNECT card refilling point, then they may underutilize their half or full fare CONNECT card.

“I live in Clairton, and my only bus runs only once an hour, and oftentimes it runs late or doesn’t show up at all and then I’m stranded. Free transit would be great, but it won’t change my ability to get around much.”

Image Description: Participants engage about fare affordability at PPT’s #FairFares workshop

The Need for Long-Term Program

We’ve learned that the need for free fares coincides with the need to address our region’s history of systemic inequities, with folks with the most difficulty in accessing resources requiring a recruitment, program design, and evaluation that prioritizes their needs.

The need for free fares now is urgent and should extend beyond a research pilot! 


Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or are interested in taking a deeper dive into the qualitative data gathered at the PPT fares workshops at laura@pittsburghforpublictransit.org.

Image description: Young person holds a sign that says “Transit for People Not for Profit” at February 2020 rally to launch PPT”s #FairFares platform to lay the groundwork for the victory of this discount fare pilot program.