MCAT buses see 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 will continue that trend.

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

Manatee County reports that November total ridership was up approximately 5% compared to October. Fee-free service began on November 1.

And compared to last year, November’s jump is even bigger, said Bill Logan, the county’s information disclosure 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. “Many of our passengers are happy with the price reduction, and with the increase, we have attracted more passengers in the first month.”

Those numbers should only continue to rise as more residents discover that the bus system is free. According to Harris, Manatee County research found that making public transportation free can result in 10 to 20% increase in the number of passengers.

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

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

Manatee bus riders want expanded service

In interviews with the Bradenton Herald Wednesday afternoon, MCAT users said they were grateful for the temporary switch to free services, but also had suggestions for how public transportation could be improved.

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

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

“I wish it would go as far as Parrish,” said Alejandra Orbea, another Parrish bus passenger.

David Sabol, an MCAT rider from East Bradenton, also urged county officials to consider routes that provide more access to the far reaches of the county.

“I prefer to pay if it means more buses on the route,” said David Sabol. “I would definitely like to see an expansion further east.”

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

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

“We are definitely ready for that, and we are also expanding routes. We are not only doing this without a fee, but we are also expanding our service,” Hopes said.

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

Larger cities have also introduced free public transport. More recently, officials in Washington, DC, announced that make transportation free for district residents next summer, reports the Associated Press. Boston and Denver city leaders have announced similar plans.

Supporters say the free service could encourage drivers to jump on a bus and ease traffic congestion with fewer vehicles on the road. But critics have found fault with the pilot program, calling it wasteful spending for the government.

“When the government makes things free, there are usually unintended consequences,” Commissioner James Satcher said during an earlier discussion of the policy change.

MCAT updates routes

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

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

route 2

Trips to Samoset, East Bradenton and Manasota Industrial Park will not operate every 30 minutes, all day, Monday through Saturday. Trips depart DeSoto Station at :05 and :35 after 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 extended hours from 10 am to 6 pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The changes are intended to alleviate parking problems at the beach.

Route 12

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

To visit www.MyManatee.org/MCAT for more information on MCAT route schedule changes.

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

Ryan Callihan profile picture

Ryan Callihan is the county reporter for the Bradenton Herald and covers local government and politics. On weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan graduated from USF St. Petersburg.
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