Fare-Free Public Transportation - A Full-Scale Natural Experiment in Alexandria, Virginia

UMD researchers awarded NSF grant to assess innovative strategy to increase ridership and accessibility

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June 6, 2022

After two years of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of people throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area have returned to in-person work. That means the return of the notoriously challenging D.C. area daily commute, at a time when gasoline prices are hitting new highs. 

The city of Alexandria, Virginia, chose this time to roll out a complete redesign of the Driving Alexandria Safely Home (DASH) bus network, intending to meet current and future transit ridership demand, and to encourage more people to use transit for more trips at more times of day. The new DASH network is fare-free.

From an academic perspective, this is a full-scale natural experiment. To assess the impacts of this free public transportation, the National Science Foundation granted funding to Professor Anna Alberini (Agricultural and Resource Economics), and her inter-departmental research team, Professors Cinzia Cirillo (Civil & Environmental Engineering) and Partha Lahiri (Joint Program in Survey Methodology), all of whom are affiliates of the Maryland Transportation Institute (MTI) at the University of Maryland (UMD).

This grant for a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) project will assess the effects of free public transit and improved network connectivity on ridership, miles driven by private vehicles, emissions of greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants, congestion and traffic, and will study its distributional effects on different income groups and ethnicities. 

The team is working this summer to finalize the survey plan, as well as the programming to conduct the data analysis. The study involves challenging statistical procedures in terms of sampling, analyzing, and modeling the data from both probabilistic and non-probabilistic samples.

This research and its results may influence policy recommendations and infrastructure investment decisions that will impact the future of our transportation system and the quality of life of citizens in America. The impacts from this project are especially relevant at this time, when transit use is slowly recovering from the pandemic and has not yet reached pre-pandemic ridership and travel mode shares.

As the newly signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) provides funding for the maintenance and modernization of America’s public transit infrastructure, this project will serve as evidence that other transit agencies can look to when implementing innovative ideas to increase ridership and accessibility. 

Read more about the project on the website of the UMD Maryland Transportation Institute.
MTI Team Awarded NSF Grant