ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Free bus rides in Albuquerque have helped riders get around on a budget. The city started the Zero Fares Pilot Program in January to make it financially easier for people coming out of the pandemic and amid record high gas prices.

“It’s helped me a lot, tremendously. I just take my bike, throw it on the bus, and go wherever I need to go,” said one bus rider. This year, ABQ Ride has seen a slight increase in ridership, and they believe the free rides have something to do with it.

“So far this year, we’re at about 3.1 million riders. That is up from last year. However, we do try to take caution in attributing that completely to Zero Fare because there are so many aspects that play into ridership whether that be inflation or gas prices, (or) people coming out of the pandemic,” Marketing and Communications Specialist for ABQ Ride Megan Holcomb said.

However, we’re nowhere near what we were seeing pre-pandemic. In 2019, there were more than 9 million riders, and that has dropped drastically. We went from more than 7.5 million riders in 2020 to fewer than 4 million in 2021. It has some begging the question, where did all of the riders go?

“A lot of that does have to do with COVID. We dropped a lot of our services during the pandemic. There was obviously a lot of people staying home trying to stay safe, and so, that has a huge, that’s a huge determination of that,” Holcomb said.

Since the program started, the route along Rio Grande and 12th Street saw fewer than 1,000 riders in a month. Compare that to the stretch along Central, which has more than 80,000.

In order to get back to pre-pandemic numbers, we need about 4 million more riders. ABQ Ride is trying to do just that by conducting a network study to figure out where to go from here.

“We’re really trying to just like reach out to community members. Right now we have an ART promotion going on at UNM for their welcome back days so trying to get students riding again,” Holcomb said.

The city said they were given a total of $4.5 million dollars to cover the lost revenue from the program. The free rides will stay until June of 2023.

The Railrunner also reduced its fairs by 75% earlier this year. A spokesperson explained between the price reduction, inflation, and other factors, their ridership is climbing back to near pre-pandemic levels.