Remember the Edgar Winter Group’s song “Free Ride?” That’s what Metro Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) officials are offering on the Red Line this week.

And, of course, they want you to keep coming back.

Getting people who normally drive to work or school out of their cars and onto public transportation systems has always been a challenge. But transit officials say that once people try riding a bus or train, they are likely to return. That’s why, through Sunday, they are offering free rides on the new Bus Rapid Transit service along 16 miles of Cedar Avenue and on MVTA local routes that connect to the Red Line.

“This is a good way to expose the service to people who might not be familiar with transit,” MVTA’s customer relations manager Robin Selvig said.

Metro Transit used a “fare holiday” in 2004 to roll out the Hiawatha Light Rail line (recently renamed the Blue Line) and in 2009 when Northstar Commuter Rail service began. It also offers free rides to Timberwolves and Wild games, and to such events as this month’s Rock the Garden and the Uptown Art Fair. Metro Transit gave 3,250 free rides to and from the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk in May. At $1.75 per ride, that’s $5,687 in lost fares.

But it’s worth the investment, Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said, because many who take advantage of a trial ride become frequent or at least occasional transit riders.

Metro Transit provided about 89,000 free rides in 2012, accounting for about one-third of 1 percent of all rides. Surveys indicate that 80 percent of people who took a free ride on Metro Transit had never or only rarely used public transit in the past. And 75 percent said the free ride was a key reason for attending an event.

“Getting people to try something is the hurdle. It’s sort of like a sampling program at the grocery store, but instead of getting a bratwurst, we give you a trial ride on Route 16 if you are going to an event that that route serves,” Siqveland said. “Once people try us, they are very happy with our service and will come back and try us again.”

This is the metro’s first BRT line. It operates much like a light-rail train, except it uses buses that run on extra-wide shoulders along the road and stop at only five stations between Apple Valley and the Mall of America in Bloomington. From there, riders can transfer to light-rail trains and buses to Minneapolis and points elsewhere.

Residents on either side of Cedar Avenue recently received mailings promoting the new service, which is projected to have about 975 riders per day the first year, with the number growing to 1,600 per day by 2017. With Cedar Avenue one of the busiest roads in the state — about 90,000 motorists cross the Minnesota River on the road each day, and about 70,000 cars travel through the intersection with County Road 42 in Apple Valley — the Red Line has plenty of potential riders.

“People are anxious,” Selvig said. “There is a lot of chatter about this.”

With buses running every 15 minutes on weekdays (30 minutes on weekends), go ahead, take that free ride and get another perk, too: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that transit users get 20 of the recommended 30 minutes of walking exercise each day.


Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.