“Show me a city without traffic and I’ll show you a city in decline. But if we want Louisville to grow and thrive, we all need to support public transit,” said TARC Board Member John Clay Stites in a recent letter to The Courier-Journal.

A ride downtown on Louisville’s ZeroBus — a free-to-ride, electric, emission-free bus that travels a circuit along Main, Market and Fourth streets — presents a stark portrait of an underutilized part of Louisville’s public transit system.

Lunchtime on a recent Friday left me as the only woman to get on or off the bus in its 20-minute Main and Market Street route, and one of just a handful of people to get on or off the bus on the loop. A musty smell filled the air of this bus and most of the men who boarded appeared to be traveling nowhere, in particular, just staying warm for a few blocks on a windy day.

On paper, the ZeroBus is a great opportunity for those who spend their days downtown, and also for visitors who may be in town for Derby or conventions. Instead of navigating parking garages and fighting lunchtime traffic, professionals, hotel guests and sightseers can jump on the fare-free transit to a number of restaurants or Waterfront Park.

The fleet of 15 all-electric buses and two charging stations launched in January 2015 at a total of $11 million, the majority of which was funded through state and federal grants. Louisville Metro contributed $500,000 to the project, one that was meant to not only cut down on emissions — the ZeroBuses replaced Louisville’s trolley buses, which used about 33,750 gallons of fuel a year and the five oldest of which emitted a combined 7,520 pounds of air pollution — but also to begin a move toward better public transit for Louisville.

“ZeroBus changes the game for public transportation in downtown and represents the type of progress and forward-thinking focus we are embracing to improve our city,” said Mayor Greg Fischer when the fleet launched.

The ZeroBus is just one piece of a much larger change in downtown Louisville. The interstates have changed shape around the urban core, Whiskey Row is finding new life, NuLu is moving forward with its streetscape plans, a bike share program is coming to town, the Waterfront is expanding west, and Butchertown is getting a soccer stadium. A free bus service connecting these pieces is an asset for anyone spending time downtown. Add to that free Wi-Fi, coming to all TARC buses in June, and one has to ask why the system is not seeing more riders.

Perhaps my experience on the ZeroBus was a fluke, a byproduct of cold wind and the flu. According to TARC, in the first eight months of 2016, the Main and Market Street route averaged 886 riders on weekdays and 19,629 each month. The Fourth Street route averaged 460 weekday passengers and 10,376 each month. TARC acknowledges via email, “Many factors impact ridership, including traffic and construction disruptions, weather and time of year.”

The app went live on March 25, 2016.

TARC’s real-time bus-tracking app, Transit, was introduced on April 20. The fare-free ZeroBus has its own app to track buses and routes, available on iPhone and Android.

“TARC is far from perfect, but it will only get better if we use it,” said Stites in his letter to the C-J. “The next time you go downtown, consider clicking the transit button in Google Maps for real-time bus routes and schedules. For just $2 you can sit back, enjoy free Wi-Fi and support a better future for Louisville.”

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