How Tampa Tripled Ridership on its Streetcar

Photo:  Teco Streetcar/Twitter
Photo: Teco Streetcar/Twitter

Here’s a happy transit story: A $2.7-million state grant to Tampa’s downtown streetcar has helped triple ridership in about six months time — evidence that free transit works.

The 2.7-mile streetcar, serving downtown and the Ybor City neighborhood, is now attracting about 1,700 riders a day. That’s not a huge number, but it’s a far cry from when Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton called the streetcar, “This city’s most charming boondoggle driven by what appear to be lonely Maytag repairmen.”

The rise in ridership stems directly from two changes: The grant allowed Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to make service free, down from a round-trip cost of $5. And the state money also created better service; trains now arrive every 15 minutes, as opposed to every 20, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The streetcar also benefits from running on mostly its own right of way — meaning it doesn’t have to sit in traffic.

Carlton wrote this week how surprising it was to notice people on the trains, for a change. “People were riding — not weekend tourists, not partiers headed to a night parade, but a scattering of actual, regular, workaday-looking folk getting where they needed to go.”

The story is similar in St. Petersburg, where the “Looper” downtown circulator was made free last fall thanks to a $900,000 grant, also from Florida DOT. The grant allowed Looper to improve its service so that trains run every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weeknights and until midnight on weekends. As a result, ridership is up 68 percent, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

The change is costing the local transit agencies a little bit of revenue, but local officials say it is well worth it. The Tampa Streetcar generated about $526,000 annually. The Looper garnered just $12,500, barely enough to make fare collection with the effort, Eric Carlson, director for St. Petersburg’s Downtown partnership told the Times.

The successful grants already have important people wondering whether they may be scalable. In 2018, Hillsborough County residents passed a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund, among other things, a major increase in transit. The projects to be funded will be decided by a citizen commission.

10 thoughts on How Tampa Tripled Ridership on its Streetcar

  1. Progress, but in order to become really useful, it would have to run at 7/8 minute intervals…

  2. Great to hear! Hopefully they can continue to grow in ridership and eventually reduce the headway between streetcars to 10 minutes or less. I’m curious how much outreach the city did to increase awareness of the free rides and smaller headways?

  3. It didn’t triple, it quintupled.

    In 2018, ridership was 550 a day. Last month, it was 3200 a day.

  4. As a Tampeño (I refuse to be called a Tampan, but I digress), I can attest to not only the increased ridership, but also to the usefulness of the trolley now. We’ve had free electric car service downtown for a while, but hailing one requires use of an app and usually a minimum wait of half an hour. Now we can just jump on the streetcar and travel to anywhere along the loop in a few minutes. Before, the streetcar service appealed mostly to tourists as alternative to cabs and Ubers. Now it’s become a valued method of transport for tons of locals.

  5. I don’t remember there being a lot of local outreach about eliminating fares, to be honest. There were a few articles in the newspaper about it and I think other media outlets picked up on it from there.

  6. But if you called yourself a Tampan after you moved somewhere else you could call yourself a Tampax 🙂

  7. This is an absolute joke! Nothing is free! The money comes from state grants which means this is taxpayer subsidized, just like Amtrak. Who cares that it is used, we are all paying for it. I don’t use it and never will. The trolley is a money pit! There are better uses of our tax dollars than “free” taxpayer subsidized trolley rides!

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