As a mother of five children under 13 years old with no private transportation, Deanna “DeeDee” Barlow of the Hill District knows how difficult it can be to take her family anywhere on public transit, whether it’s grocery shopping, health care appointments or free entertainment around the city.

That’s why she’s thankful she and her three oldest children were selected to participate in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ pilot program to provide free or reduced transit fares. Under the program that started just before Thanksgiving, Barlow’s family will receive free ConnectCards from the department to pay their fares for a year to see if providing additional mobility helps low-income families get the services they need.

“Being a mom of five, it’s always hard to get enough coins together to pay for bus fare for everybody,” Barlow said. “We go to everything that’s on the bus line because we usually don’t have our own transportation. This [free fare program] is just the easiest way for us to get where we need to go.”

The county has committed $10 million to the pilot for the next year with plans to monitor how it is working, make adjustments where needed and make it a permanent program, DHS Director Erin Dalton said. The program could handle as many as 14,000 participants and as of Friday had 6,328.

Any Allegheny County resident who is between 18 and 64 years old who is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and isn’t receiving any other assistance to pay transit fares is eligible to participate in the program. Applicants are randomly divided into three groups for the pilot: free fares, half fares and full fares.

During the pilot, the county will work with researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard universities to regularly survey participants to ask how they are using transit. Riders will be compensated for completing the surveys and occasional interviews about the program.

Dalton said the county’s theory is that providing transportation to clients on the front end to improve their nutrition options, obtain health care and improve their overall quality of life will reduce the cost for health care and other services in the future. The study will help to determine whether providing half the cost for transit would be as beneficial as full fares to help clients get the services they need.

“It’s a big investment,” Dalton said, but it’s “reasonable” to make that kind of investment to “help meet our clients’ needs.” 

Unless there’s a funding crisis, the county should be able to maintain a $10 million annual commitment to the program, she said.

Advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit has been pushing Pittsburgh Regional Transit and other agencies for free or reduced fares for more than five years, and last week its Fair Fares campaign was named best advocacy program in TransitCenter’s annual Frequency Awards. TransitCenter is based in New York City and supports transit advocacy programs across the country.

Laura Wiens, PPT’s executive director, said the program could be “transformational” for families since studies have shown that transportation is the second biggest concern for low-income families, especially if it provides free fares over the long term. She is “quite happy” the program is being run through DHS.

“Looking at it through a human services lens is a really important factor,” she said. “[The program] serves so many needs that so many agencies deal with that it just makes sense.

“It’s obviously valuable for people to have this relief now. I hope this demonstrates that there should be more cross-pollination among the agencies to make sure needs are being met.”

Barlow knows the program is a “big help” to her family.

“Now we can get around to take kids to free events across the city,” she said. “I don’t have to say, ‘No, we can’t go because we don’t have the bus fare.’ “

The county is still accepting applicants for the program at this link.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at