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Kansas City Almost Has Free Public Transit, But Should It?

Illustration for article titled Kansas City Almost Has Free Public Transit, But Should It?
Photo: AP

Free public transportation is an idea that has floated around various circles for some time without gaining much traction here in the U.S., but Kansas City appears ready to give it a go.

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On Thursday, the City Council unanimously approved a measure that puts in motion a plan to eliminate fares from Kansas City’s public transportation system. As local news network KSHB reports:

The council voted 13-0 to pass a resolution “directing the City Manager to include a funding request in the next fiscal year budget to make fixed route public transportation fare free within the City” among other things, a measure branded as “Zero Fare Transit.”

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The council still needs to work out details of the proposal, including how it will be funded and where that money will come from.

Currently, a trip on a city bus costs $1.50 per ride or $50 for a monthly pass.

The city’s light rail is already free, so the plan is here to expand that to all the city’s buses, too.

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KSHB cites an estimate (but doesn’t say from whom) that the Kansas City transit authority receives between $6 million and $8 million a year from fares. But the cost of going fare-free would be more than that, since presumably more people would ride the bus, which would hopefully mean the transit authority would have to run more buses.

Free transit is becoming an increasingly popular rallying cry to get more people out of cars in congested cities and promote greener transportation. Some advocates also view it as an elegant solution to the problem of fare-beating, which all too often leads to over-policing of the transportation system and disproportionately high arrest rates for minority passengers.

These are all worthy goals, but it’s not at all clear free transit will accomplish them. The most useful case study here is from Austin, Texas, which experimented with totally free public transit from October 1989 to December 1990. A 2002 review of that and other free transit experiments concluded they don’t work out as well as one might hope, especially for larger cities:

In the fare-free demonstrations in larger systems reviewed in this paper, most of the new riders generated were not the choice riders they were seeking to lure out of automobiles in order to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution. The larger transit systems that offered free fares suffered dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free, causing numerous negative consequences. Vehicle maintenance and security costs escalated due to the need for repairs associated with abuse from passengers. The greater presence of vagrants on board buses also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.

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American cities tend to have very few public spaces where people can spend time without spending money. Free transit systems rapidly become that space. Of course, homeless people and kids should be welcome in buses and trains—many systems provide low or no cost transit to children—but I don’t think any transit agency wants to see a rapid rise in vandalism or maintenance costs. The report also noted that bus drivers were none to happy with their new role as severely underpaid social workers.

Those costs aside, it’s not even clear regular riders care to make transit free, or that people who don’t currently use transit will be lured out of their cars by such a promise. TransitCenter, one of the most prominent national organizations, argues that transit riders are happy to pay for transit as long as it’s better:

When researching our forthcoming report, Who’s on Board 2019, we surveyed 1700 transit riders in seven different cities across the US. What we heard is that most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.

What are superior and sustainable ways to move the needle on ridership? Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb. Ridership has also been gaining in San Francisco, where SFMTA has an ongoing program to speed up buses. Cities like Austin, Richmond, and Columbus are redesigning their bus networks to better connect people to jobs, and seeing ridership growth as a result.

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In short, bus riders, especially low income riders who rely on public transportation, want transportation to work. The argument TransitCenter makes is that whatever it costs to make transit free would be better aimed towards making transit better, such as by running more service, rather than making the crappy service they have now free.

The central concern is that free transit would make the axiom “you get what you pay for” a reality by aligning the piss poor public transit service we have in this country with the price point. But if you really want more people to take the bus, the goal should not be making it free, but making it good.

Former Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik

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DISCUSSION

Free bus is better than Seattle’s idea. We are building light rail that no one rides. Our light rail takes double the promised completion time at double the budget. Free bus service can easily change locations as the population changes. Better than using technology from the 1800's that can't move.