In early December 2019, the Kansas City city council approved a resolution requiring a set aside to allow riders to use local buses for free, beginning in 2020. Already providing free rides on the city’s streetcar system, the $8 to $9 million set aside would cover all revenue previously generated from $1.50 per ride fares and $50 monthly passes. Viewed as monumental and meant to reduce barriers to access to people, according to Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, “this is going to improve the lives of so many and help fuel the local economy.”
Financially, Kansas City loses $1.5 million collecting fares annually, so the true estimated shortfall is about $6 million. Mayor Lucas believes covering that cost can be found in the city’s annual budget. Currently fare collection accounts for 12% of the system’s funding. While the decision is being highly praised and important to building up a culture of bus riding in certain circles, others believe offering free fares could led to services declining.
In a recent interview with Vox, Ben Fried of Transit Center, a transportation research and authority group believes this approach may be viable for relatively small bus systems like Kansas City’s.
“It’s much different if you’re talking about bigger agencies, which carry hundreds of thousands of trips a day and receive anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars from annual fare revenue,” Fried stated.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, KCATA carried 42,500 weekday bus passengers during the third quarter of 2019. In comparison, larger systems such as New York Transit and Los Angeles County MTA averaged 2.26 million and 909,600 weekday bus passengers respectively.
In Jacksonville, JTA carried 31,500 weekday bus passengers during the same period, placing it in Kansas City’s peer group, possibly suggesting that this model could be something that should be evaluated locally.
Fried also suggested that offering free fares won’t necessarily do much for improving conditions, telling streetsblog USA, “this will reduce barriers to access to people, which is great, but very few routes run frequently. If you reduce barriers to access to a system that doesn’t do a great job connecting people where they need to go, it’s only helping people so much.”
However, in a CityLab interview, Bob Bennett, the city’s former chief innovation officer provided additional explanation on the city’s evolving mindset towards traditional transit operations, “Over the last four to five years, there’s been a mindset change at the city, and that mindset change is focusing less on what the ridership and operations of transit mean and more on what the impact of that transportation is.”
While significant, considering the size of the system, there are several examples of free transit fare systems in smaller communities, including college towns and tourist destinations. Austin, TX was largest city to experiment with free fares in recent history. However, due to increased rates of vehicle maintenance and security costs as a result of passenger abuse, that year-old program was eliminated in 1990.
Despite the debate within the industry, district councilman and co-sponsor Eric Bunch sums up the situation best when it comes to ridership equity and enhancing access for all within their community.
“I believe that people have a right to move about this city.”
With Kansas City being one of the first major North American city in the 21st century to go the free fare route, making public transportation financially equitable for all, additional major cities could soon follow suit. Others exploring the free fare model include Toronto, Nashville, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org