Could offering free fares boost ridership on U.S. transit systems? Kansas City is about to find out.
This week, Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council voted unanimously to make the city’s bus system fare-free. The plan was a priority of recently elected Mayor Quinton Lucas, whose “Zero Fare Transit” proposal was touted to increase transportation equity in the region, and endorsed by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which services multiple cities in Kansas and Missouri.
Bus fares are currently $1.50 per ride or $50 for a monthly pass. Kansas City’s very successful streetcar, which opened in 2016, is already free.
Many U.S. cities offer free travel on certain transit lines or within certain zones, and there are entire ski towns and college towns with free bus systems, but this is the first large U.S. city to implement a universal, systemwide fare-free scheme. Several European cities have experimented with eliminating fares, and at least one country, Luxembourg, is moving forward with a nationwide free transit plan.
In the U.S., several cities including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver have floated the idea, but haven’t put forth formalized proposals.
The City Council just took a monumental, unanimous step toward #ZeroFareTransit – setting Kansas City up to soon become the first major metropolitan city with free public bus service.https://t.co/BtkZtXDbwP— Mayor Quinton Lucas (@MayorLucasKC) December 5, 2019
One factor holding many cities back from offering free transit is their reliance on farebox recovery, which can make up a sizable chunk of some transit agencies’ operating budgets. For many systems strapped for cash, that money is desperately needed for operations and maintenance.
However, bus fares collected in Kansas City, Missouri only amount to $8 to $9 million per year—a figure that city leaders says could easily be recouped.
“When we’re talking about improving people’s lives who are our most vulnerable citizens, I don’t think there’s any question that we need to find that money,” Councilmember Eric Bunch—a loyal bus rider—told KSHB. “That’s not a ton of money and it’s money that we as a city, if we want to prioritize public transportation, it’s something that we can find.”
Although offering free rides sounds like a panacea for the country’s lagging bus ridership, transit experts are mixed on how free transit benefits riders overall.
A report by TransitCenter published earlier this year points out that agencies should focus on improving service before offering that service for free. “What advocates and policymakers should actually be focusing on is a multi-pronged approach to make driving less attractive,” says the report. “Funneling money from these pursuits directly into improving transit will yield precisely the type of benefits sought by proponents of free transit.”
Equity concerns could also be addressed by making transit free for seniors, students, people with disabilities, and other groups that are transit-dependent. Most major transit systems offer programs that subsidize fares for low-income riders.
Kansas City’s decision comes as many major U.S. cities have opted to crack down on fare evasion instead of making transit more accessible. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, for example, is spending $249 million to recover an estimated $200 million in fares, including hiring 500 more law enforcement officials to patrol stations. Studies have shown that fare-evasion crackdowns are more likely to target black and Hispanic riders.
The climate crisis introduces an urgency to get more people on transit, at whatever cost. A free ride might help Kansas City riders who have a choice between modes to decide to leave the car at home in favor of recent expansions like a 10-mile bus rapid transit line opening next week.
But as Sandy Johnston, a Boston-based transportation planner, noted on Twitter, free fares may not be what entice more people onto a service that already doesn’t work for them. “Good experiment? Sure,” Johnston says. “But the KCATA free fare program seems unlikely to create much in the way of mode shift. Doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, just means you need other policy interventions to hit some of transit’s major goals.”