Fare Free Public Transit? Not so Fast
A version of this op-ed was published by the Kansas City Star.
Kansas City, Missouri, made news around the country last month with reports that city officials had done away with fares on its municipal bus system. But neither the announcement nor the results the city can expect are as clear-cut as they first seem. The reality is that Kansas City has not adopted a fare-free bus system, nor has it considered the broader implications of doing so. In fact, city leaders have no idea how they will pay for it.
What actually happened: Kansas City’s City Council instructed the city manager to work with transit officials on a policy that would “include a funding request in the next fiscal year budget to make fixed route public transportation fare free within the City.” The city’s next fiscal year does not begin until May 1, 2020.
One reason for all this is the 2.2-mile streetcar the city completed in 2016. Its operations and administration are independent from the bus system and are funded through sales taxes, assessments on property along the route, and additional support from the city’s general fund.
The streetcar, which is free to ride, also receives $2 million from sales taxes meant to fund regular transit. It’s viewed by many as a free party bus for tourists, operating alongside buses that low-income workers must pay to use for trips to work and school.
Advocates of the free-fare transit proposal argue that the move to ditch fares on the bus system would address inequality without risking a drop in ridership that a streetcar fare would cause.
Locally, the idea has been making inroads for a while. Free bus passes became the norm for veterans two years ago, and last year the system offered the same to students. The Authority claims that over the past few years, 23 percent of riders have paid no fare.
Making the entire system free may be attractive to transit advocates, but it’s a move with risks—risks that seemingly haven’t been assessed. This was underscored when, in an interview with local newspaper The Pitch, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority CEO Robert “Robbie” Makinen offered, “Just because nobody else is doing it, that’s not a reason for us not to do it. What’s wrong with trying it? What’s the worst thing that happens? It doesn’t work, and Robbie gets fired.”
But the idea isn’t new, and that’s not the worst that can happen.
Other cities have tried fare-free bus service—and abandoned it. A 2002 study by Jennifer Perone and Joel Volinski of the Center for Urban Transportation Research concluded:
. . . (A) fare-free policy might be appropriate for smaller transit systems in certain communities, but is ill-advised for larger transit systems in major urban areas because experience shows that in larger systems, a tremendous amount of criminal activity, as well as a sharp increase in ridership, caused higher maintenance costs, labor costs, and operational costs and drove away existing riders.
In a 2012 book, “Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems,” Volinski detailed a fare-free pilot program in Austin, Texas. Ridership increased by as much as 70 percent, but there were issues of, “overcrowded buses, disruptive passengers, and unhappy bus operators.” The program was discontinued. Denver tried a similar program, saw the same results, and discontinued the effort.
Riders get it. According to a 2019 TransitCenter surveys of passengers around the country, “most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service.” (KCATA is undertaking its own “comprehensive review and redesign of transit service,” which included a survey, but as of this writing, KCATA has not completed the review or shared with me any questionnaire of passengers.)
Then there is the cost of going fare-free, estimated between $8 million and $12 million annually in Kansas City.
Given the ridership increase in other places that have tried it, the transit authority will need to cover not only its current fare box revenue, but also the costs of serving increased demand. During legislative discussion on the resolution, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas suggested returning the $2 million currently diverted to the streetcar. Councilwoman Kathryn Shields offered an amendment, adopted by the Council, that also instructs the city manager also to report how this potential budget outlay will impact other city services.
Again, none of this is known.
Good policies go beyond good intentions—they serve a public need with as few negative consequences as is possible. Our national experience with large-scale, fare-free transit has been a bumpy ride. Kansas City needs to consider all the options and trade-offs before adopting such a significant policy change. Reporting on the matter suggests that this has not yet been done.