The city council of Kansas voted the other week to make its bus services free starting from next year. This adds to the already existing free ‘KC Streetcar’ light-rail service that runs for about 2-miles through downtown, hence making Kansas City’s entire public transport network free.
The initiative by the council was justified on principles of equity and access to mobility, with the co-sponsor of the measure saying on a local radio station “I believe that people have a right to move about this city”. But lawmakers and transport officials are also hoping that the cost of the scheme ($9 million in foregone revenue from fares) can be recouped through boosted economic activity. Proponents also point out that providing marginalized communities with mobility will translate into deeper benefits. This is particularly poignant in a city where a single street historically served as a dividing line for segregation.
While there has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for the initiative, some news articles have also pointed out that increased accessibility to a bus system with irregular services and large service gaps will only go so far as meeting equity and mobility aims.
The last time a major US city experimented with free public transport was in Austin, Texas, in 1989. But this experiment lasted only one year, stopping in 1990, after being unable to control escalating rates of vandalism and rowdiness – according to a 2002 review. On the other hand, smaller US cities in ski areas and university towns such as Vail, Colorado and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have had more positive experiences with free public transit and seen large increases in ridership.
Over in Europe, Estonia has the largest free public transport scheme, with 11 of its 15 counties offering free bus services – making it the country in the world with the most extensive free transportation network .
While the sustainable transport field is more often focused on issues such as carbon emissions, air quality and congestion, it is good to be reminded that equity is viewed as a key policy aim in and of itself. Free public transport is certainly a symbolically powerful way to champion the goal of accessible mobility, but enthusiasm for it should be tempered with the acknowledgment that it is not only a metric for equity. It could very well be that some marginalized groups may benefit more from the $9 million dollars being invested in higher frequency services and greater route coverage than free fares.
The council’s overall per capita spending on public transport is also an important metric, alongside which the free transport initiative needs to be viewed. The article points out that the per capita spends in Kansas on public transportation is only $3.78 compared to the average of $190.42 over in the neighboring state of Illinois. The cynic in me is wary of the headline-grabbing potential of FREE TRANSPORT being used to distract from the otherwise low investment in the system, while the optimist in me sees fare-free schemes as an important tool that can be used to signal a ‘policy reset’ on a city’s approach to public transport planning – one that views it as a fundamental need for its citizens.
Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Viktoria.
1. 2019-12-13. Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters.