Each year, pollution from cars, trucks and other vehicles cuts short an estimated 58,000 lives, and increases the risk of lung cancer, stroke and heart disease. Cars are much safer than they used to be, but each year, motor vehicle crashes still kill an estimated 40,000 Americans and seriously injure 4.5 million. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — our cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles — now surpass every other source of carbon pollution.
As most of us are staying home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we’ve seen massive reductions in driving, leading to cleaner air, reduced global warming emissions and even cities closing to streets to allow more people to get out to walk and bike. But if we don’t make big, permanent changes when we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdowns, we can expect things to go back to normal.
Returning to the status quo after the COVID-19 lockdowns is not sustainable. Transportation in the U.S. needs a serious shakeup. We drive more and own more cars than other major industrialized countries. To build an America with cleaner air, safer roads and a more livable climate, we need to drive less. We need to give people more options for getting around, and make the cleanest, greenest and safest options the most convenient, pleasant and affordable.
Enter: free public transportation.
Nationwide, public transportation ridership has been on the decline since about 2014. Cities across the country, looking to meet climate goals, reduce air pollution and alleviate congestion are trying to find ways to reverse that trend and increase ridership. One thing some cities are exploring is making public transportation free.
There are some obvious upsides to free public transportation. It makes riding more affordable, more attractive and more convenient. People don’t have to worry about the cost, or having a fare card or having exact change. It can speed up the boarding process because it eliminates the lines at the front of the bus. Cities and transit agencies can save money on creating and repairing fare collection systems. And where it has been implemented, there often have been positive ridership gains.
But going fare free can also create a challenge for already-cash-strapped transit agencies. Each agency’s books look a little different, but fare revenues often make up a significant portion of the operating budget. So in order to implement free fares, that revenue needs to be made up in some other way.
This, by itself, doesn’t have to be a problem. There are a lot of options to raise revenue for investment in public transportation: increasing or implementing things like a gas tax (where state law would allow it), carbon taxes, tolls or congestion pricing, business taxes or transportation fees, to name just a few. But without a plan for making up the revenue, providing free services can be a problem.
Fare-free transit will not solve all of our problems. In order to sustain high ridership numbers and make a lasting impact on the climate and public health, transit agencies need to provide good, clean, frequent and convenient service. There need to be enough buses or trains running frequently enough to handle the increased ridership without overcrowding. Buses and trains need to meet people where they are, and go where people need to go. All of this requires investment.
Around 100 cities worldwide have implemented fare-free public transportation, and while several U.S. cities have implemented temporary fare-free policies during the COVID-19 crisis, very few U.S. cities have fully taken the plunge. One of the few exceptions is Kansas City, Mo., which, in December 2019, became the first major city to pass a resolution to make all of its buses free to ride.
Cities across the country are waiting to see how Kansas City’s experiment ultimately plays out. But here’s how it’s going so far.
Kansas City’s Zero Fare Transit Plan: A case study
Kansas City’s Zero Fare Transit plan is ambitious, and could drive up ridership on the city’s buses if implemented well. But, even in the project’s early stages, there have been bumps in the road.
The city is rolling out fare-free transit incrementally. So far, fares have been eliminated on one fixed-route bus along the east side of the city, as well as for students and veterans. That makes about 25 percent of Kansas City’s ridership fare free. But Kansas City’s size, budgetary issues, geographic constraints and historical sprawl have presented challenges for a full-scale rollout.
Who will pay the bills?
The most notable challenge is funding. Nothing is truly free (perhaps free transit is a misnomer, zero-fare transit may be better): The total cost of going fare free will be around $8 million per year. While the city council unanimously voted to implement free fares, it remains unclear where much of that money will come from. In order to run a fare-free system, the city needs to balance the lost fare revenue alongside increased ridership leading to maintenance costs, labor costs and operational costs.
In the 2020 budget, which began May 1st, the city has dedicated $4.8 million to support a fare-free transit system. The current plan is to make up the other $4 million in private funding. The city is hoping to secure private sector investment, but there are likely better ways to ensure sufficient funding. Businesses are going to benefit from a public service like fare-free transportation, meaning an additional business tax and/or parking or transportation fees might make sense. These are tactics Kansas City has employed before, with the RideKC Streetcar.
In fact, the RideKC Streetcar provides Kansas City with its own mini-case study in fare-free transit. Unlike the zero-fare bus policy, this one was fully funded from the start. The RideKC streetcar, which was completed in 2016, is free to ride. The streetcar service is funded through three key sources. First, the city council added $2 million a year in their budget for the streetcar. There is an additional sales tax levied on the properties along the streetcar route due to the benefits of riders being dropped off in front of their businesses. Additionally, there is a tax on parking spots that are not attached to a restaurant or business establishment. The streetcar, with it’s dedicated sources of funding, has been a success and an expansion is being planned.
A tale of two cities
The lay of the land of Kansas City poses a potential geographic hurdle to fare-free transit. The metropolitan area is split down the middle between two different states with several municipalities using a connected transit system (KCATA). When Kansas City, Mo., fully implements zero-fare buses, the question remains: What will happen when the buses cross state lines? One idea has been to implement a region-wide sales tax, with revenue dedicated to KCATA. However, Johnson County, Kansas, which lies across the state line, is currently working to reduce their fixed-routes, and so there are slim hopes that they will cooperate with a metro-wide fare-free transit system. Until this issue is resolved, only KCATA buses originating in Kansas City, Mo., will be fare-free.
Will increased ridership break the system?
KCATA currently has just enough buses to handle current ridership while providing relatively reliable service. The idea of fare-free transit is that it will get more people out of their cars and onto buses in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic issues. To be able to handle that new ridership and maintain reliable service, KCATA needs to be prepared to increase frequency or the number of buses they will be running. That is going to require additional investment in new buses, new drivers and new maintenance expenses. The city doesn’t yet have a plan for simply making up the lost fare revenue, let alone making all of these additional improvements. For fare-free transit to work, the city must have a plan for greater investment in an expansion of the transit network.
The land use and suburban sprawl in the Kansas City metro area also pose a reliability problem for increased KCATA service. The current population of Kansas City is roughly the same as Kansas City in 1950. However, that same number of people now live in an area with five times the land area due to suburban sprawl. Back in 1950, Kansas City had one of the most comprehensive trolley routes in the United States. But as the city grew outward, and people spread out over more space, it became harder for a transit agency to serve all of them conveniently and efficiently. Even if the bus is free, if it doesn’t meet people where they are, they aren’t going to be able to ride.
While the Zero Fare Transit plan for Kansas City, Mo., is an exciting development for the city as well as the future of fare-free transit, it has not been without its bumps along the way. The largest hurdle has been the budget, but if successful, Kansas City may be on its way to transitioning from a car-centric city to one that gets people out of their cars and into public transportation. Cities across the nation that are considering going fare free should look to Kansas City and learn from its experiences when developing their programs.
This blog was co-written with Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG’s Transform Transportation Campaign