Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

Kansas City, Missouri, made national headlines last week when its city council voted to make bus rides free, becoming the first major metropolis in the U.S. to provide no-fare public transit starting next year. The cost to the city will be $9 million, which is roughly what the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority brings in annually from the current $1.50 bus fares and $50 monthly passes.

The hope among lawmakers and transportation officials is that the city will recoup that expense, and more. By increasing mobility overall, KC is looking to boost economic activity. And proponents of the plan say that helping marginalized communities move around more easily will translate into deeper benefits.

“I believe that people have a right to move about this city,” Eric Bunch, a district councilman who co-sponsored the measure along with Mayor Quinton Lucas, told a local radio station last week. “I don’t want to do it for any sort of national recognition; I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

The reaction to the news was a mix of fevered enthusiasm and wonkish reserve. Progressive politicians in Nashville, New York City, Portland, and other U.S. cities hailed the decision as an equity victory—especially in a town where a single street historically served as an impenetrable dividing line between black and white, rich and poor.

Others struck a more skeptical note: A number of news articles pointed out that free fares aren’t a panacea for ailing ridership or service gaps, citing a 2019 report from the think tank TransitCenter that warned as much. “This will reduce barriers to access to people, which is great, but very few routes run frequently,” TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told Streetsblog. “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.”

In practice, free transit fares has led to varied outcomes. Several smaller U.S. cities currently offer them, including ski centers such as Vail, Colorado, and university towns such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Typically, they’ve experienced strong ridership growth. The largest U.S. city to have experimented with it was Austin, Texas. But when the Texas capital briefly went fare-free from 1989 to 1990, it saw “dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness” and escalating “vehicle maintenance and security costs” due to repairs from passenger abuse, according to a 2002 review of the program.

Most of the world’s fare-free transit systems are in Europe, including a number of towns in Poland and France. The Estonian city of Tallinn is the largest in the world to support such a program. Within nine months of introducing the concept in 2013, the capital city announced that vehicle traffic had fallen 15 percent and the number of transit passengers had grown 14 percent; Estonia recently moved to make transit free nationwide. But researchers found “mixed evidence” as to whether the Tallinn plan has “improved mobility and accessibility of low-income and unemployed residents … [and] no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result of this policy.”

Yet the Kansas City council’s decision was still significant. At a time when public transportation systems face greater competition from ride-hailing services and other tech-enabled tools—and with climate change placing new urgency on shifting travelers out of cars—the City of Fountains has shown an unusual willingness to experiment with new ideas, transit experts say.

Remember Bridj, the startup that thought it could connect riders with on-demand transit service along a flexible route in a 14-seat minibus? Kansas City’s transit authority partnered with that fledgling company in one of the country’s first “microtransit” pilots all the way back in 2016. The idea was to see whether such a tech-enabled service could draw transit riders in a low-density, auto-oriented area. “The way I see Bridj is that it breaks down barriers for people to use public transit,” KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen told CityLab at the time. “There are more options for people to access the whole system. It’s a robust transit system that encapsulates all types of modes.”

It didn’t work: Bridj was a colossal failure. After six months, the vans had provided fewer than 600 rides, hugely short of the 200 daily riders that leaders had hoped for. But microtransit didn’t die (though some transit experts think it should): Dozens of similar pilots have since appeared across the country, from Los Angeles to Columbus to Montgomery County, Maryland. Startups like Via are still trying to crack the code of whether microtransit can viably serve large numbers of riders. These players learned lessons from Kansas City’s willingness to see what happened when it linked up with a tech-forward transportation idea.

“Uber and Lyft’s ability to pull riders off surface rail is not a trend that will go away,” Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation, told CityLab in 2017. “We have to continue to test out and try things to transform the way we deliver public transit, in a way that people like better.”

Kansas City’s move to make fares permanently free on its sales-tax-funded streetcar line also reflects that entrepreneurial spirit, said Bob Bennett, the city’s former chief innovation officer. “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,” he said.

Take, for example, the KC streetcar. Boosters figure that the 2.2-mile downtown line has brought in more than $2 billion in property value growth since opening in 2015. Ridership has grown steadily—unusual for downtown streetcars, which are often a novelty of sorts. City residents recently voted to double the line in length.

Public transit leaders have to be creative in Missouri, considering what they’re handed as funding: In 2017, the state legislature spent a miserable $.34 per capita on transit, a tiny fraction of neighbors like Illinois ($190.42 per capita) and even Kansas ($3.78 per capita). The environment of extreme austerity worsens a host of entrenched racial gaps, advocates and researchers say.

Then again, if transportation leaders are more concerned with the economic impact of a public transit line than on its actual utility, that could prove to be a problem for riders who rely on the service. As it is, Kansas City’s bus offerings leave a lot to be desired. While the city’s rapid bus transit line and streetcar both run every 10 minutes, the majority of the regular lines arrive every 30 to 60 minutes. In a sprawling, car-oriented metropolis, that means connections can take hours. Free access to a bus that rarely comes isn’t necessarily helpful.

Still, experimenting with new ideas means that the city can learn something about how to do public transit better—and so can other cities. Paris is eyeing the notion of making transit free, and Olympia, Washington, plans to roll out such a scheme early next year. “It’s clearly high time to figure out if reduced fare passes, especially in time of extreme income inequality and stalled wage growth, can make a difference for riders,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute. Now the world just has to see what happens.

Powered by WPeMatico

A Micromobility Experiment in Pittsburgh Aims to Get People Out of Their Cars

Last October, a few weeks before thousands of white-collar urban transit professionals descended for a convention of their own, Pittsburgh hosted a different type of transportation summit. Dubbed MobiliT, it convened city officials, transit technologists, and civil society-types with everyday Pittsburgh residents.

Each person in the last group brought some type of mobility challenge unmet by Pittsburgh’s current bus, light rail, and bikeshare offerings. Some were single mothers traveling with multiple kids. Others were service workers with shifts in the wee hours of the morning. A few were ex-offenders who’d lost their driver’s licenses, working construction jobs in different parts of town. (All received a living wage in compensation for attending.)

At the time, Pittsburgh was on the cusp of launching its first dockless electric bikes, recalls Karina Ricks, the city’s director of transportation, as well as thinking about how to bring dockless electric scooters to its hilly and narrow streets. But hearing from those residents was an affirmation for Ricks that the introduction of a few hundred so-called micromobility devices was not going to make the answer for everyone. “We know that Razors on steroids are not a safe way for a mom to take her kids to school,“ she said. “So while we still wanted them, we also wanted to be able to provide something else to improve that situation.”

Ricks also wanted to do far more to shrink her city’s carbon footprint. Vehicles have overtaken other sectors of the economy as the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists say that the timeline for averting catastrophic global warming is short.

That knowledge, and the stories at MobiliT, helped seed Ricks’ idea for what is now the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective, a self-organized, private consortium that aims to bring a range of “new mobility” services across the city. Led by the dockless bike and scooter startup Spin, the group also includes Zipcar, Ford Mobility, Waze, the scooter parking solution Swiftmile, and the Transit app. Earlier this year, the companies collaborated in response to a request for proposals from Ricks’ department, which called for a complement of car-free transportation options that customers can access and book through a single platform.

Their winning plan, which was one of five submissions, envisions “mobility hubs” clustered near transit stops throughout Pittsburgh. There, travelers would find some combination of bike-share stations, Zipcar vehicles, Waze carpool pickup spots, and parked and charged e-bikes and scooters from Spin to rent. The Transit app would handle route planning and ticketing services to customers, and Ford Mobility would feed data analytics back to the city.

In other cities and other contexts, these companies might be competitors—Zipcar vying for the same trips as Spin; Ford vying for the same trip data as Waze. But each player also recognizes that not all customers are a fit for every mode, said Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin. And in this case, they’re aligned around at least one common goal: reducing the 56 percent of commuters in Pittsburgh who drive alone. “This is definitely an experiment to see how we all coalesce, and we don’t know all the answers yet,” Bear said. “But we’re all trying to get people out of single-occupancy cars and personal vehicles.” (In Ford’s case, the company sees an urban market opportunity.)

In return for their cooperation toward this goal, Pittsburgh also is creating certain incentives to encourage these companies to join forces. For one, the city is keeping other mobility competitors out of play for the time being, according to Ricks. And two, her department will work closely with the collective to remove obstacles to their success on the street. “It’s often not a money issue,” she said. “More often, it’s access to parking spaces or operating rights issue that’s the barrier.” That’s the sort of stuff that the city can help negotiate or arrange in order to bring more options to a wider cut of the population.

In late September, the Mobility Collective held its first meeting with the city, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the mass transit operator in Pittsburgh), and other stakeholder groups to discuss which neighborhoods would make choice destinations for early pilot projects, which could roll out as soon as 2020.

Outside of downtown and university campuses—coveted markets for mobility companies—Ricks pointed to a few communities of potential interest, including Larimer, a historically African American area that is unique in Pittsburgh for its relatively flat topography, and Hazelwood, which is close to employment centers but has poor pedestrian connections to public transit. Each neighborhood has its unique profile and set of challenges; the collective-based approach is supposed to allow the city to experiment.

“It lets us see what people are choosing once they’re given these different offerings,” Ricks said. “They might commute to their day jobs using a micromobility option or Waze carpool, but for weekend grocery shopping, they might use car share.” In neighborhoods where single parents proliferate, the city may also consider bringing a jitney-like service into the fold, she added.

A chart from the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective’s winning bid illustrates the relationship between various transportation modes and the types and lengths of trips their customers might be making. (Spin)

The idea behind the bundled service model is known in industry jargon as “mobility as a service.” Born in Helsinki and gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe, the MaaS concept is that a single, digital platform that offered seamless, universal access to car-free transportation could become a viable substitute to personal vehicles. In separate bids to become that one-stop mobility shop, ride-hailing bigwigs Uber and Lyft have both recently acquired or experimented with bike, scooter, and car rental services, and redesigned their apps to supply such multi-modal trips. (Some observers worry that they’re becoming “walled gardens” in the process, a concern that came to the fore in a recent dispute between Lyft and the Transit app.) Los Angeles is busy developing an open-source software platform designed to host an ecosystem of mobility companies.  

But Pittsburgh’s invitation for multiple companies to develop an integrated system seems to be unique in the landscape. “It’s a first-of-its-kind consortium—the first big group to service the micromobility needs of a big city together,” said Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile. On the plus side for the city, it may avoid getting stuck with a single provider. On the down side, there may be risk of competitive interests preventing the players from cooperating down the road.

In Ricks’ mind, the moment has arrived for a bold move on the city’s part. Pittsburgh has learned the hard way that being the first city to welcome emerging mobility companies isn’t always best for residents. A few years ago, it made national headlines for a clash with Uber over whether the company was living up to certain civic promises as it tested autonomous vehicles in town. With dockless scooters and bikes, the city waited a little longer than others to fold them in. This way, Pittsburgh has a clearer idea of what it wants to accomplish, said Ricks.

New and untested as her collective approach may be, Ricks believes that when it comes to shrinking carbon footprints, big ideas will win the day. The time has passed for incrementalism, even if there are bumps in the road. “We’re all a little scared,” she said. “But we’re in it together.”

Powered by WPeMatico