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.

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Voting in Local Elections Matters. This Is What Cities Can Do.

If you’re worried about the teetering fate of American democracy because of what’s happening at the national level right now, the solution may be local: boosting turnout in local races in 2019 is the best way to prepare voters for the 2020 presidential race and the 2020 census.

While the onslaught of media coverage during presidential elections can make many Americans think voting only happens every four years on that Tuesday in November, each year, a bundle of federal, state and local elections happen concurrently, usually on a federally-sanctioned “Election Day,” this year, that day is Tuesday, November 5th. But critical elections—such as for mayor, council member, clerk, and more—happen all year, every year, often with little fanfare.

How many people are even aware that hundreds of state and local judges are up for election this year? Judges have the ability to influence cultural norms and laws that residents interact with daily, and yet theirs are some of the least-participated-in elections in the country.

For these local elections voter turnout is often extremely low, so even a few voters can make a difference. Yet, in what is supposedly one of the most democratic countries, we can’t get more than half of our population to vote regularly. That’s a dire problem, since voting is the single strongest metric of democratic participation. It’s also the main way to communicate satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—with a representative.

There are reasons why turnout rates in America are some of the lowest of all developed countries. Our voter registration process is complicated and punitive. It’s often difficult to get to our polling locations—particularly if you are a person of color, lower income, or a college student. And our elections are during the work week, when many people can’t afford to take off.

Only 70 percent of eligible Americans are registered to vote, but there are a number of ways that cities can increase democratic participation: City and county agencies that provide social services such as SNAP, affordable housing, and health benefits can offer voter registration assistance in their offices; election administrators can work with high-school voter registration programs to have schools distribute forms to students, and then submit them to election administrators; cities can also incentivize landlords to provide their tenants with voter registration forms, and lobby their states to create same-day registration (states that have it show 10 percent higher voter turnout than states without).

And local leaders can encourage voter turnout. Families with annual incomes below $30,000, people of color, naturalized citizens and young people have an especially low turnout rate. Mayors, as the ultimate local conveners, can make simple investments like creating and printing voter education material for “Know Your Ballot” events that synagogues, churches and mosques have been organizing locally for the last few years. Mayors can also incentivize small businesses to do more than just give time off—and preferably paid time off—to employees by offering a tax credit for including messaging on their receipts about voter registration. Small businesses have a tremendous role in transforming local culture—cities can design and provide banners and posters to decorate their window fronts all the way down Main Street. Mayors can also prioritize breaking down transportation barriers on election day.

There’s precedent for this level of local involvement in voter turnout: In small towns like Lynchburg, Virginia, and large cities like Los Angeles, California, buses and trains are free on election day. Minneapolis encourages young people to serve as poll workers, because they are more likely to be tech-savvy and bilingual and the secondary benefit is that they learn about the importance of voting. Boston is focused on helping community members get involved and engaged by making registration easier when people are renewing parking permits and library cards; at the same time, local high schools in the city have been sharing pre-registration materials with students.

Mayors and other city leaders are also joining networks like “Mayors for Our Lives,” Let America Vote’s “Cap, Gown, Vote!” Tennessee’s Mayors Grow Civic Engagement and NLC’s new Civic Cities initiative. For local leaders dedicated to enacting policy and building partnerships to improve democratic engagement, this is a great first step.

The 2020 elections provide a perfect opportunity for mayors to launch their commitments to full democratic participation. It isn’t only the presidential election that is going to be grabbing headlines around democratic participation. There is another headline-grabbing reason that city leaders need to be extra engaged with their residents this year: the 2020 Census. It only happens once a decade, so it has been 20 years since a Census count and presidential election have occurred in the same cycle.

The Census decides not only how much funding is allocated to every single community in the United States for hospitals, schools and roads, but also congressional representation for the next ten years. It is in every city, town and village’s best interest to count every single resident. And despite the Census being a national operation, it is a distinctly local effort—mayors have the ability to lead the charge on achieving not only full voter participation but also getting a full and total count of their community.

We need to ensure, however, that Americans understand the importance of local elections, and that they have the tools to vote. This year, local elections are, or have been, held in 63 of America’s 100 largest cities. That means that 47.3 million Americans will be influenced. Many other cities, including Houston, South Bend, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia will be voting for mayor this Tuesday.

We always hear about the big national movements, the social media campaigns led by celebrities, and the huge music festivals urging people to vote. But those may not be the best (or only) ways to transform America’s civic engagement and voter turnout. Maybe the key was always going to be small, systemic, and cultural transformations at the municipal level.

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CityLab Daily: Why the ‘Trick-or-Treat Test’ Still Matters

What We’re Following

Eyes on the treats: If you’re heading out trick-or-treating tonight, here’s an experiment to try: Count how many doors you knock on and how many steps it takes to get to each one. As you navigate the sidewalks, stoops, driveways, and porches in a neighborhood, you’re seeing what’s known to urbanists as the “trick-or-treat test.”

The test is a way to measure what kids know pretty intuitively: Where the design of streets and homes is optimal, the greatest amount of candy can be collected. But it also shows that walkability is just as much about where it is pleasant and interesting to stroll as it is about taking the shortest possible path. In this CityLab classic from 2012, city planner Brent Toderian describes why “Halloween can still be a catalyst for a much-needed discussion on what great neighborhoods … are made of.” Read: Why the “Trick-or-Treat Test” Still Matters

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

America Has a Halloween Costume Equity Gap

Not all parents can—or want to—invest time and resources into ever-more-elaborate observances of this holiday. Should it matter?

K.A. Dilday

It’s Getting Riskier to Walk and Bike After Dark

The last decade has seen a gruesome rise in nighttime traffic fatalities for walkers and bike riders, with no conclusive explanation.

Laura Bliss

How Lebanon’s Protesters Have Reclaimed Public Space

Anti-government protesters set up a cooperative tent city in downtown Beirut, where a generation ago, redevelopment pushed out ordinary people.

Kareem Chehayeb

For a Greener Death, Skip the Tombstone?

At Paris’s first green cemetery, wooden grave markers will replace headstones because of their lower carbon footprint.

Clothilde Goujard


Skeleton Crew

(Luis Cortes/Reuters)

Here’s an idea to scare drivers into slowing down: Put a skeleton in the road. This skull-and-bones art installation in the Tláhuac borough of Mexico City is not another clever pothole protest, as some observers had speculated. Instead, a cultural collective called Indios Yaocalli built the installation to honor the tradition of commemorating Day of the Dead with papier-mâché skeletons. The group built a few skeletons to look like they were bursting out of the street using rubble they spotted on a construction site in the Santa Cecilia neighborhood, reports El Universal.


What We’re Reading

Welcome to “cancer alley,” where toxic air is about to get worse (ProPublica)

She was a nurse for 20 years. Now she’s living on the Houston streets (Houston Chronicle)

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto reach tentative deal on smart-city development (The Logic)

Why some police departments are leaving federal task forces (The Marshall Project)

Americans trust local news. That belief is being exploited. (New York Times)


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