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.”
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