Kansas City Chooses Free Public Transit

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Kansas City, Missouri, will soon have a public transit system that is entirely free for riders. Yesterday, City Council members unanimously approved a resolution to stop charging bus fares in the next fiscal year. The city manager is in charge of developing a plan for implementation.

The move is heartening at a time when a transit system like that in New York City has found the money to add 500 police officers to a transit force of 2,500 but has not found the money to subsidize fares for people living in poverty. The arguments made in support of Kansas City’s move are a reminder that free, or heavily subsidized, public transit can alleviate poverty, enhance people’s chances to live healthy and productive lives, and increase civic participation.

Kansas City moved toward free transit in stages. Veterans began receiving free bus passes two years ago. A year later, the transportation authority issued free passes to students. Close to a quarter of all riders over the last several years have been able to ride buses for free. The city’s light rail system is also free.

The city will still have to find funding to make up for the revenue from fares, an estimated $8 million to $9 million. One council member said it is money the city can and should find. “When we’re talking about improving people’s lives who are our most vulnerable citizens, I don’t think there’s any question that we need to find that money,” Eric Bunch told KSHB. “That’s not a ton of money and it’s money that we as a city, if we want to prioritize public transportation, it’s something that we can find.”

Before the vote last month of the City Council transportation committee, supporters spoke about the importance of public transportation. A school district employee said students used free buses to get to internships and work. A representative from a work training program said the passes allow people looking for work to get to training programs, interviews, job fairs, and jobs.

“We can train people all day long but if they can’t get to a job, it makes no difference,” Clyde McQueen of Full Employment Council said. “A free bus pass could make the difference between someone making $30,000 on a job, or zero.”

The deputy director of the city health department described what free transit would allow people to have. Free buses “would provide access to grocery stores, education and health centers,” he said.

Other cities have been exploring free public transportation as well, although Kansas City was the first to achieve the goal. In Salt Lake City, a poll this summer showed that almost three-quarters of residents supported free transit as a way to increase ridership and reduce air pollution that has outsize consequences.

The editorial board of the Charlotte Observer hailed the developments in Kansas City yesterday and said such a step needed to be considered in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina. The paper argued that “a robust bus service also can help with bigger equity issues in Charlotte and Raleigh.” Free fares would give low-income residents “more options for a ride to work or school and open up greater employment opportunities over a wider geographic circle.”

In The Appeal: Political Report in April, Daniel Nichanian wrote about obstacles to mobility for people living in North Carolina. Driver’s licenses were revoked for 1.2 million people in the state for failing to pay court fees and fines, without any opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay. The inability to legally drive, in a state with poor transit options, can have disastrous consequences for people’s access to employment and make the same fees and fines that led to their license suspension even more impossible to pay.

Nichanian wrote: “Poor transportation, whether it stems from difficulties in acquiring a car or accessing transit, can harm the reentry of people who are involved in the criminal legal system, independently of whether they are eligible to have a driver’s license.” This also underscored “the pernicious nature of ideas like a New York proposal to ban people from using the subway for life if they have been convicted of certain offenses.”

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints its members, have had a number of harmful ideas recently. The decision this fall to add 500 officers to patrol subway stations will cost over $50 million a year. It was justified, variously, as an effort to combat fare evasion, address rising crime in subway stations (despite evidence showing that crime is falling). Once hired, it seems unlikely that any drop in fare evasion, or further drop in crime in the stations, would quickly lead to 500 officers being let go.

The flood of officers has led to a wave of overpolicing and violent policing, chronicled in bystander videos that show NYPD officers arresting a woman who makes her livelihood selling churros in a subway station, officers chasing a teenager who hopped a turnstile and then drawing their weapons on him in a crowded subway car, and officers beating teenagers.

The rapid deployment of hundreds of officers at the cost of tens of millions of dollars each year has also raised questions about why the state and city could not find the money to more fully fund a program meant to make subway rides affordable for people living below the poverty line. Fair Fares, a program that anti-poverty advocates pushed for and the City Council passed to make fares half-price for people living in poverty, was rolled out this year. But only 30,000 of 800,000 people who live in poverty are eligible, and the program only received funding for its first six months.

Even while the Fair Fares program has been a low priority, there have also been calls to make the subway system free for all or at least some of its riders. These are ideas that have been considered in New York before, but the possibility of free ridership for at least some riders is coming up again.

When New York can find money for police but not for affordable transit, the move in Kansas City represents an important alternative vision—that a goal of public transit should be unrestricted public access.