Could offering free fares boost ridership on U.S. transit systems? Kansas City is about to find out.
This week, Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council voted unanimously to make the city’s bus system fare-free. The plan was a priority of recently elected Mayor Quinton Lucas, whose “Zero Fare Transit” proposal was touted to increase transportation equity in the region, and endorsed by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which services multiple cities in Kansas and Missouri.
Bus fares are currently $1.50 per ride or $50 for a monthly pass. Kansas City’s very successful streetcar, which opened in 2016, is already free.
Many U.S. cities offer free travel on certain transit lines or within certain zones, and there are entire ski towns and college towns with free bus systems, but this is the first large U.S. city to implement a universal, systemwide fare-free scheme. Several European cities have experimented with eliminating fares, and at least one country, Luxembourg, is moving forward with a nationwide free transit plan.
In the U.S., several cities including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver have floated the idea, but haven’t put forth formalized proposals.
One factor holding many cities back from offering free transit is their reliance on farebox recovery, which can make up a sizable chunk of some transit agencies’ operating budgets. For many systems strapped for cash, that money is desperately needed for operations and maintenance.
However, bus fares collected in Kansas City, Missouri only amount to $8 to $9 million per year—a figure that city leaders says could easily be recouped.
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