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Kansas City to be first major U.S. city to get rid of bus fares

Kansas City is seven hours behind Luxembourg, but the U.S. city and small European country are in sync on one issue: Starting next year, public transportation will be free in both places.

Missouri's biggest city earlier this month approved a plan to eliminate bus fares in 2020, making it the first major U.S. metropolis to offer free public transportation. Kansas City's streetcar is already free.

Kansas City officials estimate the cost will be $9 million, or roughly what the transit system brings in each year from bus fares and monthly passes. But they hope that that making it easier for the city's nearly 500,000 residents to get around will boost economic activity that ultimately pays for the free pass.

"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, reportedly told a local radio station.

The Kansas City bus system services about 44,000 passengers on a weekday, according to its 2018 budget. Given that just 1.2% of Kansas City residents commute to work via public transit, there's an argument to be made that having a free bus system will not bring about dramatic change.

Still, public transit advocates in a range of locales, from Bernie Sanders's campaign to cities including Nashville and Toronto, applauded Kansas City's move to free bus service as a means of curbing road congestion, improving air quality, fighting climate change and tackling income inequality.

One aspiring leader in a city viewed as politically progressive also took note. Sarah Iannarone, a mayoral candidate in Portland, Oregon, tweeted that her city got "lapped by Kansas City."

Getting rid of bus and other transit fares is not a novel idea, but generally speaking it's a concept that hasn't gotten off the ground, as much of the world's largest mass transit systems rely at least in part on user payments to operate.

In New York, for instance, the $4.5 billion the city's transit agency receives in annual fare revenue makes up half of its operating budget. The city has lately taken a sharply different tack than Kansas City, increasing policing to crack down on fare evaders that transit officials expect will cost $300 million this year.

The jury is also still out on whether ditching fares makes a big difference in how people get around, according to TransitCenter, a group that advocates for sustainable transportation. In reality, eliminating fares has led to varying outcomes.

In the French town of Dunkirk, population 100,000, ridership increased 85% right after the introduction of fare-free transit, while in Estonia's capital of Tallinn, ridership rose only 3% in the five years since transit was made free, the group noted in a blog post.

Nearly 30 years ago. Austin, Texas, temporarily eliminated bus fares, but that resulted in "dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti and rowdiness," as well as increased vehicle maintenance and security costs due to repairs from unruly passengers, according to a 2002 analysis.

A TransitCenter survey of 1,700 transit riders in seven U.S. cities found low-income bus riders care more about improvements in service than about lowered fares.

In looking to boost ridership, transit agencies need to ensure they have enough revenue to increase service in response to new demand or run the risk of riders getting turned off by delays and overcrowding. 

As a TransitCenter spokesperson 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."

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