Kansas City makes transit free; WARNING!

There’s a saying that I go by, “something for free is the most expensive thing of all.” And if you apply this saying to our society’s way we make it easier to own a car, we all see the results in every city, covered in smog with traffic jams all over the place. Add to the increase of health cost with diabetes, obesity and asthma means that having easy access to a car cost more in the long run. The same is true about transit for if you make it free, the quality of the service will go down. Kansas City just made an announcement of making the entire system free of charge. This sounds great for it’s about time society starts making the positive stuff easier to use but as their going to learn, “Something for Free is the Most Expensive Thing of All.”

Now if you asked me before 2015 about making the buses free of charge, I would have told you that would be a terrible ideal. The reason for this is what happened in Austin, Texas in 1990. Being the progressive capital of Texas they decided to make CapMetro fare free. It was an attempt to encourage people to ride the bus. But when it was implemented, the ridership went down. That’s because the people who normally wouldn’t be able to ride the bus are the same people that make problems such as vandalism and assaults. In the transit industry, we refer these people as “problem riders.” The main group of people who ended this experiment was the Bus Driver’s Union, fed up with having to deal with all these problems day after day. I have no doubt that RideKC is going to learn the lesson that CapMetro learned almost 30 years ago. The increase in vandalism, the problem of a small number of riders being rude to the operators, passengers and the drop in ridership isn’t worth keeping transit free.


Before I’m accused of not being a frequent transit rider, (Image7-1) above are the pay cards and day passes I purchased during the month of November, 2019. I have used transit all my life and always felt cheated by not being able to afford a car. I changed my mind about fare free transit after I heard what they did in Tallinn, Estonia. Back in 2017, my local bicycle voter guide reflected this change for I asked every candidate running for San Antonio city council would they make the buses free of charge. Below is how I feel about having to pay for transit fare:

“As I stated before in previous posts, I said that we here in San Antonio consider driving a free thing to do. We attack the ideal of toll roads, we attack the ideal of getting rid of a vehicle lane to make room for a bicycle. We attack the very ideal of light rail, calling it a waste of money. Yet we never attack the fact we don’t have money for roads, that freeways don’t pay their way nor decrease the number of ozone action days we experience every year.  We call toll roads double taxation yet we never say riding the bus is double taxation. We paid for the bus service through a half cent sales tax and yet we are forced to pay to use the bus like paying to use a toll road. Let that sink in for a moment especially if you’re anti toll road. “

The Case for Free Bus Rides: https://bikesanantonio.blogspot.com/2017/04/the-case-for-free-bus-rides.html

I have two opinions of the Kansas City decision; one is that we will finally have an up to date example of what happens when a major metro area makes their transit free of charge. On the other hand, I fear that this endeavor will fail badly, that it will set back other transit activists who want to make their system free or at least make the fare box more equitable and easier to use.  So if you want to make your transit free of charge, but feel that your community won’t stomach free transit, well here are some solutions to making transit more equitable from most complicated to least.

The Categories- Elderly, Disabled, Low Income, Students:
The problem with just selecting a few groups of needy people is that once you stop being low income, or being a student but still don’t earn enough to afford full transit fare or a car. You’re set back more before you made the improvement. Pretty much every transit system provides low cost to free rides for every user who qualifies which is usually the regular three; the elderly, disabled, and low income. Most systems provide a semester pass for students in school or college which are equivalent in prices to their monthly pass counterpart. The Question is why do all this when you could provide everyone with free transit just by implementing a Registration Fare. At the end of the day, every transit system should do the following, make all students able to ride free of charge and all children under 12 accompanied by an adult able ride free of charge for parenting shouldn’t be a crime.

Fare Capping: 
I first heard about this in late 2017 and I’ll link to a great video explaining it better than I. But it’s a method that limits the amount of money someone spends per day and then month no matter how many times they board a bus or train without putting all their money up front to buy a transit pass. The places that I’m aware of doing this right now are Dallas, Indianapolis and Portland, Oregon.

Registration fare: 
This is what they are doing in Tallinn, Estonia. Back in 2013, the mayor made transit free for all the residents of Tallinn. If you happen to live outside of the city limits, you have to pay the transit fare. But to obtain a pass, it will cost you €2. This didn’t reduce congestion but allowed the poorest among the cities to be able to better get around. And it was this decision that inspired me to ask the question to all those running for city council in 2017. The one time fee for this should be no more than $20.

Eliminating Fare Enforcement Officers: 
I mainly see Fare Enforcement Officers on the light rail trains of many transit systems. I have a dislike for Fare Enforcement Officers for they only breed distrust and preys on the most disadvantage. I have my own story dealing with DART’s Fare Enforcement Officers for one day in 2008 I lost my day pass and pissed me off that no matter what I said I couldn’t convince the gentleman that I purchased a day pass earlier that day. The good news is that he only gave me a warning and I would have discovered that I lost my day pass when I attempted to pay for my connecting bus.

Many Fare Enforcement Officers that I’ve seen are just people like you and me who have families and are just getting by.  But it would be way better if they just threw the “fare evading person” off the train at the next stop, but before that, offered them to pay their fare with a $2 surcharge of course? Many transit agencies use these Fare Enforcement Officers as a revenue stream from people who normally have nothing. Transit systems would be the wiser to change their Fare Enforcement Officers to Fare Collecting Officers for the technology has caught up to do this. Give people a chance to pay up, or kick them off the train at the next stop. If they repeat it over and over again, then throw the book at them. I’m looking at you St Louis and Dallas.

Simple Fare System:
It is the method of making the use of transit the same cost regardless if it’s a express bus, local bus, BRT bus, train, tram or the elimination of fare zones.  Many cities have a varieties of this type of a Simple Fare System like VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas. (Image 7-2) Most systems don’t always go thru with making it an entire system one single fare and consolidating all the passes into one.  The best example of what this would not look like was Austin, Texas CapMetro System. (Image 7-3)

Affordable Yearly Passes: 
Back in 2017, this is what I was recommending and still recommend for every major city. Based loosely on what I they did in Tallinn, I recommend that all people, regardless of income or home should be able to purchase a yearly pass that cost no less than $10 and no more than a $100. I’ve seen yearly passes for sale in several cities and I cannot afford any one of them even with my tax return.

There is some history of a transit system instituting a similar thing which is an Affordable Month Pass.  VIA Metropolitan Transit did this in the late 90’s by eliminating the express monthly pass and lowered the cost of the regular monthly pass to $20.  It was a hit and most bus riders in San Antonio opted to pay up for the Monthly Big Pass so they didn’t have to hassle of having to find exact change for bus fare and to be able to use the express buses any time they want.

When I turned 18 and could no longer use the C.O. Card for free bus rides so I started to buy a Big Pass especially during summer semesters because VIA didn’t provide a summer semester pass. For San Antonio to go back to this would be to make VIA’s current 31 day pass which cost $38 to having it cost no more than $31. It’s my opinion that no matter where you are in the United States, a monthly transit pass should cost no more than $62 a month per fare zone and work on all different types of buses and trains.

Fare Free Zones: 
They use to have these zones in Portland until 2010.  So far the only place that I’m aware that have them is in Salt Lake City, Denton County, Texas and Pittsburgh. I would make the argument before bus service was cut in West Memphis, Arkansas that West Memphis was a fare free zone of MATA, Memphis Area Transit Authority.  It’s basically an area of a transit system where riding the transit is free of charge. These are great for areas that have a lot of transfers that take place like a downtown or transit center. Fare Free Zones also do this other thing which is eliminate the usage of Fare Enforcement Officers on trains leaving from fare free zones.       

No transfer fees: 
This should be a no brainier, but I’ve been living in a city up until recently that charged for changing buses. In many ways, having a transfer fee adds resistance to changing the bus routes to be more efficient because the added cost of having to change buses.

Now the places that I been hearing talk about making transit free are trying to encourage ridership without doing the things that actually encourage ridership to grow which are more straighter routes with10 to 15 minutes frequency with having that same frequency on the weekends or just Saturday. The main ingredient is more money because bus service don’t grow on trees.

As the recommendation goes for places to have free transit services are places that have a population less than 90,000 should allow their systems to be free. Here look at you New Braunfels and Seguin.

7-1: A picture of all the transit passes that I purchased between November 1 and December 3, 2019.
7-2: A Screenshot of the transit fare for VIA Metropolitan Transit.
7-3: A Screenshot of the Transit Fare for CapMetro as of April 17, 2015. They since have changed it, but it is still pretty much the same. Current CapMetro Fares: https://www.capmetro.org/fares/#!

Transit Center Fare Capping” by @riaskaya: https://vimeo.com/254685338

As U.S. Transit Fares Increase, Europe Starts to Make It Free: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/as-u.s.-transit-fares-increase-europe-starts-to-make-it-free

Salt Lake City May Create Free-Fare Transit: https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/08/08/salt-lake-city-may-create-free-fare-transit/

What Really Happens When a City Makes Its Transit System Free?: https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/10/what-really-happens-when-city-makes-its-transit-system-free/3708/

Estonia’s Capital Pursues Free Public Transit: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2012/04/estonias-capital-pursues-free-public-transit/1883/


Free public transport: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_public_transport#United_States

What VIA Gets Right: https://bikesanantonio.blogspot.com/2015/04/what-via-gets-right.html

The Case for Free Bus Rides: https://bikesanantonio.blogspot.com/2017/04/the-case-for-free-bus-rides.html

Who’s Afraid of Fare-Free Public Transit?: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/whos-afraid-of-fare-free-public-transit

Should Transit Be Free?: https://transitcenter.org/transit-be-free/

The Case for Making Transit Free (and How to Pay for It): https://www.theurbanist.org/2018/12/27/the-case-for-making-transit-free-and-how-to-pay-for-it/

Kansas City Moves Ahead with Free Buses: https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/12/09/kansas-city-moves-ahead-with-free-buses/

Fare Free Public Transport: https://freepublictransport.info

MATA cutting bus service to West Memphis, Arkansas: https://wreg.com/2018/02/06/mata-cutting-bus-service-to-west-memphis-arkansas/

Port Authority: https://www.portauthority.org/services/free-fare-zone/

UTA: https://www.rideuta.com/Fares-And-Passes/Free-Fare-Zone

RideKC: https://ridekc.org

Kansas City Makes Public Transit Free: Should Other Cities Follow?: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/kansas-city-makes-public-transit-free-should-other-cities-follow/

DCTA: https://www.dcta.net/media-center/news/2018/A-train-free-fare-zones

Pushing For A Fare-r Deal For Riders: https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/10/11/a-fare-r-deal-for-riders/

PDF-A Fare Framework: How transit agencies can set fare policy based on strategic goals: https://transitcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/FareFramework-1.pdf

Why Can’t Public Transit Be Free?: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/01/why-cant-public-transit-be-free/384929/

PDF-Advantages and Disadvantages of Fare-Free Transit Policy: citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

PDF-Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-FreeTransit Systems: www.masontransit.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Implementation-and-Outcomes-of-Fare-Free-Transit-Systems-FTA-2012.pdf

There’s a Reason Transit Ridership is Rising in These 7 Cities : https://transitcenter.org/theres-a-reason-transit-ridership-is-rising-in-these-7-cities/

Trimet: https://trimet.org/fares/index.htm

IndyGo: https://www.indygo.net/fares-and-passes/

DART: https://www.dart.org/fares/2018farerestructure.asp

VIA: https://www.viainfo.net/rates/

CapMetro: https://www.capmetro.org/fares/#!

Memphis Area Transit Authority: https://www.matatransit.com