Hey, KCATA – Keep Our Buses Free!

Hey, KCATA – Keep Our Buses Free! Four years ago, Kansas City became the first major American city to get rid of bus fare and make rides free throughout the city. However, now that the money that made it possible is running out, the city may go back to making people pay to ride the bus.

We are against this for a number of reasons, but most importantly, Zero Fare is a life-saving initiative. A recent article in the Missouri Independent shows that free bus fare provides the community with a variety of benefits. Reports the publication, “Public health researchers from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Children’s Mercy Hospital hypothesize that when Kansas City Council voted in 2019 to phase out bus fares— and eliminate them entirely in 2020 — public health gains followed.”

Jordan A. Carlson, director of community-engaged health research at Children’s Mercy Hospital, notes, “There’s a scientific premise that (the city’s zero-fare initiative) has an impact on public health. We felt like it was promising enough that we really wanted to do this health evaluation, thinking that if it does impact health, and we can document that, then that could support continuation of these types of policies.”

Carlson and other researchers are studying whether free bus rides can help people get more physical activity, leading to reduced rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease diagnoses. They’re also studying whether free bus rides give the community better access to healthcare, jobs, and even sources of healthier foods. “Simply by removing some economic barriers to health — by helping people spend less on transportation, that can free up some of their money (and) reduce some economic burden,” Carlson said.

Why is the KCATA considering reinstituting bus fares?

The Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA) eliminated bus fares in March of 2020. Before that, people paid $1.50/ride, or $50 for a yearly bus pass. For some, like veterans or students, bus rides have always been free.

The Missouri Independent reports that back in 2019, bus fares brought in about $8.8 million, which made up about 6.5% of the KCATA’s revenue. After instituting Zero Fare, they covered the gap with tax dollars and COVID relief funds from the federal government. However, that COVID money is running out, and one of the options to recoup that money is fare collection. If fares returned, the consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard tells the Kansas City Beacon that new fares “would bring in $5.8 million to $7.1 million a year if fares returned to pre-pandemic levels.”

Federal relief funds are set to run out this year. The possible price for a potential fare is still unknown.

Where did the money go?

The Kansas City Star reminds Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas of his promise for Kansas City to fund its share of the program, a program President Joe Biden called “a great idea” when visiting Kansas City. However, the Star found that the city never allocated those additional dollars to help sustain the Zero Fare program. Further, “The city also diverted $22 million from its half-cent public transit sales tax that would have supported the bus system — the equivalent of more than two years’ of free fares — to instead pay for new LED streetlights.”

As a customer of the free bus program, Kansas City provides more than half of KCATA’s operating revenue.

In city bus-related news, KCATA recently announced it was approved for multi-million dollar funding to upgrade to low and no-emission buses. Said KCATA Chief Executive Officer Frank White III, “Through this investment, KCATA will be able to continue our efforts to modernize our bus system, provide riders a smoother trip and reduce impacts on the region’s air quality.” This $4.48 million does not include funding for free bus rides, however.

Our community is healthier, happier, and better off because of the Zero Fare program

Although Carlson’s health research is ongoing throughout 2024, a preliminary study shows that people with access to the bus are more active than the average American. The Independent reports, “The study participants took an average of 6,350 steps per day — better than the U.S. average of 3,000-5,000 steps. And bus riders got an average of 28 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity —– also better than the national average.”

Researcher Amanda Grimes stated that participants reported “better health, better access to healthy food, saving money and easier commutes to work.”

Reduced financial stress also has its health benefits. The Independent talked to Shanon Harvey, who rides the bus every day. He states he used to spend about $50 a month for trips downtown and to his church. When fares were eliminated, he was able to spend that $600 a year on necessities: “It freed up monies in my budget as to where I could afford things like milk … and, if I need, shoes.”

Nelson/Nygaard estimates a 17% to 33% drop in riders if fares are reintroduced. Raymond Forstater, a spokesperson with Sunrise Movement KC, tells the Kansas City Beacon, “That’s 17% to 33% of people that are not having the same access to food or medicine or people that are skipping medical appointments because they can’t afford to be making extra trips.”

In fact, the Beacon reports that 92% of riders say that zero fare allows them to shop for food and other essentials, and 82% said it allowed them to get or keep their jobs.

Back to Carlson’s research, the Independent states that:

Before the end of 2024, researchers hope to collect data from 400 people recruited through University Health who will wear a device and share historic health data. In addition, researchers are studying health records of around 2,000 patients to look for other trends comparing bus riders to nonriders.

Ultimately, they want to know whether having a free ride will entice more people to take the bus and whether that, in turn, will improve overall health in the community.

Researchers are also conducting focus groups across Kansas City to strengthen their research. We join the community in telling the KCATA, “Keep our buses free!” For many people, their lives depend on it.

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