How can RideKC better serve bus riders?
Kansas City’s public transportation system has celebrated free fares and electric buses. But many riders say they still have a problem with infrequent and unreliable service. What can be done?
Both local and national experts agree that free fares are not why Kansas City buses are infrequent and sometimes unreliable.
Still, some experts say improving the frequency and quality of bus service in Kansas City may be an even more crucial step than removing fares.
“In general, we believe that it’s actually much more important to make transit better and more frequent than to remove the fares,” said David Bragdon, a researcher from the Transit Center, a foundation focused on improving public transit across the country. “The problem with transit in most places, including in Kansas City, is that there’s just not enough transit.”
It is possible for a bus system to have both good service and no cost.
Several researchers from multiple different national organizations all pointed The Star to Richmond, Virginia.
“They’ve actually done a great job in leveraging that free fare service to expand transit ridership,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute.
What’s so great about Richmond?
The Greater Richmond Transit Company has seen ridership levels return to what they were before the pandemic, a rarity among public transit systems that were all hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 on ridership and staffing.
In Kansas City, ridership is still down 3 million since the pandemic began.
Greater Richmond’s service area is smaller than KCATA’s. It serves a population of 920,000 across three jurisdictions, while the Kansas City metro’s population is just over 2.1 million and KCATA serves 10 jurisdictions.
And its budget is smaller than KCATA’s too: $63 million compared to KCATA’s $105 million.
But even with a smaller service area, population and budget, the Greater Richmond Transit Company is serving a ridership coming close to that of Kansas City: 8.3 million riders in 2020 compared to KCATA’s 9.4 million riders that same year.
AllTransit, a transit database from the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Transit Center that ranks the performance of local public transportation, gave Richmond a 7.7 out of 10. The score is based on the amount of trips offered per week and the number of jobs accessible via transit. Kansas City received a score of 4.8.
For context, there are 140,993 jobs accessible by transit in Richmond, compared to 108,370 jobs in Kansas City, according to AllTransit.
The data also shows that even though Richmond is smaller, it offers more bus trips each week than Kansas City does, 5,564 bus trips within a half mile compared to Kansas City’s 1,219 trips within a half mile.
What did Richmond do to get those results?
Before making the bus fare free in 2020, Richmond prioritized expanding services in communities that needed it the most.
The agency went through a route redesign in 2018 and has seen an uptick in ridership ever since.
Though the Greater Richmond Transit Company is a regional transit agency like the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, it was the City of Richmond that spearheaded the process of redesigning routes to better serve its residents, collaborating with the transit company and the surrounding county.
“They’ve been very strategic about where they have transit going, the neighborhoods it’s connecting. It’s very focused in the city center,” said Preeti Shankar, an analytics director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
“They have commuter routes going out to the suburbs, but they’re really focused on providing really good transit within the city, so for that reason you see their score is 7.7.”
Shankar added that Richmond’s bus system also does a good job of intentionally placing routes in areas that connect people to health centers and social services, which helps increase ridership.
The route redesign didn’t necessarily add more routes, but it reorganized existing routes, increased the frequency that buses came on those routes and added a rapid bus line.
Julie Timm, chief executive officer for the Greater Richmond Transit Company, joined the transit company in 2019 after the redesign and said that although there was some pushback to the changes, the area ultimately saw ridership increase year after year.
She said that the new design laid a foundation for newer initiatives like removing fares.
“That is what has allowed us to recover (from the pandemic), it was having a good design and good frequency in place to start with. And then taking the fares away allowed for a much faster recovery,” Timm said.
“I think that these things go hand in hand. When we start making a trade off between the two is when we lose.”
The agency also invested in more infrastructure at bus stops to improve the quality of riders’ experience before they even get on the bus.
The Richmond transit company managed to not cut any routes during the height of the pandemic, but Timm admitted that the frequency of routes took a hit in order to accommodate social distancing and driver shortages.
“We had hoped we would turn that around. We are still working on that,” she said.
In Kansas City, transit officials say that a lack of bus drivers has prevented improvements, too. Both agencies are committed to recruiting more staff. In Kansas City, the goal is to add at least 70 more operators.
How KCATA is planning to improve service
KCATA is conducting a study until June 17 to see about expanding east-west transit options.
You can learn more about the study here, and you can participate in it here.
To contact KCATA with other concerns regarding the bus service, riders can call the agency at 816-221-0660, email email@example.com or fill out a contact form.
Editor’s note: After this story was published, we changed The Greater Richmond Transit Company has seen ridership levels return to what they were before the pandemic, a rarity among public transit systems that were all hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 on ridership and staffing
This story was originally published June 15, 2022 5:00 AM.