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Transit Improvements Will Help Shape the Future of Cities

Transit leaders gathered at the American Public Transit Association TRANSform Conference last month to discuss how projects like fare removal in Kansas City, Mo., or a bus rapid transit line in Seattle will help remake cities.

An intersection in downtown Kansas City, Mo., with a light rail train running through it.
Kansas City, Mo.
The idea to bring fare-free transit to Kansas City, Mo., started much like any other annual budget planning session and grew into something more.

“And it just leads you to kind of dream a bit,” is the way Mayor Quinton Lucas described the idea’s origins during the American Public Transit Association (APTA) TRANSform Conference last month.

He explained how the review of budgets brought to the foreground some realizations about fare collection — and the many complexities around it, like acquiring new equipment, counting money, and interactions between bus operators and riders.

“Those of you who start with a budget every year, I think you just have to be honest,” Lucas told the gathering of transit officials.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority’s (KCATA) move toward eliminating fares started off with “taking off small bites,” said Lucas, which meant removing fares for certain groups like those residents experiencing homelessness, school children and veterans. By 2020, the city’s transit service then removed fares for everyone, in an experiment watched anxiously by other transit agencies, city officials and naysayers.

“You saw first of all the ‘parade of horribles’ people predicted, which did not happen,” said Lucas.

The project worked, in part, because transit in Kansas City was structured so that only about 8 percent of the agency’s annual budget came from the fare box; but also because the project was part of a much larger narrative around housing, transportation, economic development and equity.

“It wasn’t just a transit discussion, or a transportation discussion. It’s an equity discussion. It’s an income discussion. It’s a fairness discussion. And I think that’s how you get these things done long-term,” said Lucas, speaking on the panel titled, “Cities and the Ever-Evolving Mobility Ecosystem.”

If transit is going to have a future — which all thought leaders say it must if cities are to have a future — it must be part of a larger narrative, a larger vision for what cities can be.

“We know, if we’re going to make transit and cities work, it’s not just a DOT conversation,” said Christopher Coes, assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, in some of his comments on the panel. “You have to bring in the housing. You have to bring in entrepreneurship. You have to bring in our rural counterparts as well.”

The U.S. DOT has since upped funding for transit-oriented development (TOD) projects, which help to expand both housing and commercial development, alongside transit.

“Because we believe in cities, and we believe in the power of equitable TOD in communities,” said Coes.

“The reason I love being on this panel is because you guys have solved the problems that have faced my family and I much of my life,” reflected Lucas, affectionately known as Mayor Q. “We were bus riders. I’m from a family that was moved due to a highway that came through the core of our community.”

“And I think right now we’re using transit, truly as the core, for how we fix cities,” he added.

In Seattle, the city is is investing in streetscape improvements to make transit faster and more comfortable, and safer. There are also “fare support” programs for residents in locations like public housing, youth and seniors.

“We’re very proud that we’re putting city tax dollars into transit,” said Greg Spotts, the new director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, who went on to describe a bus rapid transit project, known as the RapidRide G Line, which will run from downtown to Madison Valley with a bus every six minutes during peak times.

But it’s so much more than just an investment in transit. It’s an investment in the life of Seattle, said Spotts.

“What’s exciting about it is, yeah, it’s bus rapid transit with center boarding. But it’s also a redo of a 100-year-old water main and it’s a diagonal street that has five-way intersections that were highly dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists and school children,” said Spotts.

Those intersections are getting reconfigured to make them safer.

“When you get that alignment all the way up for the federal funds, you can actually transform a 100-year-old street into a ‘complete street’ where all your modes are beautifully channelized and functioning in harmony. And then, imagine the economic development that you’re going to get when you refresh a corridor like that,” said Spotts. “So I want to do more of those.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.