Can free transport deliver economic benefits to Kansas City?

16th December 2019

Kansas City is set to be the first major US city to offer free public transit. Bob Bennett, former Chief Innovation Officer, Kansas City and Tom Touchet, CEO and Founder of Smart City Media, analyse what this means for the city’s residents

Once again the ‘Show Me State’, Missouri, is showing the rest of America how to prioritise and lead with common sense.

At a time when many–looking at you New York City–are focused on fare evasion to raise extra money for public transit, Kansas City is just acting smarter.

KCATA (Kansas City Area Transportation Authority) and KCMO (Kansas City, Missouri) are focusing on the huge benefits of expanding public transit for the people who need it most. And, in doing so–by providing free ridership for all–they are guaranteeing profound economic and environmental benefits.

The activation of the city’s third BRT line is not just a more efficient and capable means of providing transportation to about 64,000 residents in one of the city’s less affluent neighbourhoods, though it does accomplish this task. The route connects a large potential labour force to the central business district, where jobs are plentiful and increasing in both number and monetary value.

The line includes two large and several small scale multi-modal transit hubs that coordinate bus, bike-share, scooter, taxi and streetcar services to provide service from a residence to a destination and back again. Digital connectivity provides a virtual linkage for residents both at stops and while embarked on the MAX buses, a 21st century innovation that meets the demands of modern residents’ expectations.

Digital signage provides for dynamic understanding of bus timings, availability of other modes of transit at a destination and knowledge of public and private sector services along the route. Digital traffic accountability empowers planners to understand how people use the route so that future adjustments can be focused on real time use data and not antiquated models.

The impact of this route activation on the transportation capacity for Kansas City is significant, and the anticipated gains in ridership, property valuation increases, sales tax revenue generation and decreased transit time for riders are all articulated as part of the KCATA funding proposals submitted to the US Department of Transportation over the course of the last five years. Unstated in this documentation is the mindset transformation in the City of Kansas City, which is expressed best by CEO Robbie Makinen: “KCATA is making Kansas City a smarter, more equitable and better city.”

Effective public transportation is essential to ensure upward mobility, jobs, training, education, healthcare and more. And, it works hand-in-hand with smart technology programmes that increase access to connected services. The two pieces are naturally entwined and solving both together is common sense.

The KCATA, the city, multiple non-profits and private sector partners view Prospect MAX not in isolation as an awesome BRT line (it is that), but as part of a multi-modal system designed to link residents and visitors with the opportunities that exist in one of America’s most dynamic communities. When combined with elements of the smart city and data-centric decision support mechanisms, the entire region fuses transportation planning with city planning and private sector opportunities to transform the way residents perceive their environment. Kiosks engage riders as they wait with information about the city, job opportunities in the hyper-local area, neighbourhood history and lore and nearby business advertising. Because the kiosks emphasise hyper-local content, the time spent waiting at a bus stop is not wasted, it contributes to understanding or knowledge.

Kids can get updates on the news to prepare for class. Workers can get a jump on email and be more effective when they get to work sites. Residents can learn about additional training or resources that can help them continue to improve their life situation. Wi-Fi connectivity on the buses allows for continued use of the ride time instead of continuous staring at watches or static newspapers. A 21st century citizen is now connected physically and digitally and is better able to define their future independently with access to the collected wisdom of all humanity via the web. And, because they share the bus with many other riders, they are decreasing the environmental damage caused by their fellow commuters in single-occupancy vehicles.

We know this works in Kansas City. Its two previous bus rapid transit projects generated US$101.96 per dollar invested in transit. This development took place while still relying on fare generation and enforcement of those fares. When the city deployed its streetcar (tram or light rail) in 2016, it did so with a funding mechanism focused on collecting funds from regional development and taxes while making the ride itself free.

The streetcar corridor saw significantly greater development (over US$2.6 billion) over five years from initial construction to its third year of operations than was anticipated; the most optimistic projections anticipated about US$500 million in valuation growth. Given the affluence of the streetcar corridor, it is unreasonable to directly correlate similar valuation along the 10 miles (16 kilometres) of the Prospect MAX route, but a similarly behaving pattern will fundamentally improve the quality of life for 64,000 Kansas Citians.

Increased wages, educational opportunities and access to healthcare and other services will improve the health and growth potential of our residents. This sustainable growth will enable current residents to remain in their neighbourhoods as the community improves so the people implementing change–the residents–can benefit most from the growth. These neighbourhoods that have been challenged for generations will be the source of better trained and connected workers ready for digitalised industries.

The city will have to find US$8 million to offset the potential fare collection that will be foregone by providing ‘free’ transportation, but the taxes generated from other development in the corridor will more than likely make up that investment plus provide additional ROI.  Among the lessons that Troy Schulte taught the city staff during his ten year team as city manager was the capacity to look at the city budget holistically and take advantage of dollars saved in one department and distributing them where they can support operations to make things more efficient for multiple departments. So long as the city chooses a similarly minded city manager, this trend will likely continue.

Building smart technology into streets, onto train platforms, parallel to bus routes or in concert with future mobility systems is the most efficient way to upgrade municipal infrastructure. It–in turn–powers an intelligent grid that delivers better services. Free public transit supercharges the equation, allowing a real transport across the digital divide.  It’s no accident Kansas City launched its initiatives with the streetcar; it is the perfect vehicle for the first phase of the community’s smart programmes. Scaling that successful project with Prospect MAX is the natural, common sense method of applying the lessons learned on the streetcar line to the 64,000 residents who can benefit most from smart technology deployments. It will continue to scale on transit lines for good reason: it’s shown to be successful.

Cities are changing. In most cases, these changes are improving the quality of life for 21st century citizens. Kansas City’s deployment of Prospect MAX as a BRT, a digital corridor and a vehicle for change represents the best qualities of change based on considering the needs of people while also considering the needs of residents and the ecosystem in which they live, work and play. The cities and regions that follow KC’s lead are the ones that will create better, more resilient and more competitive futures.

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