With bus ridership on pace to drop 2 years in a row, some city leaders suggest eliminating fares

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Jan. 18, 2016, a Lawrence Transit System bus stops just south of Seventh and Vermont streets.

There are approximately 1,000 fewer daily trips being taken on the bus today than there were two years ago, and some city leaders are asking whether making the bus free could help bring more people to the bus stop.

For only the second time since service began in 2000, ridership on Lawrence buses is set to drop two years in a row. The drop in ridership amounts to an average monthly ridership that is about 27,000 trips less than it was two years ago, or about 1,000 fewer trips for every day the bus operates.

Transit officials provided several potential reasons for the drop in ridership, including low gas prices, weather and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Some city leaders say bus routes need to improve and that the city should consider whether to eliminate bus fares.

Beyond those factors, Mayor Jennifer Ananda said that she thinks the community’s overall mindset about the public transit system needs to change if ridership is going to increase.

“We haven’t normalized bus ridership in our community,” Ananda said. “We have this picture of who is riding the bus and everyone’s picture of who is riding the bus is not themselves. And so that is the heart of that question.”

Why ridership is dropping

The city and the University of Kansas coordinate their bus service, and annual ridership on the coordinated city and KU routes dropped from 3.13 million trips in 2017 to 2.97 million in 2018, or by about 5.3%, according to ridership numbers the city and KU provided the Journal-World. Ridership is on pace to drop another 5.6% from 2018 to 2019.

Looked at another way, from 2017 through October of this year, or in less than two years, the average number of monthly trips on the coordinated service has fallen by about 27,000 trips, or by about 10%. That drop in trips amounts to more than 1,000 fewer trips per service day, as the bus operates six days per week.

Ridership on the bus service has generally been increasing over the long term. Jessica Mortinger, transportation planning manager and interim transit manager, said in an email to the Journal-World that 2007 and 2008 were the only other years ridership dropped two years in a row.

Mortinger said that fluctuations in ridership are a result of many factors, with a primary factor being gas prices, which continue to remain low. She said other external factors include weather, ride-hailing services, auto ownership, private bus service, land development patterns and economic influences.

Trips from KU routes made up about 59% of overall bus ridership in 2018. Associate Director of KU Transportation Services Aaron Quisenberry did not immediately respond to emails regarding KU’s ridership trends. However, the Journal-World reported in October that enrollment on KU’s Lawrence campus had dropped for the third consecutive year.

Leadership of the union for Lawrence transit drivers had some ideas of how that played into the drop in ridership. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1754 President Justin Priest cited KU’s declining enrollment as a factor, as well as the availability of ride-hailing services. Priest said that although he thinks recent increases in route frequency have improved bus service in Lawrence, that for some people the immediacy of ride-hailing services win out.

“We have people who don’t want to wait,” Priest said. “We live in that kind of society where they need to have it now.”

Riding the bus in Lawrence

“Now” can be far from the reality for Lawrence transit riders.

It can take up to three times longer to get to one’s destination using the bus compared to driving by car. For instance, to get from the North Lawrence neighborhood to Dillons grocery store on Massachusetts Street takes about 30 minutes, not including any walk time, according to Google Maps data. To get from northwest Lawrence to East Hills Business Park takes about an hour. To get from the East Lawrence Neighborhood to South Iowa Street takes about 30 minutes.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she expects the city’s new transit director, once hired, will help determine how to increase ridership. Larsen noted that the city has budgeted $3.5 million to build a new transit center, which will require bus routes to be restructured. Larsen said decreasing route times and providing more frequent buses is really important if the city wants to increase ridership.

“Because it is difficult to get around town on the bus, just because you have to wait to get the bus to you,” Larsen said. “I know I’ve talked to some riders who use it daily, and they say that’s a real struggle.”

Both Larsen and Ananda said they were open to all possibilities when it came to restructuring the routes, including adding buses that only go up and down major thoroughfares such as 23rd Street and Iowa Street.

To get more widespread use of the bus, especially for people who have cars, Ananda said that driving a personal vehicle may also need to be less convenient. She said focusing more on the bus and other forms of transportation, such as biking and walking, could mean various things. That includes increasing parking fees, which she noted the commission recently voted to do, or creating more pedestrian-only areas, including the potential for pedestrian zones downtown.

“Maybe as we’re having this conversation, in the context of a broader transportation and environmental conversation, we can bring those kinds of things back to the table to say, ‘OK, what will help us achieve our ends,'” Ananda said.

As far as city efforts to increase ridership, Mortinger said Lawrence Transit routinely works to educate riders and potential riders about transit services and to reach target populations and untapped markets. She also said Lawrence Transit works to provide consistent reliable bus service. She noted that the addition of a transit center will call for a complete route restructuring, with the potential to reduce travel times for some zones of the city.

Should the bus be free?

A one-way trip on the Lawrence bus costs $1, evening fare is $2 and children younger than 5 are free, according to the Lawrence transit website. There are multiple bus pass options, with a day pass available for $2.75 and a monthly pass available for $34. A semester pass for K-12 students costs $10. The KU routes are supported in part by student fees, and KU students, faculty and staff can ride both city and KU buses by showing their KU card.

Fares make up a relatively small percentage of funding for the city-run bus routes, and both Larsen and Ananda said they would like to consider making the Lawrence bus service free. In 2018, fares generated about $430,000 of the bus service’s approximately $6.3 million in operating expenditures, or about 7%, according to figures the city provided the Journal-World. Approximately $3 million in state and federal grants and about $3.4 million from the city’s transit sales tax provide the remaining funding.

Mortinger noted that the city’s Transit Comprehensive Operations Analysis, which was completed in 2018, did examine the impact of eliminating fares on the transit system. The report lists several benefits of having a fare-free system, including reducing idling times for buses, simplified administration with no need for cash control, and increased ridership. The report estimates that eliminating fares would increase ridership by 25%, based on Transit Cooperative Research Program research and other agency experience. However, the report also lists some challenges to going fare-free, including the loss of revenue, the possibility of people using the bus for shelter or other non-transportation reasons, and a likely need to increase service due to ridership increases.

Larsen said the City Commission would have to measure the cost of eliminating fares against all other city needs, but that she thinks it is something the commission should look at. She said the idea has value in that it would help increase overall ridership and help the bottom lines of those who rely on the bus as their only means of transportation.

“Because those who use the bus generally don’t have other types of transportation that they can use and they may be in the low-income range,” Larsen said. “And so I think it would benefit us to take a look at what that would cost us and whether or not that’s something to consider.”

Ananda said she was definitely interested in exploring that option, but like Larsen said, it would need to be part of the overall budget discussion.

“I think that whatever we can do to encourage bus ridership is going to be helpful, particularly for those who need the bus rather than (those) choosing the bus,” Ananda said. “But as we know, our budget is going to be a difficult one this year, and so that’s all part of what we have to consider.”

If the city were to eliminate bus fares, it would not be the first in the region. Eliminating fares for city bus service has been discussed in several cities across the country, and the Kansas City, Mo., City Council voted on Thursday to make its bus service free. Kansas City’s Streetcar was already a free service.


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