Mass transit is the lifeblood of coastal cities like New York, Washington, and Philadelphia, but Midwest cities also rely on mass transportation, and in recent years, several have achieved major transit improvements. Other U.S. cities trying to expand transit usage can learn something from these efforts.
Indianapolis, for example, once had the lowest bus service levels of any major U.S. city, but that changed in 2016, when a referendum raised the capital city’s income tax by 0.25 percent to finance a major expansion. The first element is the Red Line, a 13-mile bus rapid-transit (BRT) route. The project will eventually include a network of three BRT lines totaling 62 miles, with 97 stations. It will offer exclusive bus lanes, frequent service, and off-board fare collection, along with other features designed to enhance quality—such as fare-capping, in which riders pay cash fares until they hit a spending threshold that automatically converts into an unlimited-ride pass. Best of all is the project’s comparatively low cost of $500 million; depending on how much federal funding the city gets, local taxpayers may have to pick up the tab for only $220 million, and much of that will go to street improvements that the city needed anyway.
The investment, over time, promises dramatically to improve Indy’s transit options. Currently, about 10 percent of the city’s households don’t own (or lease) a car, mostly because of income constrictions. An improved transit system would address this economic inequality while also attracting voluntary riders.
Columbus, meantime, is seeing more transit riders thanks to C-Pass, which offers free bus passes to downtown workers. Property owners, through a special improvement district, have funded the program—an innovative way to pay for transit improvements. In the year since C-Pass’s inception, Columbus’s downtown ridership, previously 5 percent, has jumped to between 10 percent and 14 percent. Though aggressive promotion helped, making transit free likely played a pivotal role. For professionals, transit fares remain nominal expenses—especially compared with parking costs—but even small charges can alter commuting behavior for the broader population. Louisville, for example, saw major diversions of traffic from a new bridge, though its $2 toll resembles a transit fare.
Columbus also received $50 million from the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, a national competition that rewards innovative transit plans. Part of Columbus’s project involves a unified-payment system allowing users to purchase public and private transit options. This arrangement would, for instance, let riders pay a single price for an end-to-end trip that includes both a city bus and a private taxicab.
While Columbus embraces technology, Kansas City is considering the complete elimination of transit fares. In major cities, fares commonly pay for a substantial amount of the overall cost of service operations, and trains and buses are often overcrowded. In Kansas City, though, fares cover only a fraction of costs—about 12 percent—and transit remains underutilized. If it goes forward with the plan, Kansas City would become the first major city to go entirely fare-less—building on the success already enjoyed by the city’s free streetcars. Urbanists have turned against streetcars because they’re slow and expensive, and often plagued by operational problems and lagging ridership. In Kansas City, though, streetcar ridership has exceeded expectations; once forecasted to run 2,700 daily rides, the streetcars now carry over 5,700, adding up to 2 million annually. Again, free ridership likely played a huge role in that success.
Columbus, Kansas City, and Indianapolis may never leave the transit footprint of a Boston or San Francisco, but their efforts look like valuable models for midsize cities—especially as more Americans get priced out of costly large metropolitan regions.