What I learned from a day riding KC’s soon-to-be-free public buses

Courtesy photo

Late last year, Kansas City’s city council voted unanimously to approve a zero-fare transit plan, meaning all city bus lines will soon become free. Kansas City is the first major city to do so. It’s a huge deal — a bold, wildly progressive move that was covered extensively in the national media.

We wanted to know, though, what using mass transit in this city actually feels like. So I took a bus ride. Or, more accurately, several. I spent a day bopping around town on city buses. It was maybe the first time I’d ridden a public bus in Kansas City since my brother, grandma and I rode to see Santa at Macy’s downtown. It has, in other words, been a minute.

On a blustery Monday in January, my travels from the south suburbs to City Market and back were both profoundly good and also kind of crappy in the way that all public transportation is both good and crappy. But it’s the crappiness, really, that’s actually the greater good. 

I’ll explain that, but first, the obvious positives of bus travel. Using mass transit is an environmental plus, which is good if you enjoy activities such as living on the Earth and breathing less poisonous air.  

It’s also just nice to let someone else do the driving. Operating potentially deadly heavy machinery amongst thousands of other people who are also operating potentially deadly heavy machinery, occasionally while they’re drunk or stoned, is something most of are used to. But that doesn’t mean it’s not crazy stressful. Being bussed, though — getting where you need to go while sitting, listening to podcasts, watching videos or randomly staring out the window — is a pleasure that too few Kansas Citians enjoy. Plus, you don’t have to park. Sweet.

There were some parts of the ride, however, that I didn’t enjoy, like the jostling. Nor did I enjoy standing under a shelter on the Main Street MAX line near twilight when the southbound bus was delayed. The cold wind swirled. I suddenly felt exposed and thought about getting an Uber. But then I pulled gloves and a stocking cap out of my backpack and ate a granola bar I’d brought with me. The bus came and, getting on board, I felt that pleasant sense of independence and self-containment one feels in Europe and big cities of the east where mass transit is actually practical.

It was on that same Main MAX line that the driver surprised me. I asked if he was excited about the bus becoming free, thinking he’d be happy to stop messing with passes and folks fumbling for change. He immediately said “No” in a way that suggested the question was more than a little stupid. The worry, he explained, was more homeless people riding the bus just to sleep or keep warm.

Which is valid, sure, but also awful. Yes, there were people on my bus trip who might not have a roof to sleep under. Others seemingly had mental health issues or didn’t smell so great. So? It’s worth considering that homeless people are, you know, people. They have as much right to public spaces as anyone else. Frankly, if your delicate sensibilities are upset simply by being around a fellow human being who’s trying to get warm or catch a few winks, you’re the one with the problem.  

Besides, the overwhelming majority of folks on the bus were perfectly lovely, healthy, fragrant, hard-working individuals who are out there grinding every day, waiting at the bus stop come rain, sleet, snow or heat. It’s fantastic that the city is going to give those folks a break.

Saving people something like $60 a month isn’t the only benefit of making mass transit free, either. There’s also a social good.  

Not only were most passengers perfectly sane and nice, a few were nice, affluent-looking men in office dress. And, perhaps counterintuitively, more guys like that using mass transit could be one of the biggest benefits of the new policy. Obviously free buses won’t make a financial difference for most guys in a suit the cost of the ride is chump change. But making the ride frictionless — “hop on, hop off” in the parlance of tourist transit — could do a lot to encourage ridership. That, in turn, could be an enormous social good.  

Right now, as a city and a society, we’re far too segregated by race and class, and car culture is a huge factor in that isolation. But it’s profoundly democratic, good for the country and good for the human soul, to mix with all different sorts of people. It occurred to me that it would be a very positive thing, for instance, if your average corporate tax attorney and average janitor sat together once in a while to talk sports, complain about the weather or simply notice that each other exists.

That’s what it means to say that the bad parts of bus trips are actually the best parts. In an on-demand, Uber/Postmates/Spotify world, having to wait for things once in a while is good for you. Being cold to appreciate the warmth is good for you. Sitting next to someone who might not have a home but still has a mind, heart and soul is very, very good for you.

Which brings me to the trip’s best moment. Just before getting off at the 75th Street and Wornall Road park-and-ride, I saw a young man with dark skin wearing a skullcap. Introducing myself, I asked if he was wearing a yarmulke. He was. He turned out to be a recent immigrant from Liberia who converted to Judaism, rode buses from his home at Ninth Street and Walnut all the way to Ohev Sholom, a synagogue at 75th Street and Nall Avenue, to study Torah. He was shy but kind and quick to smile, living a wildly unusual life, radically different from my own. It was a quiet moment but a profound one, showing me a slice of life in this city that I wouldn’t have imagined existed. And it never would have happened if I’d been driving a car. 

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