With calls from a community group to reduce the cost of bus tickets in Springfield, City Utilities is conducting an extensive study of free buses and other ways to improve the city’s bus system.
Rather than a regional transit authority, Springfield’s transit system is one of the few in the nation operated by its utility company. Speaking to the Springfield City Council on Wednesday, UC Vice President Brent Baker said the bus system must “benefit all of its citizens,” not just those who currently use it.
“We need to make a cultural gesture in the community to really make using the bus more beneficial for all of our citizens, but also something that’s not stigmatizing. To make it normal for an average Springfielder to use the And then the value of having a good public transit system is a healthier environment, better air quality, and increased property values,” Baker said.
Of those who use the bus, most are satisfied with its services, he said. But only a very specific portion of Springfield residents use the bus in the first place. According to data provided by CU in their presentation, 60% of Springfield bus riders earn less than $15,000 a year and 72% do not drive or have access to a car.
CU last made significant changes to Springfield Transit after a similar 2012 study. This included building a new transit center in 2016, increasing bus sizes, and adding three new overnight routes.
According to a UC official at a meeting on Wednesday, one of the goals of their 2022 study is whether to reduce the cost of bus fares or even eliminate bus fares altogether.
“We want to include things like the free conversation that’s happening in the community in the study,” Baker said. “We want to know what it would look like. What have people learned from having a free system?”
Currently, a one-way trip on a Springfield bus costs $1.25, with an additional 10 cents for each transfer. Riders can also purchase 60 rides in advance for 75 cents per ride.
This system has recently come under fire from Fare Free SGF, a local activist group that wants to make Springfield’s transit system free at the point of service.
“While a bus ticket may seem like a small thing to some people, making sure that ticket is ready every day can be a big burden for someone living in poverty,” said Victoria Altic, one of Fare’s main organizers. Free SGF. said the News-Leader in February.
Some city council members have also expressed interest in a free system. Councilman Craig Hosmer said council should “continue discussions with city utilities” on free bus fares to make the system work “more efficiently for people of low to moderate means”.
Although they said free buses would be part of the study, UC officials had some skepticism that Springfield buses would be free at the point of service. They pointed to Kansas City, which eliminated all bus fares during the pandemic and decided to maintain the policy.
But CU CEO Gary Gibson said their agency has heard “mixed messages” from the Kansas City Transit Authority.
“When they started out we heard some really good things. But recently we’ve heard some of their business riders – people coming and going from work – aren’t riding as much as they used to. That’s because it looks to people who use the bus for shelter from the weather, the homeless population uses it to stay warm or cool.”
Gibson stressed the importance for passengers to have “the skin in the game”, so that they “take care of the buses a little better”.
Maintaining adequate security in a free system is increasingly important, Baked added.
“If you’re going for free, over time that feeling of safety and cleanliness can diminish a bit. So if we were to go that route, we’d have to make sure we had some extra wiggle room in our budget for maintaining the order or more security,” he said.
According to Baker, CU wouldn’t want cyclists to “lose this affordable way to get around because it just doesn’t feel safe.”
According to the data shared in their presentation, approximately 37% of passengers are traveling to or from work.
Baker also mentioned an Ottawa-based program as a possible model for Springfield. The Canadian city has worked with its school district to teach public bus driving as part of its high school curriculum.
“A big reason people don’t take the bus is that it can be intimidating if you’ve never used public transportation before,” Baker said. “By teaching the transit system during freshman orientation, they broke down a lot of barriers. And over the next few years, it really changed the culture of public transit in this city.”
In four years, the high school program has increased bus ridership in Ottawa by 550,000 annual riders.
Other ideas pioneered by CU included a downtown streetcar system and adding smaller vehicles to their bus fleet to allow for more frequent stops.
CU hopes to hire a contractor to conduct the study by the end of July. The consultant’s services will include “assessment of transit services, planning assistance, public feedback and surveys with significant assessment of fixed route services, route design…and short, medium and long term service plans.
To that end, CU will host a series of public engagement sessions on Springfield’s transit system over the next year.