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Episode 50 Guest Eric Bunch

Kansas City council member Eric Bunch’s experience as a bus rider and community advocate shaped his resolution to not only make transit fare-free in KC, but to implement policy at the city level to help KCATA buses dwell less at stops and traffic signals.

episode transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Bunch: Eric Bunch

Cohen: When word starting coming out of Kansas City, Missouri that they were considering fare-free transit for their transit system my ears perked up. This just hadn’t been done in the U.S. at the scale that they were considering. Today on The Movement podcast I have Eric Bunch, the councilmember who introduced the legislation to make it happen. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Kansas City, Missouri Councilmember Eric Bunch who not only spearheaded Kansas City’s recent drive to make public transit fare-free in Kansas City but also has a background in transportation policy, community advocacy, and neighborhood planning. Welcome to The Movement, Eric.

Bunch: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Cohen: So let’s start out with your advocacy work. Tell me what kind of community advocacy you did and really what inspired it.

Bunch: Sure. Yeah, I was the cofounder and for a while the policy director at an organization called BikeWalkKC. So it was a nonprofit organization. It was really focused on improving the built environment for walkability primarily in the region of Kansas City, Missouri. So we were a regional organization not just focused on KCMO, the principal city in the region, but we did end up focusing a lot of our policy efforts inside the city of Kansas City, Missouri, as I’ll refer to sometimes as KCMO.

For folks who aren’t familiar with Kansas City, it’s a principal city. It’s about 500,000 people. And so we saw often our work being more impactful especially when it comes to policy when working at and focused on that particular city. And so from there I spent a fair amount of time there, and then eventually I decided to run for office to serve on city council of Kansas City. And so that’s where I am today.

Cohen: Wow. And so what really led you to get involved with BikeWalkNC—KC, not BikeWalkNC, which is in our state of North Carolina but BikeWalkKC in Kansas City?

Bunch: [LAUGHS] Yes. You know, I’ve always—really from an early age I started to notice how the built environment impacts our decisions to get physical activity and get around safely. So I was a long distance runner in middle school, high school, and then I ran collegiately. And so seeing the impact of our decisions on how we build our cities, not just how good the sidewalk is but also how close things are and where we put sidewalks and things of that nature really affected my ability to get good training. And so when I was in college I found myself running on these two lane highways that did not feel safe or comfortable for that matter, but it was because of the decisions of suburban policymakers that led us to an environment that wasn’t all that inviting.

And so I had sort of an early taste of that and started to make those connections to how we build cities and how it affects our lives, I think, fairly early on. And so I gradually transitioned into bicycling for transportation and did that a fair amount after college in the City of Columbia and got a chance to work with a really fantastic organization in Columbia, Missouri called PedNet. It was an advocacy and policy organization there focused on walkability and bikeability and access in the City of Columbia. And so I got my start there and professionally as, like, an instructor and then learned more and more that it’s not just about teaching people how to ride a bike; we’ve got to build the streets safer.

And so I spent some time in Denver and then came back to Kansas City and started the organization BikeWalkKC seeing that Kansas City was one of the largest cities without a nonprofit advocacy organization that was focused on walking and biking. And knowing that we had a lot of work to do I had a few really good partners to help get us started there, and I started BikeWalkKC in 2010 and really got underway in 2011, 2012, staffed up to be about 30 full-time employees and about 15 part-time employees. So it’s been a pretty exciting time to be doing that work in Kansas City.

Cohen: Wow. Truly. That really is amazing, and that’s some tremendous progress in a fairly short amount of time.

Bunch: And I would just say that I think a real part of the progress was just how no one was doing that work in that space, so we picked up bikeshare, we picked up—so we ran and owned and operated the bikeshare system in Kansas City because no one else was willing to do that. We did a lot of the education work and safe-routes-to-school work and then policy at municipal governments and across the region. So there was just a need, and we were there to fulfill it. We had some really great funding partners to help get us started, I think, because there was a recognition just how far we needed to go. And I think this region has made a lot of progress in that regard in the last 10 years. So, again, pretty exciting, a pretty exciting time to be in Kansas City.

Cohen: For sure. And so part of the reason why it’s exciting is that you helped spearhead a recent project, I guess, initiative—I don’t even know the right way to frame it, because I know that there’s still some work to be done, but—a recent legislative package to make transit in Kansas City fare free. And so I learned about this because I work with a Kansas City native, Tyler Means at TransLoc here. And he had been keeping me updated on that, and so when I started following that story and saw that it was approved by city council, I guess, last month or two months ago, I really—my ears perked up and said, “Well, that’s an interesting story. I want to learn more about that.” So maybe help our listeners understand what led to the push there for fare-free transit there in Kansas City.

Bunch: Sure. It was something that had been percolating for a while before I was even involved in the conversation. It was long before I was elected to city council. But there was, I think, a realization stemming from a couple of things. I think one was just the realization that we don’t collect a lot of money from the farebox. And just the Kansas City, Missouri, the KCMO portion of the transit agency, they collect about $8 million a year out of the farebox, which is a miniscule amount of the operating budget. And so a lot of people started talking, including people at the transit authority, started saying, “You know what? Maybe this farebox return we get, this $8 million, $10 million would be better spent by the people who are using the system but which who by and large are people who are not what you would call choice riders.” We have a lot of people who are riding the bus because they don’t have another option. I’m sort of a hybrid of the two, but I do ride the bus pretty much daily. So there was that, just sort of the financial realization.

The second thing that I think people started to take note of was the success of our streetcar, and streetcars are a bit of—I shouldn’t say a third rail. [LAUGHS] They don’t have a third rail; it has overheads. But, you know, they’re somewhat—you know, in the transit world they’re seen as something that may not be as effective, cost effective as a transportation investment; but what we saw here in Kansas City was ridership that far exceeded many of the other cities who were putting in modern streetcars. And part of that, I think many people attribute that success in ridership of the streetcar to the fact that it’s just easy because it’s free.

It’s easy to get on the streetcar, sort of like—as I said, I mentioned I spent some time in Denver—the 16th Street MallRide. I think anyone would acknowledge that that’s not hugely successful in terms of a major transportation option for people, but it’s successful from a ridership point of view. And our streetcar goes above and beyond just the sheer ridership, but I think the 16th Street MallRide in Denver is successful, and it has incredible ridership because it’s easy to understand, and that is primarily because it’s free; you just walk on it. And so we saw that success here on the streetcar in Kansas City.

So there really are two driving forces behind the fare-free transit; it’s the success of the streetcar in driving ridership, and we want to see that kind of ridership growth across the whole system. That’s an ancillary benefit I would say, but the biggest benefit to it is we’re going to put thousands of dollars back in people’s pockets who are using the bus system, because we’re primarily talking about buses here. It’s going to put the money back in the pockets of people who need it the most. And that money is far more effective at spurring economic activity if spent on stuff like groceries and entertainment and not for going into the farebox.

There’s also a discussion about the cost of actually collecting the money too, not just that it’s a miniscule part of the operational budget, but it cost money to collect the fare, like, to maintain the fareboxes. There’s also an operational cost that it takes so long sometimes if you’ve got a long line, as anyone can attest, that people—it takes a long time to board a long line of people when you’re all paying in cash.

Cohen: Right.

Bunch: And I see that almost every day I ride the bus. And, you know, fare free opens up the opportunity to do all-door boarding as another thing. So there are all these other operational benefits that we saw out of just going fare free as well. And it sort of makes the conversation about switching over to some high tech, you know, RFID card or whatever new system rather than just the plane old cash; it makes that move. You know, why invest millions of dollars into a new card system when you could just, like, spend no money and just take away—find $8 million a year to just replace the fares?

So that’s sort of where the conversation went locally and what drove the decision to just sort of rip the Band-Aid off with this resolution that I introduced a few months ago and one of the first big actions I took on city council. But another part of it too—and maybe we could talk about that later in the show here—is the resolution wasn’t just about fare-free transit; the council resolution also talked about making transit more efficient through the things that the city can control like signals and timing and planning for the future and that sort of thing.

The fare-free transit part of it was just one component of it, but it was well supported by the rest of the council. It received a unanimous vote on the council, but one thing that I think a lot of people—when this kind of caught fire nationally, I think a lot of people just understood it to be that, like, we removed the fareboxes right then and there; but it was really just that the resolution was a call on the council to prioritize this in the next budget. So we’re now in the thick of budgeting process, and I believe that we found the money to put in the budget for next year so that we actually can work with the ATA to make the buses fare free.

Cohen: Wow. That’s impressive. So you alluded to this a little bit earlier, which was that some of this was kind of already being talked about prior to you coming on council. And so maybe I’d like to really attack this a little bit more tactically. So from a tactical standpoint trying to do something at a scale that in the U.S. hasn’t really been done except in smaller cities and in more college towns, you’re trying to do something that’s pretty ambitious. So from a tactical standpoint I’m curious what you had to do in order to basically get the buy-in of all these key stakeholders and help get this over the finish line.

And, again, by “over the finish line” I recognize that that means that the council still has to find the money, but the fact that you were able to get KCATA on board, you were able to get the rest of your councilmembers on board, you were able to get the community on board. Like, tell me a little bit about tactically what you needed to do in order to make that actually a reality.

Bunch: Well, I can’t take credit for getting the transit authority on board. They were already driving this conversation, I would say. The new-ish CEO, Robbie Makinen, has a very dynamic personality and has been willing to really try new things. And so he’s really taken the transit authority in a new direction, and so he was an early adopter of this idea. And so there wasn’t a lot of convincing to do at the ATA. It was they were already approaching me saying that this is something they wanted to do, something that we had sort of, like, mutually agreed in separate, like, without even I guess realizing it.

They were on a track sort of internally about making transit fare free; I was thinking about this and saying that we should do it throughout my campaign, which happened just last year. And so to get the ATA on board was not a hard feat. So then it just became, “All right. What are the next steps, the tactical steps to get there?” And the first one was the resolution. And I wrote the resolution first with the feedback of some trusted people at the ATA because it did include a lot of, as I mentioned earlier, included a lot of this sort of transit efficiency stuff that our public works department needs to be doing. But I wanted to make sure it was okay that we just sort of, like I said, rip the Band-Aid off to go to the fare free.

And so then after I had the resolution written I just talked to my council colleagues and said, “Hey, I think this is important. I think it’s something that would make us unique. And I think it really gives us an opportunity to do something great without a lot of money and have a lot of impact on people.” So then it was just a matter of asking for the votes. And so we voted on it, and we were successful. Then became the work of getting into the budget, and so we’re still kind of in the middle of that, but I’ve been in good conversations with the chair of the city council finance committee, and so she is working hard to make sure that it’s included in the budget next year.

So I—[LAUGHS] I wish I had more of an exciting story about how difficult it was and how we were able to whip the votes and get the people on board, but, like, it was incredible. As soon as we mentioned this idea, people came out of the woodwork in support of it. So I would say, like, tactically the most important thing we did was just make this public. So, you know, when we had this in committee and were discussing it and came to the committee that I vice chair, the Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee, we had had stakeholders come in just out of the blue, did not have to coordinate any sort of, you know, get people to the council chambers to testify.

But we had nonprofit organizations like the American Heart Association; the city’s health department had representation there. We had people from all backgrounds coming in to support it. And that was pretty exciting to see such a groundswell of support from the community. So honestly—yeah—it was just a matter of doing it. And I think that other cities will probably follow suit, and I think that’s pretty exciting, but, you know, it just took a champion on city council to push it through the end zone.

Cohen: Yeah, I mean, obviously you mentioned that KCATA was already thinking about this, but having someone on council willing to take a leadership position on that, obviously, like you said, it was able to take that over the finish line. And I recognize that part of the challenge is that as an elected official you’ve got a lot of—I wouldn’t say conflicting; I’d say competing maybe is a better word— competing things to invest in. Right?

Bunch: Right.

Cohen: I mean, I think, you know, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s other safety issues, you know, things like crime, whether it’s schools, you know, depending on—I’m not that familiar with Kansas City; I’m not sure where all the school funding comes from. But, you know, there’s a lot of different places where you can put that tax money. So I recognize that that kind of prioritizing transportation is challenging.

Bunch: Yeah, with any new thing that has a price tag there’s an opportunity cost. I mean, we have a huge budget, like, a $7.1-billion budget at the city, but not all of that money is fungible, so to speak. A lot of it is restricted. But we have a significant amount of money that we can move around, and so I think we are going to have to have a conversation about what’s getting cut if this gets put into our budget next year.

And so we find ways to pay for things all the time, and at the end of the day it comes down to priorities. And if we are prioritizing the movement of people and access to jobs and access to jobs for some of our most venerable citizens, then this is a way to do that, and we’ll find the money. And I think we’re there. And so—yeah—it can be tricky, and that’s the biggest point of contention for some of the councilmembers who ultimately did support it, but we just had one councilmember who rightfully questioned where is the money going to come from.

Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure.

Bunch: And so that’s our job to determine what the priorities are as policymakers.

Cohen: So one of the things I thought was interesting just kind of watching the reaction to this from a national level—and I’m sure you caught some of this. Some of the pushback has been from the perspective of what I call the transportation cognoscenti that said, “Look. The fare is less of an impediment to people using transit than how useful it is or where it goes or how frequently it gets there.” And, you know, I think that’s a fair point. How are you kind of dealing with that issue? And maybe that kind of is related to what you were saying before about this kind of package that was included in this resolution about other ways to make transit better in Kansas City.

Bunch: I would say that the biggest opposition, if you would call it that, the biggest criticism of this initiative has actually come from fellow transit wonks, as I refer to them.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Bunch: And I consider myself to be one of those, as a former transportation policy director at an advocacy organization, and so I get those arguments. I understand that the biggest impediment for a lot of people using transit is about frequency and it’s about making sure that the bus competes with other modes of transportation, primarily driving. And that’s fine, and we absolutely should invest in better public transit in terms of frequency and route directness and things of that nature.

And so part of that is what drove me to do the rest of that resolution, which is actually the primary focus of the resolution, which was all the transit efficiency stuff. That alone, again, is not going to make transit substantially better or more reliable, and I get that. But at the end of the day I came to this conclusion on it. And if we’re pulling in $8-to-10 million a year out of the farebox, I believe that the best use of that money is not making tiny, like, marginal improvements in service that you’re going to get with that amount of money; it’s putting it back in the pockets of the people who need it the most.

And so that was the decision that I made at the end of this; it’s I think that this is the right thing to do. And every transit system has a funding gap because they’re primarily financed in other ways through sales taxes and property taxes or however in different cities. Ours is mostly funded out of the sales tax, and I can touch on that here in a second and the challenges we have with transit funding. But transit agency has a funding gap in that, and we’re asking some of our most vulnerable populations to close that funding gap by paying a buck-50 into the farebox.

Cohen: Right.

Bunch: And I think that that is just such a bizarre way to approach public transportation, is to say, like, “Yeah, we might be able to get a little bit marginally better service by dumping this extra $8 million into it, but we’re still going to ask every poor person who needs access to transit to fill the funding gap in the ATA’s operation. And I just don’t think that that policy-wise is the most effective policy that we could be making. And I think instead we could put that back into people’s pockets and have them spend it in their local economy and their neighborhoods. So that was ultimately the decision, the conclusion that I came to.

Cohen: Well, and I think another way to look at that too, which I think is maybe a very similar way of looking at it maybe kind of from the inverse perhaps, is that for something as important as transportation—and, you know, instead of making just the people that are riding it fund it or fund at least a portion of it, it makes sense to have the whole community benefit and pay for that public good.

Bunch: Yeah.

Cohen: So, you know, I think that’s just another way of saying what you said, but I think that makes intuitive sense there to me as well.

Bunch: Yeah.

Cohen: From the operational side, what are some of those things from the city side—you mentioned the public works and so forth—that you want to get done there?

Bunch: The big chunk of this resolution that included the fare-free transit is calling on the city to create a new policy for how we flip the switch on some of our technology we’ve invested in that could give better communication between a bus that’s approaching a traffic signal to let that traffic signal know and give me a green light. I’ve got a far-side stop right across this intersection, so extend that green light, get me through that intersection faster because I’ve got a bus full of people, you know, things like that.

Fortunately we’ve adopted this smart cities concept, and we’ve invested in a lot of really good things; but we unfortunately don’t have the policy backing it up. And so, as I mentioned, I’m a frequent transit user. I ride the bus into City Hall, if I don’t ride a bike in. So, you know, I get to my bus stop, and I have an option. I can wait for the bus; I can see the real-time arrival, and I’ve got 10-minute headways on this sort of BRT-light bus I can take into downtown. So I can see, “Oh, it’s eight minutes away. Well, I’ll just go ahead and hop on a bikeshare bike.” The station is right next to my stop.

So one time I made the decision just to hop on a nonelectric bike, a big, heavy, Bcycle, bikeshare bike, lumbering at 45 pounds. I had just missed the bus, and I was like, “Well, shoot. I’m not going to wait the nine minutes for the next bus; I’ll just go on.” Well, I caught the bus that I had just missed one stoplight down the street. And I didn’t catch it because it was boarding too many people. I didn’t catch it because there was too much traffic; I caught it because it was stuck at a red light. Green light goes; it leaves me behind, and low and behold I catch it again at the next red light. The same thing over and over and over again. I rode it from what’s considered 35th Street all the way to 11th Street. So the math on that is what? Twenty-four blocks, whatever the math is.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s 24. Yeah.

Bunch: I can’t do the math at the moment, but quite a few blocks I was keeping pace on a 45-pound bike with no motor on it in a not-so-flat city. [LAUGHS] And it wasn’t because of traffic; I wasn’t running red lights; it wasn’t picking up a ton of people, so it wasn’t boarding that was making it slow; it was lack of coordination between—and I know that we have the technology in place in many of these intersections for that bus to communicate with the signals. We just haven’t unleashed that power yet.

And so that’s one of the main—you know, that’s one example of all of the tools I think we have as a city in the toolbox to do our part to make sure that the ATA’s buses run better. And so here this is finally compelling city staff to this is the policy direction we want to go. The goal is to make transit run more efficiently and use the things we have to prioritize that movement of transit. So the resolution is focused on and is calling on the city staff to develop a policy on when it does give the green light, when that bus does get the green light, when do we put in a dedicated bus lane down the road, so it effects planning for our future as well.

So that’s the other kind of little, wonky, operational stuff that we’re really working towards, are just really unleashing the power of the technology we’ve got in place and giving the policy directive to make that happen.

Cohen: Fantastic. So where can our listeners find out more about what’s going on there in Kansas City and your efforts and maybe a timeline on when you expect to get resolved, I guess, the budget process to get resolved?

Bunch: I would say there are a few ways. The way that’s maybe a little more time consuming would be to tune into some of our committee meetings. All of our city council meetings are televised. Transportation infrastructure meets Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. Full council meets the following Thursday at 3:00. You have to sort through all the other stuff that we’re doing in those, but that’s one way to kind of follow along with our legislative process.

But, I mean, I think the easiest way would be to follow me on social media, particularly Twitter, follow our mayor on Twitter, follow the city and the ATA. RideKC is the brand of the regional transit agency. So follow all those people on social media. I’m @EricWBunch on Twitter, and so I often will tweet these things out and let people know what’s going on.

Cohen: And do you have a sense on the timeline when you’ll expect to kind of have the final budget wrapped up?

Bunch: Our fiscal year—the city’s fiscal year starts May 1st. You know, things get shifted around. There really is—the bulk of the budget will be done here in just a couple of months. And then it’s about coordinating with the ATA and how are you rolling this out. Is it immediate or do you gradually make the different lines fare free? So that’s all kind of a big question mark into how it rolls out. Hopefully we can make this happen by late spring, early summer.

Cohen: Wow. That’s exciting. Well, Eric, best of luck to you and your colleagues and to the folks in Kansas City as you try to make history here as the largest city in the U.S. to try to go fare free along with all these other efficiencies that you want to help make it a little bit more attractive for more folks.

Bunch: Well, thank you so much for having me on the show, and we’ll keep you posted.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.