Johnson County board approves plan to downsize little-used bus routes, considers expanding microtransit

The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners approved a series of changes to RideKC operations in the area that will reduce service along some of the least-used routes. File photo.

Correction: When initially published, this story gave an incorrect date for when some routes would be changed or eliminated. Pending approval by the county commission, the changes would go into effect in April 2020. 

The already limited county fixed-route bus system is about to get even more so next year, with the elimination or downsizing of several fixed routes.

County commissioners voiced approval for route changes that could amount to $1.2 million to $1.4 million savings on some of the least-used routes. At the same time they delayed decisions on whether to beef up other routes, saying they want more information.

Instead most commissioners enthusiastically embraced expansion of a micro transit system that resembles Uber as the mass transit of the future. Micro transit riders would likely pay a higher fare than the base $1.50 now charged for the typical bus ride.

Two routes would be completely eliminated:

  • The 402, which travels from Johnson County Community College through Shawnee to downtown Kansas City, Kan., and is the second lowest in ridership;
  • and the 495, a relatively new route connecting Lenexa City Center to Wornall Road, with the fewest daily riders.

Other routes would be pared back. The recently added southern portion of the 401, which serves Prairiefire in Overland Park, would be eliminated, as would some of the reverse commute schedule added to Route 595, the Gardner-Overland Park Express. Route 403, connecting Olathe to downtown Kansas City, Mo., would have its timetable cut back.

Consideration of microtransit expansion

The county has piloted a microtransit program. Photo credit RideKC.

KCATA officials and the county’s business liaison Josh Powers, presented a three-pronged plan to a commission meeting Thursday that laid out the cuts, proposed $1.1 million of increased service – including Saturdays – on two other routes and shared information on the micro transit pilot program in the northern part of the county.

Commissioners said they’d like more information before embarking on the Saturday service or other reinvestment in fixed routes. But they did show an appetite for the micro transit program, with some suggesting that they should look at cutting the fixed routes even more in the future as micro transit expands.

“I’m not convinced we’ve gone far enough but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Commissioner Michael Ashcraft.

If micro transit becomes the dominant bus offering, the county will have a vastly different transit system that what exists today. With the current fixed routes, buses come to designated stops at designated times during the day.

Micro transit works completely differently. Riders call or use an app to hail a ride in a multi passenger van. The rider is then directed to a nearby corner to wait for the van. The wait time is supposed to be 15 minutes or less, and the route is determined by where other riders want to go, so things are a little bit different each time.

The micro transit pilot program in Johnson County has proved to be the most successful of any in the country, Powers said, with monthly ridership increasing every month but one. Some 3,059 rides were recorded at the peak in August, slightly more than in the shorter month of September, he said.

Commissioner Steve Klika.

Commissioner Steve Klika has been one of the most vocal proponents of the program in part because the data it provides will show where routes will be the most used.

The bigger fixed route buses are underused and costly, Klika said.

“What we’re doing now and how we’re doing it to me is insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” he said.

But micro transit still has some details to be worked out. At $1.50, the fare for the pilot program was artificially low. The transit officials recommended it be reset to $2. But no details were provided on how transfers would work once a micro transit rider changes to a fixed route bus charging $1.50.

The commission also will have to look at how the future transit system can reach more low-income people, many of whom live south and west of where the buses now travel.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick said the county’s transit program needs to be strong to support people in need of services. People who need those services can’t get to the courthouse or many other county offices she said.

She said the fixed routes along Metcalf are a vital part of economic development, and should remain and be strengthened.

But Klika shot back that Overland Park should be willing to pay more for that. “If Overland Park wants to help pay for this as part of Vision Metcalf that’s fine. But historically the city has not wanted to pass that line like Olathe and many others, which has put the burden onto us,” he said.

The presentation also did not include information on how emissions would be affected with more vans substituting for the big buses.