JoCo looks at expanding microtransit to lower income neighborhoods, cutting back on bus routes

Johnson County is looking to expand its microtransit program. Photo credit RideKC.

Service area for Johnson County’s micro transit pilot program will likely be expanded in coming months to include more low-income neighborhoods. But some of the regular bus routes are still on the chopping block, as the county commission continues to try to figure out how to make the transit system more popular and less expensive.

County commissioners, who met for the second time in two months on the subject, agreed that the year-old hail-a-minibus service should include more areas where residents struggle with poverty and don’t have transportation to jobs and medical appointments.

But they couldn’t settle on what the balance should be between the relatively new micro transit and traditional fixed route buses.

Some commissioners have enthusiastically backed the micro transit as a replacement for many if not all of the fixed route buses, which are expensive and underused. Commissioner Mike Brown said he often hears complaints about empty buses. Josh Powers, the county’s business liaison, told commissioners that daily ridership on Metcalf is about 244 riders, which works out to an average of six per bus.

Commissioner Becky Fast said frequent changes to fixed routes may have hampered their success. File photo.

Commissioner Becky Fast pushed back, laying some of the blame at the county’s feet for the way the fixed route system is set up.

“Our system right now is just enough fixed routes to be terrible,” she said, noting that she’s received many emails from millennials and seniors who want more options as the county grows more dense.

Fast added that the fixed route system ridership may suffer because of frequent route changes made by the county. “You have to walk several miles to get to a fixed route and then it goes nowhere,” she said.

“Why is the KC streetcar working? It’s because people know it’s not going to be moved in another year,” Fast said. She also noted that micro-transit puts more “gas guzzling” vehicles on the road.

Commissioner Janee Hanzlick said that the county puts less than 1% of its total budget into transit. “Comparing our investment to similar areas around the country we are really under investing in our transit system, but we’re expecting it to do a whole lot,” she said.

“We can’t starve it of resources and expect it to perform at the same level as other systems that are more robust,” she said.

Transit options to attract younger residents

Discussion on bus options comes as the county’s population is aging and leaders try to attract younger residents who may not be as enamored of cars as their parents were. Downtown development in Overland Park, for example, depends partly on public transit along the Metcalf corridor. Hanzlick and Fast noted those demographic changes, as well as increasing poverty in the county.

However Commissioner Steve Klika, who has supported fixed route bus lines in past years, said since ridership hasn’t increased the county should try something new. He said he likes micro transit because it is more personalized and precise at getting passengers where they want to go.

“We have an increasing number on micro transit, which is telling me that our demographics in Johnson County tend to like a little bit more of that personalized service, and they’ll gravitate toward it, where they’re not gravitating toward the big buses running up and down the street,” Klika said.

Micro transit has been considered a success, with 26,500 rides in the ten months it’s been in operation. With micro transit, riders ping an app or call a number to arrange to be picked up at a nearby location. Software figures out the route based on where other riders in that vicinity want to go. The ideal is for a wait time of 15 minutes or less, but times waiting for pickup can be longer and are unpredictable.

The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners is considering cutting back on under-used bus routes. Photo credit RideKC.

Johnson County’s micro transit test program has been available in a rough square bounded by Metcalf Avenue, Renner Road, 119th Street and Shawnee Mission Parkway. The new boundaries would open up the area north of Shawnee Mission Parkway and add an area dog-legging down Interstate 35 to Olathe.

That will mean adding three more vans at a cost of $500,000.

The cost would be offset by changes and cutbacks on some fixed route buses. Two routes, the 495 from Renner Road in Lenexa to Wornall and the 402, running from Johnson County Community College to Kansas City, Kan. will likely be eliminated. Changes in timing and route reconfigurations are also in the works for other routes. The 403 Antioch/Olathe route may be changed to pick up areas served by the 402, and the 401 will eliminated service to Prairiefire, for example.

Commissioners also discussed the fare for micro-transit. During its test phase, the fare has been kept artificially low. Josh Powers, the county’s business liaison, suggested that in the future, the county consider keeping a $2 fare targeted at people in need traveling to places like the courthouse or county services, but have a higher fare for some other uses like a trip out to dinner. However no decisions on the future fares were made.

The commission will hold another discussion in January before making final decisions.