In April, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) introduced its first two GILLIG electric buses to the community as part of its ongoing commitment to being good environmental stewards to the region it serves. The move was just the latest example of the agency’s intent to remain an integral part of Kansas City’s continuing economic growth, even despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s just the start of where we want to go and we are continuing to work with our congressional delegations on both sides of the state line right now to ultimately go zero emission/zero fare,” KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen explains. “Ultimately, we want to go zero emissions not just with our 40-foot buses, but also with our cutaways and microtransit vehicles as well. We are really moving ahead with our vision and we feel that we are ahead of the game.”
Changing to make an impact
From electric buses to on-demand transportation programs, Makinen and his team have been shaking things up at KCATA and innovating ways to better serve the community over the last several years.
He explains that one important decision made that will help keep ridership up post-pandemic will be the redesign of its bus system. The goal of the revised plan is to provide a simpler, easier, and more efficient network that will connect more people to opportunities. The restructuring will include establishing a frequent grid in the core of the transit network, while also providing flexible service that covers larger areas and provides access to the system, which in turn, will result in better access to jobs, healthcare, education, and housing.
“Those are really the four pillars of public transit, in my opinion, which all fit under the larger umbrella of social equity,” Makinen says. “By concentrating on those four pillars, we always believed that ridership would come because it is essentially a byproduct of providing access and options. What we learned through COVID is that focusing on those four pillars helped us get through the tough times and now emerge on the other side stronger and ready to move forward.”
Makinen explains that many of the programs implemented by his team helped the agency sustain during the COVID-19 pandemic when ridership took a serious dip across the entire country, and essentially, on transit systems around the world.
“When other agencies’ ridership dipped as low as 20 percent of what they would normally provide, ours never dipped below 60 percent, and the reasons for that are directly tied to some of the decisions we made, including zero fares,” says Makinen.
He adds that the changes being made at KCATA are a result of public transit’s evolution.
“We need to think about transit while looking ahead at the next 30 years and not back at the last 30, because moving forward while concentrating on the past will make us just like the best Blockbuster ever,” Makinen says bluntly.
With the idea of moving forward pre-pandemic, Makinen explains that he and his team began “clearing out the bureaucracy” to make the agency more flexible and nimbler. By cleaning up its own house and concentrating on moving ahead instead of simply catching up, KCATA began implementing innovative solutions, such as its switch to a zero-fare system.
About four years ago, KCATA began offering fare-free rides to veterans and senior citizens before moving to high schoolers and others in the community who needed assistance for various reasons before eventually introducing zero fares across the entire system.
“We call it zero fare because the moment you call it ‘free’ people start coming out of the woodwork to point out that it’s not free because somebody is paying for it,” Makinen explains. “Well, of course somebody is, but it comes down to what do you want to invest in; because the return on investment for empathy, compassion, social equity, and innovation, far outweighs the return on investment on projects that require pouring concrete or asphalt. By investing in people and giving them access, it opens up a whole new world of opportunities for this agency and the community we serve and I’m very excited about that.”
Not shying away from the question of “who is paying for it,” Makinen says the larger focus should be on what offering zero fares does for the region on a macro level.
“We’ve done the studies and found that about 75 percent of our riders are low income, so by offering a zero-fare system we are putting that $1.50 back in their pockets, which in the long run saves them somewhere between $1,500 to $2,000 a year,” Makinen says. “So where does that money go? Well, studies have found that that money is going back into our local economy, while also giving somebody a little bit more access, regionally, to find better jobs and opportunities so it is really breaking down barriers. And, economically, it makes sense that the $1.50 passengers are saving can turn around and generate about $16 million to $17 million in economic activity in the region, which is huge.”
Makinen says the agency’s decision to go zero fare helped keep ridership steady during the pandemic because it did not have to play catch up by implementing infrastructure and all the tools necessary to go touchless the way other agencies around the nation had to.
Makinen adds the agency has garnered the support of local officials for zero fares and continues to work on the investment necessary to essentially pay for it. He also points out, though, that KCATA has saved budget by not having to implement infrastructure to collect and enforce fare payment.
“You have to look at everything, which is what we did. And, when we did so, we were able to eliminate the technology necessary to collect and validate fares, as well as the cost for our police and security teams to enforce fares, which collectively totaled about 10 percent of our budget,” Makinen says.
Before going zero fare, Makinen says about 85% of the incidents on the KCATA system had to do with fare enforcement. Now with zero fares, incidents on the system have dropped significantly, making RideKC’s bus, streetcar, paratransit, and on-demand services some of the safest in the nation.
Fabric of the community
The move to zero fare does still have its drawbacks. Makinen points out, for instance, that a zero-fare system makes it even more attractive to the region’s houseless community as they seek a place to find safety and shelter. This issue was exacerbated by the pandemic when it was imperative for the agency to keep as few people on their buses and streetcars as possible to increase safety. Rather than ramp up police enforcement to remedy the issue, though, KCATA decided to reach out and partner with local groups to offer further services to those houseless individuals.
“We saw an issue and decided it was time to innovate. So rather than putting more police officers with guns on our buses, which by the way our surveys found customers do not want, we partnered with local groups that provide services for homeless individuals,” Makinen explains. “Now, we have individuals from those organizations riding our buses who can spot people that might need help and direct them to their facilities, which they can reach using our zero-fare system.”
As it continues to weave itself into the fabric of the region as an organization through programs such as its work with the homeless, Makinen adds the mentality of KCATA’s workforce has likewise evolved to see themselves as stewards for both the agency and the communities they serve.
For instance, two facility workers were commended for coming to the aid of a woman and her children who were in a car accident after she experienced a seizure while driving. In another instance, during a cold snap in the city, an operator saw a man on the street with no shoes on, so they invited the person on the bus and phoned it into dispatch who then sent somebody out with a pair of shoes for them.
“Those are the kind of folks that I want working here — that’s what separates us. Because whether you are pushing a broom, driving a bus, or a part of our C-Suite, everybody can wrap their head around the fact that we do this because we are here to serve the people in our community,” says Makinen. “And our team really goes above and beyond, in my opinion, to do just that.”
Building on its service to the community and its long-term quest to be good environmental stewards, KCATA recently unveiled its first two GILLIG battery-electric buses to be used in RideKC public transit service in the Kansas City region.
“Our board decided several years ago to go this path and now two-thirds of our fleet currently run on CNG,” says Makinen. “Now, we’ve been able to work with our partners at GILLIG and get our first two electric vehicles on the property. The thing about Kansas City is that we have extreme weather — it gets both really hot and really cold — and a wide array of terrain, so our plan is to test these vehicles on all of our routes to see where they will work best.”
The vehicles are powered by six onboard batteries, with a battery capacity of 444 kWh, providing an estimated range of 150 miles. The buses utilize energy recovered from a regenerative braking system and feature a direct-drive traction motor with peak torque of 3500 Nm (2,582 lbs.-ft.). They are equipped with state-of-the-art Cummins electrified powertrain. Because they are built on GILLIG’s low-floor bus platform, the new electric buses ensure parts and training commonality with KCATA’s existing GILLIG fleet.
In addition to a smoother, quieter ride and a reduced carbon footprint, the new GILLIG buses offer enhanced passenger comfort and safety features, including easy-to-clean vinyl seats, USB charging ports at all seats, high-definition cameras, drivers’ protection barriers, and passenger information monitors.
Bus charging will be supported by new ChargePoint charging stations installed at KCATA. The project is funded by the Federal Transit Administration and matching funds from Kansas City’s half-cent transportation sales tax.
“Looking ahead, we obviously want to order more, so we are working with our federal partners and our congressional delegation to go after more funds for our zero-fare, zero-emission programs at both the state and federal level,” says Makinen. “I believe as it continues to mature, electric bus technology will keep getting better and better. And as we continue to retire many of our diesel buses, we want to add electric, but it’s a process that will take some time.”
Overall, Makinen feels KCATA’s zero-fare, zero-emission program will continue to blaze a path forward, potentially setting a template for the industry to follow.
“Change comes at the end of your comfort zone,” he says. “With zero fares and some of the other things we’re doing, this agency is out of its comfort zone and willing to continue forward to test new ideas and try new things that will allow us to better serve our riders.”