Guest Commentary

Can Wichita’s public transportation system be saved?

Editor’s note: This is the first column in a four-part opinion series on Wichita’s transit system.

The crisis facing public transportation in Wichita has been in the news recently, following an impassioned appeal from a frustrated resident at a City Council meeting in June. Wichita’s transit problems are not new, and they are known to city leaders and residents. But the challenges facing our city’s bus system — and the difficulties involved in identifying a reliable source of funding to resolve those challenges — are perhaps inadequately appreciated.

When it comes to using public transit, Wichita lags well behind nearly all similarly sized cities nationwide. According to federal ridership data, Wichita Transit provided about 1.3 million rides in 2017; in the ten regions closest in size to Wichita, buses provided, on average, two to four times as many rides that year.

This is not simply part of a larger regional problem. Even among cities in the Plains, Wichita stands out. This past June, the most recent month with available data, Wichita Transit provided about 93,000 bus rides. By comparison, there were two to three times as many rides provided that month in Des Moines, Omaha, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Even Topeka, whose system serves a population less than one-third the size of Wichita’s service area, provided more bus rides in June, as it has done most months in recent years.

In other words, compared to cities of similar population and cities within the same geographic region, public transportation in Wichita is underused. Why is that?

The main culprits are obvious to anyone who lives here. Even accounting for recent changes that augmented service slightly on some lines, the city’s buses still run only once every 45 minutes on most routes. Most buses run only six days a week, shut down on holidays and end service in the early evening, making them unusable for thousands of workers whose job schedules do not fit that limited timeframe.

The routes meander, and for most riders it is impossible to travel across town without transferring at the Transit Center downtown. As a result, it takes well over an hour each way for many riders to cross this relatively small city.

And whereas bus travel in Wichita is excruciatingly slow, the main alternative, driving, is incredibly fast. In its annual congestion rankings, traffic analysis firm INRIX has found that Wichita has essentially the least traffic of any large city. In 2018, Wichita drivers spent just 22 hours, on average, stuck in traffic. That figure put Wichita at number 220 out of 220 cities tracked in the study — and no other city even came close.

Finally, there is cost. A monthly pass for Wichita Transit costs $55, more than a comparable pass in many nearby cities. And Wichita’s is one of just a few systems that no longer allows free or reduced-fare transfers on most routes, despite the fact that, due to the structure of its routes, most passengers require at least one transfer.

So riders get longer, more inconvenient trips at higher cost in Wichita than in nearly all of our peer cities. Meanwhile, driving here is easier than in nearly any big city in the U.S.. Is it any wonder our system struggles to attract riders?

It is understandable that many in Wichita have concluded that transit in this city cannot be sustained. But that is the wrong conclusion. It is possible to build a robust transit system in Wichita, but it will take money, sacrifice and political will.

Part 2

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Part 3

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Part 4

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Chase M. Billingham is an associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University.