Editor’s note: This is the second column in a four-part opinion series on Wichita’s transit system.
There are unique challenges facing public transit in Wichita. The system is underused, attracting fewer riders than systems in peer metro areas, including smaller cities such as Topeka. Meanwhile, driving in Wichita is extremely easy, fast and efficient. Together, these factors make it difficult to see a clear path forward for public transportation in Wichita.
It would be easy to conclude that Wichita is transit-proof, that Wichitans love driving and enjoy the city’s light traffic so much that no amount of investment will get them out of their cars. Some might argue that transit is a waste of money here, and that Wichita would be better served by spending more to improve roads while shrinking the city’s transit service to one that simply subsidizes rides for the poor and disabled via on-demand services like van pools.
But these conclusions would be short-sighted. Recent changes in Wichita’s transit service demonstrate that rider behavior is responsive to the system’s accessibility and efficiency, and they offer insight into how the city can improve the system’s utilization and usefulness.
In 2016, Wichita Transit undertook a major reorientation of its bus routes. Some underused routes were cut altogether, and others were moved. In addition, substantial changes were made to the fare structure. The agency made it more difficult for economically vulnerable riders to qualify for its Half Fare program by tightening eligibility requirements and erecting significant roadblocks for eligible riders to get access to reduced fares. City staff expressed optimism that, although ridership totals might decline initially due to these changes, they would bounce back within 18 months as riders got used to the new routes.
Instead, ridership, which was already extremely low, plummeted. The number of riders in June 2016 was less than half the total from June 2015. It is likely that many riders who had relied upon city buses could no longer access them, were confused by the new routes or could no longer afford to ride.
Three years later, while ridership has climbed, it has yet to return to pre-2016 levels. Further route and schedule changes went into effect in early August. We do not yet know if these changes will improve or further degrade use, but the lessons from the 2016 changes are clear: when it is harder for people to ride, fewer people will ride.
Meanwhile, recent reforms to the Q-Line, Wichita’s free downtown trolley service, provide an encouraging counterexample. The current Q-Line service was introduced in 2004, and for more than a decade it suffered from low usage. This was largely due to the inefficient loop configuration of its main route. Over the past two years, Wichita Transit has streamlined and improved Q-Line service. Most recently, the service increased trolley frequency and transitioned to one linear route along Douglas. These changes, made possible in large part by generous financial support from local businesses, have contributed to substantial increases in Q-Line ridership.
The takeaway from this example is equally clear: people will make use of transit when it is convenient, reliable and accessible. It is the economic structures that our leaders have put in place — and not simply a local “culture in which the car is king,” as a recent Eagle editorial asserted — that explain Wichita Transit’s recent struggles. The bottom line is that Wichita spends far less on transit than its peer cities. If we want to have a robust, sustainable transit system here, that will have to change.