Transit in Wichita isn’t working very well, and it is expensive.
A recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle proclaims, “If Wichita genuinely wants to be a vibrant, modern city, we have to improve our public transportation.” 1 This was inspired by the recent story of a Wichita State University employee chronicling his experience riding the bus to work for a week. The Eagle reported: “What Lucas found riding the bus for a week was that his regular 11-mile, 17-minute car commute was, on average, an hour and 35 minutes on Wichita Transit. Each way.” 2
There is little doubt that relying on the regular scheduled bus service in Wichita is frustrating for most riders. Some find it unusable. Given that, how much do we pay for transit?
The National Transit Database holds annual profiles for transit agencies. They are not easy to locate, and the numbers are presented in very fine print. I’ve excerpted some data for Wichita for 2017 and present tables nearby. (Clicking may produce larger versions.)
Of note: Fares account for 13.5 percent of operating revenue, not including the costs of buses, which are a capital expense. Someone else pays a lot of the expenses: For operating expenses, 51.4 percent comes from state and federal sources. For capital expenses, 82.4 percent is from federal sources.
For scheduled bus service, the cost per passenger mile is $1.44. and the cost of an unlinked passenger trip is $8.08. (An “unlinked passenger trip” is counted whenever someone boards a bus. For someone who rides a bus downtown and transfers to another bus — like the WSU employee — that counts as two unlinked trips. Two in the morning, then another two in the afternoon, for a total of four unlinked trips each day, or $32.32 for the day.)
Most of these costs for scheduled bus service are fixed in nature, meaning that they don’t increase with additional passengers. With more passengers, these costs on a per-mile or per-trip basis will fall, and if the additional passengers pay fares, the portion of expenses paid by fares will rise.
The costs for bus service in Wichita are not out of line with other similar cities, although costs rose rapidly in Wichita for 2016 and 2017, as can be seen in the nearby chart. (This chart comes from an interactive visualization of national transit data that I developed. Click here learn more about the data and to access the visualization.)
$8.08 per unlinked trip is a lot. $32.32 per day to travel to and from work is a lot. It seems like we ought to be able to provide better service. But I think Wichita provides about the same level of service as other similar cities.
- Suzanne Perez Tobias. Seriously, Wichita, it’s past time to fix our city bus system. Wichita Eagle, July 9, 2019. Available at https://www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/suzanne-perez/article232442842.html. ↩
- Lefler, Dion. A WSU Tech VP tried bus service, finds his 11-mile commute takes 1 1/2 hours each way. Wichita Eagle, July 8, 2019. Available at https://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article232316257.html. ↩