FUNDING PUBLIC TRANSIT: WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

The author at one of her local transit hubs.

By Susan Stevens

Jesus said the whole of Jewish law could be fulfilled in two commandments: to love God with everything in us and love our neighbor as ourselves. When asked to define “neighbor,” he told the story of a man who was attacked by robbers and left half dead, and also left alone by the religious leaders passing by — but then, finally, generously helped and cared for by a Samaritan — a man rejected by both Jew and Gentile due to being of mixed race. Jesus wondered who was a neighbor to this man — making it clear that the law of love is both simple and all-encompassing. To fulfill it, we must stop asking who we can exclude and become a neighbor to all. 

COVID moved the neighbor cities of Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas to implement a zero-fare public transit system, due in large part to concerns about virus transmission with the exchange of cash, as well as to ease the hardship of those unable to earn money during the height of the pandemic. This free system continues today and is a godsend to many of us.

It makes me happy to know that some of my fellow riders are homeless people getting respite from the heat of summer and the cold of winter, and a change of scenery, as well as being able to access various resources offered to the poor all over our very spread-out metro area.

However, sometimes riding can be a little scary, as riders with unmanaged or inadequately-managed mental illnesses or addictions have periodic episodes. For example, one evening when I was heading downtown for a county meeting, a woman on the other side of the bus felt threatened by me for some unknown reason and kept yelling at me to leave her alone. As we approached the last stop on the route where we would both have to get off, I moved up to the door so I could get right out and walked quickly. She didn’t follow me; I guess she did indeed just want to be left alone.

I understand why many metro drivers feel unsafe under the current conditions. I’ve just read an article, my first link below, presenting the views of some drivers and leaders who feel that ending zero fares is the solution. However, free transit is not the true culprit to this social dilemma.

According to the second article I’ve linked to below, published in 2022, making the bus free increased the sense of safety, possibly by eliminating the disturbances caused when people either didn’t have the money or refused to pay their bus fares. Plus, it helped people find and keep their jobs and visit their healthcare providers and increased their access to good quality food. Living in a food desert, a part of town where you can only access marked up, mostly processed convenience store food, is less of a death sentence if it costs you nothing to get to neighborhoods with complete grocery stores.

When stepping onto the London Tube during the summer of 1988, I heard the constant refrain of a recording admonishing us to “mind the gap” between platform and train and avoid slipping down to the tracks below. Food deserts, homelessness, and people with poorly-managed mental illnesses and untreated addictions are definitely indications of major gaps in our social safety net.

Like the Good Samaritan stepping into the gap between human need and the willingness of the powerful to care, free public transit doesn’t close the gap but it makes it less treacherous and more bearable. It creates something beyond what Ernest Hemingway called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” It provides a space where we can both rest and move forward and imagine how to get our world unstuck and moving forward, too, for the betterment of all people.[https://fox4kc.com/news/passenger-driver-say-incident-at-kcata-bus-stop-shows-dangers-of-free-fares/?fbclid=IwAR2o40-JPV7MnLfRuv2xMTQWUVCZ_y7aTOZOj2fJbCieYYcnG7kx9_LfCp4]

[https://reasonstobecheerful.world/kansas-city-fare-free-transit-safer/]

Susan Stevens is the chair of Kansas City, Kansas SDUSA.

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