A streetcar named delusional in KC
The Kansas City Star
UPDATED BELOW AT 5:15 PM
If watching Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck take his team to the playoffs doesn’t make you a little envious of Indianapolis then maybe this will.
A few weeks ago Indianapolis announced that it would become the first major U.S. city to have its entire fleet of vehicles be electric or hybrid-powered. It is even working with automakers to design and build electric-powered police cars.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, a few hundred residents approved a $100 million tax and bond plan to build a streetcar system between the River Market and Union Station, that will dictate the course of transit for the whole city going forward.
Now if only common sense was a football in Mr. Luck’s hands, and he was marching toward the streetcar proponents’ end zone. Here’s why:
Duplication of some service. Based on information provided by streetcar proponents, the streetcar will run fewer times an hour than the MAX bus line does now. So to maintain existing levels of service both the streetcar and MAX will need to operate along part of the route. Transit must be a tool for effectively and economically moving people, and this plan does not do that.
Economic development. Proponents say the streetcar is critical because it will spur economic development. Now put aside that along the proposed route, development has already made great strides through both big projects and grassroots endeavors.
Businesses go where customers or workers can be found, regardless of the mode of transit that brings them. And there are better ways to create concentrations of people than a streetcar.
- Fixed route. Change is the only constant in life, right? So why would we dig up ground and plop a streetcar in it that can’t go around traffic and can’t be rerouted to meet future changes in demand?
What happens in five or 10 years if development and living patterns make the streetcar less useful where it is and more useful, say four blocks over? It happens.
- Who is this really meant for? Of those who now use buses along the proposed streetcar route, most do so out of necessity or to save money. Ask regular riders, and they will not say they need a streetcar.
What they say they need are more buses with longer hours of operation and broader routes. So is this project really an attempt to get people who view buses with disdain — that buses are for poor people, and they’re dirty and unsafe — to ride a streetcar?
Some proponents have admitted it is. Why not spend a few thousands dollars on a public relations campaign to change attitudes instead?
- Build for the future? Just because other cities are doing streetcars doesn’t mean we should. We’ve been ahead of the curve many times before.
The Country Club Plaza. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. And yes, that place where Mr. Luck will probably throw a few more touchdown passes in his career.
Yet in this transit issue, we are a follower instead of an innovator. How many electric-powered shuttles and charging stations can you get for $100 million?
Couldn’t we design the shuttles like moving iPods, with free WiFi and a safety person on board? Couldn’t we use smart information technology to move routes around to meet the needs of people as they change over time?
Couldn’t we tie electric-powered workforce movers with commuter rail to the suburbs? Couldn’t we call them trams?
I’ll save you time and simply say yes to all.
Smart, forward-looking transit will not only meet the needs of our citizens but again show the world that Kansas City takes a back seat to no other place. But time is running out.
Speak up. Grab the steering wheel of progress and don’t let go.
Robert Westfall, of Kansas City, is founder of Instinct, an innovation firm. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly said there would be a “reduction of (transit) service from current level.”