Is Johnson County getting greener? Uber-like transit system, bike lanes flourishing

An experimental, Uber-like microtransit system in Johnson County is in such high demand, it is poised to become a permanent fixture — signaling a desire for alternative modes of transportation in the suburbs.

In his 11 years on the county board of commissioners, James Allen said he’s heard stories of residents struggling to make it around Johnson County without a set of car keys. Bus stops are often not within walking distance, and ridership on the public transportation system has been historically low, officials said.

But over the past nine months, the county and RideKC have been testing a project aimed at changing that. Johnson County is paying $500,000 to pilot the microtransit program, which allows users to summon a cheap ride in a small van via a smartphone app. At just $1.50 per ride, the program has been called a cheaper alternative to Uber or Lyft.

With hundreds of riders hailing the vans each week, officials said the service is filling in the gaps in Johnson County’s public transportation system — dropping riders off at bus stops or anywhere in the service area.

At the same time, leaders are redesigning city roads to be more accessible for walkers and cyclists. Cities are expanding trails and adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes and launching bike share programs — hoping to increase connectivity and cut down on the number of cars on the road.

“In today’s world, people are looking for alternate transportation, and this addresses those concerns,” Allen said. “So I definitely think this is needed. There’s an important segment of our population that needs alternate transportation. And the less congestion and the more environmental concerns can be addressed is a good thing for all of us.”

ridekc 20180420 KAM 08F.JPG
Larger buses common in Kansas City aren’t practical for the scattered ridership around Johnson County. File photo

‘An immediate success’

RideKC attempted a microtransit program in downtown Kansas City, but it soon shut down.

That van-hailing service, called Bridj, launched in 2016, but only generated 1,400 one-way trips over the course of a year. Officials quickly learned it wasn’t working.

“We have allowed ourselves to learn and try new things,” said Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “Our ability to try the Bridj program let us think it through and realize if we tried it with some other folks, we might be able to do something special.”

An improved version of the program has far exceeded expectations in Johnson County. The microtransit project, which launched in January, has provided more than 18,300 rides so far, serving around 110 users each day. Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County, said the program is on track to reach 35,000 rides by the end of the year.

“Without being hyperbolic, it was an immediate success,” he said. “And it’s continued to be more successful than we could have hoped for.”

Powers said the microtransit service “makes sense” for commuters and residents across the expansive, suburban Johnson County — a much different landscape than downtown Kansas City. Users can catch a ride for $1.50 — the same cost as bus fare — via the TransLoc app to travel anywhere in the service area, which is bounded by Shawnee Mission Parkway, Renner Road, 119th Street and Metcalf Avenue. Service extends east to State Line Road on Saturdays. It’s available from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Sunday.

“Johnson County is a big region. We have 40-foot buses going down the street, and the efficiency wasn’t really there,” Makinen said. “So our ability to put microtransit within the system so people can actually access our bus service and then get to the main spine of the route has been fantastic.”

A variety of people are hailing rides, Powers said, but a large portion of users are coming to and from Johnson County Community College. And he hopes to expand the service area, such as to the county courthouse in Olathe, to serve more people.

Makinen said RideKC could launch a similar service north of the river and in other areas where bus service is less accessible.

Johnson County’s board of commissioners will consider a proposal later this month to make the program permanent.

But funding the service isn’t cheap. The county is footing the $500,000 cost for the pilot. Overland Park is also chipping in for trips to its downtown, committing up to $37,500 for the rest of this year. Powers said the county will consider raising the service cost to help cover expenses, and he’s applying for grants.

“Transportation touches every aspect of life,” Powers said. “If you can’t access food, if you can’t get to medical appointments, that impacts your health. If you can’t get to work, you might lose your job. So it’s a huge deal for the area to have this service. Better mobility, access to jobs and a better quality of life: Those are all things the county is working toward.”

secondary photo KCM_BikeplanAug292019me0830(3)
A bike lane is part of the intersection at Armour Boulevard and Main Street in Midtown. Proponents maintain bicycling can save cities on the costs of road construction and maintenance. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Becoming bike-friendly

Cities across Johnson County are doing their own work to increase access to bus stops, downtowns and the greater Kansas City region.

They’ve been rebuilding roads, expanding trail systems, launching bike share programs and adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes. But that doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially taxpayers who would rather see potholes fixed than have cyclists pedal down their streets.

City leaders say it’s a sign of changing times, claiming younger families want their neighborhoods and downtowns to be walkable, bikeable and safe for schoolchildren. Advocates also are promoting the health and environmental benefits of making biking more accessible.

“Public works departments across the county are encouraging healthier living and active transportation,” said Zach Baker, traffic engineer for the city of Olathe. “And here specifically, we’re trying to make Olathe a place people want to come to, and not just by driving here, but biking and walking here.”

Olathe is working with the Mid-America Regional Council, or MARC, to create a downtown transportation plan. Baker said it recommends extending trail systems to reach the downtown and adding separate bike paths along main roads. The city will host an open house at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Olathe City Hall for residents to comment on the proposal.

The city of Lenexa recently completed its own yearlong study examining the local transportation system. The roughly $200,000 Complete Streets study recommended adding 70 miles of bike lanes and another 70 miles of trails. Lenexa also is launching a bike share program next year. Transportation manager Steve Schooley said $51,000 from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program will fund the bulk of the $75,000 bike purchase.

Other cities are further along in making roads cyclist-friendly. Prairie Village officials approved a bike plan last year, through a grant with MARC, calling for the city to add 35 miles of bike lanes. The city will spend $70,000 this year for the first half of the project, plus another $140,000 next year to finish it, said Public Works Director Keith Bredehoeft.

Overland Park has been chugging along, adding bike lane stripes to around 200 miles of roads, said traffic engineer Brian Shields. Mostly paid for with federal funds, the city has added 35 miles of bike lanes and plans to add 70 more miles this year.

Like some Kansas City residents, not everyone in Johnson County is happy with the push for bike lanes.

“The roads are a disaster. There are potholes everywhere,” resident Dan Deasy said. “Overland Park is a great place to live, but the street maintenance has gone downhill. And then they come by and start painting bike lanes all over the place. It’s very expensive. And it’s really about priorities.”

But city leaders argue making their communities more accessible will help attract more investment, especially in developing downtowns, such as in Overland Park and Olathe. And by improving public transportation, city leaders expect Johnson County’s population to continue growing.

“We’re excited about it,” said Baker, of Olathe. “And we’re really making certain we’re considering all of the different abilities and needs of everyone to develop a better transportation system in the future.”

The service area for Johnson County’s microtransit system. KCATA
Related stories from Kansas City Star

Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.