Exclusive: What’s it like to ride in Kansas City’s new streetcar?

Now that streetcar vehicles have become a familiar sight as they undergo testing in downtown Kansas City, the obvious question is, how’s the ride?

The Star got an exclusive chance to find out, as new operators were getting their on-street training on the 2.2-mile route from the River Market to Union Station.

And the short answer is: It’s pleasant, relaxing, quieter than a bus ride, and faster than you might think, although it moves with traffic and obeys stop lights.

It’s just as former City Councilwoman Jan Marcason described it after a December test run.

“It’s very quiet and smooth,” she said. “It’s very comfortable.”

But on the downside, when motorists and parked cars don’t respect the rail — as has been happening during these test runs — it can bring everything to a halt. The whopping 77-foot-long, 12-foot-high vehicle is hard to see around and can be a real obstacle when blocked by traffic or improperly parked cars.

The 34 plastic seats are cozy but not plush, easier to keep clean than upholstery. And the tendency is to stand anyway, since this downtown streetcar ride — free of charge — will have people getting on and off for short trips.

It jostles a bit when stopping, but people can stand easily and safely as long as they hold a pole or overhead hanger.

Some seats fold up to make ample room for strollers and bicycles. One key benefit is the level boarding at stops. People just step right on, or roll wheelchairs on, from the platforms.

Passengers are guided by soothing announcements from Area Transportation Authority customer relations supervisor Jolene Taylor, the voice of the Kansas City streetcar as well as the bus system.

The streetcar usually signals its progress in a quaint way. Each time it starts up, a cheerful bell rings ... ding-ding. But if a car cuts it off, the operator has a loud, blaring horn that can wake the dead.

It’s not the bullet train or the thrill of a lifetime. But this $100 million system offers a new way to experience downtown’s two-mile spine, connecting the restaurants, businesses, apartments, hotels and entertainment attractions from the Missouri River to Crown Center. These are the venues that former Mayor Kay Barnes said were like pearls needing a strand to knit them together.

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Kansas City’s system will have four modern, sleek CAF vehicles, not vintage trolleys, with parts manufactured in Spain and assembled in Elmira, N.Y. Three have been delivered and are being tested.

If you’ve ridden light rail when it glides through downtown Denver, or the underground tram at the Denver airport, the Kansas City streetcar ride feels like that. People who have ridden streetcars in Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and elsewhere say the Kansas City ride feels the same way.

The entire run from Third and Grand to Union Station is expected to take about 13 minutes at peak times, although the test runs took a few minutes longer.

Streetcar systems in some cities have more turns and are more meandering, which can slow them down. In Atlanta, that’s been a problem in the past year, with a 2.7-mile loop that takes 40 minutes to complete. Atlanta streetcar ridership has lagged expectations, even when it was free of charge, and people have complained that the 15-minute wait times at stops are too long.

Kansas City Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend says Kansas City hopes to avoid those problems. For one thing, outside of the River Market, this route is a straight shot on Main Street.

The authority is aiming for 10-minute waits at stops weekdays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 12-minute intervals early morning, late evenings and Saturdays. Sunday intervals are every 18 minutes.

The convenience factor

As the streetcar made its way through River Market on a sunny Friday, some pedestrians and motorists smiled, waved and took cellphone pictures. But others appeared not to even notice it.

“It’s funny how people have gotten used to it,” said Donna Mandelbaum, communications manager for the Streetcar Authority, which oversees the streetcar’s operations. “It’s a part of the fabric already.”

Mandelbaum, who grew up on Long Island, has found Kansas City’s streetcars to be similar to New York transit in “comfort and smoothness.”

But obviously, she notes, public transportation in New York is faster, routes are much longer, and it’s a way of life.

“My hope is that is what will happen in Kansas City,” she said. “Public transportation, including the streetcar, will be more ingrained into how we interact with our city and grow to accommodate more people.”

Although the streetcar creeps along at 10 to 15 mph through the crowded River Market loop, it picks up the pace heading south over the Main Street Bridge. It travels the speed limit, 25 mph, on Main Street, except when traffic or stoplights slow things down.

It moves along at a good clip south of the Crossroads, when the speed limit bumps up to 35 mph, to its southern terminus at Union Station.

The streetcars have operator cabs on both ends of the vehicle. So at Union Station, the operator walks from the south end of the car to the north end, to start back northbound. The vehicle then swings on track into a northbound Main Street lane, so motorists must be careful not to block that pathway, and they are learning to comply.

Some have said that, with all the traffic signals and streetcar stops, a long-distance runner or motorist could outpace the streetcar through downtown, but Marcason thinks not.

“It would be much more convenient to ride,” plus it reduces the hassle of finding a parking space, she said.

Jon Copaken, principal at Copaken Brooks, a major downtown property owner and manager, was also pleasantly surprised after his December test run.

“You can see how moving people around can be enhanced,” he said. “You can get to places you otherwise wouldn’t have gone because you have to drive your car.”

Obey the white line

The biggest worry that has emerged during testing is how the streetcar will share the road with motorists and parked cars.

Car 803’s test run on Friday was nearly flawless, with only one minor problem — a vehicle stopped with flashers on in the middle of Main just south of 12th Street. The driver arrived just in time and drove away.

But Car 802’s Monday test run had more drama. Even a brief episode of road rage.

“We had a lot of issues,” Mandelbaum said that day. “We had one driver very angry at us.”

That incident began mid-afternoon on Monday when the southbound streetcar was blocked just north of 12th and Main by a vehicle parked partly on the sidewalk with its tires nudging the streetcar rail. As traffic backed up behind the blocked streetcar, while officials looked for the motorist, several cars maneuvered to go around it, using the left turn lane to try to pull ahead.

One car got around, but by then the driver of the illegally parked car finally sauntered out of a building and drove off, so the streetcar was ready to go. The operator blew the horn as another vehicle tried to pull ahead. That motorist stopped his car in front of the streetcar and, irate, got out for a brief confrontation with the operator before he left and the streetcar was able to proceed.

Sometime before that along the route, another motorist had just stopped on the tracks, looking for something, and motioned with her hand out the window for the streetcar to go around her.

The operator just laughed, because of course, that was impossible.

360 video: Watch how cars bring the streetcar to a halt

It’s a learning curve for everyone, Mandelbaum said, as the Streetcar Authority mounts an education campaign and figures out how to deal with the habitual bottlenecks along the route.

The Streetcar Authority has repeatedly emphasized the importance of parking within the white lines parallel to the streetcar rails.

“The white line is magic,” one operator said, noting that if cars, including mirrors and bumpers, are within that white line, the streetcar can get past. If not — and that white line can be a tight squeeze for larger vehicles — it’s a problem.

Parking is a particular challenge on River Market’s East Fifth Street in front of Cascone’s Grill, Mandelbaum said, because it’s a close fit and mostly for compact cars. But during Friday’s test run all cars, including an SUV, fit within the white line. It seems, Mandelbaum said, as if people are slowly learning to park precisely and accommodate life with the streetcar.

The streetcar’s return to Kansas City, for the first time since 1957, is both historic and a big gamble. Ultimately, it will be up to the public to determine the success or failure of this $100 million investment. And that will, in many ways, come down to how all of Kansas City answers the question: How’s the ride?

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Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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