KC Streetcar

KC streetcar tops 2 million rides, and its numbers are among the best in the country

Kansas City’s streetcar line tallied its 2 millionth ride Friday morning, and its first year ridership ranks it among the top systems in the country.

While systems in Cincinnati, Atlanta and Salt Lake City have struggled to reach their ridership projections, Kansas City has blown past its original forecast of 2,700 rides per day, with 5,500 average daily rides over the past 12 months. Even more surprising, weekend ridership has exceeded weekday performance, as downtown weekend events have regularly filled the cars.

System planners originally thought Kansas City’s system might reach 1 million rides by its first anniversary, which is Saturday. Instead, it hit the 1 million milestone in October. Ridership dipped significantly in the cold months of December and January, but April was the third busiest month, behind July and August of last year.

“For first year ridership, you’ve done extremely well,” said Jeffrey Boothe, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Community Streetcar Coalition, an umbrella organization for streetcar systems across the country. “It (Kansas City) has done quite well as systems go around the United States. It has been a shining example.”

Julie Gustafson, who consulted on Kansas City’s streetcar planning in 2012 and is Portland Streetcar’s community relations manager, concurred. “The route for Kansas City is connecting very strong ridership generators,” she said.

While Portland, Ore., now boasts 16 miles of streetcar track and tallies nearly 18,000 daily rides, it started in fall 2001 with a first phase of 2.5 miles, slightly longer than Kansas City’s 2.2-mile route from River Market to Union Station. Portland averaged about 4,400 daily rides in its first year.

Kansas City has exceeded that, with weekday trips averaging 4,134, but Saturdays and Sundays averaging 7,673. The system has topped 13,000 daily rides on the busiest Saturdays since last summer.

The peak months for ridership: July, 233,683; August, 204,251; and April, 188,171. April was fueled by two weekends when thousands of college volleyball athletes were in town. Even in the worst months of December and January, weekday ridership held at about 2,500 hardcore regular riders, according to Streetcar Authority executive director Tom Gerend.

The robust ridership prompted Slate writer Henry Grabar to pen an article in August: “Did an American City Finally Build a Good Streetcar?”

No doubt, the biggest reason ridership is high is that Kansas City doesn’t charge a fare. Most systems do, and some downtown property owners who are helping to foot the bill for the Kansas City streetcar wonder if it should charge a fare and lessen the property tax burden.

Gerend said the Streetcar Authority thinks the free fare is a big advantage for the system, and because the streetcar district’s property and sales tax revenues more than cover expenses, the fare revenue isn’t needed.

There’s a cost to collecting a fare, with ticket equipment and enforcement officers, he said, and charging a fare would inevitably depress ridership and business activity.

“The goal was to try to drive downtown activity and economic activity. So the system is doing that,” Gerend said, noting that sales tax revenue has grown faster along the streetcar route than in the city as a whole. “It’s being very well received.”

Some skeptics question Kansas City’s ridership counts. The system counts trips, not individual passengers. Each time someone gets on and off, it counts as a trip, which is the standard way ridership is measured on streetcar systems. But a “trip” could be just a few blocks or the entire route.

Each streetcar door has an automatic counter, but the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority also provides people to do manual counts periodically, as it does with its bus system.

The most recent streetcar manual count showed the automatic counters are 98 percent accurate. If anything, Gerend said, the automatic counters undercounted by a slight amount. (More ridership information is available at kcstreetcar.org/ridership.)

Kansas City ranks with Portland, Seattle and Tucson, Ariz., as a high-performing system for several reasons, Boothe said.

“Your systems start at a logical place and end at a logical place,” he said. “You were able to build a system that connected people and places they wanted to go.”

In Portland’s starter route, that was connecting a major hospital to a major university. In Tucson, it’s the University of Arizona and downtown Tucson. Kansas City’s line connects the dots from City Market to the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District, the Central Business District, the Crossroads Arts District, and Crown Center and Union Station.

Sean O’Byrne, the Downtown Council’s vice president for business development, is a regular streetcar rider who has found a variety of reasons people ride.

“It’s tourist attractions and also connectivity of destinations,” he said. O’Byrne and his family live at 18th and Jefferson streets. He used to drive to work at 1000 Walnut and pay $95 per month to park. Now he walks to 17th and Main streets and catches the streetcar.

He said his kids and other neighborhood kids ride their bikes to a nearby streetcar stop and then take the streetcar to Union Station and Liberty Memorial.

Results have been mixed with other streetcar systems around the country:

▪ The system in Washington, D.C., opened in February 2016, a few months before Kansas City’s. Its 1.9-mile system averaged 3,207 rides on weekdays and 2,518 on weekends in March. It is free to ride. It didn’t hit its 1 millionth ride until March 2017, more than a year after it opened.

▪ Salt Lake City’s system, called the Sugar House Streetcar, was expected to carry 3,000 people per day when it opened in December 2013. But it averaged about 1,200 daily as of January 2016. It charges a fare.

▪ Atlanta’s 2.7-mile route opened in December 2014 and expected about 2,000 rides per day. Instead, it averaged only about 700 rides per day in March of this year, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Critics complain that it travels too slowly and stops too frequently. That system started out free but now charges a fare.

▪ Cincinnati opened its 3.6-mile line through downtown last September. It started off quite strong but by November, average daily ridership was 1,664, versus 3,200 projected. It suffered from poor on-time performance and balky fare ticketing machines.

▪ Tucson’s 3.9-mile Sun Link system opened in July 2014 and continues to outpace ridership and revenue projections. In March, it recorded an average of 3,223 average weekday trips and 2,377 average weekend trips. It charges a fare.

▪ Seattle has two streetcar lines, and they charge a fare. The 2.4-mile First Hill line opened in January 2016. The weekday average ridership is 3,210 and weekend average is 1,844. The 1.3-mile South Lake Union line, which opened in 2007, had ridership fall below 2,500 several years ago but has increased to an average of 3,600 daily trips, according to the Seattle Times. Seattle is now building a streetcar extension to link First Hill with South Lake Union.

Kansas City’s cars are crowded enough that the system is planning to buy two more vehicles, at a cost of nearly $12 million, although they have to be custom built and likely won’t be delivered for two years.

Planning is underway to possibly extend the streetcar route south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and north to Berkley Riverfront Park, but many more steps would be required to make those projects a reality.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Streetcar party is Saturday

Kansas City’s streetcar system will celebrate its first birthday with a party from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Union Station’s East Plaza, near the streetcar line’s southern terminus. The plaza has been rebuilt to make it more appealing.