In many parts of the United States, including Kansas City, public transportation is not a viable option. American buses, subways and other modes of public transport have consistently fewer passengers, fewer service hours and lower customer satisfaction ratings than systems in similarly wealthy European and Asian countries. Ironically, a much greater percentage of American public transit costs are subsidized by taxes, on both state and federal levels. In other words, when it comes to transportation, Americans spend more and receive less.
Some try to explain this discrepancy with U.S. geography. However, this does not account for the successful public transportation systems in Canada and Australia, which cover similarly large areas with comparable population density. The difference stems from how our transportation systems developed.
Following World War II, more suburbs developed outside of cities and more cars were manufactured and bought by American families. Roads and housing developments were built over wider and wider areas. It was cheaper to build highways at this time than it was for rail or bus lines to reach communities outside of cities. This is part of the reason why cities that developed grid systems before the war, like New York and Washington D.C., boast some of the best transportation systems in the country. However, some cities, like Boston, removed street car lines and built highways in accordance with this trend. At the same time, cities in other countries were investing in and expanding their train systems to reach the suburbs, and the Canadian government built up its bus system to work among its cities.
Since these systems were put in place, communities have changed. Now, citizens in cities like London and Ontario rely on public transport. The governments in the these places treat it as a necessity. Contrastingly, most of the American government, and public, approaches public transportation as more of an alternative for individuals who are too poor to drive. This mentality has led to cities heavily subsidizing public transit; only an estimated 30 to 40 percent of operating costs are covered by fares, and transportation companies find that they do not make enough to operate. This leads to an ugly cycle: because of low demand, companies cannot raise prices, which means the services become poorer, resulting in fewer operating hours and fewer covered areas, which in turn, leads to even lower demand. Transit systems in London and Toronto have higher fares and better service, often making the subway or train faster than driving. However, raising the fares in the United States would harm the people who already rely on public transit, and American culture is already attuned to driving. In this way, public transportation in the U.S. has become an undependable and unfavorable alternative to driving that is primarily utilized by individuals with low incomes (and anyone who has applied for a job knows “Do you have reliable transportation?” is a fixture on applications).
The Kansas City metropolitan area has more miles of highway per capita than any other similarly populated area in the United States. The Metro, the city’s bus system, runs regular stops on only certain main arteries in the city, with only two buses per day that reach suburban Kansas City areas. The Amtrak train service has a special line that runs to St. Louis but nothing in the way of inner-city transportation. This means that the only real way to navigate the city is by car. As the cost of living in the metro areas goes up, many people are relocating to the suburbs while holding jobs in the city. Additionally, there is a rising number of college students and elderly citizens, two demographics that traditionally utilize public transport in other parts of the world.
A 2011 Brookings Institute study found that just 18 percent of jobs in the metro area can be reached on public transit. This same study ranked Kansas City’s transport system among the 10 worst when compared to 100 areas of similar size. Bus stops are not within walking distance of one another, and the buses themselves run infrequently, meaning that missing a bus by minutes could delay a person’s travel by hours.
The way Kansas City is built also makes it incredibly difficult to navigate on foot or by bike. There are only 24 miles of bike lanes in Kansas City, according to the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. In 2007, the city created protected access for cyclists on two bridges and created new bike lanes. This is a promising start; however, the distance one can walk or ride his or her bike in the city is limited by congested roads and highways between destinations. Bike-friendly destinations are separated by highways, meaning one must drive to the bike path.
Additionally, walking in the city is an impractical and unsafe option, even in residential areas. For example, the North Kansas City School District has deemed certain neighborhoods too hazardous to walk, even for families who can see the school from their homes. There are not adequate sidewalks, and the nearby highways mean heavy traffic. Other areas of the city are not walkable for the same reason they are not bike-able: the districts are separated by highways. Due to these and other factors, the city has been forced to reexamine its transportation system.
In recent years, the city has made progressive steps. Perhaps most widely-known, KC has invested in a multi-million dollar streetcar system downtown. The area covers two miles of the downtown area, connecting the River Market to Crown Center. Research is being done into the possibility of expanding the system to connect to the Country Club Plaza. However, this does little to help people looking to commute into the city or who work outside of this two mile route. Additionally, the street car was built at the same time that the cost of living in the downtown area is going up. Many low income people, who traditionally rely on public transport, have been forced to leave the area.
Another step forward, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) has made several changes to the bus system. The metro has extended its 107 line so that it may connect KU Med to the downtown area. The KCATA also plans to implement wifi on public buses in 2016, in the hopes of attracting more riders. The KCATA has applied for federal funding for MAX lines, bus lines which run inside the city. The Authority also announced plans to launch a new regional shuttle service, which will work similarly to Uber but at a lower cost; riders may summon a vehicle, which will be driven by an employee, and use the service for the same cost as bus fare. For the first year, the system will run only in the areas surrounding Hospital Hill and KU Med. If the system tests well, the authority will look into expanding it.
Despite all of this good, there is still not a reliable way for individuals to commute to work, especially from suburban areas. Increased public transportation in the city could encourage more travel to the city, meaning increased revenue for many businesses. However, any transport put in place would come at great financial expense to the community and would have to overcome the traditions and systems that have led to these problems in the first place.
Feature photo courtesy of Zach Werner, Flikr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachwerner/7730952314