How Does Kansas City Measure Success?

The $102 million Kansas City streetcar is supposed to be a great success. Projected to carry 2,900 people per weekday in its first year, it actually attracted 6,800 people per weekday in its first few months of operation. In fact, the cars are supposedly so crowded that the city is ordering two more cars.

On the other hand, the city so far hasn’t dared to charge fares. When Atlanta began charging fares, ridership fell more than 50 percent. It is hard to claim success with a straight face when you are giving something away. In addition, the ridership projections did not count event-related riders, while actual ridership numbers include a “large event-related market.”

The streetcars go through downtown Kansas City, an area that was already gentrifying with $6 billion worth of new development before the decision was made to build the streetcar line. Despite claims that the streetcar stimulated this development, the reality is that the streetcar goes through the heart of an urban redevelopment area that has benefited from tax-increment financing.

The cars themselves are made by a Spanish company and assembled in the United States to meet buy-America requirements. They are 77 feet long, nearly twice the length of a standard bus, but have only 34 hard plastic seats, compared with 40 seats on standard buses and more than 80 on double-decker buses. Kansas City is paying $11.9 million for two more cars, which would be enough to buy nearly 30 buses with plush seats, on-board wifi, and other amenities, or at least 15 double-decker buses.

Although the city was excited about carrying 6,800 weekday riders in the first few months, ridership has been declining. As of May, weekday ridership in 2017 had fallen below 5,300. It’s possible that ridership will be higher in the summer than the winter, but maybe they didn’t need to buy more streetcars after all.

The real measure of success is not, “did we meet our ridership projections?” Instead, it is, “Is this the most cost-effective way we could achieve our goals?” When the city was planning the project, it admitted that buses could have provided better (because more frequent) service for a fifth of the capital cost and no greater operating cost.

The analysis claimed, without any real justification, that streetcars would attract twice as many riders as buses. The streetcars were expected to attract more riders because they were supposed to generate more economic development. I haven’t done a detailed analysis, but I doubt that any new developments were built solely because of the streetcar, and any influence the streetcar had at all merely affected the location of the development, not whether it took place.

The streetcar supposedly has more of an effect on development because a “fixed rail system creates ‘permanence’ that spurs investment.” Have the people who believe this read their transit histories? In 1910, more than 1,000 American cities had streetcar lines, including every city of more than 15,000 people. By 1972, all but six of those cities had scrapped their streetcars. Meanwhile, by 1930, almost all of those cities had buses. Today, they still do. Buses have lasted longer than streetcars in most cities which makes them more permanent than rails.

If the goal is to spend someone else’s money without oversight, the Kansas City streetcar is a great success. If the goal is to cost-effectively move people, it is an utter failure. If the goal is economic development, then the city doesn’t understand how economic development works.

The Kansas City streetcar was partially funded with a federal TIGER grant. The Trump administration wants to stop using TIGER or other federal money for local projects such as this one. That will probably help persuade Kansas City not to extend its streetcar route.

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23 thoughts on “How Does Kansas City Measure Success?

  1. Frank

    Streetcars are a token, something for city governments to acquire for prestige, just like the monuments you can acquire while playing Sid Meier’s Civilization.

  2. the highwayman

    Mr Franklin Clark, what are you going to do for an income when you lose your “education” job to a robot?

    Will you to go back to Bulgaria and be a dirt farmer? :$

  3. CapitalistRoader

    The streetcars were expected to attract more riders because they were supposed to generate more economic development…because rich, white people will ride streetcars, not just the poor brown people that ride buses.

  4. Frank

    Andrew Dawson, robots can’t do what I do, and it’s unlikely they ever will be able to. If that time ever comes, I am indeed well positioned to retire outside the US. Mexico and Bulgaria are both high on the list.

    One of the great things about Bulgaria is that they have low taxes, low national debt, and they don’t spend billions per mile on transit no one takes. Most intercity trips are on buses.

    One of the reasons Bulgaria was able to survive collapse of their government and subsequent hyperinflation was that individuals were self-sufficient. Everyone towns and villages has small farms/gardens and farm animals like pigs and goats. Bulgarians are productive, hard working, and hardy people that you disparage as “dirt farmers.” Farming is a skill that you would do well to learn since you have no real skills. Unless you want to label trolling a skill.

    What are you going to do after the next financial collapse when your retail-based job is cut, and due to your mental incompetence, you can’t work in your degree field as a city planner?

  5. Frank

    Andrew Dawson, unlike you, I use my real name to comment here as I have for a decade. You hide like a coward behind “the highwayman” fake profile. Grow some balls, boy. Come out of the closet. What are you afraid of?

  6. metrosucks

    On the other hand Frank, most planners seem to be at least a little mentally ill, if you consider mental illness along the whole spectrum including personality disorders, and not just things like schizophrenia.

  7. the highwayman

    So does that mean that “metrosucks” & “CapitalistRoader” are cowards too?

    Yet you teahadi’s still want to implement Terminator.

    Also you don’t expect streets, sidewalks, etc to be profitable to survive, but some how magically want railways to be profitable to survive. Why the false premise? Why is socialist policy good for you, but bad for others? :$

  8. the highwayman

    I don’t need feminine hygiene products, but I’m not against them. I don’t want to ever call the fire department, but I don’t want it shut down either.

    If I like chocolate ice cream and you guys like vanilla, me liking chocolate doesn’t make me bad.

    You guys want to break things, then complain that they don’t work.

    You guys are sociopaths and are proud of being so! :$

  9. Frank

    “You guys are sociopaths and are proud of being so!”

    No. You are one who is mentally ill, Andrew Dawson, as evidenced by your YouTube history and compulsive name calling and personal attacks here.

    Seek help.

    Perhaps an intervention is in order. Maybe if Shirley knew about the hateful and ugly comments you post online, she would intervene.

  10. the highwayman

    Antiplanner; In 1910, more than 1,000 American cities had streetcar lines, including every city of more than 15,000 people. By 1972, all but six of those cities had scrapped their streetcars. Meanwhile, by 1930, almost all of those cities had buses. Today, they still do. Buses have lasted longer than streetcars in most cities which makes them more permanent than rails.

    THWM; Look at what happened to Jews in Europe from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. 🙁

    Government is anti-rail, roads are not expected to be profitable to survive. The USA has had 100,000+ miles of rail line stolen since WWI. :$

  11. prk166


    The real measure of success is not, “did we meet our ridership projections?” Instead, it is, “Is this the most cost-effective way we could achieve our goals?”
    ” ~ The Anti-Planner

  12. Frank

    “THWM; Look at what happened to Jews in Europe from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.”

    The mentally damaged troll proves Godwin’s law and makes a non-sequitur comment.

    Big surprise.

    Time to ban the name-calling troll.

  13. the highwayman

    The problem is crooked contractors, not streetcars.

    When implemented properly, streetcars have far lower costs than buses.

    Using your false logic, you’d go bankrupt from having sidewalks. :$

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