Kansas City Transit Ridership Showing Little Progress
The conventional wisdom in Kansas City is that the city is becoming a hub for urban millennials. To keep the new city dwellers and attract more, the city supposedly needs to expand transit options, which young people prefer.
However, while Kansas City has had some success revitalizing its downtown, the most recent transit data does not suggest any contemporaneous surge in transit usage.
As the chart above demonstrates, despite the fact that total employment has now exceeded prerecession levels in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA) ridership has yet to recover. In fact, the most recent data shows total passenger trips are still fewer than they were before the recession by about 800,000 annual riders. Interestingly, transit passenger trips recovered relatively quickly until early 2012, since which time transit usage has actually fallen.
Proponents of transit expansion might argue that Kansas City simply has substandard public transportation options, and that the addition of bus rapid transit, light rail, and streetcars will greatly increase passenger trips. While some net new trips are likely given better service, KCATA’s recent experience should cast doubt on just how much needs to be done to attract new riders. KCATA opened new bus rapid transit lines, a.k.a. MAX routes, in 2005, 2011, and 2013. Since that time, increases in MAX ridership have been met with decreased use in regular bus passenger trips. It is possible to see MAX trips (which are generally longer) as more valuable than the lost bus trips, but there is no evidence that MAX drew significant new riders to KCATA; it is most likely the case that existing transit riders diverted to the better service.
The postrecession performance of KCATA is a bit of a puzzle, and I encourage anyone with reasonable explanations to give them in the comments. However, Kansas City’s employment growth and the increasing numbers of millennials living downtown has not spurred large transit passenger growth. Instead of pushing expensive rail transit plans, perhaps regional planners should ask how Kansas City, with no rail transit and some of the most highway miles per capita of any major city, was able to become to a millennial destination in the first place.