How Easy Is It to Commute KC without a Car?
The Kansas City Star has an interesting article out today that looks at something called the “Green Commute Challenge,” a now-14-year-old program that encourages Kansas Citians to take six weeks to use alternative forms of transportation in an effort to be more environmentally conscious. That includes bikes and scooters, of course, but for a city like ours that is now entering the winter months, covered transportation like the city’s buses and streetcar are of the most interest to me. And assessments of the city’s public transit system by regular users present a mixed bag, at best.
In October, RideKC buses served just under one million riders, while the streetcar served around 142,000 riders, according to city data. Less than 3% of workers in Kansas City, and 1% in the metro, use the bus to commute. [Emphasis mine] Earlier this year, Kansas Citians told the Star that there was a lot they love about RideKC, but infrequent or unreliable service and too few routes can make the system difficult to count on.
“It’s really a 50/50 for me,” rider Aaron Griffin told the Star over the summer. “Sometimes it’s good and on time, other times it’s late or early and leaves before it should. Every day is different.”
The article has a lot of really interesting reactions from Challenge participants this fall, and as someone who used public transit heavily at different points in my life, I can relate to many of the cheers and jeers of their transit experiences shared with the Star. Of course, your mileage may vary on the purpose of a “green” initiative like this, but in practice, the challenge also serves as an insight into the challenges that Kansas City’s physical layout can present to people without their own motorized transportation.
From the perspective of affordable housing, which we’ve discussed previously, widely available public transportation can be a mitigating factor to rising apartment and home prices, bridging the space between Kansas Citians and their jobs, their families, and their friends if their affordable housing is comparatively distant. Notably, Kansas City has adopted a zero-fare initiative for its buses that will run through 2023, so one hopes that people on fixed or very limited incomes are able to take that factor into account as the look for housing that meets their financial needs.
But as the article teases out, unreliable transit that’s free is almost as good as no transit at all – especially if it means you can’t get to your place of employment reliably and on time. It goes without saying that if your poorest residents are reliant on a public system that could get them fired because it’s unreliable, that’s a system that needs to be dramatically improved to ensure the buses at least arrive and depart on time.
That also means there remains an economic incentive for even low income Kansas Citians to buy a car of some kind, “green” or not. For good reason: the City of Fountains was and is built around the automobile. Only two other cities in the country have lower traffic volume per lane mile as Kansas City, meaning residents who choose public transit don’t do it to avoid gridlock on the roads that could be caused by private vehicle ownership. That fact also undermines any traffic-busting reasoning around fixed rail projects like the city’s streetcar, which continues to be more of a tourist attraction and an oddity than a practical means of transit for locals.
Whatever the reason one might choose to use KC’s public transit system—whether it’s to “go green,” to save money relative to car ownership, or because it’s one’s only viable transportation option—there remains the question of whether it’s a reasonable option for most people here. While public transit serves as a backstop for poorer residents, it isn’t necessarily a very good one, and its appeal to other potential riders is meager. Indeed, the car is still king in Kansas City, and will be for the foreseeable future.