The Streetcar’s Future Ridership
Almost every story about the newly opened Kansas City streetcar tells us that ridership is higher than expected, and indeed it appears to be. Daily ridership estimates have ranged from 2,700 to 3,500 before the system was opened, and the Star recently reported that daily averages have been over 6,400. Expect these ridership numbers to be featured in the inevitable campaign to extend the streetcar to UMKC.
Why is ridership so high? The Star has at least twice ascribed it to the “novelty” of the new system, both in the story linked above and here. The Star is likely correct, considering the experiences in two other new streetcar markets. Atlanta, for example, was crowing about its better-than-expected ridership numbers last year, and proponents were urging the city to consider expansion,
With this early success and ridership exceeding expectations by more than 20 percent, it’s never too soon to look ahead to Atlanta’s future.
Yet a year later, the system is being threatened with closure due to a list of problems, not the least of which being a decline in ridership,
After offering free fares for a year, the streetcar started charging $1 in January. Ridership plummeted. About 91,000 people rode the street in the first three months of this year—48 percent less than the same period in 2015.
The same plight has befallen the streetcar system in Tucson, Arizona. Last March, the system was said to be carrying more riders than forecast 7 months after its launch. Yet last week, the Tucson streetcar announced it was curtailing its late night service in the name of “passenger efficiency.” The Tucson system is not free to ride either, charging $1.50 for a one-way fare.
The streetcar in Kansas City is free to ride, and for now it's a novelty. It may be months before ridership levels settle into their long-term levels as they have with older systems. Only once those numbers are known, and the impact of a fare is included, should policymakers decide if this is something worth extending to UMKC or beyond. Otherwise, the city risks wasting millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.