Goin’ to Kansas City

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Bus and streetcar, Downtown Kansas City

Kansas City, Missouri made news this month when its City Council voted unanimously to include a plan for free fixed-route public transit in the next city budget. Though that budget would still have to be passed in the New Year, the mayor’s support for the measure is a promising sign. Though it will cost $8 million, local politicians support the idea as it will benefit low income riders.

It is worth noting that Kansas City Area Transit Authority’s 2016 annual ridership was just over 14 million a year, while the cost recovery rate was just 12 percent. It would be much harder to offer free transit in Toronto. The TTC’s cost recovery rate is 68%, with transit fares bringing in over $1.2 billion a year. Though a two-hour transfer and free children’s fares were recently introduced, there’s little chance that the City of Toronto would agree to funding fare-free transit. In any case, Kansas City’s experiment will be interesting to watch.

Kansas City was a more interesting city than I expected; I am glad I made the impromptu trip. There are a few Toronto connections, including a streetcar that traveled the continent, a restored Union Station, and a 1920s shopping plaza whose concept was imitated 80 years later in Don Mills.

I enjoyed an evening at a jazz club at the 18th and Vine Historic District and local barbecue. Besides transit, I also got around on an electric pedal assist bike that’s part of the local bike share. It’s friendly, urban city, definitely worth a visit.

Union Station

Union Station, with Kansas City's skyline behind
Union Station, with the city skyline behind

Though North America had dozens of Union Stations, only a few — Toronto, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles — have remained vital transportation hubs. Several others, including Union Stations in Cincinnati, Denver, and Kansas City have been restored and still serve intercity trains.

Strategically located in the geographic centre of the United States, Kansas City had hundreds of trains departing daily one hundred years ago. With the construction of better highways and the rise of air travel after the Second World War, the station, like so many others, fell into disuse. However the station, located just south of the downtown core, at least never saw complete abandonment like those stations in Detroit or Buffalo.

In the 1970s, the city entered an agreement with Canadian firm Trizec to develop the disused tracks and platform space for office development, with the condition that the station building — which Amtrak was still using — be restored. Trizec built the offices but neglected the station itself. It got so bad, Amtrak erected a tent inside the great hall to reduce heating costs and protect its passengers and staff from falling debris before retreating to a nearby “Amshack.”

IMG_2568-001Main Hall, Union Station

Local government, backed by private donations, restored the station, adding a new science museum, planetarium, event spaces, restaurants, and even space for an impressive display of model train sets. After renovations, Amtrak moved back in, though the designated waiting area is now in a small room off to the side. A new pedestrian bridge connects the station with shops, restaurants, and apartments to the north.

IMG_5894-001.JPGModel trains at Kansas City Union Station

IMG_2572-001Amtrak has a small waiting room at Union Station

Transit in Kansas City

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The Kansas City area is served by a single transit authority, the KCATA. Though its buses extends far into suburbs in both Missouri and Kansas, frequent services are concentrated in Kansas City itself. Except for commuter express routes, all fares are just $1.50, with day passes costing just $3.00. I chose to take the bus from the airport to downtown to pick up a rental car so I could visit Lawrence and Topeka.

(Kansas City’s airport is a fascinating relic, built for TWA in the early 1970s with door-to-gate convenience in mind, completed just before security concerns required passenger screening. After building the new terminals, Kansas City balked at TWA’s demands to reconfigure the new terminals, so it moved its hub to St. Louis.)

Within Kansas City itself, the bus network is better than I expected for a third-tier American city. It includes two north-south MAX routes on Main and Troost Streets, which operate on a similar concept to Brampton Transit’s Züm routes, with limited stops, upgraded waiting areas, and relatively frequent service (every 15 minutes on a Saturday afternoon). A third route, Prospect MAX, began service on December 9.

IMG_5873-001.JPGKCATA MAX bus at Country Club Plaza

Like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Portland, Kansas City decided to build a new streetcar line in its downtown, connecting the River Market area with Union Station to the south. The streetcar route, opened in 2016, follows Main Street in both directions, with only a short loop at the northern terminus at River Market. Like all modern streetcar lines in the United States, the streetcar stops at curbside platforms rather than in the centre of the street. However, Main Street was reconfigured from four lanes to two with curbside parking and loading zones, minimizing lane blockages.

Main Street, Kansas City

The streetcar is already free to ride, funded by a transportation improvement district. The streetcar route is lined with new residential and commercial development, including the Power and Light entertainment district. Streetcar ridership is nearly 6,500 per day, similar to the TTC’s 90 Vaughan Road or 64 Main Street routes.

A short extension north to the Missouri River waterfront is funded, while extension south to Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri Kansas City campus is planned, and is eligible for federal funding. When these extensions are complete, completion, the KC Streetcar will one of the longest and likely the most useful of all the modern streetcar systems in the United States.

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Streetcar 551 and the Toronto connection

The Kansas City Public Service Company operated an extensive streetcar system before abandoning its street railway in 1957. It sold off its PCC streetcars to Brussels, Philadelphia, Tampico, and Toronto.

KCPSC PCC streetcar 551, on display in the River Market area next to the new streetcar line, made its way around the continent. Built in St. Louis, it arrived in Kansas City in 1947. When the system was abandoned, 551 was sold to the TTC.

Renumbered as A-14 class streetcar 4762, it, like all the ex-Kansas City cars, were only used on St. Clair Avenue. As the TTC cut back on its streetcar service, it was withdrawn from service in the early 1970s, but then sold to the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) in 1973 as that city faced an equipment shortage. There, it was renumbered again, to 1190. After Muni started receiving its new Boeing Vertol LRVs, Car 1190 was sent to the Western Railway Museum near Sacramento before returning to Kansas City, and given its original paint scheme and number. 

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Streetcar 551 watches modern streetcars go by

IMG_5710-001Streetcar 551

Country Club Plaza

IMG_5858-001.JPGLooking above 47th Street, Country Club Plaza

Eighty years before Shops at Don Mills came around, Kansas City built the original “lifestyle” shopping centre. Built by J.C. Nichols and opened in 1923, Country Club Plaza was innovative: though it had streetcar access, plazas, and traditional storefront retail, it had a single landlord, and it was built specifically for the automobile. Parking lots and garages are found behind and above the shops. The development incorporates offices, theatres, hotels, with nearby high density residential development.

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Built in the Moorish Revivial style, Country Club Plaza quickly became the fashionable shopping destination, eclipsing downtown. Yet even to this day, it remains the high-end shopping destination, featuring Tesla, Tiffany & Co, and Apple. A new Nordstrom store is under construction.

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The mall was built to serve an upwardly mobile white middle and upper class, who moved into nearby neighbourhoods and then further out into suburban Kansas. African Americans were segregated to the city’s east side. The 18th and Vine District, east of the downtown core, becoming the centre of African American commerce and culture.

IMG_5842-001.JPGHighrise apartments across from Country Club Plaza

Today, Country Club Plaza is the model for older shopping malls looking to retain shoppers and tenants, while adding new office and residential space. Shops at Don Mills is the modern take, with storefront retail, a central plaza, and several parking garages, along with new condominium towers. The plans for Toronto’s Galleria Mall and Shoppers World Brampton have similar characteristics, with a mix of retail, housing, community uses, and public space.

Though Kansas City isn’t the first place one may think of as an innovative urban centre — after all, it’s in the middle of America’s “flyover country” — it has many interesting things going on that should interest any urbanist.

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