The Modern Streetcar Named “Development”

Cities are beginning to invest in modern streetcar systems as a key part of the continuing revitalization of urban centers across the country. In Kansas City, a new streetcar starter line brings enthusiasm and energy with a splash of uncertainty to a downtown on the rise.

Image by Andy Thies

The bustle of city life never seemed so alive. The turn of the century has brought with it a wealth of opportunity, remarkable technological progress, and momentum for social change. Cities are becoming not only magnets for workers, but places to live and mingle. In Kansas City, passengers of the city’s new state-of-the art streetcar system disembark to throngs of people waiting in the shadows of Liberty Memorial and Union Station.

This is not the first time.

This week marks a significant milestone in the resurgence of a downtown once left abandoned and forgotten. For the first time in nearly sixty years, rail transit, by way of modern streetcar, is zipping up down the streets of Kansas City. This moment in history, though, represents far more than fodder for transit enthusiasts. It has come to embody the new momentum for urban areas across the country.

In 1921, citizens of Kansas City stood by the tens of thousands in admiration of just their most recent civic achievement: the construction of a crowd-funded colossal torch commemorating the Allied victory of World War I. Liberty Memorial (standing 261 feet tall) stood as a beacon of hope and progress for a city on the rise.

The memorial, coupled with the opening of Union Station (which would become the nation’s second busiest train hub) just eight years earlier, showed the true economic and social vibrancy of the city’s downtown. Within the previous two decades, Kansas City had gone from cow-town on the Missouri to industrial and economic powerhouse.

However, since the middle of the 20th century, the reality has been largely bleak for Kansas City’s downtown, embodying a trend seen across the country. With an exodus of opportunity and development to the suburbs, along with an influx of poverty and crime to urban cores, the American downtown was left to rot from the inside.

Since the turn of the millennium, though, the tide has changed. A whirlwind of actions from local and federal government, developers, and young urban enthusiasts have helped create a new culture in US cities. It’s one that values densification over sprawl, restoration over destruction, and movement over stagnation. This has taken the form of countless downtown rehabilitation efforts coast to coast that have injected new energy into the American urban landscape.

These revitalization projects always seem to have one thing in common: a focus on transit.

Portland, OR has largely been considered to be a forerunner in the new urbanism movement. In order to combat urban decay in the 1970s and 80s, the city focused on transit development – in the form of streetcar, light rail, and buses –  in and around downtown rather than blight removal. Accompanied with infrastructure improvements, a resistance to interstate construction, and incentives for developers, this move allowed Portland to flourish as a vibrant model city center.

In 1982, city leaders in Denver worked to establish a pedestrian and transit-only commercial thoroughfare along 16th Street downtown. Then, by expanding express bus and streetcar/light rail services, Denver’s urban core has seen huge gains in property value, residents, and businesses that continue to accelerate the city’s growth today.

Across North America, over fifty cities (of diverse size) have implemented or are pursuing  modern streetcar or other advanced transit systems. Many of these cities even had historic streetcar systems decades earlier. So what is causing cities to spend so much time and energy on streetcars and light rail today?

Building Momentum

Proponents for modern streetcar systems point to a number of different benefits for cities. They help establish foundational public transit, provide growth incentives for target neighborhoods, and add character to urban areas. In Kansas City, a 2.2-mile starter streetcar line continues the progress already seen in the city’s downtown. The last two years alone has seen over $2 billion in development or planned projects throughout the downtown area.

Much of the growth has been attributed specifically to the streetcar by developers. Most commonly, they cite the streetcar’s ability to attract young renters to new apartments and tourists for hotel development.

Data visualization by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson. Made using data from 2014-2016 Downtown Kansas City Annual Reports and imagery from Google Earth.

“We’re counting on the city location as our amenity,” stated developer Scott Richardson in an interview with the Kansas City Star. “I came and spent an afternoon walking the entire route, writing down notes about potential properties.”

Richardson, in conjunction with Denver-based Linden Street Partners, oversaw the development of the highly touted 1914 Main apartments in Kansas City. The project, unaided by tax incentives, was developed specifically due to its location on the streetcar line.

The Politics of Transit

But how good is a modern streetcar at, well, transit? After all, streetcars operate in traffic; that means congestion and stoplights. Opponents argue that any potential transportation benefits could be easily solved instead by buses, which are cheaper.

They’re not wrong. Though for some systems, certain illusory aspects might make that seem true. In Kansas City, the modern streetcar system includes three key factors contributing to its efficiency advantage over the bus lines. Firstly, it will be able to manipulate traffic lights to maximize greens and minimize reds. Secondly, the system will not require, for the foreseeable future, fare to ride. This drastically cuts down on time spent purchasing tickets as seen on conventional buses. Thirdly, streetcar stations are flush with the floor of the vehicle. This greatly improves accessibility for those who are disabled and in turn the quickness of the system overall.

All of these changes are wonderful. However, they could have been easily implemented on a bus line. Even if you look to the environmental advantages of modern streetcars – they’re electric and improve air quality – buses can still achieve the same ends.

For streetcar critics, this argument may seem like a no-brainer victory. However, we look to one very small aspect of the streetcar implementation in Kansas City that reveals a different story. In order to stay consistent with the streetcar’s hours of operation, the city’s MAX (Metro Area Express) urban bus lines will expand service until 2 AM on weekends.

Why is this significant? It shows how modern streetcar is already changing perception of transit overall in Kansas City. Critics argue that electric bus systems or a more comprehensive light rail project would have been more effective for the city to pursue. Streetcar was just the “sexier option”. But is that a bad thing?

Before the streetcar proposal was passed, Kansas City had been wallowing for two decades with continuous failed rail transit proposals. With buses in too low of demand for a fundamental overhaul, a new kind of plan had to be conceived. It had to be one that appealed to young urbanites, developers and governments alike. However, the project needed to be manageable enough to actually be completed.

The year proceeding the public streetcar vote saw a whirlwind of support as well as debate from downtown business owners and residents. An unorthodox special taxation district was formed in the area immediately surrounding the proposed line. This district accounted for the majority of the project’s funding.

The rest of the funding came largely from federal grants, most notably TIGER. The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, born under the Obama administration, exists to reinject life into dense urban areas across the US. The goal is to rehabilitate communities through transit in order to anchor metropolitan areas and stimulate economic recovery and growth in a sustainable way. Since 2009, the TIGER program has awarded nearly $4 billion in funds toward innovative transportation projects, including numerous modern streetcar start-ups, around the country.

With national political momentum at a peak, cities, such as Kansas City, are seeking to pass down some of that energy to the local level. Largely, efforts have been successful. Since the announcement of the streetcar, Kansas City has seen other huge advances in transit including the planned MAX line along Prospect in the city’s East Side, a consolidation of regional bus lines under the bi-state KCATA, commencement of the first-of-its-kind “micro-transit”, and the ground-breaking of a new regional bike trail and likely future commuter rail line between downtown and the eastern suburbs.

For most American cities though, the goals encompass more than transit. It’s about promoting and solidifying economic and social development. Over the past decade, downtown Kansas City has seen its population more than double thanks to a slew of historic renovations and renter interest. Now, the game is turning toward new development. For just 2016 alone, the city has over sixty independent developments on the table ranging from apartment buildings and schools to hotels and museums.

Downtown has seen street improvements, park revitalization, a new performing arts center, and a proposed downtown arts campus for the University of Missouri – Kansas City, all within the last five years. The streetcar runs right through the middle of it, driving in what city leaders are hoping to be the foundational stake in the future of the city’s urban core.

Challenges Now and Later

One of the fundamental problems with implementing modern transit of any kind is funding. In Kansas City, leaders relied upon a controversial taxing district within the city’s core. The zone, however, relied upon taxes imposed upon a largely upper-middle class of residents and business owners. When the city proposed early extension of the streetcar to the poorer East Side in 2014, the measure was handily defeated.

The circumstance in which the city now finds itself is not uncommon. If rail transit largely relies upon political momentum from people with money, it will find few allies in poorer areas of a city. Unfortunately, it’s these areas that need transit the most.

The Kansas City streetcar system will only be considered a success if it can access all major parts of the city. The current 2.2-mile starter line is a far cry from that. However, if this line shows its ability to generate private investment as well as transport people efficiently, it may become an easier sell for less wealthy neighborhoods.

Now is time for excitement, for Kansas City and for cities around the United States. But by no means, is this game won. The future for the modern streetcar remains unproven, and time will tell the positive impacts it really has on a city. Regardless, it shows a city’s willingness to invest in itself once more, to pursue an identity in its urban core, and to make accessible to everyone everything a community can and should offer. So long as that energy persists, the future will be a bright one.

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