Streetcar desire: How Kansas City is making its free downtown streetcar model work

If you don't own a personal vehicle, alternative modes of transportation in Fort Wayne are currently limited to infrequent bus service, biking, walking, calling a cab, or taking an Uber.

But is there another way to improve traffic and public transit in the city's urban core? Kansas City, MO, developed and introduced one solution in its free KC Streetcar in 2016. Donna Mandelbaum

Running from the River Market on the north end to Union Station and Crown Center on the south, the KC Streetcar connects the city's near-downtown neighborhoods with 16 platform stops and two miles of track. It runs alongside retail, arts, entertainment, and dining options in downtown Kanas City by design, as well.

But how it came to be is a story in and of itself. Donna Mandelbaum, KC Streetcar Authority's Director of Communication, says the project was a long time coming. 

“Kansas City was trying to get light rail service for decades," Mandelbaum explains. "We used to have the third-largest streetcar system (in the country) until the 1950’s (when it ended). Then we became car-focused."

So Kansas City wanted a way to get back to its public transit roots. But while citizens advocated for "light rail" service, what exactly that meant was open to interpretation. Everything from gondolas to elevated trains were proposed, Mandelbaum says. But the common theme among all of the ideas was a desire for increased community interest and participation in public transit.

“When the downtown streetcar line was conceptualized, it was community driven,” Mandelbaum says, adding that they were able to get the mayor, city council, business groups, and other entities on board. “So from a grassroots level, they were able to get the community excited.”

That meant engaging the public on the potential route for the streetcar, as well. According to Mandelbaum, the current route was chosen because it held the most potential in terms of resident and tourist economic activity.

"It delivers people right to the doorstep (of downtown businesses),” she explains. The KC Streetcar drops off riders at the doorstep of downtown businesses.

Unlike buses, which usually involve some walking from the stop to popular destinations, the benefit of a streetcar is that it brings people right into the heart of the action, running on a track in mixed traffic. Even so, Mandelbaum is quick to point out it’s not an “us vs. them scenario” when it comes the relationship between the city's streetcars and its buses or trail systems, for that matter.

While some argue that the time and funding spent on streetcars could be better used to improve a city's bus system, Mandelbaum says the different modes of public transit in Kansas City have been able to feed off one another's momentum rather than compete. 

“We want to grow our transit regionally, and we really support each other in (encouraging) people to ride more,” Mandelbaum says. 

In other words, fewer people on the road in cars—no matter what mode of transit—is a win for cities, and Kanas City has learned that convenience is a key factor in achieving this goal.

The KC Streetcar runs 365 days a year and can accommodate riders for an early morning commute and/or a late night pickup. It has both heating and air conditioning systems, and it can hold up to 200 riders at a time. Mandelbaum says this has curbed traffic in downtown Kansas City and alleviated parking concerns. 

Its success is evident in its number of riders, too. In 2018, KC Streetcar ridership logged seven straight months of year-over-year ridership growth and closed out the year with a total of 2,114,886 rides—up from 2,060,327 in 2017. The KC Streetcar marked its 5 millionth ride in September 2018 and its highest one-day ridership on July 6, 2018, with 19,181 trips.

Another factor that makes the streetcar popular is that it’s free of charge to riders. Mandelbaum says it’s funded through transportation development district (TDD) dollars, which means people spending money in the district pay an extra tax, which funds the service. In this way, the streetcar is funded by the people who most benefit from it directly.

It helps their cause that downtown Kansas City is doing really well, too, Mandelbaum points out.

While she’s proud of the momentum her city has achieved through its streetcar, she says it's not alone in its success with this model.

“A lot of cities have done it before,” she says, citing examples in cities like Milwaukee, WI; Detroit, MI; Tempe, AZ; Miami, FL; and Queens, NY.

“Actually, there are a lot more streetcars than people realize,” Mandelbaum says.

As far as replicating this success in other cities, Mandelbaum says it starts with demand from the community as well as bringing city leadership and stakeholders who are likely to benefit from the streetcar to the table.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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