Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tunnel Visions: The KC Streetcar

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Cities aren't supposed to be hollow. Cities are meant to be vibrant places, full of people doing popular things - otherwise, what's even the point of the city existing at all? Nevertheless, over the last seventy years, North America has seen many of its cities hollow out. Some managed to hang on; some, like Toronto, ended the 20th century better off than they'd started. Some, like Kansas City, Missouri, are trying to climb back up.

Like other major North American cities, Kansas City operated a substantial streetcar network in the years immediately following the Second World War, at its height running nearly two hundred PCC streetcars on a system comparable in length to Toronto's, today. Also like most other major North American cities, Kansas City dismantled its streetcar system in the 1950s as suburbanization and ubiquitous automobile ownership demolished its foundation. Kansas City was especially vulnerable to this because, hell, look at a map - aside from the rivers that frame downtown, there are no appreciable geographic barriers anywhere around it. Kansas City had room to sprawl, and so it sprawled. Rapid transit was hard-pressed in dense cities; in the midcentury Midwest, it didn't have a chance. Some of KC's streetcars found second lives in cities like Toronto or San Francisco, but plenty of them ended up just being scrapped.

That was how rail transit in Kansas City stood for nearly sixty years, but it's different now. North and south, cities are rebuilding lines that previous generations tore out. As I write this, Kansas City is home to the newest streetcar system in North America - and it'll only be that way for another couple of weeks, until Cincinnati's starts running in early September.

I was in Kansas City to attend the 74th World Science Fiction Convention earlier this month, but I was sure to make time for a brand new streetcar.


KC Streetcar #804 pushes north at the edge of the Power & Light District.

The KC Streetcar is, thanks to its newness, a refreshingly uncomplicated system - it's a single line, three and a half kilometers (2.2 miles) long. It spends most of its time on Main Street, crossing over two highways - Kansas City didn't shy away from crashing Interstates through its downtown core - and diverging only to loop through River Market just north of downtown, with each trip beginning and ending outside Union Station. Again, "Tunnel Visions" is a misnomer because at no point does the streetcar's route take it underground; hell, aside from a couple of pedestrian overpasses, it doesn't go under anything. It's a downtown circulator more than anything else, which is understandable. To my eyes, downtown Kansas City is reminiscent of downtown Toronto circa 1975 with more artisanal coffee stores and BBQ restaurants - by which I mean it's full of parking lots where buildings once stood. According to the streetcar's official website, there are more than twelve thousand parking spots within one block of the line - which is one of the major reasons, I think, that the streetcar felt so empty when I used it during the weekdays; there are only twenty-two thousand people living in downtown Kansas City. I mean, this is a place where the downtown CVS closes at 7 PM.

What struck me as immediately unusual about the setup is how the rails were laid. In Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities I've been in where street-running streetcars have been retained, the rails generally keep to the inner lanes. In Kansas City, it's the reverse; by and large the streetcars run in the outer lanes. This does come with advantages and disadvantages over the usual setup, as where multiple lanes exist, automobiles can navigate around streetcars and passengers don't have to brave a traffic lane to board or alight. From what I'm told, it doesn't make the setup particularly friendly to cyclists, however; I know of at least one point on a bridge near Union Station where there is very low clearance between the streetcar and the pedestrian wall, and there's at least one sign along the route warning cyclists that if the bike's wheel gets caught in the rail, they may be thrown bodily over the handlebars.

Not that they're always on the outer edge; there is some weaving to accommodate turning lanes and on-street parking, and there are places where there's only one lane, so a streetcar taking on passengers can cause traffic to build up behind it. Just like home. But those cars are faster than the streetcar, they'll get where they're going sooner than anyone on foot will anyway, probably.

Once you're on the streetcar, it's very difficult to get lost. You can't stay on it indefinitely, though, since all riders are required to alight at the Union Station terminus - but nothing stops you from getting right back on. Opportunities for connections are limited, but they do exist; the MAX bus rapid transit system - which replicates some of Kansas City's former streetcar lines - has stops near the line, and the 10th & Main Transit Center permits transfers to some of RideKC's regular bus routes. Streetcar service is a bit limited, though, since they don't have many streetcars to go around; on a day like today (Saturday, August 27), when one streetcar is out of service, they can't run service frequencies better than 10-15 minutes.

During my first experiences with the system found it somewhat empty, but that may be because Kansas City isn't yet a public-transit-all-the-time city like Toronto is. I've seen reports that the KC Streetcar is already exceeding its passenger projections, and my experience at 3:40 PM on a Saturday bears that out; from Metro Center to Union Station, it was standing room only all the way, and even more people boarded there for a trip back north. Fortunately, the streetcars have articulated sections much like the ALRVs and Toronto Rockets I'm familiar with, so there was always a good place to stand.


Library Station on a weekday morning.

My first impression of Kansas City's public transportation system, in the form of an hourly bus that left from an unshaded shelter on a concrete median outside Terminal C of Kansas City International Airport, wasn't exactly the best. Some of the stops the bus passed during its forty-minute trip downtown stuck strongly in my mind, because of how unstoplike they were: just a pole signed "METRO STOP" with a route number, a phone number, and a website. No shelter, no bench, not even a square of sidewalk. If you're talking about Barrie, Ontario circa 1991, that's one thing, but it's pretty thin provender for 2016 Kansas City.

With that in mind, I wasn't expecting much from the streetcar. What I found is that its stations feel like a strange middle ground to me: they're not quite stations, but they're more than just stops. The ones that aren't in their own medians are smoothly integrated into the sidewalk, designed so that they're on the same level as a streetcar to allow step-free access, and built around a central t-shaped shelter. I say "shelter" because there's no better word, but with no walls and a fairly small roof, the shelter that many of them is theoretical at best. While waiting at Kauffman Center during a heavy rainstorm, I had to stand on the far side, off the actual platform, to keep from getting drenched by passing cars.

That's irritating enough, in August - but Kansas City isn't Los Angeles, or Houston, or Miami. For now, at least, it still gets cold in Missouri, and snow does fall. These stations don't have windbreaks. I wouldn't want to be waiting at one during a snowstorm, or even just a cold and windy day. Sure, if service was frequent there might be a tradeoff, but there are plenty of times where you'll be waiting ten minutes or more for a streetcar to roll by.

On the whole, there's not much eye-catching about these stations. Many of them don't even have advertisements. They're each equipped with screens that count down until the next streetcar arrival, and have posted streetcar route maps and hours of operation. There are bits of public art scattered here and there; the one that most caught my eye was a model perched on top of the Union Station shelter, at once a streetcar and automobile and jetliner. One would think the wings would make it a bit difficult to run something like that on the streets.


A closer look at the trailing end of streetcar #802.

As you'd expect for a 21st century streetcar system, the KC Streetcar has hit the ground running with modern equipment: it provides service with four (count 'em) CAF Urbos 3 Model 100 streetcars on their first North American appearance, though Cincinnati will use them as well and they're already in service in Edinburgh, Belgrade, and multiple French and Spanish networks. They have that clean, streamlined European design to them, with all the vital equipment hidden away from riders' eyes - it's almost as if they're whispering along on a cushion of air. I do mean whispering, too - these cars are quiet. Coming from Toronto, I'm used for the 1970s-era CLRVs to make my organs rattle whenever I'm sitting in a building next to the line; in Kansas City, it took me a while to realize that streetcars were going by, and I wasn't even noticing.

The streetcars are three-module articulated vehicles, rather like the new Flexity Outlooks running in Toronto, but a bit smaller; they're about 24 meters long, with a rated capacity of 148 when everyone's squeezed in. They're numbered 801 to 804, because this is officially the continuation of Kansas City's previous streetcar system, and the earlier numbers had been used already. It puts the smallness of the KC Streetcar into perspective, though. As I wrote this, at 12:49 on a Saturday morning, there were more than four streetcars running on Toronto's 509 Harbourfront line, and it's the shortest one on the system!

I found the streetcar interiors pretty spartan, and I'm not sure if this is a permanent thing or just an artifact of the system being so new. Except for the external "Sprint Wi-Fi" logo on the cars' middle modules, which also advertises the free wireless access that's been implemented along the line and will eventually be activated aboard the streetcars themselves, there are no ads. There was the Code of Conduct posting there to educate Kansas Citians on how to use their new ride, though: rules like "no smoking or eating" and "please let people off before you board" and "do not bring weapons onto the streetcar," because that is something that actually has to be spelled out where everyone can see it in the United States.

The streetcars have a few tricks I wasn't expecting, either. Digitized bells aren't anything unusual - bells and streetcars have gone together for more than a hundred years - but Kansas Citians haven't needed to look out for streetcars since 1957, so when necessary, the streetcars can sound more like oncoming freight trains. That gets attention: it made me jump the first time I heard it.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Looking toward the unoccupied control cab in the trailing end of streetcar #803.

The KC Streetcar is the easiest system I've ever used, for two reasons: physically speaking, the no-step streetcar access makes it a breeze to board, and for all other respects - it's free. Absolutely, 100% no charge to the people who riding it, which is probably a big factor in why it's gone so far beyond its ridership projections already. Admittedly, that's a good way to get people thinking good things in what may be their first experience with fixed-infrastructure transit.

There's plenty of room to move around inside, and there are priority seats and wheelchair-friendly spaces as you'd expect for modern equipment, but it's honestly not that comfortable - not that comfort is that much of a problem, considering how quickly one of these streetcars can do a circuit. Besides, with the articulated sections and the hanging straps, there are plenty of places to stand if you can.

The stop request buttons were a little different than I'm used to, but I can live with that. They're only mounted on poles, which means that every once in a while, they're horizontal. What threw me about them was that it wasn't easy to tell whether or not they worked once I pressed them; I'm used to a stop request button sounding a tone immediately, but the KC Streetcar looks to have gone with waiting until the automated stop announcement has been made for the next station before sounding the request noise. I figure it's the request noise, at least, because I didn't hear it all the time - the only consistent one sounded more like the Sweet Cuppin' Cakes version of Strong Bad.

Since the system is so new, and there aren't that many in the area - St. Louis' MetroLink, clear on the other side of Missouri, is the closest - rider education looks to be one of the agency's big priorities. Still, it was a bit surprising when, before departing Union Station, the streetcar operator spoke to everyone aboard the streetcar, giving a brief overview on how to ride. Even if it made it seem more like a theme park ride than a legitimate piece of public transportation infrastructure, it was a welcome thing.


KC Streetcar #801. Look at all its majesty.

One of the big factors in early 20th century urban development was the streetcar suburb: a neighbourhood opened up by a newly-built or expanded streetcar line feeding into the central city. Hell, a lot of them were built by streetcar companies, to ensure future business. Since they were designed with the expectation that people would be making their way on foot when they weren't riding the rails, these neighbourhoods are human-scaled and many remain prosperous today; hell, in Toronto, most of them still have their streetcars.

What Kansas City is trying to do feels like a 21st century inversion of this - using a streetcar to rebuild a downtown, and why not? It's worked elsewhere. When I talked about hollow cities at the beginning of this piece, I was thinking specifically of Kansas City; a downtown doesn't feel right when it's got so many empty buildings, when it's littered with parking lots, when street life seems confined to a mere strip rather than something that spreads through the whole. It's not that surprising, though - look at a map; downtown KC has the look of a psychological island, surrounded by the river and the highways, and those highways weren't built on empty land. There are big rips in the urban fabric there, but the streetcar might be the thing to sew them together again.

Whether the streetcar's expansion plans reach fruition, or whether it never goes any further than this - that's always the struggle, isn't it?

Previous Tunnel Visions

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