|November 11, 2010|
The Case for Regional Mass Transit
|By Kite Singleton|
Does the Light Rail election failure of 2008 mean Kansas City will give up on public transit improvements? The Regional Transit Alliance does not think so…we have a big job ahead of us. Look at how we match up with our sister regions in per-capita expenditure on public transit:
Kansas City has made strategic investments to capitalize on a new interest in living, working and playing in our urban center. But this public transit disparity simply will not support the investments we’ve made there. Parking is too expensive to build in our urban center and access is too encumbered by traffic to satisfy this new demand. Urban vitality is growing in our sister cities, and if we want to compete for creative, young citizens in the new economic environment, we’ll have to support these investments with better public transit to make access to our center more convenient and more attractive.
Monroe Dodd’s Kansas City Then & Now is a poignant presentation of what we have done to our city over the past sixty years, showing in arresting photographic comparisons how the vibrant urban streetlife that was present in Kansas City has succumbed to our motorized lifestyle. Dory DeAngelo and Jane Flynn have contributed in Kansas City Style a saga of the lost physical fabric of Kansas City…photos of wonderful buildings we have allowed to be demolished. Are these just catalogues of history for us to slake our nostalgia? Or are they calls to action, action aimed at rekindling our civic energy? Since these two books focus on history, they naturally emphasize the fabric of our Downtown, and it is especially in our Downtown, that the greatest loss has been experienced.
Yet this is not just a downtown Kansas City issue. Look at any of our old town centers around the region, places like Liberty, Raytown, Parkville, Olathe, Pleasant Hill. Because sprawl has affected our whole region, these town centers have lost market share and only civic pride and the demand to hold on to their history has kept them from completely crumbling. Now these centers, like downtown Kansas City, are starting to attract new investment because more and more people are looking for a lifestyle that is less encumbered by long drives for every activity…people – especially young people - are looking for a walkable, sustainable, livable community…a more vibrant quality of life.
Anyone over 50 or 60 years of age watched this deterioration happen. As automobile popularity rose, the demand for parking escalated. Businesses that struggled against this change failed, their buildings were torn down and the neighboring store used the empty space for parking until it, in turn, failed. This process has continued for the past sixty years or more, with the result pictured in the Board of Trade demise. And we see it in our own experience as we drive by and walk by the most wasteful of real estate investments, parking lots and garages. In 1946 Kansas City’s transit system served 135,000,000 passenger boardings. In 2009, with about the same population, we served about 16,000,000.
Jesse Clyde Nichols saw this pattern developing, optioned huge parcels of land in the boggy periphery of Brush Creek, and created the concept of a “shopping center”, where adequate free parking was provided. This whole saga is chronicled in highly entertaining fashion by Kansas City writer Whitney Terrell in his novel, The King of King’s County. The success of the Country Club Plaza parallels the decline of Downtown Kansas City, but it wasn’t just parking that achieved that success. Mr. Nichols was perceptive enough to select a location between two of the city’s most active streetcar lines, and he built highrise apartments surrounding his shopping center. Both actions delivered huge numbers of shoppers to his stores without need for parking. Few new shopping centers since have recognized what he saw: relying totally on automobile access is a dead end.
More recent Plaza history shows very clever retailing decisions to forsake the everyday needs of local shoppers for the high-end national retailers and restaurants, and hardly a linear foot of sidewalk is allowed to be fronted by the growing parking supply. Downtown, by comparison, lost its way, in clamoring for more parking while forgetting that a discontinuous sidewalk experience is the death knell of the retailer. It is fascinating to see old downtown office buildings now being converted to residential use, a use whose parking demand per square foot is far less than current office demand. Residential is a use that in today’s market bodes well for the resurgence of downtown investment.
Transportation policy is not a “chicken & egg” situation. Parking in a city without a robust public transit system is a requirement for economic development. Look at a project in Kansas City like the new IRS Center: 6,000 employees of an agency that could encourage employees to use public transit, but what happens here? The private developers of the center are forced to provide parking at a rate of some 4 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space because they need an “exit strategy” in case IRS ends its lease and the developers have to find another tenant unable or unwilling to encourage transit ridership. (A parking space takes 300 square feet, so 4 x 300 = 1,200 square feet of parking for every 1,000 square feet of commercial space! What’s wrong with this picture?) H & R Block and the Cordish people are in the same fix in the new Power & Light District. And the new GSA project will follow the same dead end if those decisions are made in the absence of a more robust transit service. By contrast, in the reconstruction of Ground Zero in New York City, with its excellent public transit service, the ratio is 1 parking space per 1,000 square feet of office space. At a cost of some $30,000 to $40,000 per garage space, this adds up to a major disadvantage for development in the old town centers of the Kansas City region.
And what happens when parking spaces are provided in such quantities adjacent to or under the building? People tend to park and go directly into their office building, spend their workday, eat lunch in the company cafeteria, return the garage and go home without ever touching a sidewalk. Look at the sidewalks of Downtown Kansas City. It is a wonder that any retail remains, especially the small retailer who relies on pedestrian traffic. The new Performing Arts Center is being built on the same assumptions. Compare that to Michigan Avenue: Chicagoans patronize their urban center stores and theaters because they walk by them on the way to their transit station.
All this is particularly pertinent in the discussion surrounding the three-county transit forums that took place in the summer or 2008. A regional funding mechanism for increased investment in public transit services has gained significant support in polling for the past six or eight years, and a poll taken after the gas price spike that summer, showed even more promise in voters’ readiness to help fund a regional transit network. Three recent experiences in Kansas City bode well for the future of transit in this community:
Kansas Citians are no different from citizens of Dallas, Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, Houston or any other city that has recently upped its investment in transit: we start out with a predisposition toward our “beloved” cars; but when the new transit option is built, we discern some advantages in it and we use it. Virtually all of these new transit systems are thriving, in most cases outpacing the ridership projections during planning. Denver and Seattle have recently voted in billions of new dollars to expand and extend their regional transit networks.
Vibrant urban centers in our sister cities are supported by sophisticated public transit systems. The Plaza is a jewel, but it is an anomaly, and its reliance on parking – at these enormous construction costs – will now start to limit its success. Yes, Downtown began to rebound during the term of Kay Barnes, and she is to be greatly credited for pushing downtown housing, the arena, H & R Block and Cordish. But like the Plaza, huge costs for parking will limit the potential for the kind of resurgence that will let Kansas City successfully compete with our sister cities.
There is currently optimism within the transit community for the potential to finally conclude this long drought of transit funding success:
It is only a robust, reliable, service-oriented, seamless, regional transit network that will allow us to reach the goal of 24-7, active, walkable and vibrant urban centers. This regional discussion now needs to move forward with increased urgency. It needs to include bus and rail connectors to and between suburban communities that will knit the region together in a way that our freeway system never has…a way without automobile congestion and parking demand…a way that will reduce the stress and wasted time of driving…a way that will save on transportation costs for families…a way to reduce our reliance on oil…and a way that will put citizens face to face in a transit vehicle and on a sidewalk, to rekindle our urban vitality, downtown and in our old town centers across the Kansas City region.