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Two Americas: Transit deserts in Kansas City metro

RideKC bus stop for 229 line
Posted at 10:42 AM, Aug 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 12:07:04-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With the World Cup coming to Kansas City in 2026, transportation is one of the items the region will look at. But as of now mass transit is hard to come by for some living in our community.

"I know we need more buses in the Northland," Barbara Cooper, a transit rider said.

Without a car for seven years, Barbara and her husband Mark Cooper depend on mass transit, when it doesn't fail them.

"The bus never showed up. So, I started walking and it was going to take me five hours to walk home. It was a like a 15-mile walk and I walked about five miles and then finally I just--no bus came by--so I called an uber because it was 110 degrees outside. I was like 'nah," Cooper said.

It's an example of a transit desert. Here's how transportation experts describe the term:

"Well transit desert is a relatively new term," Richard Jarrold, senior vice president strategic planning and economic development at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority said.

"It's that place where that service—transit service—is not accessible, there's not a stop nearby," Josh Powers, director of the transit division at Johnson County Department of public works & infrastructure said.

"An area that has no transit service at all," David Johnson, project leader, at TransPro Consulting said.

"Basically, they're places where there are people who would like to use transit but there's not services available," Ron Achelpohl, director of Transportation and Environment at Mid-America Regional Council said.

A bit of surprise given the Kansas City region was a major transportation hub in America at the turn of the 20th century but then:

"After World War II, the nation really invested heavily in highway transportation, and really, frankly, disinvested in public transportation and the Kansas City area, followed those kind of national trends as well," Achelpohl said.

Growth in the suburbs is a contributing factor behind the transit deserts.

"The spreading out has happened faster than the population growth has in the region. And so that's really created some challenges for how we can serve that growth," Achelpohl said.

A survey based off the recent U.S. Census revealed that while 89 percent of residents in the Kansas City metro drove to work, only three percent used public transport.

"So those long trips are really hard for transit to compete with, regardless of how fast we make it, or how much service we have. So, you really need to focus people on their shorter trips, often, which make up more of their travel than the commute," Johnson said.

In 2019 Johnson County Kansas launched a pilot program of an on-demand service called: 'Microtransit'.

"You either call the call center use the mobile app, you call up a ride, you wait for it at your door, it picks you up at your place, wherever you're coming from and takes you directly to where you're traveling," Powers said.

During the pandemic the county-funded service was the least impacted, according to Powers. They now do about 400 rides daily.

"It's more convenient you know, given that we've had so many of the problems with the covid, given that gasoline is horrible," Clarence Annett, a transit rider said.

But across the board 'RideKC' is grappling with a shortage of drivers impacting routes, many of them running on the hour.

"It's hit or miss, you don't know what's going to happen. They say 'we have a schedule,'" Fred, a transit rider said. "And if I got to go two or three places that day—it’s the whole day gone."

Carolyn Strode, who hops on the 229 near Barry Road, also shares the same frustration.

"I asked the person's like what's going on Sunday, me and my daughter sat at the bus stop from 5:30 to seven o'clock to get to the zoo. [their response] ‘oh we were short-handed on bus drivers. You guys need to hire more drivers," Strode said.

"Our first point is we need to provide good, consistent, reliable service to get people to try the system. Generally, if they try the system, they will come back and they will like it," Jarrold said.

Jarrold is optimistic they can lessen the number of transit deserts. He believes increased communication all the way around can play a big role.

"We would love to have as a new development starts the planning phase, come talk to us about transit service. Don't build your new job center 10 miles out from the nearest transit line, and then come and ask us, ‘oh, can you bring me transit service?'--start at the beginning," Jarrold said,

It's also going to money to make it happen.

"There's no way to get around that," Johnson said.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the federal government will send more than $27 million to the Kansas City area for transit funding.

Statewide Missouri will receive more than $141 million and Kansas more than $49 million.

"Right now, we have one municipality, one government that funds the vast majority of service and so if you don't live in or next to Kansas City, Missouri, you are probably experiencing a transit desert or something very close to it, there just isn't enough public resources being put into the service in the surrounding areas," Johnson said.

Johnson was at the KCATA 2.5 years ago when Kansas City leaders voted to eliminate the $1.50 fare in order to make transit more accessible to all.

"I love the fact that the bus is free. But sometimes when it's not reliable, it just doesn't make it worth it," Cooper said.