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Kansas City’s airport (MCI) must be the worst designed airport in the United States. It consists of 3 cramped, donut-shaped terminals that aren’t well connected. MCI is also a long way from downtown Kansas City and reaching the city without a rental car can be expensive: $60 for a taxi, $18 for a van shuttle. There is a local transit option, but the bus stop was located on a different donut than where my flight arrived and headways were at 60 minutes when I arrived, so I opted for the van shuttle. The trip to downtown took about 30 minutes (at 75mph) and most of the scenery en-route was farmland, cell towers and an occasional waffle house or convenience store. So, considering the existing population density and distance between downtown KC and the airport, it’s hard to see how any high speed airport-to-downtown transit link would be economically feasible. I will offer MCI as a text-book example of how and where to NOT to build an airport.

Kansas City, however, seems to be embracing New Urbanism. From a transit perspective, that means a new streetcar line will open soon that connects the gorgeously restored Union Station building with the central business district and 2 MAX lines offering frequent, branded service with nicely designed bus shelters that display schedules and next bus arrival times. The rest of the urban system tries to offer a grid-based layout but frequency is a real challenge for anyone not using MAX routes or the streetcar. Most of the other routes are scheduled at 30 to 60 minute headways. On my “Transit Day” I found it easier to walk to my destination than wait in 15 degree weather for the next bus.

Kansas City was a major transportation and manufacturing hub during the 1920s. In the latter part of the 20th Century KC’s importance in the business world slipped as air travel replaced train travel and many of KC’s businesses became obsolete. But what was left behind in the area between downtown and Union Station were many gorgeous Art Deco buildings and numerous old warehouses spaces. KC has done a wonderful job of restoring many of those Art Deco artifacts and many of those old warehouses are being converted into lofts and service businesses. Central KC provides a very walkable and interesting street layout. Dead spaces, blank walls and creepy corners are rare in downtown KC and it’s an inviting place for pedestrians to stroll (even in gusty, below freezing weather).

The fact that New Urbanism seems to be taking hold in KC is surprising considering that gas costs about $1.65/gallon and downtown parking lots are advertising monthly parking for $50/month. There also aren’t any Seattle-style geographic challenges that hem in sprawl development. How can transit compete against (almost) free gas and parking? I don’t know, but the urban revival is real and I would cite Kansas City as one of the top urban destinations in America to visit without a car (once you figure out how to get in from the airport).

18 Replies to “Transit Day: Kansas City”

  1. I used to be of the opinion that locating airports closer into town was a good thing, as the further away the airport gets, mass transit lines become that more expensive to build and operate, while the cost of taking a taxi into town goes through the roof. However, after living underneath the SeaTac airport flight path for a few years (which includes pretty much all of Seattle, except for West Seattle), my opinion reversed, as the noise from all the flights was making it difficult to sleep at night.

    As bad as the access to Kansas City Airport is, I can least say, by looking at the map, that the number of people in the flight path of planes taking off and landing is tiny. Overall, I think it is better to put up with some extra hassle and/or expense in getting to/from the airport once or twice a year in exchange for being able to sleep at night the other 363 days a year.

    (Note: I finally solved the problem by getting a soundproofing layer added to all of my windows; it was effective, but expensive, costing the equivalent of more than one hundred $60 taxi rides).

    1. I agree. There are plenty of places throughout North America (if not the world) where the airport is a long ways from the city. Many of these cities have very good public transportation systems, even if the airport isn’t part of it. Or if it is part of it, then it is connected via a bus. Some examples:

      Washington D. C.– Probably the best modern subway system built in the U. S. The train does not go to Dulles.

      L. A. — Eventually the light rail line will connect to LAX, but not for a while. Right now ridership is around 350,000 people per day. It will be much higher before it goes to the airport. Getting to the airport just isn’t that important.

      Chicago — The train goes out to O’Hare, but only since 1984. This means that when O’Hare was the biggest airport in the world and Chicago was the second biggest city in the U. S.(and had an excellent subway system) there was no train to the airport.

      New York City — The subway does not go to LaGuardia. A subway line to it would serve areas many times more dense than anything we have served. Really. In Washington State we only have one census block over 100,000 people per square mile. It is located in Belltown. In the north Jackson Heights area (which you would pass through on your way to the airport) there are several in this range. But so far as I know, there are no plans to build a subway line out there. They simply have bigger fish to fry (e. g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Avenue_Subway).

      Looking at how a subway agency prioritizes an airport connection is a good example of how functional or dysfunctional the agency is. If the airport is close and there is plenty of density next to it, then it makes sense to serve it. Seattle’s subway system is the opposite, and serves as a good example of a system run by dysfunctional political forces. The airport is a long way from the city; there is little density next to it; there is a huge gap in density (so big that Sound Transit didn’t bother to add any stations for several miles), yet it was the very first thing we built. I’m sure transit planners some day will use our system as a textbook example of what not to do.


      Ultimately, lots of people love the idea of a … subway to the airport because they can imagine using it occasionally. This can yield a disconnect between the political popularity of a service and its actual ridership potential. Just something to watch out for as the subway rolls toward the sea.

      Jarrett Walker (http://humantransit.org/2009/12/on-subways-to-the-sea.html)

      1. LGA is a huge mess. For me, I’m happy to use the M60 bus to get to LGA. It’s always crowded but it’s never failed me.

      2. Metrorail to Dulles is under construction. They opened the first phase in 2014 which brought it a few miles from the airport with frequent bus connections. In a few years rail will reach the airport itself.

        But the Washington Metro has had a station at National Airport since 1977. BWI has a MARC and Amtrak station accessible by shuttle, and a Baltimore light rail station in the terminal.

      3. Los Angeles also has a pretty nice express bus that goes from LAX to a number of different places at prices that are quite reasonable.
        http://www.lawa.org/FlyAway/Default.aspx
        Some of those places are transit nodes so it is possible to get to those places with regular transit and then use the express bus.

    2. You can build an airport far from the city center, but almost always the sprawl winds up going out there anyway. Witness the new Denver airport and how quickly the miles and miles of grassy nothingness turned into miles and miles of paved nothingness.

      1. The electric trains to DIA start running in April so that will help the car-free traveler going into Denver.

        Agreed on the LAX Flyaway buses are great, was really impressed with that system. Not aware of too many other places with an arrangement like that.

  2. I think it is worth pointing out why subway travel to the airport is rarely a high proportion of the travel:

    1) People who fly are often flying outside of rush hour. During those times driving will save a considerable amount of time.
    2) Cities often regulate the cost of a cab ride from the airport, keeping it relatively cheap.
    3) When unregulated (or when a ride to the airport in a “Limo” is allowed) it is also relatively cheap. The cost of taxi-cabs is based largely on the amount of time spent providing the service. A cabby driving to the next destination or waiting for a fare is expensive. Both are reduced when going to the airport.
    4) There are a bunch of cab options provided by a bunch of companies, from a simple taxi, to a shared private bus.
    5) Airports located in far away locations are often surrounded by relatively cheap land, which can easily house a lot of parking and provide a shuttle service.
    6) Travelers often rent a car, and they often just rent one at the airport.
    7) Carrying luggage on a crowded train or bus is a pain. Likewise traveling with little kids (and their assorted luggage) is much easier with a car than with public transportation.
    8) People will often give you a ride to or from the airport. I’ve never had anyone offer to give me a ride to downtown (unless the other person was headed there anyway).
    9) People often travel in groups, where a bus or train is less cost efficient. A cab to the airport carrying four people costs as much as one carrying a single person, but a bus costs four times as much.
    10) A high proportion of the people in an airport go there rarely. The more you go to a single place (e. g. commute to work) the more likely you are to take transit. You learn which bus or train is the best choice, and when, exactly, you need to leave your house.
    11) A mistake taking transit to work (or an appointment) is usually not as big of a deal as missing a plane.

    Generally speaking, a subway or light rail line should have lots of stops to maximize ridership per dollar spent (both in construction and operation). A distant airport (like SeaTac) lacks that. There is a trade-off with all of the stops, however. If everyone is simply trying to get downtown (or some other distant destination) then the value of the system drops as it extends farther outward. Folks would simply prefer an express that skips the stops. Running an express bus to an airport like SeaTac is what many cities do, and it makes sense given those issues.

    1. There’s also the issue that while airports may see high passenger counts, they draw from a very large area. People drive or take the Hut Shuttle bus from Corvallis to get to PDX. A single line from a major downtown area to the airport won’t serve that market very well unless there is a good regional transit system.

  3. The local transit option (route 129) operates at 60 minute headways and takes about 55 minutes from downtown KC. Clearly, not an option for most travelers. I suspect it’s more of a lifeline for airport workers.

    The KC metropolitan area is about the size of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Sacramento or Austin. I’m familiar with transit to the airport in Sacramento and it’s not much better than KC. Portland is slightly bigger than KC, but PDX has excellent light rail connections to downtown. Portland’s airport is also significantly busier than CVG, IND, SAC, AUS or MCI. There might be a correlation between how often people travel and the ease of getting to the airport. I’m usually out of town at least once a month and I greatly appreciate the ease of getting to the airport or Amtrak via Link.

  4. Say what you want about the transit but last time I was at the KC airport I was impressed by the to-go beer at the snack shop in the airport.

  5. There’s a story behind Kansas City’s airport… you can blame TWA and public agencies too eager to please dumb corporate demands…

    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansas_City_International_Airport

    TWA’s “Airport of the Future”

    Many design decisions were driven by TWA, which envisioned it would be its hub, with 747s and Supersonic Transports whisking people from America’s heartland to all points on the globe. Streets around the airport included Mexico City Avenue, Brasília Avenue, Paris Street, London Avenue and Tel Aviv Avenue.

    TWA vetoed concepts to model the airport on Washington Dulles International Airport and Tampa International Airport, because those two airports had people movers which it deemed too expensive. TWA insisted on “Drive to Your Gate” with flight gates 75 feet (23 m) from the roadway (signs along the roadway showed the flights leaving each gate). The single-level terminals had no stairs. A similar layout was to be built at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

    TWA’s flawed vision

    TWA’s vision for the future of flight which had been pioneered by the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City (which also featured cars close to the gates design) proved obsolete almost from the start.

    The terminals turned out to be unfriendly to the 747, since passengers spilled out of the gate area into the halls. When security checkpoints were added in the 1970s to stem hijackings, they were difficult and expensive to implement since security checkpoints had to be installed at each gate area rather than at a centralized area.

    As a result, passenger services were nonexistent downstream of the security checkpoint in the gate area. No restrooms were available, and shops, restaurants, newsstands, ATMs or any other passenger services were not available without exiting the secure area and being re-screened upon re-entry.

    Shortly after the airport opened, TWA asked that the terminals be rebuilt to address these issues. Kansas City, citing the massive cost overruns on a newly built airport to TWA specification, refused, prompting TWA to move its hub to Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri.

    (face palm)

    1. Seriously, if there were NO airport security, the design would be pretty good. TWA just didn’t visualize airport security ever happening.

  6. MCI airport predated airport security. It was designed starting in 1951 and opened in 1956

    Imagine it with NO security of ANY sort — walk straight onto and off of the planes, just showing your ticket. Further imagine small planes only, no big planes. You can perhaps imagine how it might be a good design.

    Since airport security was introduced in the 1970s it’s been a nightmare.

    1. The current terminals were actually designed by TWA and built in 1972, but they were still using 1950s thinking, making the result a disaster within a few years of the new terminals opening.

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