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).