With Clay Chastain’s partial victory in the Missouri Supreme Court this week, his plan for a 24-mile light-rail system for Kansas City may come back under consideration. We have written many times that Kansas City would be better off without light rail. It is prohibitively expensive, carries few commuters in cities with low-population densities, and is inflexible to changing demand. For an example of this inflexibility, look no further than the aftermath of the Super Bowl.
While most Missouri residents are aware that the Seahawks defeated the Broncos in the big game, they might not know that transportation enthusiasts had dubbed this year’s game the first “mass transit Super Bowl.” The New York metropolitan area is the nation’s densest, with extensive rail and bus networks. Organizers encouraged almost 100,000 fans to take public transportation, either rail or bus, to reach the game. Indeed, this is the type of event where mass transit systems should be most effective: moving a large crowd of predictable size to and from a centralized location.
However, things did not go as planned. As fans left the game, thousands packed into the Secaucus train station, where people waited up to 45 minutes for hot, crowded train cars. Some passengers reportedly required medical attention. It took hours, and scrambling 50 buses to the site, to clear out the jam.
What went wrong? Despite actively promoting the use of mass transit to get to the Super Bowl, organizers underestimated the number who would use the trains by a factor of three. Trains are a relatively inflexible form of transit; it takes a long while to bring extra capacity to an area with a sudden, unexpected spike in demand.
There are lessons Kansas City should take from the Super Bowl in planning the city’s future transit priorities:
First, planning for transit is fraught with pitfalls. Organizers of the Super Bowl had a set population and pre-sold tickets, only to massively underestimate those who would take rail transit. In the same way, no one can be sure of the future traveling habits of Kansas City residents or the city’s growth pattern.
Second, buses are flexible, trains are not. To alleviate the jam after the Super Bowl, New Jersey brought on 50 extra buses. New Jersey could not suddenly bring a whole set of trains to the Super Bowl when a problem arose. They could not build a new station to spread out the crowd. If Kansas City builds light rail and the population shifts or there is economic growth in an area where there is no rail service, there is little the city can do but eat its losses and build a new line. But if the city focuses on Bus Rapid Transit, it could shift resources to meet new demand.