Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Max

They say Kansas City is too sprawling to have a light rail system. It’s too vast, too spread out, too suburbanized. But this weekend, I saw something that was quite the contrary, that is, the Max. I’m not entirely sure how it works yet (I’ve only ridden it, I haven’t researched it), but I do know that it worked out pretty well for me. Essentially, the Max is a Bus Rapid Transit system, sort of like a Metro Rapid (in LA) or Express line (in StL): a specialized bus system that runs along on the street with other cars and makes stops at significant intersections. These routes are usually outfitted with snazzy, often shiny, signage and equally supped up buses. These systems are often used when light or heavy rail are too expensive or do not yet meet the level of demand necessary for the serious investments that come along with expansion of public transportation.

Anyway, Kansas City’s 57 Max is great. I took the Megabus to Kansas City from St. Louis. In the past, getting from the Mega Bus stop consisted of a lovely and enlightening 15 block saunter through downtown Kansas City and its immediate areas to the south, but the Mega Bus station recently moved to a new spot on the north eastern part of the downtown area. At first, I was worried about this because my grasp of downtown Kansas City was pretty minimal, so the prospect of sleepily walking off a bus in the middle of an unexplored part of downtown was maybe a bit frightening. But, as it has it, the new Megabus stop is half a block away from the Max line. Not only that, but it’s the same distance from Kansas City’s market. I’ll post about the market later; it’s awesome.

So, the 57 Max line runs from the Mega Bus stop, past the market, through the financial district, down Main Street from downtown, through the Arts District, Union Station, the Hallmark Factory, and down through the southern part of the city. It runs two blocks away from the Nelson Atkins and Kemper Art Museums as well as the Country Club Plaza. So, on my visit to Kansas City, I was able to hit all of my favorite spots in the city in one fell swoop. It was pretty great. My favorite part was that each stop along the route is marked by these monoliths that shave little LED displays that show when the next bus is coming. They also show the route itself, something I haven’t seen much of, even though it’s incredibly helpful.

Effectively, the 57 Max allowed me to gain a much richer and dynamic impression of Kansas City than I would have had I traveled by foot. And it does so both ecause of convenience and explicit choice. This route connects many major cultural and economic centers across the city in a pretty effective way, providing the traveler with an opportunity to reach all these important places with relative ease. So, it raises the questions, 1) what do we allow to dictate route selection for public transportation routes?

And 2) why aren’t planners taking a more proactive approach in structuring a way of moving about the city that includes more than simply traveling from point A to point B? I believe that it is possible to create (or perpetuate) circulation routes through and within the city that can themselves become culturally significant as well as eloquent and stimulating- without being inefficient or overly expensive.

Kansas City’s 57 Max is a first step in this direction.

Upcycle, please

Antonio Pacheco

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