Here are the facts: The downtown KC Streetcar system carried almost 234,000 passengers in July. But that number has fallen steadily each month since then, all the way down to 135,000 in November.
That’s a total loss of almost 100,000 passengers, or a plunge of 42 percent since July.
Ridership figures could go down even more in the coming months. There are fewer downtown activities in the winter. K-12 students will still be in school through next spring. The City Market is far less active. Some bad weather surely will come along.
So should we pull the plug on the streetcar now?
“I’m not worrying at all, in the least,” KC Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend told me Tuesday, while acknowledging that ridership numbers had “tailed off significantly.”
But he — and others in the pro-streetcar crowd in Kansas City — say all of this was pretty much predictable.
Ridership was particularly high during the tourism season and for all of the summertime activities in the downtown area served by the 2.2-mile line.
Still, as day-by-day figures show, use by people who live and work downtown also seems to have fallen a bit. No one knows for sure, though, because a full ridership survey won’t be conducted until early 2017, according to KC Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum.
Proponents correctly note that that the 4,500 riders a day in November still put KC Streetcar way over the original estimate of 2,700 passengers a day. That had been based on best available evidence several years ago, officials say, including looking at how new transit systems had done elsewhere.
It’s also true, however, that Kansas Citians have revamped and higher expectations for how many people the streetcars ought to carry each day.
Gerend said he expects to see “year-to-year growth” in 2017. That would be tremendous news. About 1,800 residential units within three blocks of the streetcar line are set to be completed in the next 18 months, creating more potential passengers.
In addition, a strong downtown spine is crucial for creating confidence that elections in 2017 and 2018 will lead to a longer system going south on Main Street to the Country Club Plaza area.
Notably, passenger numbers don’t matter to the streetcar system’s financial strength. No fares are collected; the rides are “free,” supported mostly by sales and property taxes collected within the downtown transportation district.
But it’s still crucial that people keep showing up to ride the streetcar and to shop at the stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses that are paying the taxes.
Now let’s hope the passenger numbers don’t go too low this winter, then do spike back up next spring and summer.