Update: This story has been updated to include more details about the asphalt art installation project partners in Westport.
The four-way intersection at Westport Road and Wyandotte Street in Kansas City, Missouri, with a small branch library on one corner and a post office on another, is an eye-catcher for pedestrians and motorists.
Extended from each curb corner is a painted mural covering the otherwise ordinary city street. Planters and short posts are placed at the edges of the murals, a few feet from the curb.
Crossing that intersection feels safer now for midtown resident Austin Strassle than it did a few years ago — when the crossing was only a two-way stop and there were no murals or planters on the asphalt.
“I’ve noticed a marked, really significant difference in the speed of traffic and people being more mindful of their environment around them, which I think is the intended purpose of these installations,” Strassle said. “You put up the planters and you put up the barriers and stuff, and it forces the driver to be more conscious of their surroundings, which is, I think, great.”
That installation in Westport is just the beginning.
Kansas City is one of 26 cities in the United States that recently received an Asphalt Art Initiative Grant of up to $25,000 from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create asphalt art installations to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The grant is part of the city’s larger Vision Zero initiative, which the Kansas City Council passed in May 2020 with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.
“The reason why this grant is really encouraging and exciting for Kansas City is because it adds another tool to the overall arsenal of things that we have to begin to make those necessary changes to the built environment,” said Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit that supports safe streets.
Besides slowing down car traffic, Strassle has noticed that the asphalt art has improved his experience as a pedestrian.
“It makes it more enjoyable to be in the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m not resigned to this, like, ‘Oh, I can’t go anywhere because it’s just as dangerous or it’s unsafe or it’s not going to be enjoyable.’ It’s like, no, I actually want to go places.”
Strassle tries to avoid driving — but it’s difficult in a city that seems to prioritize motor vehicles. So he’ll walk where he can, but he still finds the pedestrian experience to be stressful and limiting.
“I have zero desire to have to fight for that, because I’m always going to lose that fight between myself and a car that’s driving 40 miles an hour through a residential neighborhood,” Strassle said. “And so what do I end up finding myself defaulting to? Even unintentionally, it’s getting in my car and going where I need to go.”
Kansas City already seeing positive improvements from earlier street art installation
The asphalt art installation at Westport Road and Wyandotte Street was created as a result of a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant awarded to Kansas City in 2019.
The installation project was led by Midtown KC Now, a local nonprofit supporting development in midtown Kansas City. The project was part of the organization’s Creative Placemaking initiative that includes traffic calming measures, streetscape improvements and mural funding. Midtown KC Now then contracted with Street Smarts Design + Build, a local design and construction firm that focuses on walkability, traffic calming and streetscape, to build out the installation in Westport. It was completed last October.
DuRon Netsell, founder of Street Smarts Design + Build, lives near the Westport Road intersection. He and his family walk through it frequently.
“It’s kind of a notoriously dangerous intersection,” he said. “It’s very large, it’s a little bit oddly shaped geometrically. We knew both from observation and our preinstallation metrics that people were speeding, that it was very difficult and kind of scary to cross as a pedestrian.”
The purpose of the art design, Netsell said, was to shrink the roads by extending the curb. The four-way stop signs force cars to stop and shorten the distance that pedestrians have to travel to cross the street.
“It’s allowed the intersection to kind of feel like pedestrians have the priority, where previously it was like, pedestrians had to wait until there was a moment to kind of run across the road,” Netsell said.
Placing bollards — short vertical posts — and boulders around the curbs also signal to cars that they need to stop.
“Limestone boulders really fortify those curb extensions, protecting the pedestrians, as well as the art that was on the ground,” Netsell said.
That kind of design and construction of an intersection allows cities to use street space differently, to create a safer environment, Kelley with BikeWalkKC said.
“In that scenario, you are allocating space, other modes or other purposes, beyond just driving, which ultimately helps to make the streets safer,” he said.
More cities in recent years have changed the design and configuration of roads — like adding colorful murals to extend the curb or painting crosswalks — as a way to improve street safety. However, some cities, like Ames, Iowa, have received a letter from the Federal Highway Administration stating that its rainbow crosswalk was unsafe.
There’s little data on the impacts of art installations on street safety, so local officials are gathering the data and noticing the difference. Seattle’s top traffic engineer said the city’s rainbow crosswalk led to a reduction in pedestrian collisions.
Since its completion, the installation in Kansas City has resulted in a 45% decrease in the average travel speed through the intersection, Netsell said. Before the installation, vehicles would move through the intersection at speeds as high as 49 mph. Now the maximum speed is about 23 mph, he said.
The new intersection also reduced noise levels in the neighborhood by about 10 decibels, Netsell said.
“Traffic calming can actually make your city much more peaceful and much quieter,” he said.
Netsell sees the asphalt art as a feature to be enjoyed by pedestrians.
“It’s now a place where we kind of hang out, we actually sit on the boulders and just kind of observe traffic and enjoy the beauty of Westport,” he said.
Local residents feel safer with intersection improvements
Since the installation was completed last October, walkers and cyclists are already noticing that the four-way stop and asphalt art are making the area safer.
Shawn Tolivar often bikes through the intersection at Westport Road and Wyandotte Street. He’s noticed that traffic has slowed down.
“I’ve gone from having conflicts with drivers there to virtually having no conflicts with drivers there now,” he said.
Toliver said public artwork can bring life to a neighborhood and reflect that area’s unique character.
“I think they show investment from the city into these neighborhoods, which always, I think, makes the neighborhood better,” he said.
Ryan Rosenblatt used to live near the intersection at Westport Road and Wyandotte Street. He’d cross the intersection almost daily, he said, either walking or biking. He noticed a difference when the art and physical barriers were installed.
“It just made it safer for everyone,” he said. “It’s safer to walk through there, it’s safer to bike through there, it’s safer to drive through there.”
Longtime midtown resident Dayna Meyer primarily bikes and walks around Kansas City. They pass through the intersection at Westport Road and Wyandotte Street frequently, like when they go to the post office branch on the corner.
“As a pedestrian, it makes it feel a lot safer,” they said. “It makes it feel like Westport isn’t just a place where people drive through trying to get to the state line or to roll through. It feels like people have to stop and kind of drive slower, which as a pedestrian feels a lot safer and more hospitable.”
Vision Zero’s plans to improve traffic safety
Kansas City began carrying out its Vision Zero plan this spring, with a number of projects planned to increase pedestrian and bike safety.
More intersection improvements will take place at six locations. Other projects include traffic signal upgrades at 50 locations, 15 additional miles of protected bike lanes, speed humps at 50 locations, an intersection video detector for bicyclists at Southwest Trafficway and Valentine Road, and traffic calming guidelines.
Netsell is encouraged by Kansas City’s Vision Zero initiative. In the seven years he’s lived in Kansas City, he’s seen how attitudes toward street safety and improving pedestrian safety have shifted.
“They’re starting to really recognize that our roads are not just to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible, but they’re for us all to enjoy, however we choose to enjoy them,” Netsell said, referring to city planners. “And many of us want to enjoy them with our children and our dogs and our grandmothers, and (it) can’t really be done when traffic’s moving as fast as it possibly can.”
Still, Netsell worries about the biggest obstacle: driver behavior.
“As an urban designer, I used to think it was all infrastructure — infrastructure was trying to solve everything,” he said. “But that’s really not true. I mean, it really comes down to individual behavior. And that is a tough thing to change. But I think we can begin to do that.”
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