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Ira Boydston speaks frankly about the prospects of walking with his children to their elementary school in Kansas City’s Red Bridge neighborhood.
“It’s across Red Bridge Road, which can suck to try to get across it,” Boydston said. (Boydston is a Beacon community engagement representative. View a program description here.)
“It could be very challenging, especially with little ones.”
Like other streets in Kansas City, Red Bridge Road is a heavily trafficked thoroughfare bordered by residential neighborhoods. Cars speed along the road, ignoring crosswalks.
“Now, is there a crosswalk there? Yes,” Boydston said. “Are there white boxes painted on the street? Yes. But is there any enforcement of that? Like do people actually know to stop or think to stop or care to stop? Absolutely not.”
Boydston’s anxieties are shared widely around Kansas City. Residents complain about missing and poorly marked crosswalks and crumbling sidewalks.
In Ben Keefe’s neighborhood in Platte Woods, Missouri, there are no sidewalks at all. Residents must choose between walking in the streets or driving, and most choose their wheels. (Keefe is a Beacon community engagement representative. View a program description here.)
“It’s so rare to see people walking that you end up staring,” he said.
While the ability to walk from point to point varies across municipalities in the Kansas City metro, much of the action to improve walkability is taking place in Kansas City, Missouri. The City Council last month validated two years of study and work from advocates and city staff and formally adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan, a blueprint to eliminate deaths resulting from traffic accidents by 2030.
When pursued along with other programs underway to replace the city’s crumbling sidewalks and add safety features for bikes, walkers and wheelchair users, champions of the Vision Zero plan hope that more people will be able to park their cars and walk or bike to run errands and get their children to neighborhood schools.
That hasn’t been possible for a long time in many neighborhoods. Kansas City street use is centered around cars and other vehicles. Walkscore.com, a digital walkability index, gives Kansas City a score of 35 out of 100.
“We don’t prioritize walking the way that we do driving alone,” said Michael Kelley, the policy director of BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit that works to improve walking and biking in Kansas City.
“We as a city, like most American cities, rely on design standards and other rules that do not prioritize pedestrians and other vulnerable road users,” Kelley said. “That shows up in not just the sidewalks, but also in crosswalks, or lack of pedestrian islands, a whole host of things that we know could make for safer streets for pedestrians, but unfortunately, don’t.”
The Vision Zero concept has already been adopted by more than 45 U.S. cities, reflecting growing concerns about safety and health.
In 2021, more than 7,485 people in the U.S. were struck and killed while walking, according to a report by Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. This was the highest number in 40 years, with an estimated jump between 11% and 13% in a single year.
In Kansas City, about 50 pedestrians lost their lives in traffic accidents in 2020, representing a 37% overall increase since 2010, according to data in the Vision Zero plan.
Conditions on city streets have been particularly hazardous for Black people who use them in one form or another. Black pedestrians, drivers and passengers are twice as likely to be killed as white users, the report states.
Plans for sidewalks repairs
Along with the work on Vision Zero, Kansas City is pursuing other strategies to make walking and biking safer and easier.
In April 2017, city voters approved Go KC, an $800 million infrastructure repair plan, with $150 million going to sidewalk repairs. The program removed a long-standing burden that required property owners to raise the funds to repair public sidewalks alongside their properties.
In 2018, the city began to make spot repairs and inspections based on requests from citizens to the 311 hotline. More than 1,500 miles of sidewalk have been inspected so far. The city expects it will take until 2025 to complete repairs on its initial list.
Beyond that, the Public Works Department is conducting public hearings around the city in preparation for an upcoming Sidewalk Prioritization Plan.
“Right now it doesn’t matter if you have sidewalks, don’t have sidewalks or there are gaps. We are going to look at it as a whole,” said Uday Manepalli, the city’s sidewalk program manager.
The Public Works Department expects to present its new plan to the City Council next spring for approval, with intent to start construction on more sidewalk improvements next August.
Through the Go KC bond program, the city will spend $7.5 million on sidewalks every year. Of that, $5.5 million will be used for sidewalks, and $2 million will be used on improvements to make streets safer for people with disabilities, such as curb ramps and colorful sidewalk bumps. The new plan will use equity as one of the guiding forces in deciding where to prioritize repairs.
While advocates say that a schedule to repair sidewalks around the city is welcome and long overdue, the money available in the Go KC bond program isn’t enough to fully resolve a problem years in the making.
According to Manepalli, it would cost $1 billion to fix all the sidewalks in the city.
Broadening the use of Kansas City’s streets
In December 2017, Kansas City passed the Complete Streets ordinance, which sets guidelines to help people of all ages and abilities to safely use streets, regardless of their modes of transportation.
“Walking often can’t exist in a vacuum, just like biking can’t exist in a vacuum and transit can’t exist in a vacuum,” said Kelley from BikeWalkKC. “But if you work to make them all cooperate and you make them work together, you can truly create a multimodal transportation system where people don’t have to rely on a car if they don’t want to or they’re unable to.”
One result of the Complete Streets ordinance so far has been improved pedestrian crossings and construction of a well-used two-way cycle track along Gillham Plaza in midtown. Elements of Complete Streets were also used to help shape the mobility section of Kansas City’s new Climate Protection & Resiliency Plan.
Pedestrians are still not the priority
While Kansas City has made progress, residents and advocates are clear that improvements still need to be made.
Currently, BikeWalkKC is pushing for council to revisit the city’s Walkability Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2003. The Walkability Plan addresses a range of pedestrian issues, such as where pedestrian demand exists and whether the current pedestrian system is working.
According to Kelley, Kansas City roads were designed under standards that prioritize accommodating as many vehicles as possible on city streets, not the ease and safety of pedestrians.
“Because you do that you often come up with designs that lead to speeding, and we know that speed kills,” he said.
For those without sidewalks there is no choice but to walk in the road, and many neighborhoods don’t have adequate crosswalks, increasing the danger of crossing the street.
Walkability is an equity issue
Although walkability and pedestrian safety is an issue throughout the city, the burden of traffic danger disproportionately falls more on some communities than others.
Lower-income communities are less likely to have access to features like parks, sidewalks and street designs that promote safe walking, according to Smart Growth America. They are also more likely to contain major roads designed for high speeds and high traffic volumes at intersections.
That’s the case not just in Kansas City but around the region.
Tim Hayes, who lived in Grandview, Missouri, until last year, experienced the dangers of walking in a low-income neighborhood.
“Getting around in that whole area, there were absolutely no sidewalks at all,” he said.
Instead, pedestrians near his apartment complex had to walk in the feeder roads that lead into U.S. Highway 71.
Hayes has moved from a low-income housing complex to a higher-income and safer neighborhood.
“It’s just a night and day difference that people aren’t in the street,” he said.
According to Vision Zero, 89% of the city’s highest-risk roads are in transportation-disadvantaged areas, or areas where residents have trouble accessing basic services, such as employment, school and health care.
In Kansas City, neighborhoods in midtown are significantly safer for pedestrians than neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, Kelley said.
“Traffic violence is an equity issue,” he said.
Traffic danger is also disproportionately distributed among races. According to Smart Growth America, people of color, particularly Black and Native American pedestrians, are more likely to be victims of fatal or serious-injury crashes.
In Kansas City, Black users are twice as likely to be killed as white users, accounting for all types of car crashes, according to Vision Zero. Although only 27% of Kansas City residents identify as Black, 46% of crashes involved Black users.
Smart Growth America reports that older adults were also struck and killed at much higher rates than other populations in 2020.
Ira Boydston’s Red Bridge neighborhood does have sidewalks, but tree roots have broken some of them apart. Boydston has noticed that seniors have trouble navigating the bumpy sidewalks.
“I think it pushes them into their homes,” he said. “There’s a lot of folks that walk to use the neighborhood grocery store or to go to those neighborhood restaurants. And I think it probably limits some other people more than it should.”
Moving into the future of walkability
A study conducted by Kansas State University researchers looked into the pedestrian master plans of 15 major U.S. cities, not including Kansas City, to evaluate how well they were centering on the needs of marginalized communities.
Cities like Portland or Seattle accomplished all three metrics — acknowledging the problem, accountability from local government and application of a plan — resulting in a better distribution of public green spaces and sidewalk connectivity.
Washington, D.C., which scored fairly high in comparison to other cities, serves as an example of traffic safety challenges that can exist while working to improve walkability. The city launched its Vision Zero plan in 2015, when a pedestrian or bicyclist was dying on the street every 21 days. In 2021, a pedestrian or cyclist in D.C. died every 18 days, according to the Urban Institute.
Although D.C. has introduced measures on traffic safety and has higher quality infrastructure, the institute has noted that, like many cities, it still needs to integrate its walkability policies with discussions about resources, environmental quality and policing.
In Kansas City, Kelley thinks an upgrade of the Walkability Plan is an essential next step. The city needs current data and a clear agenda for making streets safer, especially in low-income neighborhoods, he said.
Since the 2003 plan was initially crafted, new ideas and values have been introduced to the walkability conversation. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by cars have become more central, as has equity.
Kelley also thinks any discussion on walkability should prioritize a reconnection of harmed communities. That’s especially the case on Kansas City’s east side, where neighborhoods were isolated by huge urban renewal and infrastructure projects, such as U.S. Highway 71.
“It is an obligation of the city to make this push because it is how we can right some of the wrongs that redlining and highway construction has created in predominantly Black and brown communities,” Kelley said.