Study after study and case after case have shown walkable communities improve the health of not only their people but also their environment. They also create a heightened sense of community, decrease crime, and encourage economic development. Despite this awareness, Kansas City is still failing to recognize the importance of walkability.
It is true that in Downtown Kansas City a great deal is happening to improve its walkability. The streetcar has helped expedite the resurgence of downtown and will connect some of Kansas City’s most walkable neighborhoods. The streetcar has developers eager to get their hands on transit-oriented developable land and has created an enormous opportunity for active street-level retail. Cisco is currently working with the City to transform downtown into a “smart city” that will allow the City to collect data to improve the way people move throughout the neighborhood. There is even a proposed road diet for Grand Boulevard to make Grand a “complete street.” This road diet will reduce the current number of lanes used for automobile traffic and will allow traffic engineers to place an emphasis on keeping bicyclists and pedestrians safe.
Unfortunately, people walking outside of Downtown are forced to create their own path. On any given street in Midtown, you will see people crossing the street without a crosswalk. The lack of crosswalks in Midtown are even further highlighted along 39th Street, which has been described as “an unmitigated pedestrian disaster.” 39th Street is a major east/west artery that serves neighborhoods of all income levels and features many cultural landmarks, but it severely lacks the necessary safety measures to protect and encourage pedestrians.
Recently, after personally witnessing a large family with small children trying to time traffic and sprint in fear of their lives crossing 39th Street at Walnut, I filed a case with 311 to ask for a crosswalk across 39th Street. To my surprise and utter delight, within a week of filing the case, a traffic survey crew showed up to record foot traffic at the intersection. I thought that finally the city would recognize the immediate need to invest in our neighborhoods and help keep our people safe. A week later, the city informed me forty-four people had crossed 39th Street at Walnut during the twelve hour survey period. They told me this would NOT justify a crosswalk! Forty-four people risking their lives to get where they were going did not justify spending a mere two thousand bucks to add a basic safety measure needed in urban, walkable areas.
These survey crews are supposed to record for a twelve hour period. Assuming each member of the crew were paid ten dollars per hour, the city spent $480 to tell me there is no need for a basic safety measure in our urban public space. These wages could have paid for one section of crosswalk! Instead, money was wasted and no improvements were made. I’ve heard people say that counting pedestrians where there is no crosswalk is like “counting the number of people who swam across the Missouri River before building the Broadway Bridge.” This is not only hilarious but perfectly illustrates the city’s reluctance to invest in pedestrian infrastructure. How effective is it to record people crossing the street when the city has allowed it be dangerous to cross? Does the city record how many cars drive on undeveloped land before building a new road?
If the city is not willing to invest in making our streets people-friendly, they will remain vacant. Empty streets breed blight and vandalism. Two gorgeous historic buildings sit at the intersection of 39th Street and Walnut. Both have been tagged with spray paint twice in the last month. On the northeast corner of this intersection sits the Walnut Street shops, a single level retail building outlined with flamboyant terra cotta that would have only been added to buildings during KC’s golden era. The Walnut Street Shops appear to be about 30% occupied, have bullet holes in the windows, and are often surrounded by litter. Discouraging pedestrians away from the building has helped this blight to take over.
I am hopeful that as our city and planet continue to urbanize, our local government will place more value in investing to make our streets for people. Until we focus on making our neighborhoods walkable, we will continue to lag behind most other major U.S. cities and will never have a chance to become a world class city. Aside from this issue, I’ve often said this is the best time to be in Kansas City since Prohibition; of course in those days streets were for everyone and not just cars.