Safer Streets Are Worth the Wait

On September 30th, the volunteer-based, tactical urban design group BetterBlockKC transformed a parking lane into what we’re calling a “Mobility Lane”. This mobility lane is a parking and cinder block protected two-way cycle track constructed for bicyclists, scooters, skateboards, and other forms of micro mobility transportation. BetterBlockKC did this by moving the existing parking lane into a travel lane and thus removing one southbound lane of automobile traffic on Oak Street in the Crossroads neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. BetterBlockKC also collaborated with Kansas City’s Department of Public Works to modify the traffic signals at two intersections into blinking red four way stops.

Perhaps the world’s first known shared use ‘mobility lane’ and first known on-street scooter symbols on Oak Street

This mobility lane and four way stop intersections have drastically reduced automobile speeds creating a safer and more peaceful urban street for all users. 18th and Oak is no ordinary intersection. It’s an intersection that has been plagued by high speed car crashes and dangerous conditions. Over the last few years an historic building was badly damaged from an automobile smashing into it and several bike share docks were destroyed from a different car crash. These two car crashes are among many at this intersection and along this stretch of Oak Street.   

Building collapse at 18th and Oak following car crash

The design demonstration on Oak Street has significantly decreased this threat by dramatically slowing traffic speeds. This is accomplished by removing an extra automobile travel lane, creating “friction along the edge,” and requiring cars to slow down and stop at two of the intersections. Not only is this street now safer for all users through the slower automobile speeds but there is now also a safe space for bicyclists, scooters, and skateboards to ride separate from the automobile traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Parked cars, bikes and scooters helps slow down traffic and provide a safety barrier.

Additionally, the pedestrian experience is safer and more pleasant by adding sidewalk seating, decorative landscaping, and shortening the pedestrian crossing distance on Oak Street. In addition to the safety improvements, a significant amount of parking has been added to the street including two additional automobile spaces, twelve bike parking spaces, twenty-five scooter parking spaces, and several motorcycle spaces.

On-street bike and scooter parking

These improvements were achieved with $2500 dollars, twelve volunteers, and six hours of labor.

Mobility lane looking North from 19th and Oak

So why will this likely not be made permanent and why are city leaders not rushing to make these improvements all over town? My best guess lies within two thirty-minute periods of time that occur five days a week. This peak travel time at rush hour is when the most amount of people are simultaneously heading to or from their workplace. This is the metric most often used to determine the number of lanes and their width necessary for our roads to meet traffic engineers’ “level of service” (another metric used to quantify how long a car sits at an intersection or the level of congestion on a roadway).

On Friday, October 5th, traffic observations revealed that the demonstration has created a scenario that the American traffic engineer has so work so hard to avoid; stacking of automobiles during the peak travel time. Since the design demonstration removed a lane of traffic, commuting automobiles have stacked up past the next block during the rush half-hour that is experienced each workday morning and afternoon. Beginning at about 5:10pm and lasting till 5:40 pm, automobile traffic backed up nearly a block and a half. The observations revealed traffic flows smoothly anytime in the day or night before and after this time period but during this thirty minutes traffic was observed stacking up for about a block and half. At the height of this stacking we recorded that it took a car 2 minutes and 43 seconds to travel through the intersections at Truman Road, 17th Street, 18th Street and 19th on Oak Street. This was an eighty degree First Friday afternoon with special event traffic and may represent the busiest possible conditions.

Which leads me to pose this question….

How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to build safer streets for all users?

Are we willing to make automobiles spend an extra two and half minutes in traffic once or twice a day in order provide a vibrant street that is safer for all users 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

Are we willing to let these cars sit in the traffic they’ve created to prevent our historic buildings and active transportation infrastructure from being destroyed by the same cars sitting the extra two minutes in traffic?

Those are questions we will have to answer together as a society.

My belief is it’s well worth having a small amount of people spend a few extra minutes in our city in order to provide a safer urban experience and environment for all.

The demonstration has been in place since October 1st. I have watched traffic speeds on southbound Oak dramatically slow down to around ten miles per hour. I have watched scores of pedestrians safely crossing the street at the intersection including those in a stroller and wheelchair. I have seen numerous scooters and bicycles ride safely in the mobility lane. In the same lane I have seen people jogging, I have seen people on rollerblades, longboards, and skateboards carrying along safely without disrupting pedestrians. I’ve counted more than thirty requests for permanency, along with innumerable “thank you’s” over the period of the demonstration. 

Group of scooterists enjoying the mobility lane on a Saturday afternoon

However, I fear that the dozen or so commuter complaints will outweigh the benefits provided by the mobility lane road diet.  I fear that on October 27th, when this demonstration was completed, Oak Street reverted back to its high speed, high risk conditions without a push for slower traffic speeds. I have been made aware of a few complaints from commuters who are upset with their small increase in travel time. I have been told we’ve created a “mess”, a “traffic nightmare” and had one complainer who stated we added “a few seconds” to her commute yet everyone of these complaints stem from a half hour period in the morning and the afternoon. While these complaints are valid, I fear these complaints will be used to justify keeping the current conditions on our dangerous and overly wide roads.  Based on my experience, small increases in travel time is the primary issue preventing traffic calming improvements being made permanently and rapidly in our city.

For the last sixty years, we’ve allowed traffic engineers to design our roads in an attempt allow as much automobile traffic to flow as quickly as possible. While this initially provided an increase in freedom and access to previously difficult to reach places, this hegemony of automobile infrastructure has led to exorbitant levels of congestion and pollution, unprecedented levels of obesity and heart disease, and tragic levels of depression and social isolation. This prioritization of automobile traffic has created dangerous road conditions for motorists and a treacherous environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooterists.

Should we sacrifice everyone’s safety in order to allow commuters to move as quickly as possible or should we design roads that provide the safest environment for all users at all times?

In my opinion. if we are willing to let commuters spend an extra few minutes in traffic, we can create a safer, healthier, and cleaner city for all.

The mobility lane is great way to travel for a weekday lunch break

To see for yourself the traffic flow during the morning and afternoon rush hours, check out the videos below.  Additional videos can be viewed by clicking here.