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Another person in Kansas City was killed by a car. What is the city doing about pedestrian safety?

A man walks along a sidewalk that is somewhat uneven and there is grass growing between the cracks.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
BikeWalkKC's Michael Kelley walks past a crumbling section of sidewalk Thursday along Campbell Street near 30th Street in Kansas City.

The city’s plans, like Vision Zero and Complete Streets, are already improving accessibility for pedestrians. But advocates say more work needs to be done for everyone to have equitable access to safety.

A car backed into a person June 25, seriously injuring them. Just a day later, another driver left a walker in critical condition. A hit and run near Independence and Indiana Avenues the morning of June 23 left a pedestrian dead.

Sunday's accident is the fifth time in just two weeks that a car injured a Kansas City pedestrian. This year, 44 pedestrians, bicyclists or other drivers were killed in car accidents in Kansas City, compared to 33 this time last year. That’s brought renewed concerns about street safety throughout the city.

Of the 1,485 crash fatalities in the Kansas City metroover the last five years, pedestrians made up 13% — or more than 190 deaths — despite only accounting for about 6% of travelers.

Kansas City council member Melissa Robinson said that conditions for pedestrians are especially dire in northeast Kansas City, where last week's accident took place.

“I travel down Independence Avenue very frequently,” Robinson said. “It is difficult, even in a car, to be able to navigate that space because of the erratic driving, the speeds and all of that.”

Robinson says a large majority of her constituents only have access to deteriorating sidewalks — if there are any sidewalks at all.

“We know that the Third District residents are more dependent upon transportation based on walking and mass transit,” Robinson said. “We know that the third district has the least accessibility to cars. And so we, by essence, have more people who are dependent upon the sidewalks to get them from point A to point B.”

Where does Kansas City spend its money?

Kansas City levies a 1% sales tax that helps pay for capital improvement projects across the city — things like infrastructure maintenance, street resurfacing, bridge repairs, and local matches for federal programs.

Sidewalks and curbs make up part of that spending, too. Over the last two decades, city spending on sidewalks and curbs from the capital improvement sales tax has increased, both citywide and in-district.

Those funds have gone from about $3.5 million in 2000 to $6.7 million in 2020. By comparison, the city spent nearly $23 million on roads that same year.

Some recent city council efforts have made public spending on things like sidewalks more equitable, though.

For years, the only way Kansas City would know a sidewalk needed repair was if someone reported it through 311, the city service hotline. According to council member Eric Bunch, the average wait time from filing a report to getting a sidewalk fixed was about three years.

Once city workers did inspect and fix the sidewalk, property owners then had to foot the bill.

That was a problem for people living in lower-income and disinvested parts of the city. When people didn’t own their own homes, or when landlords didn’t want to pay to fix the sidewalk, they just went neglected.

In 2017, the city approved an increase in property taxes to fund infrastructure repair over 20 years. The General Obligation Bonds, or G.O. Bonds, amount to about $800 million to be spent over two decades. $150 million of those are allocated for sidewalks and ADA ramps, creating a pool of money the city can spend on such improvements instead of depending on property owners to initiate repairs.

The city also implemented a sidewalk inspection program so it doesn’t merely rely on 311 calls.

Robinson says people in her district have been fighting for decades to get their sidewalks fixed because the old way of prioritizing infrastructure clearly wasn’t working.

While improvements have been made, Robinson is firm that every change needs to be made with an eye on equity. People in poorer areas who have no choice but to walk and use public transit need these changes the most.

“When we talk about disinvestment, it's layers to this, and we have to start to think about how do we dismantle that,” Robinson said. “We are going to continue to have these issues as it relates to pedestrian safety if we don't prioritize building that infrastructure out and if we don't address a lot of the violent vehicular activity.”

A cracked and partially collapsing city sidewalk is shown in the foreground while a person's feet can be seen walking away in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
BikeWalkKC's Michael Kelley walks past a crumbling section of sidewalk Thursday along Campbell Street near 30th Street in Kansas City.

How is the city addressing mobility issues?

In 2020, the Kansas City council passed Vision Zero. The initiative includes intersection improvements, speed hump installations, traffic signal upgrades and building 30 miles of protected bike lanes — all in the hopes of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.

Last May, the city officially began the program by targeting six pilot locations based on high crash, fatality and injury rates.

Council member Eric Bunch, who introduced the measure, said Vision Zero is critical to making the city safer to navigate.

“The biggest correlated marker for danger is the speed of vehicles. So if you can slow vehicles down, you are going to improve safety. And so that's really what the basis of our vision zero policy is, to use data and identify where our most dangerous streets and intersections are and redesign the street in a way that reduces prevailing speeds.”

Poverty and lack of access to cars, crosswalks or other pedestrian amenities, as well as an abundance of high-capacity streets built to highway standards are making mobility issues worse, according to Bunch. He thinks the city needs to address these issues at the same time as traditional pedestrian infrastructure to truly make a difference.

Bunch believes the most effective way to do so is through a road diet: redesigning a large, multi-lane street to be more pedestrian-friendly by removing some travel lanes and replacing them with bike lanes and expanded sidewalks. More affordable options, like plastic posts, flower pots or on-street parking are also strategically used.

You can see the results of a road diet along the Gillham corridor, which was altered as part of Kansas City’s Complete Streets project that began in 2017. The ordinance sets guidelines for the city to develop a safe, integrated, and reliable transportation system.

Gillham now has protected bike lanes and improved crosswalks. Those changes help walkers and public transit and wheelchair users as well, according to Kelley.

Bike lanes have become a sort of flash point for a wider discussion of equitable mobility, and which neighborhoods get prioritized access to safer streets.

In October of 2021, Robinson introduced an ordinance that would direct the city to remove bike lanes if neighborhood associations did not want them.

The ordinance was not meant to go after bike lanes, but to ensure that necessary infrastructure like sidewalks was prioritized in the least accessible and poorest neighborhoods.

After a hot debate, it was amended to omit the bike lane removal and directed City Manager Brian Platt to develop a five-year bike plan with each City council member.

Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit that advocates for safer biking and walking environments, wants people to stop pitting walking against biking.

“Too often it feels like we are on the defensive because people are saying, ‘Well, my sidewalk is busted, so why should we be building a bike lane?’” Kelley said. “The bigger question is why are we repaving the street for the third time while the sidewalk is busted, and not including safer infrastructure that we know could make it safer for everyone?”

In 2019, the city passed an ordinance allowing people to walk, push a stroller and use a wheelchair in bike lanes. The idea is to improve overall safety by building an additional barrier of separation between pedestrians and drivers.

Despite these improvements, pedestrian injuries and fatalities remain and disproportionately affect those in underserved areas. Kansas City is currentlyranked 43 for pedestrian safety and 34 for bike safety out of the 51 most populous cities.

The city’s efforts aren’t going far enough, according to Kelley.

“We have to prioritize pedestrians and other vulnerable road users more so as a city. We only spend about 3% combined on pedestrian and bike infrastructure,” Kelley said. “We passed the G.O. bond, which was great, but we still have a $1 billion backlog. It's a recipe for disaster, especially for Black and brown residents of Kansas City.”

Kelley, who is Black, says creating safe biking and walking areas throughout the entire city is fundamental to creating safer streets and a healthier city. He walks and bikes to work as often as he can, but says it’s often dangerous to do so.

“It's not a question of can we, it's a question of how are we going to,” he said. “Part of the reason why this work is so important is because if we fail to do this it disproportionately impacts people who look like me.”

Individual interest in shared mobility is growing. Kelley said that changed when people were stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown and realized how disconnected they were.

Now, the mission is to harness that energy and keep people motivated to change their thoughts about public infrastructure – and make sure the city does more.

Kelley believes we can make the streets accessible, but the city has to follow through with plans like Vision Zero and Complete Streets.

“We are collectively making the decision to not invest in safer infrastructure and that's costing people their lives and livelihoods and it doesn't have to be that way,” Kelley said. “We have to make a collective decision to invest in better walking, better biking infrastructure and specifically do it in a way that supports the people who need it most if we're serious about dealing with this epidemic of traffic violence.”

Corrected: December 29, 2022 at 12:39 PM CST
A previous version of this story characterized the 44 fatalities by June of this year as pedestrian deaths. Those deaths also included bicyclists and other drivers.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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