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What's the worst intersection in Kansas City? All of them

Four cars and a van drive west on West 39th Street while a black car drives east. Another black car waits to turn left onto Southwest Trafficway. On the left foreground, two people on scooters use the sidewalk to avoid traffic. In the background is a line of construction cones.
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
Drivers and two people on scooters attempt to navigate traffic at the intersection of Southwest Trafficway and West 39th Street. Councilman Eric Bunch says the road is "essentially building a highway through an historic neighborhood."

From Southwest Trafficway to Van Brunt Boulevard, Kansas City's streets are confusing to navigate and dangerous for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike. The city is working to fix the worst, but there are too many to tackle all at once.

A triangle of seemingly unending chaos and a sign declaring “Old Westport” greets drivers at the intersection of Southwest Trafficway and Westport Road, where the two busy thoroughfares crisscross with both 43rd Street and Belleview Ave.

Here’s what Kansas Citians say about this intersection: “Triangle of death.” “It scares me to death.” “Absolutely god awful.” “I feel like I will die there every time.”

In late August, a user on the Kansas City subreddit asked the simple question: “What is the most cursed intersection in Kansas City?”

The thread quickly became a pile-on. Redditors pointed out more than 40 “cursed” locations within the metro, complaining about a lack of safe crosswalks, confusing lanes, prohibited left turns and the tendency of drivers to speed through without caution.

The answer that generated by far the most agreement — and hatred — was Westport Road and Southwest Trafficway. But it’s far from the only intersection frustrating drivers, bikers and pedestrians alike.

Among the other most mentioned were:

  • East 39th Street and Gillham Road
  • Southwest Trafficway and West 39th Street
  • Roanoke Parkway, Belleview Avenue and Ward Parkway
  • and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Cherry Street and Rockhill Road.

Kansas City Councilman Eric Bunch understands the frustration many residents feel about what he calls the city’s “challenging” intersections.

“People have kind of preordained ideas of what an intersection should look like,” he says. “And when you add in different ways to get through, it becomes confusing.”

Cars at the expense of everyone else

At East 31st Street and Van Brunt Boulevard, pedestrians hesitate to cross the street. The intersection resembles a rectangle interrupted by a triangle and a cloverleaf.

In an attempt to calm traffic, seven stoplights pepper the intersection. Still, it’s perilous for drivers and not exactly welcoming to pedestrians either — there are no paths for anyone jogging east, and people have to leapfrog five lanes of cars and two medians just to cross the street.

The white paint marking the crosswalk is fading. No trees offer shade from the relentless sun, and dry, unkempt grass borders the sidewalks.

If you’re approaching in a car, the only protected left turn is northbound from Emanuel Cleaver II onto 31st — and at some points during the day, all but one left turn are prohibited.

Next to the intersection is a major RideKC transit center with four stops. But Denise Brown, who picks up the bus here every day, says she doesn’t feel safe navigating the street.

“It's very scary because drivers here in Kansas City do not believe that pedestrians have the right of way when they're crossing,” Brown says. “They'll hurry up and turn in front of you. I've almost gotten hit by somebody that was trying to beat traffic and turned in front of me when I had the right of way to cross.”

Brown does all she can to avoid this intersection and instead crosses over at Linwood Boulevard, about a block up.

“I feel it's safer, and it's less traffic and less intersections to have to try to mingle your way through,” she says.

According to Bunch and pedestrian safety advocates, Kansas City’s inhospitable intersections are symptomatic of a larger problem: a streetscape that caters primarily to cars.

“We've established a culture here that, in regards to traffic, the most important thing is moving vehicles quickly, and that has become the expectation,” Bunch says. “That has come with the direct expense of the safety of everyone, not just pedestrians and people on bikes, people waiting for the bus, but the people driving too.”

A blue car attempts to turn left as a black car continues straight. A covered wagon sits by a sign that reads "Old Westport" with three flags, colored red, white, and blue, overtop. Overhead is a traffic light with the road sign "Belleview."
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
Two cars pause at the intersection of Southwest Trafficway and Westport Road as one attempts to turn left while another goes straight. This intersection was the most mentioned "cursed" intersection on the Reddit post.

Southwest Boulevard and Avenida Cesar E. Chavez, underneath I-35 in between the Westside and Crossroads, is another example of a pedestrian-unfriendly intersection.

There’s no signal indicating when it’s safe to cross — what’s called an “uncontrolled crosswalk.” Though there is a “sharrow” (a shared lane marking with a biker and arrows painted on the street to promote sharing the road) there’s no protected bike lane either.

That combination leaves pedestrians and cyclists vulnerable to drivers whizzing by on the 35 mph road, which many cars treat the same as the highway above.

Its shape is fairly straightforward — a triangle with three stoplights. But Abby Kinney, an urban designer at Multi Studio, said it’s too dangerous for the downtown location.

“There's lots of different cars coming from lots of different directions trying to move very quickly — that is fundamentally going to be dangerous,” Kinney said. “People are just trying to use it to commute in and out of the city and move from point A to point B. I think that's the intent of the interstate and highway networks. I think that local streets, to the extent possible, should not be emphasized for that kind of use.”

According to the Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City averaged about 255 fatal car crash injuries per year from 2016-2020, and an average of about 1,281 serious injuries per year.

During that five-year span, the city also recorded an average of 140 pedestrian fatalities and serious injury crashes per year.

Southwest Trafficway has the misfortune of being listed multiple times on the Kansas City Subreddit’s list of “cursed intersections.” And data shows that this specific road is a hotspot for car crashes, with more than 100 accidents from 2016-2020.

The most dangerous spot was at Westport Road and Southwest Trafficway, which claimed nearly 40 crashes just by itself. Bunch says Southwest Trafficway’s six-lane design is incompatible with the neighborhoods it cuts through.

“The issue is not just the intersection,” Bunch said. “It is essentially building a highway through an historic neighborhood.”

Bunch says that roads with more than two lanes encourage drivers to speed. Along Southwest Trafficway, the speed limit is 35 mph, but drivers often go far over.

With three lanes across in each direction, the road is wide and unfriendly to pedestrians, bikers and those on scooters, who often resort to using the sidewalks instead of the road like they’re meant to.

“That also contributes to this vicious cycle of, pedestrians don't feel comfortable, they don't feel safe,” Bunch says. “People on bikes don't feel safe.”

When weirder is safer

A man riding a bicycle uses a bike lane next to traffic along a busy street. The intersection shows it is located at 39th Street and Gillham Road.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
A bicyclist pedals along Gillham Road at 39th Street recently where riders can more easily navigate the busy intersection. Kelley says the protected bike lanes help drivers pay more attention on the road.

Kansas Citians label as “weird” the kind of streets that make driving difficult for cars, and crossing unsafe for pedestrians. Those are the kind of roads that dominate in a city designed for cars — the metro has 6.7 road miles for every 1,000 residents.

Kinney said drivers deem roads "weird” almost anytime they’re not in a standard grid pattern.

But there’s another kind of weird intersection that Kinney actually wants to be more common.

Local governments use what’s called a “road diet” to change the number of driving lanes and add infrastructure: protecting bike lanes, extending curbs, raising crosswalks or adding flashing signs to increase visibility, and building speed humps to disrupt car movement.

These different configurations can reduce the number of cars, and force drivers to slow down and pay more attention to where they’re going. At the same time, they provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists.

“If you look at cities that were built before cars, they're filled with weird intersections,” Kinney said. “What makes them dangerous is trying to overlay the ability to move giant machines through them very quickly.”

Kansas City has been working towards a two-year goal of 30 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of 2022. So far, more than 16 miles have been completed, and spokesperson Sherae Honeycutt says Kansas City is “well on our way to meeting our goal.”

You can see the results along Gillham Road as it intersects with East 39th Street in Midtown, particularly several miles of a protected bike lane that is separated from cars with bollards.

102521_cm_BikeLane
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City is working towards a goal of 30 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of 2022. So far, 16 have been completed.

Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC, frequently bikes the Gillham track. Since the first section was completed in 2021, Kelley says he’s seen a lot more cyclists, joggers, skateboarders and parents with babies using it.

“That encourages people to drive more carefully and to drive in a manner which not only makes for a calmer environment for people outside the car but gives them more time to react responsibly,” Kelley says.

But Kinney thinks more of the city’s notorious roads could use an intervention, even if they’re not the same solutions.

Some of these improvements are happening as part of Kansas City’s “Vision Zero” effort, which intends to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injury crashes by 2030.

Kansas City Council voted to formally adopt the Vision Zero plan in August, and more intersection improvements are slated in the coming months and years — meaning more bike lanes and road diets.

However, only two “cursed” intersections on the Reddit list — Southwest Trafficway and West 39th, and West 79th and Ward Parkway — are currently included in the list of Vision Zero improvements.

Bunch says the city is using crash data to prioritize its projects. People can add intersections they’d like to see improved to the Vision Zero Engagement Map or voice their concerns on a city survey.

Vision Zero isn’t the only effort underway to make roads more accessible, though.

Kinney says she's developing street improvement plan with the city along Broadway Boulevard, with an eye on key intersections near Westport.

“Broadway has a lot of opportunities to be deemphasized as a thoroughfare that people just use to barrel through town,” Kinney said. “Those types of interventions that deemphasize it as a thoroughfare and reemphasize it as a public space will be different than the more traffic engineering oriented interventions.”

The city is also working on building safer and more connected sidewalks using funding from a bond program approved in 2017. The public can give their opinions on the current state of the city’s sidewalks and give input on new projects through an online survey or at an open house Sept. 13.

Rethinking our streets entirely

The intersection at 31st Street and Van Brunt is one of the "cursed" intersections most hated by Kansas Citians.
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
The intersection at 31st Street and Van Brunt is one of the "cursed" intersections most hated by Kansas Citians.

Sungyop Kim, a professor of urban design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, wants to see a grander-scale re-envisioning of the city.

Kim says that improving just a few intersections in a neighborhood with the highest recorded crash frequencies will only make the surrounding streets more dangerous. Instead, he believes they all should be improved in tandem.

“[If] you want to improve one intersection, you reduce the number of traffic lanes and improve the safety environment,” Kim said. “Then what happens? The parallel streets will get the impact.”

Kim says a larger culture shift needs to change behaviors to be more inclusive of non-car users, whom many drivers still view as a nuisance.

“The number of crashes is basically a function of pedestrian and traffic volume,” Kim said. “If you really want to reduce crashes, come up with some ideas about how to reduce the number of vehicles.”

Kim says he’s already seeing this shift in younger generations, who report preferring walkable communities with more transit options.

“Generation X or even Baby Boomers — when they got a job, what was the first thing they (bought)? A car,” Kim says. “(With) this generation, it's not like that. So to me, these new generations prefer to live in more organized areas with less emphasis on vehicles.”

He says the key is making alternatives to driving more appealing.

“Visibility is an extremely important issue,” Kim says. “When you see a lot of people walking around, then you begin to walk too. When people begin to ride bicycles, then a lot of people can join in.”

Kansas City Councilman Eric Bunch, whose district includes Midtown, frequently bikes and walks around the city with his three kids. Though he’s encouraged by recent pivots to prioritize pedestrian safety, he still sees Kansas City for what it is: a car-centric metro.

And he knows firsthand the consequences — like when he brings his kids to school and drivers don’t stop for them at a crosswalk.

With two five-year-olds and one nine-year-old, Bunch’s children already notice the ways their city is unfriendly to even the youngest of pedestrians.

“I think traffic engineers could learn a lot from talking to kids who walk to school and understand why they make decisions on where they walk,” Bunch says. “Even my five-year-olds points out things that you don't expect kids to think about, and it's because it's their world, it's their environment. Walking in their neighborhood is something that they enjoy doing, but they have to take some of the bad with the good.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives.
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