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Streets with no cars

I'm in Kansas City, MO, today at the International Association of Assessing Officers where my friend Joe Minicozzi and I are scheduled to give a presentation tomorrow. I had an open day yesterday and, after getting a little caught up on sleep, I spent a large portion of the day out and about. I walked the streets and I biked the streets in an effort to get to know downtown KC a little bit better.

I wish I could report I am impressed because I really want to like it here.

While there are many things that really depress me about America's cities, particularly those in the Midwest, there is one thing that stands out above the rest: our misunderstanding of what a street is. If you were from Kansas City, you would be excused for believing that streets are corridors for moving automobiles quickly from one parking lot to another. You would be excused because that is all you see.

Except for the fact that there are virtually no cars. That is another component of this entire mess: there is really no traffic to speak of. We're fighting a beast that does not exist. Let me elaborate.

Like many cities, the streets of downtown Kansas City are unnecessarily wide. In addition, parking along the streets is mostly prohibited, ostensibly so there are ample driving lanes for all of the traffic. In many places, the streets have been configured in what is known as a "one-way coupling" where traffic flows in one direction on every other street. This, too, is to provide for a fast flow of high volumes of traffic.

After devoting all of this effort and valuable real estate to moving automobiles quickly, Kansas City then does what every city does: they install traffic signals everywhere. Cars are forced to stop every block or two and wait while the signal cycles from red to green.

Here's what is most odd about all of this: there's virtually no traffic.

I was out around lunch time and then again during rush hour. In the latter, Joe and I are biking down the street and, in the couple of miles we went, we were passed by no more than three cars. There was just nobody out there. On the way back to the hotel, we were just walking down the middle of the street laughing about how there was literally nobody here in a car.

This is a city of nearly half a million people. The city has spent billions on getting them in their cars. Where are they? 

Joe Minicozzi recklessly dodging the traffic on our walk back to the hotel in Kansas City.I quite frankly don't know the answer to this question, but I understand the ramifications. By adopting the approach that they have, Kansas City and other cities like it have:

  • Created a public realm where someone (pedestrian or driver) does not have to worry about the volume of cars but their excessive speed due to the needlessly wide lanes.
  • Forced themselves and their business community to pay for expensive off-street parking by needlessly restricting on-street parking.
  • Given up the value of all of the development space that is currently devoted to parking cars, all while the streets are vacant.
  • Needlessly spent tens of millions of dollars or more on traffic signals.
  • Needlessly delayed millions of motorists who sit at signals while no cars approach from any direction.
  • Limit the overall desirability of the downtown by making the public realm, and the corresponding adjacent land use pattern, auto dominated.
  • Built a system of transport that is inefficient and unsafe.

I'm willing to bet that downtown Kansas City has a rate (incident per capita, incident per vehicle-miles-traveled) of fatal car car accidents and a rate of insurance claims for auto accidents higher than New York City. I'll bet it is far, far higher. Anyone who has access to such data, please prove me right or wrong.

And let me talk about efficiency, which seems to be the metric we want to use to judge success. Who is this system efficient for? If it is the driver, then we need to do something about the traffic lights. If it is the taxpayer, then we should do something about the hierarchical road network because, as is obvious from watching the traffic patterns today, the capacity that has been paid for is not being used efficiently. It is largely being wasted.

Here are the immediate things I would do tomorrow if I were put in charge of renovating Kansas City's downtown:

  1. Remove all one-way couplings. Every street will have two way traffic.
  2. Allow parking on every street.
  3. Where streets are too wide for two travel lanes and two parking lanes, stripe for bike lanes and/or buffers. The lane widths must be narrowed.
  4. Change all signalized intersections into a shared space area. As a temporary transition, shut off the traffic lights and paint the intersections to alert everyone that this is shared space.
  5. Deploy aggressive traffic calming devices where the highways and major arterial STROADs empty into the downtown.
  6. Sit back and watch the downtown prosper.

Now there are many more things that would need to be done -- a regulatory framework and tax system that supported vertical expansion and good urbanism would be paramount -- but these steps would remove the major obstacles this downtown faces.

Oh, and did I mention that this would be far less expensive than the current approach. Like vastly cheaper. I believe that makes this approach more financially viable than what the local engineer and public works departments likely have planned in their fantasy wish list of projects to theoretically be funded by someone else. Let's see a credible, locally-funded alternative from them.

And remember, it is not like there are that many cars today that would even notice.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (22)

I would do most of those things, but some of them would bring consequences that you might not expect. I have alluded before to the numerous conflicts that can be created by the installation of bike lanes. For example, turning/crossing conflicts, accumulation of foreign material, maintenance problems, conflicts with parked cars, and buzzing by drivers in the next lane.. The issue is too involved to go into here, but I am always happy to talk about it. There are some studies that demonstrate the "gun-barrel effect". The effect is that narrowing lanes while keeping the total pavement width the same does not slow traffic and can even speed traffic up. This is because the space outside the lane visually separates the lane from the surroundings and allows a driver to narrow their focus and look farther ahead. To slow down traffic you have to bring the surroundings closer. If it is not practical to expand the sidewalk, you could still do this by using the extra space not for bike lanes but for things that might normally go on a wide sidewalk or "Parking Day" kinds of installations (see http://parkingday.org/).

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon

Just looking at Google Maps it's easy to see that Kansas City is a poster city for the "Old Economy"; if you look at demographics you see that KC has now the same population as in 1950, but I bet that the portion of built environmente probably tripled or more.

This was obtained in the usual way:

- first they chocked downtown in a ring of highways, destroying the city grid
- then procedeed in tearing down most of hystorical downtown to create more and more parking lots
- in the meanwhile the fleeing population was accomodated in the eastern part of the city which consists (95% of it) of the usual dreadful "tract housing"

Given this, why people would want to drive downtown is anybody's guess; this pattern has been repeated very successfully in hundrends of places throuighout the entire US of A. To repair this kind of damage it takes more than a bucket of paint... but it's a start.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkantor

There are some sidewalks that ought to be expanded before adding street parking for the cars that don't exist. http://goo.gl/maps/bKafg

Sharrows can be used in place of bicycle lanes, if the speed limits are low enough as they often are in downtown areas. This would save space on the roads over bicycle lanes.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

Sounds like they were so successful in making downtown so car oriented that nobody wants to be there anymore.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Chambers

Kansas City itself has about 500,000 but the entire metro area has about 2 million I believe. I live a couple hours south of KC metro and I used to try to go up there at least 3 or 4 times a year.
Anymore we go once a year (if that) because you spend more time in your car than wherever it is you're actually going. It takes us 2 hours to get to KC metro and 2 1/2 hours to get to the other side! There's only 2 million people!
As for the driving itself, I'm willing to bet arguments that started while driving through KC has caused numerous divorces. Thank goodness for GPS.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Wilson

I'm not sure you have a solid grasp of when rush hour is, because it's clearly dark outside in your photo, and it's currently not getting dark until after 7:30pm. I know exactly where you're standing, on Southwest Boulevard, which is a major street that funnels downtown traffic onto I-35 between 4:00pm and 6:30pm generally. I'm not sure based on the things you've said that you make an extremely strong case, because most of the assertions you make I can directly refute with evidence based on studies which have been held for longer than one 12 hour period. In addition, there are very FEW streets in downtown KC which don't allow parking at one point in the day or another. I just really don't think you've viewed an accurate representation of downtown KC traffic on a Wednesday night in the dark. I'm also not exactly sure what area you were in, because you don't reference any streets specifically except for the general term "downtown" and one photo which is actually in the Crossroads, south of downtown.

That being said, you make an interesting point about parking garages and surface lots (which I do agree with on the whole, but needs specific local study to asses). Also, yes, there are a handful of intersections where stoplights could be removed, and it would still be relatively safe and improve traffic flow, but the majority of lights serve an excellent purpose of aiding in traffic flow during rush volume.

Yes, there need to be more bike lanes on major streets, but that's an active issue that's being resolved.

I think, overall, your argument is based on several skewed generalities and no real long term evidence. There are actually several groups in KC who are actively working to improve street scape and traffic flow, which you can most notably see on Main street between 31st and the plaza - a result of Maincor's efforts.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWinifred

I was waiting for the person to say, "You're not being fair, dude, that photo was not taken at night and not during rush hour. You are misrepresenting the facts."

Whatever. I believe I indicated when I was out and it is pretty clear the photo was taken in the evening.

I stayed in the hotel across from the convention center. I walked over to the "Power and Light" area and back, doing a big loop, right during rush hour. I suppose it was a Tuesday and there was a full moon and the Royals were playing the Twins at Target Field, but the reality is, I saw what I saw. I then biked out to where Joe was staying, which was a ways south. Same deal - virtually no traffic.

I'm not sure how you measure things over the long term, but if you are arguing that the streets there are anywhere near capacity, you have an uphill argument. Post links to your studies and data -- I'd love to see them.

I've had some pushback from KC people in my email and on FB telling me that they are doing something about this. That's fantastic and I really hope it is true. The fact is that today the downtown is designed to prioritize fast moving automobile traffic and that is silly because there isn't even much traffic there, or anything else for that matter. If you are an advocate for change, that should be an easy argument you would use.

Finally, I'm not sure what "excellent purpose" traffic signals serve in an urban area. They are a response to excessive design speeds, nothing else. You should watch this video about what life was like when the traffic signals went out in London. People got to where they were going more quickly and safely.

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBcz-Y8lqOg&feature=share&list=PL5F6239474400B42C

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vi0meiActlU&feature=relmfu

Traffic signals are a big experiment where there is no control group to measure success. We should stop defending them just because our minds have difficulty grasping an alternative. The idea that they somehow make traffic flow "improved" is unsupported dogma. Where is the alternative approach we can compare it to?

I'll be back in KC in February for a longer period of time. Let's see some of these changes in place that everyone is touting and acting so defensive over and I'll gladly report on how wonderful downtown Kansas City is. Nothing would make me happier.

September 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

In a regular grid, like the one most American cities have (or had, before being scarred by urban highways) stop lights are a traffic exciting (as opposed to traffic calming) device, in that they cause a "dragster style" race from red light to red light.

Probably it would be more than enough to install roundabouts every three intersections or so to get a smooth flow with a uniform (and slower speed). This path has been widely explored in Europe where stop lights are removed with increasing frequency.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkantor

As a lifelong Kansas Citian...AMEN! There is always talk of progress and change, but during my lifetime that talk leads to one step forward and two steps back. I have yet to hear someone make a case that the city as a whole has done a good job with street maintenance in the past 30yrs. I appreciate an outsider helping us see our streets differently. I don't accept the status quo in KC. This isn't a conversation about blame. It's about coming together to create a future that we want...and a recognition that our physical cities are driven by street design...and that people are what matter most when making these decisions.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLawrence

Go around with locals next time. You'll get a better understanding of KC.

And don't be so defensive when people disagree with your assessments. You were here for a day and apparently consulted no locals on the situation you saw. Allow for the fact that you may not have gotten an accurate picture of the place, without resorting to snarking about the full moon or Royals game.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

It sounds like KC has "built a church for Easter Sunday," so to speak. It doesn't matter if it's downtown or not, after dark or not. Unless the photo was taken at midnight, they've overbuilt that road so that there's hardly ever any traffic delay, even during rush hour.

In terms of cost effectiveness, in the absence of road pricing, the optimal amount of traffic congestion is not zero congestion, it's the amount of congestion that causes a delay that reduces tax revenue by the amount it would require to add capacity. That's why a road that doesn't get congested every day is visible proof of a waste of tax money.

And that's why the photo and Winifred's post strongly suggest that the roads in KC are overbuilt.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDerek


Thanks for your comments. I probably sounded defensive, but if we were talking in person you would see that I am simply frustrated.

My eyes see what they see. Granted, that often is different than what a lot of people see, especially in their own communities. For me, it's not good enough, and I don't accept when people casually dismiss obvious observations. We've grown numb to how ridiculous it all is.

It was said that my assertions could be easily refuted with studies. Post the links. I want to see them. I'd love to have an intellectual discussion on what these studies actually tell us.

I would suggest that it is a lot less than what our eyes would tell us if they were all the way open.

September 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Hi friends ,
This article very interesting. specifically
In a regular grid, like the one most American cities have (or had, before being scarred by urban highways) stop lights are a traffic exciting (as opposed to traffic calming) device, in that they cause a "dragster style" race from red light to red light
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Attractive for every one. Hybride cars are the new generation
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September 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteryogendra

Kansas City's war on traffic: Mission Accomplished.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan Rasmussen

Kansas City is sort of a wreck. I went to UMKC, where I studied urban planning. My expertise is not traffic though, but i can speak to the experience I had from 2000-2004 while I was in school. I arrived with a bike and no car, intending to ride around as I had done in St. Louis. Low and behold there were very few roads that felt 'safe' to ride on, and very few destinations outside of mid-town worth going to anyhow, and one actual bike trail that I can remember (which had stops signs at every block making it basically a sidewalk-not a bike trail). I was also struck by the utter lack of trees, there was almost no shade on the streets during the summer, and during the winter the combination of a rigid grid and very few trees seems to create a wind-tunnel effect that is really intense. It is funny to me that KC has so much great design, but is so terribly designed! You see lots of cool architecture around town, no doubt, like the Nelson Atkins and the PAC, and there are great neighborhoods like the 39th street and the Crossroads, but everything seems to be separated by acres and acres of pavement. I don't know, it always felt like something was wrong with the place.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLorin

there's a few things going right that you don't see

1. Kansas City's wide streets are a result of streetcars, not autos. we once had 300 miles of them. they put plenty of space for everyone back in the early 1900s. we have been a fan of wide streets for 100+ years. we've had plans for on-street parking for 100+ years

2. there's three streets moving to being two-way downtown in the next few years, two of which go right through the densest part of downtown. they converted a fourth a few years ago.

3. downtown has an access problem. a few streets get over used because of where people come into downtown. Look at a map and you'll see there's few streets that go from 3rd to 32nd all the way through. this situation actually is a result of the terminal railroad lines at approx 22nd that went in back in around 1914.

The streets which are contiguous get more traffic. Main isn't congested but there's traffic on it far more regularly compared to Baltimore.

4. downtown at night is largely dead except around Power & Light. It's 100x busier than it was 5 years ago but you still need to be there the right days

5. insurance rates for me would double to move south of the river. can't speak to accident rates, I just know that In years I don't recall ever seeing an accident downtown. the cost is mostly from theft rates

6. we have on street parking in excess. I can find a on street spot within a block of my destination in the middle of the day. if not, there's 30,000 lot and garage spots inside the loop and even more private spots. we do not need parking at all.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Since you asked about a comparison between Kansas City and New York City, Kansas City has an average annual pedestrian fatality rate (per 100,000 people) of 1.2, and New York's is 1.9. I believe these stats are for the MSAs, not just the cities proper. See http://t4america.org/resources/dangerousbydesign2011/states/worst-metros/.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Zgoda

KC looks relatively similar to Calgary in some respects, where I've been for a couple days. Calgary also has one way coupling, lights at every intersection and wide streets. Calgary is also a new city, even more than KC, it only had 10% of the population it has today around WWII compared to about 20% for KC (comparing metros), Calgary is also 2 times smaller (metro wise). Calgary's downtown however seems much busier, with more auto-traffic, more office buildings (afaik Calgary has the most centralized office space among major North American cities) and fewer parking lots. There's also a decent amount of pedestrians, a pedestrian mall and a transit mall, the downtown streets being overall quite autocentric. It actually has a lot of roads/highways that are essentially like the super-streets, but mostly they go through the suburban areas and to downtown (and turning into 1 way roads downtown) and not really circling downtown like KC's highways.

I do think traffic signals are needed when high volume roads intersect though, which is what most of Calgary's intersections are like. London's streets are generally smaller and slower. To get an idea of what major intersections without lights are like, look up Indian or Vietnamese intersections on youtube. The number of fatal road accidents in these countries is also orders of magnitude higher than in the USA relative to the number of vehicles.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicolas

Goof perspectives, but I want to provide a bit more context. Yes we have some serious 20th century legacies to overcome, but we are doing it in unique and locally-driven ways.

As mentioned earlier, street widths are a result of the former streetcar system, which provided much more space for transit and less for cars. The curb widths and street walls have not changed much since the early 1900s.

The city is in the middle of a multi-year effort to convert one-way streets to two-way. At least one couplet falls each year. You can't see it in one day, but much progress has been made.

10-12 miles of bike lanes are planned for downtown over the next two years. The city has made good progress on adding bike lanes to new streets in the more suburban areas that are still developing, and now there is a concerted effort to retrofit existing streets in the urban core.

Oh and we launched a bike share system as an advocacy tool to catalyze a faster pace of bike infrastructure development.

BRT has been very successful, with a second line recently coming online.

Downtown residents have come together in a grassroots effort to advocate for and pay for a streetcar starter line that is about to get final funding approval.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Rogers

As you said -- very light traffic. What we need is people living and working downtown. Instead of wasting $100 million dollars on a streetcar that goes no where and will actually impede traffic and pose a danger to bicyclist, the city should fix the sidewalks and look at improving the infrastructure. As for getting people downtown working and living -- TIF to Freightquote might have been worth it if they would have moved downtown, but Freightquote was the clear winner in that deal.

September 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercrossroads
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