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 in KC2.jpg

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.