Alex Pemberton is the founder of Yellowbrick Street Team, a tactical urbanism group working to make Wichita more livable and lovable by using small-scale urban design interventions to shift perceptions and public policy. The 200+ member group is a leading force in the local conversation on urbanism and is known nationally for popularizing the plunger-protected bike lane as a form of safe streets advocacy. Alex Pemberton is part of the Yellowbrick Street Team, a tactical urbanism collective based in Wichita, Kansas. The following essay is republished from their blog with permission.
That was the lede from the Wichita Eagle story about the latest incident of traffic carnage in Wichita, Kansas. Just before noon on 119th Street in far west Wichita, a funeral procession prompted a woman to pull her vehicle over to the curb in deference — and moments later, a 31-year-old man driving a van slammed into the back of her red SUV. The 59-year-old woman was pronounced dead at the scene.
Thoughts and prayers for the affected families flowed in on the social media posts covering the collision. Given the national news this month, we should all be skeptical of the emptiness of thoughts and prayers in response to a preventable tragedy and demand real change. But we won't, because this is the city we've built.
Deadly by Design
The investigation is ongoing, but, barring the type of medical emergency untypical for a 31-year-old, it is safe to assume the driver of the van that smashed into the woman's SUV was not exercising due care given the situation. The newspaper article goes on to detail the reaction of neighbors to yet another catastrophic crash on that stretch of 119th Street:
Michelle Stephens heard the collision inside her house at the corner of 119th and Lynndale and came outside to see what had happened.
’We had wrecks here all the time, even before they widened it,’ Stephens said, standing in her neighbor’s front yard as they watched investigators process the scene.
A man who lives in the area said Saturday was the second fatal crash on that block of 119th West in the 10 years he’s lived there.
’It is very dangerous,’ Cynthia Gibson said as she stood next to Stephens, ‘and I don’t understand why.’
It is easy to understand why casualty collisions happen so frequently on the stretch of road in question. The section of street is an overbuilt stroad — a hybrid between a high-access street and a high-speed road — that operates far below its design capacity, inducing speeding and aggressive driving behaviors.
The stroad features wide travel lanes — two in each direction, with a center "suicide" left-turn lane — along a straight, featureless corridor. Buildings are set back far from the roadway, as are any other vertical encumbrances. This type of road geometry is built to enable high-speed travel while providing ample buffer room for high-speed mistakes.
The corridor is massively overbuilt for its level of use. Five-lane roadways with low intersection density, such as this stretch of 119th Street, can carry over 35,000 vehicles per day; in 2016, this section of road carried only 10,525.
Streets that are built with highway geometries and operate at less than a third of their design capacity are a recipe for speeding and inattentive driving. The term to know is risk homeostasis — a theory that suggests humans alter their behaviors to based on their perceptions of an acceptable level of risk. When the perceived benefits of risky behaviors — such as speeding or using a phone while operating a vehicle — outweigh the perceived costs, people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Street designs that lower the threshold of perceived risk by employing highway design techniques, then, induce drivers into operating their vehicles well above the speed limit and without appropriate care. Most of the time, their risk-taking is rewarded — but sometimes, it has deadly consequences.
The type of tragedy that happened on Saturday morning is the predictable result of how we design our arterial streets in Wichita and thousands of other cities. Unfortunately, we have yet been unwilling to recognize the unique level of carnage that our street design causes and we are unlikely to make changes of any substance due to our politics.
Directing our Outrage
Many Wichitans were rightly outraged earlier this month by the terrible news of yet another school shooting claiming the lives of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida. Mass shootings have become a veritable public health crisis, and what follows in this essay is not to downplay their significance, but to provide perspective. The parallels between our national inaction on mass shootings and our local inaction of automotive violence are striking.
Since the horrific Sandy Hook shooting in late December of 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide, in which 438 people were shot and 138 killed according to the New York Times. That is undoubtedly a tragic figure.
Yet in the same time period, more people died in traffic collisions in Wichita alone. While full data for 2017 has yet to be released, Kansas Department of Transportation records from 2013 through 2016 show that 137 people were killed in traffic in Wichita, and a whopping 14,309 people were injured. The latest available count for traffic deaths in Wichita in 2017 stood at 26.
Take a minute to think about that. The insane level of nationwide death and destruction caused by school shootings — which, again, rightfully prompt outrage — is replicated, and even exceeded, in Wichita alone by our dependence on the personal automobile.
The Sprawl-Industrial Complex
The carnage is unlikely to end, though, for much the same reason as the maddening inaction on mass shootings. For all that is made of the political influence of the gun rights lobby in Washington, the most powerful force in our national, state, and local politics has for decades been the Sprawl-Industrial Complex — a network of car companies, construction and engineering firms, suburban homebuilders, and the like.
According to opensecrets.org from the Center for Responsive Politics, while the gun rights lobby spent a little over $10 million in 2017, the automotive industry alone spend nearly $70 million. The construction industry, which similarly benefits from wider roads and further sprawl, spent over $60 million. There is much credence to the argument that our national inaction on mass shootings is a direct result of the power of the gun rights lobby in Washington; imagine then, the political resistance to public safety changes that would harm the bottom line of industries with more than thirteen times the political clout.
The degree to which the Sprawl-Industrial Complex influences politics is even more pronounced at the local level, where roads contractors are competing for street widenings and civil engineers are consulting on public works projects and homebuilders are working under the zoning and codes established by the local municipality.
In Wichita, our politics can charitably be described as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Sprawl-Industrial Complex. Mayor Jeff Longwell, in his successful campaign for the 2015 mayoral election, raised 51% of his campaign funds from contributors involved in work that is directly affected by the city's policies and investments in regard to public infrastructure and urban development. Of those contributions, over 3/4 came from individuals in the construction and real estate industries — from paving contractors to civil engineers to suburban retail developers. (Download this table for the data.)
Suddenly, our city's continued focus on expanding more and more miles of streets on the urban fringe — despite already having the second-most arterial street miles per capita of the 150 largest urbanized areas in the country and more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain — comes into focus.
It will take public pressure and a political sea change to pull Wichita off its path dependency and toward a future of safe streets, financial solvency, and vibrant neighborhoods. In the meantime, keep posting your thoughts and prayers for the next senseless and preventable automotive tragedy.
(Top photo from U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Kasey Zickmund)