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In Kansas, transportation planners, elected officials and other decision-makers do not appear to consider changing needs of current and future residents; preferred modes of transportation; changing climate; or quality of life. Kansas is changing: Generation Zs and Millennials will soon comprise over 50% of our population; and aging Baby Boomers will soon make up almost 25%. Current transportation planning is still focused on cars without considering our changing population demographics.

Does this changing society need more roads?

  • Kansas has the 4th largest network of roads in the U.S., exceeded only by states with far more folks–Texas, California and Illinois—although we are 39th in population and 13th in size.
  • According to the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization1, we already have sufficient capacity for traffic needs for another city the size of Wichita. The official overall “delay time” of a peak-hour car trip in Wichita now is 26 seconds.
  • 93% of the millions of Wichita’s and Sedgwick County’s transportation money goes to roads–NOT to safe, active ways to reach destinations outside a vehicle such as jobs, parks, schools, food. However, about 1/3 of Wichitans and Kansans do not drive:  children, the elderly, disabled, some low-income, millennials and more.
  • The recent stretch of new construction on east Kellogg cost over $600 million. The North Junction got a federal grant of $21 million, but that’s only 5% of its projected $435 million cost.  A 2019 federal grant for buses will be used for a multi-story parking lot called the “Transit Center” next to Wichita’s empty baseball stadium; instead that amount could have purchased 55 electric mini-buses.
  • The public widely assumes that gas taxes pay for roads. However, the gas tax has not been increased since 1993.  Significant money comes from Kansas’ General Funds.
  • All Wichita taxpayers must pay for all streets and roads, whether they use them or not, whereas property owners must pay for their own sidewalks, whether they use them or not.

How do comparable communities decide and prioritize their residents’ needs? 

If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix problems. Data and studies from other cities have helped other them to better understand our populations’ changing transportation needs and priorities. Every population center in the U.S. with more than 50,000 people has an MPO to coordinate transportation funds.

  • In 2009 a survey by the Nashville MPO revealed the following residents’ priorities:
    • More and better bus service.
    • Improve walkability and bikeability.
    • Repair and maintain current streets.
    • And Nashville not only complied, but continues to add more resident-friendly transportation.
  • San Francisco links its data from law enforcement, EMS and hospital records to determine the public health costs of vehicle crashes.

Conclusions:

Blindly committing all of the region’s resources for more roads and bridges is not planning for a changing future. Infrastructure investment for people-friendly active transportation is MUCH less expensive with much broader societal benefits.  Some funds should be re-directed for the safety and health of our 8-year-olds and our 80-year-olds, our disabled, our millennials, and the health of our covid-bruised population. Buses, walkability, bikeability are trendy nationally and regionally but they are neglected, delayed or underfunded by our city, county and state.

It is time to:

  • Ask our diverse public how they want to get from place to place
  • With a preventative approach, prioritize traffic safety as a public health issue
  • Conduct formal health impact assessments (HIAs) to quantify positive & negative effects on public health
  • Enable the health benefits from walkability and bikeability that will reduce health care costs
  • Reduce fossil fuel consumption to keep our air cleaner from burning less fossil fuels

“Active transportation” is walking, bicycling and buses for those outside private vehicles.  In Kansas that’s at least 1/3 of folks to get to where we all live, learn, work and play.  Benefits of active transportation include physical and mental health, safety from covid, quality of life, probable growth in population.  If public spaces are safe for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds, then they will be safe for all.

— written by Jane Byrnes