Kansas City Streets

Kansas City Streets as seen from the seat of a bicycle.

These photos accompany the article at http://www.infozine.com/news/stories/op/storiesView/sid/797/.

As you can see, the condition of streets in Kansas City, Missouri, is not very good.

When taking these photos, I did not especially try to seek out horrible areas. I just took a few of my normal rides and photographed what I saw along the way.

Eroded gutter pan seam

Here is a typical Kansas City street.

A lip parallel to the line of travel, like the one here at the joint between the gutter pan and the right-hand travel lane, is extremely dangerous to the bicyclist. If a wheel catches on this lip, the bicyclist will instantly be thrown to the ground, likely right into the travel lane.

The bicyclist cannot safely ride in the gutter pan for the same reason (even neglecting problems caused by the sand and loose gravel in that area, a wheel catching on either lip of the gutter pan or the curb will cause an instant fall).

These "diversion-type falls" are among the most common bicycle accidents and often lead to serious injuries.

To safely operate, bicyclists must ride about three feet to the left of the seam between the gutter pan and lane.

The sign reads "Entering Kansas City, Missouri". Actually, Kansas City maintenance begins at the street just behind the camera--the speed limit sign was just the first convenient place to hang the "Kansas City" sign.

Eroded street edge

eroded street edge

This gutter seam boasts both erosion and a substantial lip caused by repeated blacktop overlays.

Eroded roadside ditch

This is the side of a typical two-lane street--collector or neighborhood street. Two narrow lanes, no shoulder, and just to the right of the travel lane is an eroded ditch.

As annoying as the present bad road is, is the knowledge that it used to be better and has gradually grown worse over the years (that's progress!). The paved area was originally much wider--extending right at least as far as the manhole visible in the middle distance. To save a few bucks, each time the road has been re-covered, the paved area has been made a little narrower. Without even looking very carefully, I could see broken up pavement that used to extend a couple of feet to the right of the present road, and yet older pavement that formed about a 4-foot shoulder.

An acquaintance of mine was riding along the edge of a road like this, following the instruction given to every grade schooler, "ride on the right edge of the road". An auto came by, passing too close at too high speed, making her lose her balance and crash into the ditch, with serious injuries.

In fact, Missouri law doesn not require the cyclist to ride on the right edge of the pavement. It requires the cyclist to ride as far to the right as is "safe". The cyclist cannot safely ride closer than about three feet from the edge of the pavement; you can see from this photo, this puts the tire track of the cyclist about in the middle of the auto's right tire track.

When the lane is too narrow to safely share with an automobile (as are most Kansas City streets), Missouri law removes all necessity of riding to the right at all. The cyclist can then use his or her judgement about where the safest line of travel lies.

Edge of lane dropoff

Repeated blacktop overlays have filled Chestnut Trafficway up to the top of its curb. The curb is on the right side of a narrow right-hand lane, and you can see that just adjacent to the lane is a ditch with sheer dropoff of more than 2 feet. The bridge visible past the bike is Cliff Drive.

It is easy to blame the state of Kansas City streets on graft, deliberate malfeasance, and general incompetence. I'm sure that some of each of these has gone on over the past 100+ years. But the main reasons for the poor street conditions must be put down as apathy of citizens, who don't seem to realize that better streets can be made (and are, in many other cities), the weight of traditional ways of doing things (planners don't seem to realize that citizens might want better streets and that most cities have better streets), and most of all, simple economics.

Jagged metal jutting into lane

Near the sports complex. Note also the depressed manhole cover in the right 1/3 of the right-hand lane, in the middle distance.

Cyclists must allow a minimum of three feet between themselves and edge-of-road hazards--perhaps a bit more than three feet when the hazard is jagged metal.

Typical Kansas City parkway

This photo shows one of my pet peeves about Kansas City streets.

Here we have a four-lane divided parkway. It receives moderate traffic at moderately high speeds. Ample right-of-way exists to either side of the road and in the divider area. We have some nice greenspace to either side of the roadway and between the divided lanes. So far, so good.

But where are the sidewalks? How about shoulders? How about bike lanes? How about a little wider curb lane? How about anything beyond the minimum needed to move two lanes of traffic in each direction at 50 miles per hour?

Forget about pedestrians and bicyclists. How about somewhere to pull off the road and enjoy the view? To give your undivided attention to your four-year-old as he barfs up his Ronald McDonald Value meal? To give a little extra clear space along both sides of the road for drivers who like to tie their shoes or put on their nylons while driving? To read a map? To change a tire? To get off the road when the car dies?

I used to commute daily along a parkway like this at rush hour, and rare indeed was the day when one lane or another was not brought to a screaming halt by a stalled car. With no way to get the vehicle off the roadway, the inevitable result was a blocked lane and resulting massive traffic jam.

To be fair, this particular parkway (W. Longview Parkway just south of I-470) does happen to have an accompanying sidewalk on one side of the road, and a pretty pleasant one at that. (The sidewalk happens to have meandered behind the trees in this section of the road so it isn't visible from this viewpoint.) But this is one of the few Kansas City parkways that has a sidewalk. Hundreds of miles of parkway around the metro area look exactly this--or worse--with no sidewalk in sight.

A street in a built-up area where right-of-way was established many years ago creates a difficult problem for road designers. Compromises may need to be made. But in parkways like this, no such compromise is necessary. Roads are built this way simply because the needs of motorists traveling 50 miles per hour have been considered and no other needs have.

Sloping roadside drain

Note the slope of the curb into the drain. The bicyclist's line of travel can't be anywhere near here.

A larger sloping roadside drain

A bicycle can't ride anywhere near this sloping gutter. These holes (common at the side of streets around the metro area) are large enough to swallow small children.

Mammoth sloping roadside drain

World-record-size humongous roadside drain

Just when you thought they couldn't get any bigger, here is one large enough to hide a Buick.

These drains are not just a feature of older streets. I've seen brand-new streets excavated and poured just this summer, that have similar downward slopes leading to huge gaping holes. No attempt is made to protect the holes with grates.

Kansas City streets, even brand-new ones, appear to be designed to roadway standards dating from approximately the 1940s.

Note the typical Missouri garbage--here folded strips of metal and discarded papers.

Kansas City has more miles of street per resident than most any large U.S. city. According to the Kansas City Star, Kansas City has "75 residents per lane mile (A two-lane street that is one mile long contains two lane miles). Cincinnati has 119 residents, Seattle 131 and Denver 137 residents per lane mile."

With so many streets and so few resources, it would take good planning and careful budgeting to keep them all maintained well.

Unfortunately, historical Kansas City governments have been known for neither their good planning nor their careful budgeting. We can hope that this situation is improving now; there are some signs that it is.

Large trash-filled roadside hole.

On Manchester Trafficway. This hole on the right part of the right-hand lane is large enough to swallow a car tire. Notice that it is just inches from the lane's right tire track.

A closer view of the hole.

The 20-inch wheel of my bike shows the size of this hole. It is about 5 feet deep and, in true Missouri style, filled with garbage.

You'll notice that in all the streets I've photographed here there has been exactly one with a sidewalk. I didn't do this on purpose--it's simply that the proportion of streets with sidewalks is very, very low in Kansas City. The lack of sidewalks on most streets discourages most pedestrians, but I happened to meet one working his way along the roadside weeds and brush near this point.

Transportation planners and engineers . . . have the same level of responsibility to provide for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians as they do for motorists. (Transportation Planning Handbook)
The metal plates from hell . . .

Near the sports complex. Thick metal plates are a common sight on Kansas City streets, near areas of road construction or street cuts. But this is the largest collection of them I've seen in a while. Even the automobiles drive around rather than over them. Besides creating a series of treacherous 1- to 2-inch high lips, the surface is dotted with jagged rings and bolts, any of which can throw a bicyclist if caught just the right way. And the plates are very slippery when wet.

Mid-lane bike-eating grate

On Front Street.

This is even worse than it looks, because it is at the beginning of a right-turn lane. It is right smack in the middle of the track a bike would take when moving from the through lane into the right-turn lane to make a right turn. I nearly drove right over it myself.

Because of their narrow tires and the fact that they balance on two wheels, bicycles are more sensitive to roadway problems than most other vehicles. Catching a narrow lip parallel to the direction of travel can wrench a wheel out from under the cyclist, causing an immediate fall.

Falls account for about 50% of bicycle accidents serious enough to require a visit to the hospital.


Access point to a water main, with cover missing, mid-lane.

 This could easily cause a fall if hit.

"The call for more walkable, liveable, and accessible communities, has seen bicycling and walking emerge as an 'indicator species' for the health and well-being of a community. People want to live and work in places where they can safely and conveniently walk and/or bicycle." (US DOT Policy Statement)
Blue River Bridge

As you can see, the guard rail is missing on much of this bridge.

The remaining cement buttress is just over 2 feet tall. On the other side is a 70-foot drop into the Blue River.

The bridge has no sidewalks.

The recent passage of BikeKC, Kansas City's bicycle transportation plan, means that the needs of bicyclists must now be considered in the design and maintenance of Kansas City streets. Perhaps that will lead to better roads for all of us.

--Brent Hugh

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