Scooters, bikes, pedestrians, cars: KC streets and sidewalks are a transportation jungle

How Bird motorized scooters flew into KC

In July, Los Angeles start-up Bird Rides Inc. placed about 100 of its battery-powered motorized scooters in Kansas City.
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In July, Los Angeles start-up Bird Rides Inc. placed about 100 of its battery-powered motorized scooters in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s already urgent conversation about 21st-century transportation needs to accelerate.

The stakeholders — walkers, riders, drivers, mass transit users, cyclists, scooter enthusiasts, shoppers, diners, all of us — are as numerous, and often as passionate, as any interest group in the city.

Their needs will sometimes conflict. Cars aren’t going away, no matter what some Kansas Citians might want. But vehicles now now share space with a hodgepodge of other transportation options, making a coherent and safe city policy essential.

That’s why it’s encouraging news that some at City Hall are whispering about establishing a new city department of transportation. It sounds like a great idea.

The department would oversee implementation of proposals to make the city more walkable and bike-friendly. It would work to link public transit with the needs of families, including many who lack their own cars. It could supervise deals with scooter companies such as Bird and Lime and Skip, all built around the pick-it-up and put-it-down rental model.

Establishing a nimble department charged with coordinating city transportation strategy is essential for another reason: The world is changing quickly. City Hall must understand what that means.

Here’s an example. Next week, Shake Shack will open on the Country Club Plaza. It has installed a seating area on the sidewalk.

The outdoor seating appears compliant with city codes, which require a five-foot buffer between the curb and the chairs.

That buffer seemed sufficient 15 years ago, when City Hall adopted it. Does it still make sense, with scooters and bikes and walkers and wheelchairs potentially competing for sidewalk space? Maybe it should be wider.

The new scooters are now banned from sidewalks in the “business district” because state law prohibits bikes on sidewalks in those areas. But bikes are allowed on sidewalks in residential areas. What happens when scooters move beyond downtown?

What vehicles are allowed on hiking or jogging trails, if any? Who will enforce any restrictions? What will all of this cost?

And what about driverless cars, or mass transit, or parking subsidies, or street crossing policy, or developer requirements for walkable space? What role can the streetcar system play in solving transit problems? What about neighborhood safety and school buses?

These are not idle concerns. This month, four pedestrians died in accidents here. That’s four too many.

Kansas City and the entire region have been thinking about these challenges for some time. Last December, the council passed a complete streets ordinance providing development guidelines that incorporate all forms of transportation.

This May, the Mid-America Regional Council adopted a Regional Pedestrian Policy Plan that examines these concerns. Kansas City is working on a more robust bicycle policy. The conversation is well underway.

But there’s a danger those conversations will take place in isolation, not as part of a cohesive approach. That’s why establishing a city department of transportation, with oversight and coordination responsibilities, may make sense.

The idea should get serious consideration from mayoral and City Council candidates next year. Kansas City is now firmly in the 21st century, and it needs to make sure its transportation policy reflects these new dynamics.