Transportation as a Catalyst for Equity

Jeff McKerrow, PE, PTOE, Transportation Industry Expert

April 09, 2021

Designing public infrastructure that moves the greatest volume of people and goods as quickly and safely as possible has long been the assumed goal of transportation engineering.

Rarely was that assumption questioned when I entered the profession some 25 years ago. Over time, however, we saw how designing for speed and efficiency alone did not always produce the best outcomes for communities.

Without a doubt, safety and efficiency are essential to a modern transportation system. But we clearly should have been asking what more can transportation planners do? For example, in what ways can our designs better connect communities? How can transportation best enhance economic growth and opportunity? And what role can transportation infrastructure play in promoting equity?

Asking these important questions opens a far greater range of possibilities and allows transportation engineers and planners to address challenges that more comprehensively serve communities. That’s really what this should be about: accepting the duty to ensure our work enhances the places we call home long after the concrete cures and the traffic cones return to storage.

All of this came into play recently as my colleagues and I helped develop a unique transportation plan in Kansas City, Missouri. The impetus for the project was a 2018 study that recommended the elimination of the Route 9 embankment that connects the Heart of America Bridge to Interstate 70 in Kansas City. The study also recommended reconnecting the historic neighborhoods of River Market and Columbus Park to Independence Avenue – one of the city’s most significant and historic boulevards – which had been truncated by the embankment.

Our task was to identify alternatives for bringing Route 9 to grade that were technically and fiscally attainable while also creating the potential for economic improvements. Our firm’s transportation engineers worked alongside planners with the Olsson Studio in a powerful and creative collaboration perfectly suited to projects like these.

From the start, we saw the Bridging Park & Market study and report as an opportunity to not only improve the transportation network, but to strengthen two of the city’s oldest, most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. We conducted multi-lingual outreach to obtain input from residents, business owners, and other stakeholders, both online and in socially distanced outdoor events hosted in the neighborhoods. We learned that some options, while technically feasible, were perceived as potentially harmful to the communities. Some participants simply didn’t want changes, but many others supported concepts intended to make their transportation network more intuitive and functional for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and patrons of public transit.

As a result, our recommendations valued simplicity over speed. We proposed reconnecting streets, eliminating an interstate interchange, lowering impacts, and even slowing traffic a bit to support the goal of improved access to the neighborhoods.

This approach can also help address issues of equity by better serving residents who don’t (or choose not to) own cars, and by improving access to the downtown business district for economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. We envisioned residents feeling more comfortable and safer as they walked or pedaled between River Market and Columbus Park, or boarded a streetcar or bus and headed downtown.

Led by the City of Kansas City, Missouri, and the Downtown Council of Kansas City, the Bridging Park and Market report represents an aspirational community enhancement project. Transportation is simply the catalyst.

This project, like others we’ve worked on, underscores that sometimes the right solutions are the simplest solutions. In addition, it shows that challenging assumptions often forces us to think about how transportation systems can more fully enhance, support, and interact with communities, rather than just representing a pathway through them.

Jeff McKerrow, PE, PTOE, crafts transportation solutions that combine creativity and practicality to strengthen communities with the power of connectedness. Reach Jeff at 816.560.9535 or jmckerrow@olsson.com.

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