There’s an old children’s song about a woman who, inexplicably and against her own self interest, swallows a fly. The lyrics of the song presume that she will inevitably die from this. The old woman too senses impending doom and proceeds to down a series of additional animals, each increasing in size intended to flush out the previously swallowed animal.
I know an old lady who swallowed a fly […] perhaps she’ll die.
The lady ultimately swallows a horse, which of course is absurd because it would be impossible for a human to actually swallow a horse.
But that’s beside the point. Even as a first-grader I realized that the moral of this story was this: if you do something stupid, don’t try to correct it by doing a whole bunch of even stupider stuff. Being the rather literal child I was I also concluded that, perhaps, it would have been best to not have swallowed the fly in the first place. Such is the place our devoted “urbanists” have found themselves … Too damn late. Ugh.
“So what’s this got to do with transportation policy in Kansas City?” You rightfully ask, “Eric, have you been daytime drinking again?”
My answer is this: Kansas City, in an effort to right the wrongs of a failed experiment has executed a series of stupid engineering missteps all of which have added up to a struggling urban core at the brink of death. Long ago we traded in our dense, walkable streets for a series of car sewers and surface parking lots all in the name of “Urban Renewal.” This led the city to engage in a series of other ridiculous measures to try to alleviate the symptoms left over from the original sin. In other words, rather than just purging itself of the fly when it was still buzzing around in its belly, the city decided to swallow a spider, then a bird and so on. And traffic engineers, city planners, public works and city management continue to line up at the table to consume larger, increasingly expensive and more dangerous animals.
What’s next, a manatee to scare away the lions?
And no, I have not been drinking today. I just really, really like analogies. I mean, I like my whiskey neat, don’t get me wrong. But this is a totally sober reality; I truly believe that this old lady scenario is to blame for eroding our downtown, ridding it of pedestrian life and killing economic vitality.
So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to explain this in a little more detail over the course of the next few weeks. I’ll use the old Ira Glass tactic and present the The Old Lady in six acts. Each act will discuss a specific problem and some potential solutions.
I’ll also include some pictures. I like pictures almost as much as I like analogies.
Prologue: The Fly
A few years of wild public investment in exactly one mode of transportation plus shifting public policy served as the lynchpin for the urban decay we are combating today.
Act 1: The Fly
Urban renewal and the city’s desire to compete with the suburbs resulted in some permanently bad stuff. Here I’ll talk about how transportation investment killed the streetcar, demolished historic buildings and ran off the pedestrians. It was also devastating for KC neighborhoods.
Act 2: The Bird
The vicious traffic engineering cycle has only made things worse. Increasing capacity on our roadways to “meet demand” only induces more demand and costs a hell of a lot of money. I will discuss the ludicrous things we spend our money on because traffic engineers think they are good for us.
Act 3: The Goat
Well-meaning policies and concepts are a smokescreen that hides us from the simple solutions. Rather than trying to convince our city to engineer safety into dangerous roads, why not go back to what was safe in the first place? Instead of building safe routes to school, what if we invested in neighborhood schools that are already inherently safe to walk or bike to?
Act 4: The Horse
The mounting cost of it all has us gasping for air. A year ago, we had to vote to tax ourselves just so we could cover the cost of street maintenance. There’s got to be a better way, right?
Epilogue: The Purge
What can we do to reverse this? I’ll give you some of my thoughts and make a call to action. Put your pitchforks and torches away, I’ll only talk about how to constructively engage the decision makers.