by Emma Wittmer

As an important roadway for public transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists alike, 12th Street is about to undergo a reconstruction project.

The 12th Street – South Kansas Avenue to Gage Boulevard Reconstruction Project is in the final phases with the City of Topeka, and steps have been made to keep this people-oriented street from becoming an auto-oriented street. 

“The pathways have the potential to serve as a gathering place or community hub and a conduit connecting neighbors to one another,” community member Brandon Barnett said. “They can encourage dialogue between neighborhoods in the 12th Street community.” 

Photo of 12th & High from the 12th Street Reconstruction Project website.

The 12th Street project will be designed and built to the city’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines (PDF). According to the City of Topeka website, these guidelines consider the needs of all users for the transportation system. Those who not only drive, but bike or walk, will all benefit from the reconstruction. A people-oriented street does not differ from an auto-oriented street by being anti-car. A people-oriented street is simply pro-people for all types of transit. 

New space for children, families, seniors

“I am most excited about the overall improvement to the infrastructure of Topeka,” Complete Street Advisory Committee member Kaitlin Alegria said. “I drive, bike and walk in this community and these improvements will serve me and the rest of the community in each of those capacities.” 

Pedestrians, including kids walking to and from school, are often forced to walk in the street or through yards. In order to enjoy time out of the house on a walk, Barnett and his young daughter drive to Gage Park to find safe walking trails. With no existing safe options near his house, the addition of sidewalks along 12th Street would give the option of walking down a nice, well-lit, and tree-lined path separated from the auto traffic. 

“As I looked over the model of the project, it reminded me of Ocean Avenue on the way to Coney Island where people of all ages were playing games, jumping rope, telling jokes, and selling lemonade; it was one of the most vibrant community spaces I’ve ever seen,” Barnett said. “Topeka could really use more spaces that build community and encourage all of us to be outside talking to one another!” 

“Topeka could really use more spaces that build community and encourage all of us to be outside talking to one another!”

The City of Topeka is planning to do a full reconstruction and “right-sizing” of the roadway to fit the neighborhoods surrounding it. The city will upgrade curbs and gutters, they will relocate utilities as needed, improve transit and pedestrian accessibility and safety, improve intersections where possible, and provide a bike facility along the corridor. Added lamp posts along the path should also help reduce crime along the route. 

“I lived on the corner of 12th Street for over five years with a driveway directly off 12th Street, and I now live in the middle of a block between 12th Street and Huntoon,” 12th Street resident Michelle Neis said. “It is difficult to safely walk and bike throughout the neighborhood because sidewalks either don’t exist or are in significant disrepair.” 

Pedestrians along Huntoon and 12th Street have the choice to walk through yards, or to walk in the street. This person was walking east on Huntoon. This street has accommodation for cars – but nowhere for people to safely walk.

Public feedback improves outcome

The City of Topeka and the Bartlett & West engineering design team have hosted several public meetings. Kicking it off in March, a large public meeting was held to take input from those in attendance. Soon after, a questionnaire was published online, asking readers to weigh in on what was most important to them. Safety of the street, and pedestrian and bike facilities were a few of the top priorities. Travel lanes and turn lanes were other priorities mentioned by readers.

Some of the public contributions include:

  • Constructing a 6 foot wide sidewalk on both sides of the road between MacVicar and Gage, and
  • Added turning lanes at Gage, Oakley, MacVicar, Lane, Washburn, and Topeka. 

“Those who have planned this project have put a lot of time and thought into making these decisions,” Neis said. “Although it is not possible for everyone to agree with all aspects of the project, I have been impressed by the planners’ efforts to seek public input and incorporate that feedback into the project.” 

The 12th Street to South Kansas Avenue to Gage Boulevard Reconstruction Project Open House was held on Thursday, November 21 at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. A layout of the corridor was kept on display until November 27. You can now access the open house files at the 12th Street Project website

“One developer invited community members to pay attention the next time we were driving down 12th Street to whether or not you, or anyone else drove directly next to someone in the other lane,” Alegria said. 

Old street ready for new format

Drivers are usually driving staggered because it is too tight and uncomfortable to drive side-by-side along 12th Street. The reconstruction project is planning to change the current two-lane street to one lane. Like most changes, there are proponents and opponents of 12th Street becoming one lane. However, community members are focusing largely on the positive aspects of the project’s attentiveness to the needs of non-drivers.

“The traffic count studies have shown that there is a very small window of high-volume traffic timeframes,” Alegria said. “12th Street provides access to a great number of resources, and making them available to a greater population only stands to benefit the city of Topeka.” 

Traffic count projections are shown on the City of Topeka website for one-lane and two-lane scenarios. The maps shown are regional transportation models for what the traffic counts are projected to be in 2040. The Southwest 12th Street and Huntoon Street two-lane map (PDF) projects the current state of the street. The one-lane model (PDF) is also shown on the website with adequate traffic capacity on 12th Street. You can find more existing and proposed road configurations on the 12th Street Project website. 

“12th Street was never intended to be a fast thoroughfare, and although the speed limit is 30 miles per hour for its entire length, two lanes makes it easy for many to drive at dangerous speeds for a residential area,” Neis said. “Nearby streets like 10th and 17th have one lane each direction and more cars drive daily on those streets than 12th.” 

The City of Topeka recently installed bike lanes along Washburn Avenue and Lane Street. These streets have accommodation for car traffic, bicycle traffic, and walking traffic, with sidewalks on both sides.

Despite concerns that narrowing the street to one through lane will reduce its car capacity and make a commute through it take a lot longer, this is often not the reality. Many streets, when narrowed down a lane, allow for the same amount of traffic to pass through and travel times may even end up being similar.

“12th Street was never intended to be a fast thoroughfare… two lanes makes it easy for many to drive at dangerous speeds for a residential area.”

On a typical road like Gage Boulevard, most people drive 40+ mph for a few seconds and then are forced to stop at the many multiple-lane intersections. Yet on a narrow, one-lane through-street without many stop signs, drivers can maintain a more consistent speed.

Positive community change

People-oriented streets not only make a safer experience and an affordable commute without a car, but encourage business activity surrounding the street. 

“It should be the best of both worlds,” Barnett said. “A single, smoothly moving lane for auto traffic, dedicated bike lanes for cyclists, and a broad, well-lit footpath separate from the roadway.” Accommodating other modes of transportation can benefit Topeka in numerous ways and the community may be pleasantly surprised when the rebuild is complete. 

“Take a look at how other communities have accomplished similar rebuilds and read about the success they have enjoyed,” Alegria said. “If you dig a little deeper you may find more to be positive and excited about and less to fear.”