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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Santa Rampage Topeka had almost 40 riders, including Santas, Elves, Reindeer, and two Grinches!
No one stole Christmas, but we all had a great time touring the city. Many thanks to the organizers of the ride (Thanks, Santa!), to our hosts at all 6 stops, and to the #BikeWalkMHK crew that came through!
He showed, through value-per-acre graphs, that cities have high-performing real estate in core downtown areas, but tend to have built beyond their means in other areas.
What does that mean for cities?
We can look to what Marohn calls the “traditional development model.”
Before World War II, most development in the U.S. (and other countries) was small and incremental.
A family might build a house in a neighborhood near friends and relatives. If their family grew, they would add on to the house. In the same way, a business owner might start with a one-story building, next to other, similar buildings. If they became more successful, they would build up and out and improve their buildings. If they were not successful in those houses or buildings – there weren’t great fortunes invested, so it was easy for families or businesses to move on.
The suburban development model builds entire shopping malls or residential districts all at once, requires all new infrastructure to be built, and typically adds on to the outskirts of an existing community.
In contrast to traditional development, building a suburb is a huge, risky bet.
If one building in NOTO needs a new roof, the owners can make the necessary repairs. If a sewer line breaks, they can work with the city to get it fixed. The work gets completed on these projects, and business goes on as usual, most likely without affecting the rest of the street or neighborhood much.
But in a suburb, where every house was built the same year, and all of the infrastructure was installed at the same time, all of that construction and infrastructure ages out at about the same time. So you don’t have just one roof in a neighborhood that needs replaced. You have 25 or 100. And when one sewer line gets old enough to fail, you can guess that others will begin to fail, too.
This compounding math is what makes cities more or less financially resilient.
It bears out in the data that Marohn and Urban3 have been collecting in their value-per-acre graphs. It’s a compelling case for moving cities from the current development model of building huge areas to a finished state, all at once — back toward something a little more incremental and iterative.
Following the presentation, Topekans in attendance had varied questions, ranging from neighborhood concerns, like addressing a heritage of redlining and urban renewal, to applying Strong Towns ideas to problems faced by rural communities, to starting new businesses or building trust among neighbors.
On challenges within neighborhoods or communities, Marohn said, “Empower people at the block level to solve problems in their way.”
He gave an example from Oswego, NY of the Oswego Renaissance Association, which gave neighbors grants to improve their residential properties – but only if they got together as a block, and made a proposal of multiple small projects from that street. Since the start of that program, Oswego has seen $2.5 million invested in neighborhoods.
To start a public project, or even a new business, Marohn emphasized the need to humbly observe where people in the community are struggling, part of the Strong Towns approach to public investment. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I be of service to my neighbors?’”
About 100 people attended the presentation in Topeka, including the City Manager, City Council members and candidates, state officials, county officials and county staff, neighborhood advocates, and city staff from many different departments.
The presentation was made possible by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, the Topeka Community Foundation, the Shawnee County Health Department, and several other community groups.
Stay tuned on BikeTopeka for follow-up discussion from the Strong Towns presentation, including a book club to discuss Chuck Marohn’s book.