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The five minutes Margaret Shabazz and her daughter Essence spend walking to Park Elementary School every morning are some of the best moments they share.
On their way to the school on North Main Street, the mother and kindergartner pass neighbors and other students and parents. It’s pleasing to see everyone each morning, Shabazz said.
What isn’t pleasing is the main crosswalk to get to the school.
Car traffic on the three-lane street gets heavy every morning around the school. Pedestrians can stop traffic with a push of a button at the crosswalk, but Shabazz and others avoid it, instead crossing a block away. It’d be easy for a child to go unnoticed while crossing the drop-off lane, Shabazz said, and cars speed by on the street anyway.
“It only flashes when someone pushes the button,” she said. “What if a kid doesn’t push the button? What if a kid darts across the street?”
Another parent brought that concern to school officials but was told it was a city matter, Shabazz said. The city, for its part, used to time its school zone signals to school schedules, but most were changed to respond only when a pedestrian pushes a button.
“It’s a good neighborhood, and it’s very safe, but at the very same time, just anyone could drive by,” Shabazz said.
In monitoring and adapting school traffic patterns, officials say it’s a balance between traffic flow and student safety.
But pedestrian advocates in Wichita argue that little to no priority is given to maintaining and improving safety infrastructure — such as crosswalks and signage — for students who walk to school.
Who’s responsible for students’ street safety while walking to school?
Wichita Public Schools has a handful of programs in place to promote walking safety, including crossing guards at some schools and Safety Patrol programs in which older elementary students help younger students know when it’s safe to cross the street. The district also produced a video to teach students about street safety, and that video is played at schools with high concentrations of students who walk to school.
But Terri Moses, division director of safety services for the district, said there isn’t much Wichita Public Schools can directly do concerning pedestrian and traffic issues off school property. That’s the responsibility of the City of Wichita.
“We have a walking radius of 2.5 miles,” she said, referring to state funding that pays for bus transportation only for students who live farther away. “We might not even know something has happened unless we’re notified by the police department or the city traffic department.”
Every month, Moses and other school district officials meet with the city’s traffic engineering division to discuss traffic issues and complaints. Most of the complaints — which can come from the Wichita Police Department, schools and the public — are about parking issues, traffic backups and road projects, said City Engineer Gary Janzen.
Janzen said the group usually gets at least one request each year for a new crosswalk, but more of the pedestrian-related requests tend to be for maintaining existing crosswalks.
But adding school crosswalks isn’t always practical, according to the city’s school traffic safety manual, last updated in 2008.
“Although these requests express a definite concern for the school child’s safety, they do not always coincide with actual needs and good traffic engineering practices,” the manual reads.
The city’s approach, though, ignores pedestrian infrastructure around schools, said Jane Byrnes, a member of Bike Walk Wichita who has lobbied the Wichita Board of Education and City Council to improve walkability around schools.
Part of the problem is that there hasn’t been funding for a comprehensive study of schools’ walkability needs, Byrnes said. But it’s a plainly visible issue around the community’s schools, and one needs only to walk across faded crosswalk stripes or poorly designed sidewalk ramps to see the extent of officials’ failure to prioritize school walkability, she said.
“It’s nobody’s baby,” Byrnes said. “It’s not even a stepchild.”
‘Pretty minor money’ for school traffic initiatives
North of Wichita State University’s campus, Lisa Frey Blume walked along the route she used to take each morning with her daughters to Buckner Elementary School.
She pointed out unsafe conditions — including missing crosswalks, upended sidewalks and unchecked speeding — that make it challenging even for adult pedestrians in the neighborhood, let alone children who can still flash how old they are with two hands.
Frey Blume, who is also a Bike Walk Wichita member, used the group’s influence to get a crosswalk by the school repainted last fall. But there are other concerns to be addressed along the half-mile between her home and the school, she said.
“As people drive more and more, they see fewer possibilities for active transportation,” Frey Blume said. “But for people who do see the possibility, and see a benefit for walking to school and getting more physical activity, it allows kids an increased sense of independence.
“There are families who are interested, but they’re overwhelmed when they want to try to start it, because the routes aren’t safe enough.”
The joint group involving school and city officials determines how to use $100,000 in shared funding per year to address traffic issues around schools, although the city does try to prioritize projects in using its own broader, non-school specific funding when problems are brought to its attention, Janzen said.
That $100,000 has been enough for the items the group has reviewed and determined need to be addressed, the city engineer said, even if some items are ultimately decided against.
“There are times where the problem and initially proposed solution aren’t very feasible, so we take a deeper look into the issue and come up with some other solutions,” Janzen wrote in an email response to questions from The Wichita Beacon. “To date, we have not had an issue where we couldn’t come to a collective resolve.”
However, $100,000 is “pretty minor money” when talking about 94 school buildings in Wichita Public Schools alone, without considering private and parochial schools, Moses said.
A recent crosswalk project cost $70,000 even with the city using a signal it already had on hand, Janzen said. Even the updating of simple painted crosswalks, which usually cost a few hundred dollars for signage and paint, can balloon to thousands of dollars if a wheelchair ramp or sidewalk construction are needed, he said.
Frey Blume said she and other pedestrian advocates recognize such improvements are costly, and that’s why they believe more funding is needed.
“(The $100,000) budget line item firmly points to the fact that it’s not a priority,” she said.
Federal school walkability funds aren’t coming to Wichita
Across Kansas, school districts and municipalities have worked together to get federal funding to analyze school traffic trends and build better pathways to schools through the Safe Routes to Schools Program (SRTS).
Between 2012 and 2020, the Kansas Department of Transportation awarded more than $8 million in SRTS funds for 73 projects, said Jenny Kramer, KDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. The projects helped smaller communities develop master plans, education programs and engineering projects related to school walkability, she added.
But for communities in the state’s more densely populated, urban regions, the Safe Routes to School funding requires applicants to work with their respective Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which decide how to prioritize federal funding and programs in their regions.
The Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization appears to have conducted a Safe Routes to School study over a decade ago, as briefly referenced in a now-dead link on the city’s website. WAMPO Director Chad Parasa said WAMPO staff are unaware of what happened with the study and its findings.
He said that over the past few years, WAMPO’s priorities with its limited funds have been in larger, long-term projects, such as replacing deteriorating bridges. Still, he said, WAMPO staff were “passionate about safety” and would look into what it would take to facilitate an application for Safe Routes to School funding.
But the school district would need to initiate any projects, Parasa said, and officials there have not raised any safety concerns. He said the planning organization would “be happy to help explore the next steps.”
In recent years, the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board recommended that the city prioritize funding to create school walking and bicycling route plans as well as a capital improvement line item for Safe Routes to School funding. Neither recommendation has been included in the city’s operating or capital improvement budgets, beyond the $100,000 the joint city/school district safety group oversees.
Frey Blume and Byrnes said those lobbying the school district and city to improve walkability around schools have been met with silence and complacency.
“I think the school board should or does have an interest in this topic, and I’d like to see WAMPO provide support to work on Safe Routes to School with their local districts,” Frey Blume said. “Why isn’t that happening between WAMPO and USD 259? I would like to see that collaboration start to happen.”
When driving traffic is prioritized
Margaret Shabazz, the parent at Park Elementary, said she wishes more parents would try walking to school, like she does with Essence. She said she’ll keep walking with her daughter as she gets into the older elementary grades, especially since they have to cross two busy streets to get to school.
As the pair made their way to Park in early October, the line of cars that had backed up a couple of blocks slowly began to move as the school opened its doors for students.
How you can report walkability issues
Do you see a nonworking light? A crosswalk that needs to be repainted? Let the City of Wichita know at access.wichita.gov.
“When you look at this line, it looks hideously long, but it goes by pretty fast once it starts moving,” she said in crediting the school’s traffic plan for parents who drive their children to school. Staffers greet students at the curb and make sure they get to the building safely.
She just wishes the district did the same for students like Essence who walk.