Local officials have called unpaved roads an equity issue. The Wichita Beacon broke down the unpaved roads by ZIP code to analyze this issue. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Wichita officials have called the city’s 84 miles of unpaved roads an equity issue. An analysis by The Wichita Beacon examined unpaved roads by ZIP code. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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For years, Wichita residents have battled the dust and bumpiness that come with the city’s 84 miles of unpaved roads in established neighborhoods. 

That’s largely because Wichita historically used a pay-it-yourself policy — to pave a road in an already-built neighborhood, at least 51% of property owners on a street have to petition the city and then pay for it themselves. 

But the Wichita City Council may rethink that approach this year after council member Jeff Blubaugh and Mayor Brandon Whipple signaled in October that they are interested in finding a solution to the city’s unpaved streets. One of the primary reasons, Whipple said, is whether residents can afford to pay for paving themselves. While cost estimates vary, one 2015 street paving project cost $210,000 split between 10 property owners. 

“The reality is we have reached elasticity when it comes to who can pave roads and who can’t,” Whipple said. “We have a big chunk of our population who can’t afford it. They can’t afford the extra money.” 

To explore the issue, The Wichita Beacon studied the distribution of unpaved roads by ZIP code. The analysis found that ZIP codes with a higher percentage of people in poverty than the citywide poverty level of 16% are not necessarily overly burdened with unpaved roads. But ZIP codes with Hispanic and Latino populations that are higher than the citywide average, which is 17%, do have a disproportionate amount of unpaved roads. 

Where are the unpaved streets?

City Council Districts 3, 4 and 6 are home to about 90% of Wichita’s unpaved roads. 

Zooming into the map by ZIP code shows an even more granular breakdown of where the unpaved roads are located. 

The 67204 ZIP code has the highest amount of unpaved roads, with about 14.6 miles. The ZIP code encompasses the North End, with historically Hispanic neighborhoods, and Benjamin Hills, Pleasant Valley and Riverview. 

City Council member Maggie Ballard, whose District 6 includes the 67204 ZIP code, said residents voiced concerns about roads before her election in November.

“During the campaign I got a lot of complaints about the condition of a lot of the roads, specifically up north — like 25th and Arkansas and 25th and Amidon areas, and further north,” Ballard said. “That’s also where the unpaved roads are for the most part.”

The 67216 and 67217 ZIP codes, both south of Kellogg, have the second- and fourth-most unpaved roads, respectively — 9.6 miles and 7.6 miles. These ZIP codes encompass South City, southwest Wichita and other neighborhoods.

About 43% of unpaved roads in Wichita — 36 miles — are located south of Kellogg. The area south of Kellogg makes up approximately 40% of the city’s total land mass.

“The higher income areas all have their roads paved. New developments have their roads paved,” Whipple said. “If you’re out on the west side or the east side, you likely have your roads paved. How come south Wichita doesn’t have theirs?”

Is it an equity issue?

The Beacon sought to understand whether unpaved roads afflict poor communities and communities of color at disproportionately high rates. 

A data analysis found that 46% of unpaved roads are located in ZIP codes with poverty levels higher than the citywide poverty level of 16%. For a family of four, the poverty level is an annual income of $27,750.

These ZIP codes represent about 55% of Wichita’s total population. So the unpaved roads are not necessarily overrepresented in neighborhoods with poverty levels higher than the city rate of 16%, according to The Beacon analysis.   

Levi Henry, a partner with the political consulting group Ad Astra, said that he’s spent a lot of time knocking on doors throughout Wichita for political campaigns. He said he’s heard from residents about unpaved roads plenty on these walks. While some neighborhoods may not be impoverished, many have large populations of retirees who can’t afford a special assessment, Henry added. 

“You’re still on a fixed income if you’re on a retirement,” he said. “They may not be living paycheck to paycheck, but they don’t have an extra $200 a month to throw down on curb, gutter and streets either.” 

Whipple added that breaking the data down to a more granular level, such as the census tract or precinct level, might give a better idea of whether or not unpaved roads are in low-income neighborhoods.

Half of the unpaved roads are in ZIP codes with Hispanic or Latino populations that are higher than the citywide Hispanic or Latino population of about 17%. That includes the North End, where Antonio Sanchez lives on Wellington Place. Translating through his daughter, Sanchez said that the unpaved streets draw people to come and drive recklessly. 

“It’s very dangerous for the kids who live here because we don’t know when those cars will come and make donuts,” Sanchez said.

These ZIP codes represent only 41% of Wichita’s population, yet 50% of the unpaved roads are located there. This means unpaved roads are disproportionately appearing in these ZIP codes. 

Twenty-six percent of the unpaved roads are in ZIP codes with Black populations that are higher than the citywide Black population of about 11%.

Are unpaved roads an environmental justice issue?

Environmental justice — a term that is growing in popularity — is the idea that no group of people should disproportionately bear environmental burdens like pollution or benefits like green space. 

Many modern-day discussions around environmental justice center around polluting industries. But Robert Bullard — a professor of urban planning and environmental policy who is widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement — discussed unpaved roads as an environmental justice issue in several of his books

“I remember walking on paved streets in the white neighborhoods that suddenly became dirt or gravel roads in the Black community,” Bullard wrote in the introduction to “Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity.”

Dust stirred up from unpaved roads can have health impacts, according to Chloe Steinshouer, a pulmonologist with Pulmonary and Sleep Consultants of Kansas. And properties on unpaved roads are likely to sell for less than identical ones on paved roads, according to Stanley Longhofer, the founding director of the Center for Real Estate  at Wichita State University. 

Beto Lugo-Martinez, co-executive director of environmental justice organization Clean Air Now Kansas City, said that many communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution face a multitude of sources, including cars, industry and unpaved roads. These cumulatively combine to have an impact on health and quality of life, he added. 

In Wichita, the EPA lists 36 sites of air pollution directly adjacent to the North End — running north and south between 21st and 37th streets and between Interstate 135 and Broadway Street. This is next to the 67204 ZIP code and a largely Hispanic neighborhood. 

The pollution levels in the neighboring communities, such as El Pueblo, are high — in the 80th percentile for particulate matter.

“It definitely has multiple layers of exposures — those cumulative impacts,” Lugo-Martinez said. “You have heavy industry to the right, but you also have those unpaved roads which can add to respiratory issues and health issues.”

At a youth climate rally this summer in Wichita, Jonathan Balderas spoke about the impact of air pollution in the North End. While waiting to get picked up from school and while running cross country, he described acrid smells.

“During elementary and middle school, I went to a school on the North End of Wichita,” Balderas said. “I made many memories there which I still cherish to this day. But I wish I forgot about the air that we breathed outside the building.” 

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.