In car-centric Johnson County, this Mission man is thinking up a more walkable future

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A Mission man is being given the chance to make his corner of car-centric Johnson County more pedestrian-friendly.

Josh Thede was recently named one of 18 Kansans receiving a fellowship from the 2023 Kansas State Walking College aimed at making local communities more walkable. (He’s not the only Johnson Countian, either: Chris Gralapp of Olathe was also selected.) 

The program, a partnership between AARP and America Walks, works to identify local leaders and give them training and resources to better advocate for more “walkability” and pedestrian safety in their cities. 

The Walking College was developed in 2014 by America Walks, with funding support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We are delighted to welcome this group of passionate local leaders, who are working to improve walkability and livability in communities throughout the state,” said Glenda DuBoise, state director for AARP Kansas. “The Fellows represent a range of backgrounds and experiences, including community organizing, health and wellness, economic development and planning.

Thede will create “walking action plan” for Mission

The Fellows will receive coaching from mentors, who will help them develop a “Walking Action Plan” for their community.

Thede’s mentor will be Jessica Mortinger, the Transportation Planning Manager for Douglas County, Kan. She says Thede and other fellows will need to understand the generally car-centric history of their communities in order to truly help them move forward with a long-term vision of increasing walkability.

“It will take decades to change things and make them more walkable and comfortable for people (not moving in cars),” Mortinger said. “It’s a huge cultural change that Josh and other advocates are working on, but (in the end) it will increase opportunities for everyone to lead healthier lives.”

Mortinger and other representatives associated with America Walks point to the dwindling number of students who still walk or bike to school, as one of the many trends the Walking College hopes to reverse.

Chris Tilden, a researcher with KU’s Center for Public Partnerships, and another America Walks coach, says Douglas County tracks such data to see how it might align with public health trends, like heart disease.

“These may sound like really simple things to people that they could do,” Tilden said. “However, it takes a great deal of work to create the infrastructure to make spaces more walkable. We have such an auto-centric culture, we no longer have the environments that encourage us to be physically active.” 

Mission was already attracting notice for its efforts

America Walks highlighted Mission’s recent efforts by naming it a city in its “Walkability Wins” feature, last year.

The Johnson Drive Rehabilitation Project’s ribbon-cutting event last September was spotlighted, and America Walks gave Mission high marks for its pavement repairs, wider sidewalks, decorative asphalt and UBAS, or UltraThin Bonded Asphalt Surface, for extending street life cycles.

America Walks Communications Manager Kait Spielmaker says they have high hopes for all Kansas communities, but are particularly excited to see what Thede will do to improve walkability in Mission. 

“We love his background, and we’re excited that he has very robust ideas and plans for a community that we’ve noticed,” Spielmaker said. “We’re also very focused on making sure Josh and others have action plans that are attainable. ” 

Thede chose to live in Mission because of its walkability

Thede, who is an acoustical consultant and licensed engineer at Henderson Engineers in Lenexa and is also a member of Mission’s Sustainability Commission, will be working on his action plan as the program unfolds over the next six months.

He has hopes that he will help put together a long-term vision for Mission. He says that he and soon-to-be-wife Ellen (they plan to get married this October) settled in Mission, partly because of its walkability, especially after the work that went into improving Johnson Drive.

They say they’ve noticed fewer aggressive drivers, and see the commercial downtown stretch now as more accommodating to all modes of transportation.

“There’s many different transportation solutions, but my favorite is to make cities more walkable,” Thede said. “It has so many benefits, too: health, environmental, economic. I’m very lucky to be working with a lot of forward thinking people who are passionate about walkability and sustainability.”

Ben McCarthy is a contributor to the Post and other publications in the Kansas City area. He can be reached at ben.c.mccarthy@gmail.com with questions, comments and story suggestions.

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