Survey: Wichitans somewhat happy with life here

A new survey shows folks are generally happy with their quality of life in this midsize Midwest city.

They like its cheap housing, short commute times and quality city parks.

But overall, they're not as enthused about where they live as folks in other metropolitan areas across the country.

Maybe it's the rugged streets, urban blight or notorious flooding problems.

Whatever the case, a survey of 831 people who represent the city's diverse demographics shows Wichita has a lot to work on if it wants a better report card next time.

The survey showed 69 percent think the overall quality of life in Wichita is "good" or "excellent" — plus or minus 3 percentage points for the survey's margin of error.

That's lower than most other cities that have more than 150,000 people.

And it's barely above the grade the city got in 2006, which was the last time it participated in the National Citizens Survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association and the National Research Center Inc.

City Manager Robert Layton said the survey helps staff and council members learn more about how they're doing and know what residents want. He plans to pair the survey information with other benchmark measures in a presentation to the City Council this morning.

Of those responding to the mail survey, taken starting last July, 35 percent were unemployed or retired; 54 percent worked full-time; 71 percent had lived in Wichita more than 10 years; 63 percent owned a home; 81 percent were non-Hispanic white; 9 percent Hispanic of any race; 8 percent black; and 58 percent made less than $50,000 a year.

Nearly 70 percent said street maintenance is fair or poor. But the city hopes to slowly change that.

Layton said he plans to gradually increase funding for street maintenance from the $6.6 million approved last year to $10 million by 2014.

Code enforcement of weeds and abandoned buildings also got low marks, with more than three-quarters of people labeling it fair or poor.

And 60 percent say the city lacks proper storm drainage.

Overall, more than half say the value of services they get for the tax dollars and the general direction the city is taking is fair to poor.

But the city is fixing a few of the things survey respondents ranked lowest.

For example, 63 percent ranked the ease of bicycle travel in Wichita as fair or poor.

But the city's trails — both on-street and off-street — have been expanding. And the city is about to embark on a bicycle master plan that seeks to link up more trails and prioritize projects.

Meanwhile, only 31 percent said the ease of bus travel is good.

Things will get worse before they get better in that category.

City Council members are expected to increase fares and maybe do away with Saturday bus service, leaving hundreds of people stranded on the weekends.

But the city has hired a consultant to conduct a series of community meetings to see what Wichitans want to get out of the bus system and what they're willing to pay to provide it — such as a half-penny sales tax dedicated to transit.

Meanwhile, about 70 percent say the ease of car travel is good or excellent — and Wichita has consistently scored better than other cities for commute times.

Cheap housing and city parks also garner applause.

More than three-quarters of respondents support spending city money to improve parks (76 percent), bike paths (80 percent), police stations (79 percent), fire stations (92 percent), night bus service (87 percent), street repairs (88 percent), libraries (89 percent) and a larger downtown library (87 percent).

Layton said he was surprised to see so much support. Often, big-ticket items such as night bus service and better libraries face significant opposition.

But the things people want the city to spend more on tend to coincide with those that got low ratings in the survey, Layton said.

One of the drawbacks to some parts of the survey is that not everyone has significant experience with all aspects of city services.

For example, the survey shows 53 percent of those responding haven't talked to a city employee in the past year and 81 percent have never attended a public meeting.

That's something the city hopes to work on too — informing more people about what the city is doing and what residents want it to be doing, Layton said.

"The more informed citizens are, the better the feedback we can get," he said.