Calmer traffic, slower speeds, connected travel are goals now that Kalamazoo controls streets

Kalamazoo has taken back its downtown streets -- now what?

Downtown's fast, wide, one-way roads that get traffic quickly through the city -- to the detriment of pedestrians, bike riders, and downtown businesses -- are about to be changed in a likely dramatic fashion. 

Changes will be dramatic, but not quick. The city is on the verge of deciding where to start, but first it will go through another round of planning and public input meetings. 

'Finally here!'

Kalamazoo city planner Rebekah Kik was like a kid on her birthday.

"We're finally here!" she says at the Kalamazoo City Commission meeting of Jan. 7. "We're finally talking about the implementation of ... the Connected City chapter" of Imagine Kalamazoo. 

Commissioners then voted to take down a nearly-55-year-old roadblock, the Michigan Department of Transportation's jurisdictional control of major trunklines through the downtown. The lone dissenting vote was from Commissioner Don Cooney, who was concerned about future costs to the city.

Kik later tells Second Wave her ideas of where to start Kalamazoo's Connected City transformation.

The first project, Kik feels, "is going to have to be a portion of Stadium Drive to West Michigan." She points to the 2014 design charrette that called for a protected bike lane on Michigan Avenue and included a redesign of Stadium Drive that realigned Academy Street and turned South and Lovell streets to two-way.

"There's something about that gateway element, and being able to get South and Lovell into two-way, and really reduce the speeds as you're coming into the city -- I think that's got to be the first project." 

Kik then brings up Kalamazoo Avenue between Westnedge and Douglas: "Could we turn that to two-way traffic, like, tomorrow?... That could be one of the first projects." 

She's been communicating with the consultants that MDOT hired to do the Downtown Kalamazoo Planning and Environmental Linkages study or PEL. They have years of "all of this phenomenal data" that MDOT paid for, Kik says.

But instead of breaking out orange barrels and two-way signs right away, the city has decided to hold four city-wide meetings, likely beginning in June, with "a lot (number unknown right now) of neighborhood meetings in between," Kik says.

Four city-wide meetings will get input on specific intersections and sections of the overall network; refine plans based on input from neighborhood meetings; go through technical information, construction impacts, budgeting, etc; and reveal the final design recommendations. Between the city-wide meetings, the neighborhood meetings will host workshops with community members and host walking/biking tours of targeted streets. 

"Always making sure we are keeping everyone in the loop!" Kik says.

The city wants more meetings, she says, "because it's time to get to the details we've never been able to discuss because once the traffic study was done the project was always shut down. We've never been able to ask about bike lanes, changing lane sizes, where does the lighting go, where do the trees go? We've been stuck on -- what will MDOT let us do?"

Fifty years of studies, meetings, and second thoughts

In 1964 the city decided to turn routes through the downtown over to MDOT, and agreed that most streets would be one-way.

"Kalamazoo became this massive one-way system," Kik says. Rose, Burdick, and many other streets that are now two-way, were also one-way. 

In 1968, "the first study was done to try to turn it back. After four years they'd realized, oh crud, what did we do?" Kik says.

Dean Hauck, owner of Michigan News Agency on Michigan Ave., says she remembers when what was then a two-way downtown street became a multi-lane trunkline section of highway M-43. She was then living in Seattle, Wash., and her step-father was running the newsstand/bookstore, as he had since 1947.

"My pop called me.... He was completely excited, and he said 'Dean! We don't have to maintain Michigan Avenue anymore! We've given it to the state! They're going to maintain it and we're going to save lots of money.'" Hauck says.

Maybe the city initially saved some money, but, "You can look at our books for the Michigan News Agency, and you can see exactly when it was changed to one-way. Our business dropped completely."

Potential customers often call, unable to find her store, because they aren't familiar with downtown's one-way quirks and inconveniences, she says. People coming in from the south on Portage Street, for example, have to navigate a counter-clockwise circle of around eight blocks to get to her store, since they can't turn left and simply drive three blocks. 

Pedestrians have more-dangerous difficulties. "It's almost impossible to get across the street. I have been asking for a stoplight there," where Church Street crosses Michigan. 

She's seen the drama out her front windows for decades: Drivers race down from the light at Park Street as pedestrians attempt to cross at Church. "People are gunning it so they get to the light on Rose, so (pedestrians) actually get honked at. The people scream, the cars honk, and it is very, very dangerous out there." 

Hauck would like a street that doesn't "bring out the hostility and anger in people." She would like to see traffic calming measures, two-way traffic, a speed limit of 25 mph., bike lanes, more stop lights -- Michigan Avenue needs to be something more than just "a drive-through to the other side of Kalamazoo," she says.

Around in circles

It made some sense in 1964. There are traffic flow theories claiming that one-way systems get traffic through quickly, reduces idling and pollutants, Kik says, "but it actually makes it worse because of the circling people do around blocks trying to get from one place to another."

The redesign should increase "choices to go and use the whole grid." 

There were studies of Kalamazoo streets in 1977, 2003, 1998, 2008, and the latest PEL study, Kik says. Some were "asking the wrong question to get to the solution. They keep asking the question, how do we get this volume of traffic through here? That's not the question we should be asking." 

Now the city of Kalamazoo is looking for ways to serve everyone including those not in motor vehicles on the roads, and how can we help people use the roads to get around within Kalamazoo, not just through Kalamazoo. 

It's a matter of priorities, as highlighted by the jurisdictional transfer from MDOT.

When considering traffic flow, "we're looking at it from a regional perspective," Amy Lipset, Southwest Region Planner for MDOT, says. Lipset, who took over from MDOT planner Jason Lantham last June, oversaw the completion of the transfer.

Did MDOT and downtown Kalamazoo have conflicting goals? Getting cars through the city and region quickly, versus getting cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists around within downtown safely?

"It's not so much that our focus is on moving vehicles quickly, it's moving them efficiently," she says. "I think that's part of our actual mission statement, is moving people, goods, and services efficiently in the State of Michigan."

Lipset is also an urban planner, so she knows where the city is coming from. "We also want to be sensitive to the downtown environment." MDOT has also turned over street jurisdiction for the cities of Grand Rapids, Holland, and Rochester Hills.

Worth the cost?

"There's no question that we have our vision and our values set," Kik says. "We want to calm traffic, we want slower speeds, we want a wonderful downtown where people live, where we're spurring more local development, smaller businesses, things like that." She also points out that "road diets reduce crashes, on average, 47 percent."

But, as commissioner Cooney questioned, what about the cost to the city? 

"How much does operating seven lanes of traffic cost?" she replies. "How much does it cost, when you have un-developable land, to our property taxes? How much does it cost for a business owner?"

It's not going to be cheap, and the city will have to turn toward grants and philanthropy to ease the pain, she says.

"It's probably a $25 million-plus project, I think that's realistic when we're thinking of all the streets, six streets turning two-way, plus bicycle infrastructure, new signals, all the streetscape we would like to add," she says.

That price will be spread out over projects happening over a decade. It all needs to be completed in ten years, Kik says.

The next series of meetings and planning will take a year. It could be two-to-three years for the first project to be completed, she says.

Kik sees projects done every three years "we just keep going, and at the end of ten years we can look back and go, 'what did that used to look like?'" she says with a laugh.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering everything from The Beastie Boys to invasive species. For more information see his website here
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