Kalamazoo

A work in progress: City of Kalamazoo takes a big step in guiding how we roll

Details of the plan can be changed if things aren't working.

 
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series. f you have a story about the neighborhood please let us know here.

When riding my bike from the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail to cross through downtown July 20, I saw the new bike lane on North Westnedge Avenue. It was on the left, which is unusual, but had a buffer zone of paint between me and the traffic. On the left, by the curb, a parking zone.

Usually, whenever I dared bike on that stretch of Westnedge, where the one-way opened up to four lanes of drivers looking to either turn right on one-way, multi-lane Kalamazoo Avenue or left on one-way, multi-lane West Michigan Avenue, or just barrel south while weaving around other traffic i a race to reach the next red light, I felt like I could die.

But here was a fresh bike lane, so I tried it out.

In the short jump to Michigan, one motor vehicle swerved in front of me to use the parking zone -- since it's by the intersection, it's actually a no-parking zone, indicated with hash-lines -- as a turn lane, and one behind me did the same, speeding to pass me on the left.

"It's a challenge for folks," Dennis Randolph says. "People have been used to that street for 50, nearly 60 years."

North Westnedge traffic calming: Two right-sized traffic lanes, a bike lane and curbside parking, meant to help slow traffic to the speed limit and give alternate forms of transportation a space. Cones are where permanent posts will be placed.As part of the early steps to transforming the city's streets, Westnedge and Park now have parking zones and bike lanes on the left, and two right-sized traffic lanes on the right. They run from Hopkins and Dunkley through the Northside to Michigan Avenue. 

In the weeks since my trial ride, bollards and cones have gone up to help drivers stay in their lanes.

The plan is to continue this south -- with some variations -- to West Maple Street, just before the streets merge as South Westnedge Ave. 

1960's traffic flow, 2020's neighborhood repair

Randolph, traffic engineer for the City of Kalamazoo's Public Service Department, points out that Kalamazoo's streets have been speedy and unsafe since the mid-'60s, when the city turned its streets over to MDOT.

In 1965, MDOT prioritized traffic flow through the city and its neighborhoods. The two one-way streets of Westnedge and Park divided the predominately African-American Northside neighborhood with traffic flowing to and from U.S. 131.

Decades later, the city is working to give Northside pedestrians safe crossings, to slow traffic to the speed limits (ranging from 35 MPH-25 MPH in the area), and to make a space for alternatives to gas-burning vehicles.

"It's neighborhood repair," City Planner Christina Anderson says of the traffic calming project. "We talk about this when we do zoning work in areas where past zoning decisions put commercial and industrial in neighborhoods where it was not appropriate." 

Christina Anderson, City Planner, City of Kalamazoo.In the 1960s, the state redesigned the roads through the Northside "with no regard to context. They were going through neighborhoods, they were designed to move cars as quickly as possible through the neighborhood," she says.

There was no thought about the people living there. Priority was given to "people coming off 131," she says. "We're trying to reclaim those as city and neighborhood streets." 

Speed and inconsistent speeds

Details on this year's and next year's plan for the two streets can be found at Imagine Kalamazoo .

In implementation, Randolph and Anderson say, some details of the plan can be changed if things aren't working.

Soon, "a couple weeks out," Anderson says, the streets will get a "protected popup bike lane" into the Vine neighborhood.

It might not be feasible to keep that popup lane due to winter maintenance. If so, it would be back in the spring. More-permanent changes will happen afterward, through 2023, "when the street gets reconstructed with some water-work that's planned," she says.

Randolph says "We're doing it, first, for safety. Speed is a problem, certainly something all the folks were bringing up during last summer's engagement process."

Dennis Randolph, City of Kalamazoo Traffic Engineer.Residents complained about speed, but from a traffic engineering perspective, speeding combined with a variety of speeds is the big issue, he says.

"When you have a variety of speeds, people traveling between 15 MPH and -- we've measured people going 67 MPH on Westnedge -- it's that variance of speeds that causes the problems. That's what causes crashes. And that's what makes it real uncomfortable for people who want to cross the street." 

He outlines a difficult math word problem: A car is approaching at 25 MPH. Another is traveling at 40 MPH. As a pedestrian at the crosswalk, how fast does the pedestrian have to move to get across all the lanes?

"The perception... how fast they have to walk across the street, is never consistent for them," he says.

With the traffic-calming changes made, radar is keeping track of speeds along the streets. "As of yesterday, I wasn't getting much slowing, but what I was getting was a more consistent speed from drivers," Randolph says. They've "cut down a bit on the high end." 

Speed has been on his mind for a long time. Randolph says he was on an interstate recently, going the maximum speed limit, 75 MPH. 

"But you know what, I look at the speedometer of my car, and the speedometer says 120. Some say 150. The problem that we're dealing with is that we make vehicles that go those very high speeds, 200 MPH even. And it's not very compatible with life, especially life in the city. I don't believe speeds like that are right anywhere."

Fast traffic is incompatible with city life, from the residential/commercial area of the Vine to the old neighborhood of the Northside, he says.

"The problem is, we get the folks who want to go fast because they don't care or they're in a hurry or whatever the reason. (One should) recognize that doesn't make it very livable. You don't even like to stand on the sidewalk when you've got speeds like that."

Delineators

Randolph and Anderson were speaking on July 27. Since then, traffic cones and flex posts have gone up along the new bike lanes of Westnedge and Park. The posts are spaced far enough apart to let cars reach the curb to park.

"Those are delineators," Dustin Black says. They give a strong message to drivers that the area is not a traffic lane. 

After they went up, users' confusion "straightened out.... It's still not perfect, but it is significantly safer," Black says.

Black is employed as a transportation engineer in infrastructure design and development outside of the Kalamazoo area. In this interview, he wants to make clear he is representing just himself and "my little grassroots organization," ModeShift Kalamazoo. ModeShift's goal is to promote biking, walking, and other forms of non-motorized transportation.

"I don't consider myself a cyclist, I'm not a bike guy in any way. Honestly, I don't even enjoy riding them that much," he says with a laugh. His main question when looking at bike and pedestrian infrastructure is, "Would my wife and kids use it? Most times, no." 

After around 16 years in transportation engineering, "I've realized there is no better form of transportation, for the user, for the environment, for the city, (than bikes). It really is the most efficient way to move people and goods around, especially in urban settings."  

We asked Black to ride with us along the new Park and Westnedge bike lanes on a recent Saturday noon.

There was less traffic on the two streets than, say, 5 p.m. on a weekday. Park Street north of Lulu Street became quiet. Birds were chirping in the trees. Homes here probably don't get this much traffic-free peace throughout the week, we noted. I’d never pedaled a bike down that stretch of Park – the only time I’ve experienced that part of the Northside is in a car headed to 131, with all the rest of the traffic. 

Then a group of motor vehicles came along on their way to 131. Most seemed to be at the speed limit, and none encroached the bike lane. One thing I noted was we weren't on the right-hand side of the road. It felt a little dangerously counter-intuitive to ride to the left of cars, but that's where the new bike lanes are.

Black, on his large electric cargo bike, was gesturing here and there at conflict zones and transition areas, using traffic-engineering-speak lost to the sound of passing cars.

We ended the ride at Bronson Park to get his detailed opinion.

The worst flaw was at Westnedge and Michigan, he says. We'd stopped at a light. To our right a driver had her left-turn signal on. Black had to creep up into the crosswalk to make sure she saw him.

In a spot like that, "you're in danger of that left hook, from left-turning traffic."  To be seen there, a biker has to pull into the path of potential pedestrians. "It's just not a good situation" to have to get in the path of walkers, he says, but "self-preservation kicks in."

Black notes that at this intersection he should be behind the stop line, but he's in the crosswalk so motorists turning left onto Michigan can see him. "It's just not a good situation," at that intersection, he says.A solution would be a "bike box," a space marked on the road that puts bikes in front of cars, and in drivers' field of vision, at a stop. 

Kalamazoo drivers aren't used to the possibility that a biker could be on their left. Riding on the left is problematic since traffic codes call for bikes and slower traffic to be on the right, he says. 

When the left-hand lane ends, where does the bike go? Swerving across traffic to be back on the right, whether going straight on the part of Westnedge without bike lanes, or when turning left on multi-lane Michigan, is not a safe option. 

On the new bike lane at North Westnedge and Kalamazoo Ave.Black sees "a few other design tweaks that can be done." This is still a pilot project, he says, "to figure out what works and what doesn't work." 

The city has done step one, "striping it and claiming a space," he says. 

Next, "we've got to think of those transitions, how do people get in, how to get people out. Those conflict zones, those are the most dangerous places. Anyone can just go down the road, but where you're crossing, where there are conflict zones, turning movements, transition periods where there's a bike lane and then there's not a bike lane," these conflict zones are where crashes are more likely.

Drivers and bikers should not have to think too hard about what to do, where to go -- "You want to make it as intuitive as possible because intuitive is safe," Black says.

New posts, reflective at night, help keep traffic from swerving into the bike and parking lanes.Planning for the future

Anderson and Randolph mention a few reasons for the left-hand lanes: It is intended as a loop for bike traffic from Dunkley down to Maple and back, connecting neighborhoods to grocery stores, restaurants, and downtown. Park and Westnedge have to stay one-way during the big two-way conversion when Michigan, Kalamazoo, and other streets become two-way, with their own bike pathways. The plan for the future is to connect all the bike lanes and pathways in a network.

Each detail "has a pro and con," Anderson says. 

"They're trials, we want to see how they work for Kalamazoo," Randolph says of the latest changes. The city will be monitoring speeds with radar, and taking note of any collisions to see if anything needs to be modified.

"I'd just like to thank the city for taking this step to do this," Black says. The type of changes Kalamazoo is making can be controversial. "Comments on social media, especially your Facebooks and Reddits, they're very car-centric, very against it. As a public servant, you usually can never do anything right," Black says. 

Anderson says that there’ve been "lessons learned" about letting road users know about the changes and that communications staff have been working on mailers to "tie everybody back to information on the why." 

But, she points out, "This is not a new project, we've been talking about it for a year, we did six community meetings last summer. Every property on Westnedge and Park has received multiple postcards." 

Remaking Kalamazoo streets has been a goal for a long time. Imagine Kalamazoo, the city's Complete Streets policy, and the City Commission's passage of a climate emergency declaration in 2019 -- Black lists off all these plans and statements promising change. "They're making good on them," he says.

Black understands that careful, methodical steps are needed. Community engagement is critical. "High speeds, a lot of lanes – trying to walk that back is difficult," he says. "Transitions by nature are not a fully hatched egg, so to speak."

But, "I'd like to see them take bolder action," he adds. What is happening is a good start, "but it's a climate emergency, not a climate 'oh, we'll wait and see.' Let's do it.... Our world depends on it."

Westnedge and Park 2022 Improvements in the Northside Neighborhood, from Imagine Kalamazoo.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.