Kalamazoo Streets 101: Where we've been, where we're headed

After years of Complete Streets studies and Imagine Kalamazoo discussions, the streets of Downtown Kalamazoo are about to take a "baby step" toward their big future transformations this spring.

In late summer, Michigan Avenue will be three lanes, with parking on both sides, and a bike track between the parking lane and sidewalks on the south side. The changes will begin where Stadium Drive connects with West Main and Michigan, and continue to Harrison Street where Michigan connects with Kalamazoo Avenue.

It's a "baby-step change," Dennis Randolph,Traffic Engineer for the City of Kalamazoo, says. Like the Westnedge and Park lane changes last year, this will be a pilot, "to see what works best for the city." 

I Dennis Randolph,Traffic Engineer for the City of Kalamazoot's also a warm-up to the big changes coming, the two-way conversion of Michigan and Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo Avenue will be the first for conversion with work starting in 2024. Millions in federal grant money, specifically for efforts to improve downtown traffic networks around the country, will give a huge boost to the work.

At the center of all the changes is traffic calming. Lanes will be fewer and narrower. Bollards, bump-outs, and signals will work to keep drivers at the speed limit. Infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists will make it clear that they're using the streets, too, and should be able to do so safely.

Playing devil's -- or speeders' -- advocate: Since 1965 drivers have been able to move fairly quickly through Downtown Kalamazoo on their way to other communities or to state highways and interstates. The four and five lanes of Michigan Avenue make it easy to swerve around slowpokes to get to the light at Rose in time while it's still green, or yellow. It's dangerous for bikers and walkers, but they just need to stay out of the way. Sure, the one-way streets make it a little difficult to get around downtown, but we're so used to it ...

Randolph isn't listening to any arguments supporting the status quo. "I don't think the streets are okay as it is. I don't want to walk across them. I don't want to drive on them. I don't see why people have to go so fast on our streets, especially when they're not even stopping, when they're not even contributing to the downtown."

He notes that -- and this may be shocking news for some -- drivers are not entitled to exceed the speed limit. "My biggest question for everybody is, the sign says 25, why are you going 30 miles an hour? What gives you that right? I don't have that right, and I put the sign up." He laughs. "It says 25, folks, go 25."

Randolph hears opinions from two groups. There are the people who live and work downtown, "people who want to access downtown, and enjoy the things that can happen in a central business district." And there are "those who are driving through the city, not stopping, they're going from someplace on one side to another place on another side outside of town. It's their shortcut.

"The city has to decide who it's going to be concerned with first, and it's probably the folks who want to enjoy downtown, who want to contribute to downtown, are the ones we are most interested in serving. As opposed to those people who just want a fast shortcut through downtown." 

Traffic calming: Does it work?

There's been a nationwide movement happening to slow or reduce urban traffic, improve safety, and make more resident-friendly, visitor-friendly, and business-friendly downtowns. The Washington Post pins it on the pandemic -- when shutdowns reduced traffic, city residents noticed how nice their towns became.

But traffic and the desire to slow it down has long been an issue in Downtown Kalamazoo. Dean Hauck, owner/operator of the bookstore Michigan News Agency, has been an eyewitness to the problems on Michigan Avenue since the street changed to one-way in 1965. 

She says the one-way, wide road has long been a barrier to her business, and she suspects most drivers speeding through never stop to spend their dollars downtown.

"It's a racetrack," Hauck says.

Dean Hauck, owner of Michigan News Agency, feels Michigan Ave. has hindered her business since 1965, when it was changed to a one-way street.From her shop on the north side of Michigan Avenue, she sees potential customers try to cross at Church Street.

The crossing at Church is under the city ordinance that requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in all crosswalks, and last year saw the installation of walk signs that flash yellow lights when a pedestrian pushes a button before crossing. 

Yet, even with the flashing lights, many drivers won't stop, Hauck says. 

"There are ongoing problems out there, still. People push the buttons, the people don't stop, one lane stops, people start across the street, they're yelling at the cars who don't stop -- it's really quite a challenge."

The signs were one small step toward traffic calming. Clearly, more will be done to make Michigan Avenue safe, as Randolph says he hopes.

But will the street become safer? Can drivers be slowed down to the speed limit? Can they be persuaded in some structural way to not endanger the lives of their fellow citizens?

Kalamazoo City Planner Christina AndersonKalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson says the issue is psychological. "We as humans, do what we feel comfortable doing, right? If we're in our personal vehicles, and we're driving down the street, if we feel that we have ample space, and feel comfortable to drive a speed faster than the posted limit, we tend to do that."

She continues, "There have been studies at Western Michigan University about the psychological effect of having obstacles, things in the road that you can see, that either narrow the roadway, or just are perceived obstacles, that have an impact on driver behavior."

Anderson and Randolph say that in recent years, lane narrowing, bollards, bike lanes, speed humps, and other pilot and permanent changes, have slowed drivers down elsewhere in the city.

They've kept an eye, and a radar gun, on Westnedge and Park since their changes last year. Though Randolph says more data is needed, they found "we had reduced the average speed somewhere between three and five miles per hour," he says.

"Some folks may say, that's not anything. But first of all, you can feel it. I drive up and down the street, and I can feel the difference," he adds.

And there's a big difference between getting hit by a vehicle going 35 mph and one going 40 mph, he points out.

And it's not just walkers and bikers who get hurt. "We're looking at safety for two groups of folks," Randolph says, motorized and non-motorized. Drivers have been injured or killed. Or, at the least, suffered from vehicle damage. 

Solar-powered sign with flashing lights, which tells drivers it's the law to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, hopefully stops all four lanes of Michigan Avenue traffic as they speed to the light at Rose. Kalamazoo's traffic and city planning depar"A lot of the crashes in Kalamazoo have to do with speeding if you look at the crash report data. And a lot of people running into people at signals, people running traffic signals, things like that." 

Before taking his position with the city in Kalamazoo, Randolph was a traffic engineer for a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., for 11 years, where he led similar traffic-calming efforts. He's also worked in Detroit, Lansing, and the Washington D.C. area.

When he came to Kalamazoo, he was amazed, he said, at the state of Michigan Avenue. Particularly in how many roll-over accidents -- an indicator of obvious high speed -- there'd been reported on the street. 

"I've never had a street like Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo... I see multiple crashes where cars are being driven so fast, so erratically, that they get into a crash and they start rolling, turning over. That just tells me something is wrong."

Mayor Pete of South Bend

Traffic calming theories are arriving with demonstrated success. What Kalamazoo is attempting has been shown to work in large cities like Washington D.C. and New York City, to smaller towns like Ann Arbor and Madison, Wisc.

Around 2017-2021, South Bend, Ind. went through a similar transformation with one-way streets converted to two-way, and the installation of roundabouts and other traffic-calming infrastructure.

Anderson knows the people in the South Bend planning department. "We run on these very similar tracks, as Midwest cities with colleges, universities, experience very similar histories in terms of boom and bust and industries," she says. "I think learning lessons from cities around us certainly helps." 

South Bend's street conversion was led by then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who ran for president and who's now working in Washington, D.C. as Secretary of Transportation.

"Mayor Pete!" Anderson exclaims. "Technically, he's in Traverse City now. So he needs to come down to Kalamazoo, give us the check, do a little speech...."

In his current role, Buttigieg is behind a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-supported grant program to get U.S. cities, big and small, the dollars to help transform transportation networks.

Kalamazoo applied for the grants, and is on track to receive $18 million, Randolph says. That will help pay for planning studies, pilots, and the construction of the coming two-way conversion. "Hopefully, we'll get a little more, too."

Reconnecting Communities

The Reconnecting Communities Pilot is "dedicated to reconnecting communities that were cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions," the U.S. Department of Transportation says on the site.

In the mid-20th century, many poor and minority communities had their neighborhoods divided by highways or had major roads or railroads, keeping them on the other side of the tracks, as the saying goes. 

Kalamazoo's one-way streets act as barriers separating neighborhoods from the business and culture of downtown. Notably, Kalamazoo Avenue became a wide, one-way street during the era of redlining, segregating the Northside from Downtown, Randolph points out.

Safety, of course, is a barrier keeping nearby neighborhood residents from entering downtown. Other barriers are seen when the streets are looked at in terms of environmental justice. People living near these streets have to live with constant pollution and traffic noise, Randolph says. "Physically, we harm people." 

High traffic leads to health issues in communities, "and they can't be as productive as they'd like to be." 

Kalamazoo will get $18 million from the federal program because "we were able to show that we have had these problems," Randolph says.

The streets aren't the cause of all problems, he says, but "they are the backbone, the framework of the community. So you need to do something with the transportation network if you're going to help the community as a whole."

Changing behavior

Could making Kalamazoo's streets a safer, better network become a partisan, culture-war-type issue? We live in a time when even preventing a pandemic was turned into a culture-war issue. Is that a concern for the city?

Randolph hopes people focus on the data. "The first thing we think about when we do any of our projects is safety," he says. The city has "a summary of ten years of crashes in the City of Kalamazoo, 31,000 crashes. You can look at it, and see that speeding is a problem, and you see with each of those crashes the potential of somebody getting hurt or dying." 

Anderson says they have the opportunity "to prove as we go along, what's happening... We will be able to see real numbers of how behavior has changed."

Safety, but also dollars, are motivating this change. The city is looking to study, with the help of WMU, the economic changes caused by the street changes over the next ten to 15 years, Anderson says. 

A 2017 economic study showed that "the number one barrier (to improving downtown's economy) is the street network. You're not reaching your economic capacity downtown because the street network is a barrier for customers and clients." 

A 2022 study showed that if Kalamazoo's streets were slowed and reconfigured, it would "open the door to significantly expanded revenue overall in downtown." she says.

Maybe people can agree that fewer deaths, injuries, and car wrecks would be a good thing. More life downtown, more money, and business happening downtown would also be nice.

But something seems to happen in one's brain when driving in traffic, as a part of that traffic, looking to make that next green light. 

Anderson says, "I got honked at yesterday going downtown to the office, because I was letting someone cross Michigan Avenue at Rose, and the person behind me didn't understand why I was not going through, why I wasn't turning... So they were honking."

The physical changes to the street might be easiest. The harder part is "changing behavior, and that's going to take a while," Anderson says.

She points out that the city educated the public about the 1965 one-way change, one that rerouted their driving and changed Kalamazoo for the next six decades, with a short pamphlet. 

This time, there have been a lot of meetings with neighborhood groups and other public engagements. The effort to educate the public on the how and why of the changes "is going to be critical," she says.

"We're creatures of habit. It's human nature, right? There's something about change, that it's hard," she says. 

"It's a big change," Randolph says. "We understand it's a change, that's a fact. But our objective really is safety, is to make things a lot safer for all users on the road, whether they're in a car or not."

The downside for drivers, Randolph says, is that it may take them up to five minutes longer to get between Westnedge and Harrison when all the conversions are done.

"If you run a person down and you kill them, that's a horrible loss for the community. How can you equate four or five minutes of time to killing somebody? I don't think there's any question about that."

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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.