Kalamazoo updates residents on progress toward streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists

The city of Kalamazoo may be about to take control of its streets to make them complete.

On Jan. 7, city commissioners will hold three votes: to approve of a Michigan Department of Transportation jurisdictional transfer that turns certain roads over to the city, to adopt an official Complete Streets policy, and to update the city's crosswalk ordinance.

After years of study, of community input, planning with Imagine Kalamazoo, KATS, the 2014 Charrette, and other plans, the city is poised to transform its streets.

But MDOT controls Kalamazoo's main traffic arteries, including Kalamazoo and Michigan Avenues, Westnedge Avenue, and Park Street. The city can't paint a line on pavement or tweak the traffic lights' timing without Lansing approval. Even in matters of downtown construction, what MDOT says, goes -- MDOT constricted Michigan Avenue down to one lane for nearly a week to remove a crane, to the frustration of many east-bound drivers mid-December and retailers along the street.

"If you want to do anything different, if you want to do anything more... you should probably take the streets back yourselves," was MDOT's message to Kalamazoo in response to the city's grand plans, Katie Reilly, Kalamazoo neighborhood activator says.

At the Imagine Kalamazoo Connected City meeting Dec. 13, Deputy City Manager Jeff Chamberlain gave details about the jurisdictional hand-off contract with MDOT. The transfer from the state to the city would include the above roads plus connected sections of Stadium, Riverview, King Highway, and Douglas.

"We understand it's a big responsibility for Kalamazoo to take on these roads," Chamberlain says.

City crews, under contract with MDOT, have been doing maintenance on the roads already, so there's no need to "staff-up." The city will get more gas and weight tax funding, he added, funding "$150,000 to $250,000 a year more" in maintenance costs.

MDOT would also provide $11.7 million for major repairs in the next 10 years; beyond that, the city will use Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study funds and other federal grants.

"And we also hope, too, by doing the work that we're looking at, perhaps two-way traffic, neighborhood traffic calming, connections, things like that, we would actually encourage more growth and hopefully encourage a little bit of new tax base," Chamberlain says.

Connected city, complete streets, safe crosswalks

Also at the recent Imagine Kalamazoo Connected City meeting, city Director of Community Planning and Economic Development Rebekah Kik pointed out the Complete Streets vision for the city: "A connected network of safe streets that provides convenient access to all parts of the city. City streets are designed for equitable access, comfort and mobility of any and all users regardless of ability, age, income, or race."

She points out that 25 percent of the land in the city's 25 square miles is covered by streets. This "big chunk" of land should be made usable for everyone, she says: Those who live, work, shop and play downtown; for connected neighborhoods and school campuses; for motorists, public transportation users, pedestrians and bicyclists. That they should be networks "not just for cars, but for people."

MDOT "has a different vision than we do," she says -- their's is getting traffic through downtown on roads that are "pretty wide, pretty fast, and they all go in one direction."

An early step in this vision for safe, equitable streets would adoption of the new crosswalk ordinance. If passed Jan. 7, cars will have to yield to pedestrians at marked and unmarked crosswalks.

A good example of a crosswalk where "you're kinda taking your life into your hands" when crossing, Chamberlain says, is across Michigan at Church Street. Pedestrians have to jog across four lanes of one-way traffic, plus two parking lanes, as motorists race to make the green light at Rose Street.

There, and at other un-signaled crosswalks in the city, "Vehicles will have to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, period." Other states have this law, "not so much in Michigan, though," Chamberlain says. Other cities in the state have the ordinance, including Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Ann Arbor and East Lansing.

The city will run an education campaign before the ordinance is made official this spring.

Setting priorities

Local radio reporter John McNeill sparked discussion during the meeting when he asks, "How many lives are you willing to sacrifice to make your point?... On Michigan Avenue? Are you kidding me?"

Chamberlain repeats, "it is an education issue," and that earlier local studies have shown that signs and bollards (street posts) can get motorists to slow down and be watchful.

"You're not going to make that next green," McNeil replies, with the motorist's point of view.

"So, you'll have to stop for the pedestrian. That's the goal," Chamberlain says

"Slowing me down? I'm going to resent it," McNeil says.

"Other states across the country have this as a state-wide law, and it works," Chamberlain says.

"Works for who? Works for pedestrians, not for motorists," McNeil says.

Parents in the audience then spoke up.

A father who lives near Kalamazoo Avenue and Douglas: "The speed limit may be 35 in there, but... they're driving 55, and there's no way that I can safely cross the road right there."

A mother with an adult daughter with disabilities, who live by the Stadium/Michigan/Lovell intersection, says: "For her to cross from where we live... to go downtown, is essentially impossible." 

A Northside resident points out that neighbors, some in wheelchairs, try to cross Park to shop at the Park Street Market, but they face traffic rushing northbound to 131. "Make our neighborhood one of those walkable neighborhoods as well," she says. "I don't think we should give up safety so you can get someplace on time."

After the meeting, Second Wave asks Kik, "How do you prioritize drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists?"

"It depends on the street, right?" she says. There are, outside of the city, the "work-horse streets. And are meant to have speeds of 40 mph. They're meant to have multiple lanes, they're meant to have that center-turn lane, they're meant to be near car sales and big box stores."

But then there are the large streets downtown that go through mixed-use areas of shops and houses. "It's just like balancing land uses, you have to balance streets the same way. The more things you try to put on that street, the more users you have to think about," she says.

"So when you get all the way down to the neighborhood street, now you're just dealing with families, cars, kids -- it's why neighborhood streets should be narrow, slow, with good sidewalks. You don't want people speeding through your neighborhood," she says.

"But, you want to go quickly on Stadium Drive -- I get that. And that's where the balance comes. Confusion comes with downtown streets that are built like highways, giving you the impression that you should use them like highways. They're built to the same standards as I-94. You've got 14-foot lanes -- of course you should be able to go 55 mph because I feel comfortable going 55 mph. Should you be going 55 mph next to these retail shops and the city's residents?" Kik asks.

"So, it's getting that street and the land-use right-sized. And those are the trade-offs we have to make, and the decisions we have to think about."

Will Kalamazoo and Michigan become two-way streets? Will there be protected bike lanes? The details aren't set in stone, Kik says. "I think that the vision that's been brought forward by the master plan says the traffic needs to be calmed, and it needs to be for all users. What that looks like yet, I don't know." She holds up Seattle's and other major city's streets as examples: "They're not five lanes of cars, but there's a lane for a bus, there's a lane for light rail, there's a lane that's a protected bike lane."

There won't be changes overnight, she says. The first road set for reconstruction in 2020 would be Ransom Street, portions of which are still paved with bricks that saw horse hooves and carriage wheels in another century.

Chamberlain cautioned that once Complete Streets and the jurisdictional transfer from MDOT are both official, that the right-sizing of Kalamazoo's streets will be "multiple years down the road." But a hoped-for "yes" vote Jan. 7 from the city commission would be a "key first step.”
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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.