New project to ‘calm’ traffic on Kalamazoo’s North Side is part of city's attempt to slow speeders

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

A longtime resident of Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood, William Roland, says he loves his neighbors.
But he told members of the Kalamazoo City Commission recently that he is thinking of moving away from his home on Cobb Avenue after 45 years because of speeding cars.
During the public comment portion of the Commission’s July 20 meeting, Roland said he’s concerned that someone will be injured or killed as the volume and speed of traffic on Cobb Avenue, Paterson Street, and Woodward Avenue reach extreme levels. He said he has talked with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to ask what its officers can do to stop what he described as the exhibition driving (wild and show-off driving) he sees there. But he has not gotten a satisfactory answer.
James Baker, director of public services for the City of KalamazooSo he asked the commission, “What are you willing to do to slow this down?"
This week, the city is announcing plans to start trying to “calm” traffic on the North Side by installing chicanes on streets where speeding has become routine. Chicanes are physical barriers in the roadway that include marked off areas that extend from the curb, bordered by bright yellow, flexible vertical posts. They require motorists to slow down to navigate around them. According to the city, studies indicate they lower traffic speeds and reduce traffic crashes by about 29 percent.
“Starting around late May to early June we started really hearing a lot of comments from residents of the Northside Neighborhood about speed – about drivers speeding by their houses, speeding through the neighborhood – and it’s not one person, it’s not one voice,” says James Baker, public services director for the city of Kalamazoo. “… This is a chorus. It’s like a symphony of voices, a chorus of residents and homeowners and folks on the North Side calling both my department,  talking to their elected representatives, calling on Kalamazoo Public Safety, really wanting to get after the speed issues.”
He says data collected by the city showed that there is a speeding problem and increases in traffic. Motorists are traveling at more than 40 mph on various residential streets that have a standard speed limit of 25 mph.
The chicanes are temporary, semi-permanent devices, says Baker, who also serves as the city engineer. “Really, we want to understand and do some follow-up studies to see if this is a solution, to see if this helps. But we don’t know that it will,” he says.
Chicanes on the North Side are part of a new pilot project “to calm traffic and create safer streets,” according to the city. The first is to be installed on Thursday, July 30, on William Street. The project will begin, however, with a neighborhood event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 30 at LaCrone Park, 535 W Paterson.  

The city considers chicanes cost-effective, easily installed, and faster to implement than more permanent measures. Baker said the pilot project will cost about $30,000 and is being funded with money from Kalamazoo’s Foundation For Excellence.

Kalamazoo Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin lives on William Street in the Northside Neighborhood, one of those that sees traffic traveling too fast. Her frustrated neighbors recently planned to try and create their own speed bump with sandbags to deal with the problem. Instead, they were introduced to the idea of traffic calming and have put up a makeshift chicane with orange construction cones that has so far been working. 

Griffin, a speed bump supporter, says that most of those who have contacted city hall are seeking speed bumps to slow down traffic, however, they may not be aware there are alternatives such as chicanes, a possible solution she had not been introduced to until a conversation earlier this year with Baker and City Manager Jim Ritsema. Advantages of the chicanes are that if they are not needed in winter they can be taken down and the barrier is not designed to ruin cars should they hit them. 

And at about $75,000 apiece, speed bumps may not be practical considering the number of streets citywide where residents are demanding better speed limit enforcement, Griffin says. it also could take a year to 18 months to install speed bumps citywide. "My questions is what do we do in the meantime?" Griffin says.

Kalamazoo County Commissioner Stephanie Moore says chicanes are a reaction to the many calls she and others have made asking for the city and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to do more to control speeding and traffic on the North Side and the core urban areas of Kalamazoo (the North Side, East Side, and South Side). Moore represents Kalamazoo County District 1 -- the North Side, East Side, Stuart Avenue, Downtown, and parts of West Main Hill and Vine Street neighborhoods.

 “What people want are speed bumps,” she says, mentioning an apparently effective speed bump that has been in place on West Paterson Avenue for about three years. “They want speed bumps on several other streets so that they can actually slow the traffic, to better control the traffic. And what the city is saying is ‘Nope, that’s too expensive.’ And what the residents are saying is, ‘What the heck do you mean? Those are our tax dollars, No. 1. And No. 2, you should be doing any and everything you can to invest in keeping us safe in our community.’”

She says the community has two big traffic control problems.

“We’ve got the issue that is speeding,” she says. “You got people that just fly up and down the residential streets and I’m talking about the smaller streets like Krom and Edwards and Ada streets and Woodbury where really, by the time you get to accelerating good, it’s time for you to stop. It’s reckless.”

The other is roaming caravans of partying motorists that pop up and serpentine through the neighborhood usually late at night. She called them X-Trains but city officials have moved away from the term X-Train.

The roaming caravans, which the city calls “mobile nuisance cruising,” have included streams of dozens of cars that have caused noise and damage to people’s lawns and property.
Moore says the cars in these groups follow each other quickly, bumper-to-bumper and the drivers swerve to try to avoid striking the car in front of them. “And so they jump the curb. They hit fences. They run into houses. They tear up stairs and porches,” Moore says. “So that’s what the big issue is now. People suffer so much property damage because these individuals drive so recklessly. And they don’t care about running over us, our property, or our people.”
She says these drivers are people from outside of the neighborhood. That the North Side has simply become a place for people to get away with reckless behavior.
And Moore says a speeding car took the life of 46-year-old North Side resident Anita McClendon on April 27. She was struck and killed at about 9:45 p.m. on a Monday night by a hit-and-run driver in the 500 block of Ada Street, near North Westnedge Avenue.

“The mobile nuisance cruising, certainly that’s being talked about,” Baker says. Of the chicanes, he says, “These devices are not designed to stop that. These devices are really designed to stop speed. And by stop, really it’s a driver psychology thing. And it really is meant to discourage. Ultimately there’s going to be continued work with Public Safety. This is just one piece of it, the engineering element, … really designed to help folks stay within the speed limit.”
Moore says she has suggested that Kalamazoo Public Safety stop and impound the cars of mobile nuisance partiers and speeders. While KDPS may worry about being accused of racial profiling or being more confrontational during politically sensitive times in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, Moore says good policing is still necessary and the community needs to be protected.
She says the reckless drivers have resulted in lots of property and personal-injury accidents (including people falling out of fast-moving cars). Those get reported to insurance companies and acknowledged as having occurred on the North Side. That increases automobile and homeowners' insurance rates in the area. It is also causing some older, longtime residents to relocate, Moore says. And it reduces the opportunity for them to pass down their homes to younger family members. That, in turn, reduces the amount of home-ownership, which is a key for accumulating financial security and wealth.
“We’re getting the brunt end of the stick every which way you’re looking at it,” she says. “The city police cannot seem to get any type of control over it at all, whatsoever, in the core neighborhoods,” she says.

She says the chicanes are not intended to be a permanent fixture and she worries that cars will simply knock them down. She says the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety tells her installing speed bumps would be too expensive. But she says she asks, “What do you mean they are too expensive? Are we not worth it?”

About the neighborhood event
City officials are hosting Thursday’s event to discuss the traffic calming project with neighbors, answer questions, and demonstrate how chicanes work before others are installed at additional locations. Residents are invited to learn about the project. Demonstrations of the chicanes are to occur every 30 minutes on William Street. Those attending are being asked to wear masks and follow public health guidelines to protect other attendees and themselves.
Baker says the streets that will get chicanes by the end of this summer are among those that have seen the greatest increase in traffic. They are Staples Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Cobb Avenue, William Street, Elizabeth Street, Mabel Street, Florence Street, Ada Street, North Burdick Street, Edwards Street, Bosket Avenue, Prouty Street, and a location near the intersection of Cadillac and Hawley street. Because the chicanes extend out from curbs, he says some street-side parking spaces will be lost in adjacent areas.
The North Side pilot project will evaluate the effectiveness of the chicanes and that will help determine if chicanes will be used for traffic calming in other neighborhoods, according to the city. Once developed, the city plans to use the process to implement more traffic calming projects each year starting in 2021.
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.