Those heading home to Old West Lawrence for the holiday might need to ask for directions.
The routes that residents have taken for years are now obstructed by temporary road barriers. It’s an experimental effort to prevent speeding and excess traffic through neighborhood streets, instead pushing drivers out to arterial roads and collector streets.
Some residents of the neighborhood have concerns about the barriers’ consequences — both intended and unintended.
Maren Bradley, vice president of the OWL neighborhood association, said that during an annual meeting in January, residents’ concerns about speeding, unsafe drivers and the potential dangers for kids, pedestrians and bicyclists “came to a fever pitch.” Speed bumps and speed tables in the neighborhood had not achieved the desired effects, and cut-through traffic to get to the nearby University of Kansas campus has remained a concern for many.
The association applied to be part of a new traffic management pilot program with the City of Lawrence and a consultant group, and the city announced in early September that OWL had been selected for the project.
Earlier this month, the temporary barriers came to fruition on a quick schedule. Bradley explained that the neighborhood had pushed to try to delay the project a little while, but consultants wanted to gather a few solid weeks’ worth of data while KU students were in classes.
Old West Lawrence spans roughly from Sixth Street south to Ninth Street, and from Michigan Street east to the alley east of Kentucky Street. Most of the roads used to be open to two-way traffic, but the barriers force drivers to turn at certain intersections — unless they drive over them, as some people have.
Bradley said the consultants predicted a 25-30% drop in traffic, but she would estimate that most residents have probably seen about 50% less traffic on their streets, with the exceptions of Maine and Tennessee streets, where the neighborhood was unable to place devices.
“It has been stunning,” she said.
But Manda Barker, who is in her fifth year of renting a house in the 800 block of Mississippi Street, said she doesn’t think the barriers have succeeded in improving traffic safety.
“The barriers cause confusion, are distracting, and narrow the roads in ways that are unsafe for drivers, cyclists, and cars parked nearby,” Barker said. “I see many drivers driving slowly over the barriers, not stopping at nearby stop signs, and pulling U-turns in the middle of the street since they have been put up.
“The barriers have been called ‘calming devices’, but I do not think that they have had a very calming effect on people in the area.”
In addition, Barker noted that snow this winter in combination with the barriers “would cause even more headaches for residents, city workers, delivery drivers, street cleaners, etc.”
Melinda Lavon, who said she’s lived for 25 years in either Old West Lawrence or in nearby Pinkney neighborhood north of Sixth Street, said the barriers have added eight or nine blocks to her regular route between her home in Pinkney and her partner’s on Mississippi Street in Old West Lawrence.
“The shortest distance between two points is always a straight line, and when you add in circling through a residential neighborhood to get from point A to point B, I don’t see how that’s environmentally conscientious,” Lavon said.
Lavon also likened the barriers to hostile architecture — such as bars over benches or spikes on surfaces, used in some cities to prevent people from getting comfortable and sleeping in public places. She said she thinks the goal shouldn’t be to divert traffic through a built environment approach. But as far as speeding goes, Lavon said she didn’t think the barriers had yet had the intended effect.
“The people that drive 50 miles an hour on Saturday night down Mississippi Street just drive right over those,” she said. “So it doesn’t divert the traffic that we want diverted.”
Bradley said the neighborhood has talked with the city about possibly putting larger barriers in place, or delineators — vertical devices that would deter drivers from driving over them, but bend and snap back into place for emergency vehicles. But “right now we’re not trying to push this too hard, and we realize that it was a very sudden situation.”
“(The barriers) you’re seeing now in the neighborhood are just temporary,” Bradley said. “These are just test devices. We can move them around and we probably will make a couple of adjustments after the city has collected their own data. But the end design, if we are to keep any of them, will focus much more on aesthetics.”
Another OWL resident, Melanie Daily, said she supports the pilot program to see what works and what impact it has on the rest of the neighborhood — though perhaps not the current setup, per se.
“None of us on the ‘pro’ side have enough data yet to know how well they are working or what tweaks might need to be made as the pilot test period moves forward,” she said.
Many area drivers have taken to social media to express emotions ranging from curiosity and confusion to rage and indignation. Bradley said that some of the “loudest” voices have actually been coming from outside the neighborhood, trying to stir people up. “Some of them were people who lived near other traffic calming projects — particularly the devices on 21st Street,” she said.
But Bradley said she thinks communication has been the biggest issue in the project’s installation and the concerns that neighbors have. The association has learned many lessons throughout this project — including that the barriers probably should not have been installed during the KU vs. Kansas State football game, so unsuspecting drivers leaving the game would not have been surprised when they perhaps were unable to leave via the same route they took to get to the stadium at 11th and Mississippi streets.
“If any neighborhood wants to try any part of this program in the future, we will definitely advise them if they’re interested, and let them know that they probably need to have several public meetings on it,” she said.
A public meeting will be scheduled after the holidays, Bradley said, “for OWL residents to meet with the city and consultants and to survey the neighborhood before the final decision.” The details of the meeting are to be determined, but she said many residents were happy to hear this week that a meeting is in the works.
The association is also working on creating a good way to survey the neighborhood genuinely, authentically and equitably, Bradley said.
“The people that live on our street, on Mississippi Street, definitely want something done and want the speeds addressed,” Lavon said, “but … just to get home and to work every day now requires an extra eight blocks for some people because of the way it was set up.”
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.