Politics & Government

Wichita prepares to reduce lanes on Douglas for bike, scooter experiment

Updated Oct. 22, 2019: The Wichita City Council said Tuesday it will wait until Nov. 5 to vote on the grant.

Original story: Wichita City Hall is poised to take the first steps toward skinnying Douglas Avenue down to two lanes through downtown, to make the street more friendly for bicycles and electric scooters.

Called the “better block” concept, the plan also appears to be contemplating speed bumps at corners that would allow enough space for trucks to turn, while keeping car turns slow.

“I feel like city leaders and people who are really engaged in the community already know about things like this, but it’s still going to come as a big surprise because most people are not engaged, including most people who drive through Douglas,” said Chase Billingham, a Wichita State University sociologist who has followed the process closely for several months.

The council is expected Tuesday to accept a $25,000 grant from the Knight fund, administered by the Wichita Community Foundation.

The proposal is on the council’s consent agenda, where public comment isn’t allowed and council members approve multiple business items in bulk with a single vote.

The grant money is to pay for a third of a pilot project to temporarily reconfigure Douglas to one traffic lane in each direction with a turning lane in the middle of the street, according to a city staff report.

The street now has two lanes in each direction, with the turn lane in the center.

The changes in lanes will run between Main and the BNSF railroad crossing downtown, said city management analyst Scott Wadle.

He said the pilot project will use temporary signs and lane markings so adjustments can be made and tested before making any permanent alterations to the street.

It will cost $75,000 total to run the test project: $25,000 from the Knight grant and $25,000 from city funds. The city is hoping to land another $25,000 from the Kansas Health Institute.

It was originally proposed to start next month, but will now be pushed back to the spring, he said.

Project sketches of the plan show that the current outside lanes on both sides of the street would become parking lanes, with the bike/scooter path taking up the current parking lanes next to the curb.

Another key change will be “turn wedges” at intersections.

A turn wedge is a marked area of the corner with speed bumps that encourage cars to make wider turns, which is safer for bicycles.

Wadle said for the pilot project, they’ll use plastic speed bumps that can be easily removed.

Project details are available at www.wichita.gov/eastdouglas. Residents can also leave feedback on the plan at that site.

In an April workshop, consultant Jeff Tumlin, of the San Francisco firm Nelson Nygard, said Douglas is the key to creating a downtown that’s safer, more prosperous and more inviting to families with children, while also encouraging motorists to slow down and shop in the area.

He said reducing car lanes is the only way to accomplish that.

Billingham said he supports the project’s goals but there are also risks for the city.

“Personally I’m in favor of a lot of the principles that are behind this, including slowing down traffic, which could improve traffic safety and that means pedestrian safety in particular, and creating more walkable and bikeable spaces in the urban core,” he said.

On the risk side, “The fact of the matter is, and we shouldn’t beat around the bush about it, this is going to slow down traffic and that’s the explicit objective of it,” Billingham said. “It will make traffic more aggravating for people who want to get through Douglas quickly . . . That’s going to make a lot of people angry and it’s going to make some people really pleased.”

The council meets at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 455 N. Main, Wichita.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.