Flashing red signal lights at KC's Westport Road bring confusion, mixed reviews

Reviews of Westport Road's traffic experiment are mixed

The city has been experimenting with four-way stops in Westport. The flashing red lights along Westport Road at Pennsylvania Avenue and at Mill Street have received mixed reviews.
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The city has been experimenting with four-way stops in Westport. The flashing red lights along Westport Road at Pennsylvania Avenue and at Mill Street have received mixed reviews.

The view where Gary Chambers perched at high noon in Westport would be entertaining enough under ordinary circumstances.

But these are not ordinary times at the corner of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.

A traffic experiment under way — setting the stoplights to a four-way, flashing red stop for everyone — has upped the entertainment quotient. Negotiating the new road rules is proving to be an adventure.

“This is the No. 1 people-watching spot,” the Overland Park man said. He was dressed earlier this week for the blooming spring weather that brings swelling crowds into one of Kansas City’s busiest bar and restaurant communities.

He had the corner seat on the outdoor deck at McCoy’s Public House bar and restaurant, wearing sunglasses and a towel under his cap to shade his neck.

There are clearly two ways to interpret what he sees.

Cars and pedestrians, from all four directions, queue up now to make their way across, some drivers meaning to make turns.

Instead of pushing through green lights, everyone now sputters and stops, and puzzles out the order with the walkers and drivers whose destinies brought them together at that moment.

Put Chambers is on the side of those who think this four-way stop arrangement, for all its confusion, is safer. It’s more walkable, he says.

“It slows things up here,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Kerra Tener takes the opposing view. She works at the nearby DiPasquale Moore law firm and doesn’t appreciate the new process at the corner.

“If you are a pedestrian and you need to walk across the street, you kind of have to wing it now because traffic doesn’t want to stop for you,” she said. “There’s no button to push to get a signal to go.”

The city switched the lights over late last fall, turning off the greens and yellows and walk/don’t walk signs, setting the lights to a constant flashing red in all directions.

The city and many of the surrounding businesses want to see if the changes will make the intersection more pedestrian-friendly, said Beth Breitenstein, spokeswoman for the city’s public works department.

The same was done at Westport Road’s intersection with Mill Street one block to the southwest.

“Instead of cars trying to rush to beat the red light…it brings all four directions to a stop,” Breitenstein said.

Drivers in a hurry have to stop for “the natural queue in front of you” and pedestrians don’t have to “worry about a car rushing through at 20 mph.”

The merchants like the change because it turns the tide away from cross-town commuters and back in favor of pedestrians and safety, said Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League.

“Remember, our streets were designed 150 years ago for wagons, horses and people,” he said. “Not cars going north of 30 mph.”

There is an apparent learning curve — or issues of trust — seen in the obvious hesitation of many drivers and pedestrians at those prolonged moments of decision.

This will be an extended experiment, Breitenstein said. The city and the neighborhood plan to see how it all plays out through the busy season to come, at least through the summer of heavy weekend crowds and perhaps into the fall.

The city will take feedback “from the eyes and ears of the community,” she said, and the city may do some of its own observations.

They can expect mixed reviews, based on early returns.

“I think it’s going pretty good,” said A.J. Aygoff, who works at the nearby HopCat craft beer bar and restaurant. “The traffic’s flowing a lot better because you don’t have to wait for the lights.”

But Andrew Riggins, navigating the intersection with his 2-year-old daughter in his arm, isn’t so sure.

“On Fridays and Saturdays, with as much traffic that comes through,” said Riggins, who in the past worked at Kelly’s Westport Inn on the corner, “I can see it getting backed up significantly.”

With the weather beginning to heat up, and summer to come, they all agree the stiffer tests lie ahead.