John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Wichita’s likely first DIY protected lane involves items commonly wielded by plumbers.
Was Kansas’s largest city visited by Raving Rabbids? Nobody seems to know who’s behind the plungers, which appeared more than a week ago in Wichita’s Old Town and were still up as “remnants” on Friday, according to KSN-TV. Here’s more from a guy who examined them:
“I was riding my bike downtown on Saturday morning. I pull up to this intersection and I see these white posts sticking out of the ground and they look like traffic barriers. They have reflective tape on them and so I’m thinking, wow, the city did something to kind of make this intersection safer,” said Todd Ramsey.
Ramsey said he then approached the barriers to get a closer look.
“As I get closer, I realize these aren’t barriers, these are plungers that have been stuck to the ground,” Ramsey said.
The city, it must be noted, has denied it installed the toilet plungers, leaving their appearance a likely action from someone in a non-official capacity
concerned about road safety. Indeed, on Reddit one local opines that “Wichita has the worst drivers of anywhere I've lived (which is quite a few places thanks to the military),” while another asserts there “should be some barriers at that intersection,” not just to protect cyclists but also drivers turning right.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a rogue traffic engineer chose this bustling area for an intervention. “It’s really a growing segment of our city, with lots of new apartments going in,” says Barry Carroll, founder of the nearby Bike Walk Wichita. “There are a lot of millennials moving back downtown and using bicycles and walking to get around.”
However, Carroll thinks the plungers—the first guerrilla lane protections he’s seen in Wichita—might not be the proper approach, since there’s legitimate bike infrastructure is already on the ground. “We have about 100 miles of lanes and paths in our bike network, and it’s growing all the time,” he says. “We have a very supportive mayor and city council, and they all get it. This is an exciting time for our city and, although [the plungers] are a humorous way to draw attention to bike lanes, in my opinion it’s not a pressing need.”
(Carroll adds that his opinion “would be, I guess” different if he was dealing with a clogged toilet at home.)
One advocacy group with plenty of experience in making DIY lanes, the San Francisco Municipal Transformation Agency, does support Wichita’s mystery plumber-run-amok. An anonymous representative of the shadowy organization, which has erected scores of protected lanes in the Bay Area with traffic cones and plastic posts, says they “loved seeing the plunger bike-lane posts and were inspired by the creative use of materials.”
In an email to CityLab, the SFMTA continues: “If you have reflective tape you can make anything visible. These might be a little less comfortable to bump into, but not by much, We haven't analyzed the cost, but it seems much cheaper than official safe-hit posts for a similar effect!”