Wichita Upgrades Guerrilla Plungers to Permanent Bike Lane Posts

Cause --> effect. Before and after at First and Washington in Wichita. Photos: Yellowbrick Street Team
Cause --> effect. Before and after at First and Washington in Wichita. Photos: Yellowbrick Street Team

Now that’s what you might call a successful movement.

Two weeks after two rows of toilet plungers set up to temporarily protect a Wichita bike lane went viral, the city of Wichita has decided that come to think of it, those plungers were making a pretty good point.

This week, Kansas’s largest city spent about $1,000 to order and install permanent flexposts along 100 feet of the bike lane that had often been encroached on by people using the space as an illegal turn lane for their cars.

The new flexposts, which will stand in the footprints of the anonymously installed plungers, should prevent that by creating a very short stretch of protected bike lane.

It’ll be the second protected bike lane in Kansas; the first went up in the college town of Manhattan in 2014.

Alex Pemberton
Alex Pemberton.

Also this week, the organization that had placed the plungers revealed its previously mysterious identity. It’s a volunteer group called the Yellowbrick Street Team, led by Wichita resident Alex Pemberton.

Pemberton said his group spent $50 to buy the plungers with the deliberate goal of making the stunt spread on social media. Within days, it was featured on local TV and from there spread to national outlets like CityLab, Next City and mental_floss.

“Wichita is not a media capital, and it’s not a place that tends to get attention from urban press,” Pemberton said in an interview. “So we knew that if it was really going to get attention, it had to have a little twist to it.”

Pemberton said a Yellowbrick volunteer had seen plungers used for the purpose by the similar Dallas-based project The Better Block.

“The TV station gets to use their silly puns; the social media loves it,” Pemberton said. “So we were able to get a story on local news, and once that happened, it just blew up.”

Keeping the stunt anonymous added another level of interestingness, he said.

“The headline was ‘mysterious plungers,'” said Pemberton, 25. “Which if I ever start a rock band is what it’s going to be named.”

In any case, the plan worked perfectly.

“While the story was being shared from Ireland to Auckland, we were lobbying behind the scenes for the city to place permanent delineator posts at the intersection,” Pemberton wrote Tuesday on the Yellowbrick Facebook page.

“We’re very lucky here in Wichita in that we have a very progressive city that’s very responsive to the needs of its citizens, so it didn’t take a whole lot to convince them,” Pemberton said. “With only two weeks of having the media coverage, they had already ordered these posts and had them set.”

Wichita’s action echoes a similar incident in Seattle in 2012, when an anonymous group calling itself the “Reasonably Polite Seattleites” installed its own posts on a bike lane and the city engineer decided to make the design permanent.

More recently, anonymous street activist groups have been at work in San FranciscoPortland and elsewhere.

Now that the Wichita plunger stunt has perhaps eroded some of the novelty of plunger-protected bike lanes, Pemberton said he’s been looking through the Twitter discussions for ideas of what the next Internet-friendly guerrilla bike lane separator should be.

“Somebody recommended cat trees,” he said.

Thanks to PeopleForBikes local innovation director Kyle Wagenschutz, and apologies to everyone else, for the first sentence of this post.

PlacesForBikes is a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Michael, I’m curious about your quote in the article; “…flexposts along 100 feet of the bike lane that had often been encroached on by people using the space as an illegal turn lane for their cars.”

    What made that illegal? In most states the vehicle code requires merging into a bike lane and making a turn from as close to the curb as practicable. This is aimed at preventing things like a right hook. Oregon is the one state I know of that requires vehicles to NOT merge.

    I question whether this actually makes cyclists safer since it doesn’t create a “protected intersection” and instead guarantees that a motorist will turn across the bike lane and not merge. This design is essentially the worst of both worlds. It doesn’t provide a mixing zone much less a protected intersection, and ensures a conflicting movement. This strikes me as a well-intended, but totally uninformed design that violates engineering standards, including nascent “protected lane” guidelines.

  • Frank Kotter

    Hey there, allow me to give my own opinion totally unsupported by any facts (it is a comments section after all). I ride a bike in urban conditions in many different cities around the world. The set up here with the flexy posts, although improvable, is not the worst case. In places where drivers don’t encounter and and are therefore not experienced with interacting with cyclists, these merge zones are really the worst case scenario as they can be totally ignored by motorists. By placing the post there, you limit the area of interaction between cyclist and motorist and prohibit motorists from taking a sweeping, high-speed turn. It is these turns which are the ‘worst case scenario’ and I feel this setup does improve upon that.

    Even in cities with high rates of cycling, these merge areas are inherently dangerous and are not recommended in best practice.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Frank, as a bike/ped transportation professional that is wrong. In fact with that layout the effective curb radius is quite large (bike lanes actually create a larger effective curb radius), allowing a fast turn, AND it places the bicyclist in the right-hook zone. It is precisely why current design of protected bike lanes is working to evolve to mitigate for that.

    That is why I noted that this is the worst of both worlds; it actually ensures a conflict point while not mitigating for it as mixing zones and protected intersections attempt to do (with varying degrees of success).

  • Baloo Uriza

    California’s the only state I’m aware of where they are *allowed* to merge, rather than treat all bike lanes like protected bike lanes.

  • As I understand it (from my conversation with Pemberton) the official design of the right side of the street on the approach to this intersection is:
    through lane / bike lane / parking lane / sidewalk

    but the parking lane is often unoccupied and when it is, people waiting their cars in line to turn right become tempted to jump the queue by veering into the combo parking/bikelane. So the issue isn’t just the debate over whether it’s good for it to be legal to merge into bike lanes (which I agree is a legitimate debate) but the fact that people were just moving in a way that’s contrary to the design.

    The posts force these turns to the intersection and also shorten the maximum turning radius, which presumably reduces turn speed … though I agree that this design would be better as a protected intersection.

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