Caption: Speed cushions on Lombardy Avenue, a residential street that recently went through the traffic calming process Credit: Connor Daryani

Editor’s note: This story is one in a number of neighborhood and localized issues facing district council members the Banner will cover in the run up to the Aug. 3 election.

Rhiannon Guillet had enough. By the summer of 2020, she and her family had seen any number of instances that made her Wedgewood-Houston street dangerous: accidents, speeding, drag races and more. All she wanted was for the street to be safe enough for her and her two small children to enjoy.

But getting a speed bump installed might be a more complicated process than Nashvillians would imagine. Guillet and her kids masked up in the middle of the pandemic and gathered signatures on a petition for Nashville Department of Transportation to implement calming measures. And while Guillet says her neighbors were enthusiastic about the idea, when it came time for approval by NDOT, her neighborhood was not found to need traffic calming. 

The process has gone through several changes in the past year, one of the most significant being the elimination of the petition process Guillet went through that put most of the onus on residents to get projects approved. But while it’s been streamlined, for parents in neighborhoods waiting for traffic calming, their projects can’t come fast enough. 

“We were told basically we had to have enough accidents on our street before we could get traffic calming,” Guillet tells the Banner. Guillet and her neighbors were so desperate to make their neighborhood safe, they even joked about intentionally getting into accidents in order to be approved for traffic calming. Guillet and her husband, who works in construction, went so far as to begin the process of getting speed bumps installed on their own, before running into liability issues. 

“It is kind of a proactive program and a reactive [one] at the same time because we are using existing data,” says Jason Oldham, the interim chief engineer at NDOT. “But if we don’t do something, we know what we’re going to get in the next five or 10 years.”

When NDOT goes out to collect data on a street that has applied for traffic calming, the department looks at a number of factors: accidents, fatalities, injuries and speeding to name a few. Every year, 50 streets are selected from the pool that applied to receive traffic calming. Oldham explains that streets are prioritized based on risk — while a street could have some concerning speeding taking place, if there are 50 streets with worse issues than that one, it will not receive traffic calming. 

NDOT could soon be able to double its traffic-calming output, expanding the number of streets it can prioritize. Part of the budget surplus, which will make its way through the Metro Council in June, doubles the amount of money allocated to NDOT for traffic calming. 

“I think the challenge is with this program, every time we get 50 streets done, we got 50 new streets that are entering the program, and we already have close to 500 streets that are sitting in the program,” says Oldham. But he hopes with additional funding, along with a few more innovations, they can continue to speed up the program. 

In 2022, Guillet’s neighborhood tried again, this time with success. NDOT had overhauled the process since their first attempt, switching to a ballot system and doing away with the petitions. Residents now apply for traffic calming, and if officials deem the street dangerous and in need of traffic-calming measures, a series of community meetings is held, followed by a vote in which property owners are given a say in the measures. Until recently, a company owning multiple parcels got one vote for each parcel, but the policy has been changed so that all parties get one vote no matter the number of parcels they own. 

In October, after being approved for traffic calming, Guillet’s neighborhood voted 80 percent in favor of the measure, passing the two-thirds threshold needed. The project was completed in April. 

Oldham estimates that currently, from the moment someone applies for traffic calming to the moment the project is finished, it takes about a year. He tells the Banner that this is in part due to a large backlog of projects from the old petition system, and he believes they can get that period down to eight months. 

But term-limited District 17 Councilmember Colby Sledge thinks it can be done even faster. Throughout his two terms, he has been involved with the traffic calming process in its different iterations, and says he is happy with the improvements that have been made to the process. While the traffic calming process rules are departmental and not voted on by council, Sledge has served as a link between his district and NDOT. He was a loud voice against the rule allowing companies multiple votes in the traffic calming ballot if they owned multiple parcels. 

It’s one of dozens of ways councilmembers have influence outside of the Council chamber voting on bills.

Right now six months of the process is spent on data collection, community engagement and the ballot process. Sledge believes that NDOT should do away with the ballot process altogether. 

“If they know that the road is lending itself toward people speeding, then we [have got to] fix it,” says Sledge. “We don’t vote on whether we fix it or not. We can have a community that says we’re going to fix this because it’s a problem, it’s inducing speeds that are higher than the limit. We can have that community conversation, but it needs to start from a point of ‘we are going to be doing something here.’” 

Sledge also pointed out that renters do not get a say in the process, which he said is “inherently inequitable.”

While Guillet’s street voted in favor of traffic calming, not all streets pass. One example is Rosedale Avenue, which in February received 63 percent positive votes for a project from Nolensville Pike to Rosehaven Drive. When a measure fails, a street that has been determined by NDOT to be a safety risk does not receive traffic calming. 

“To me, we need to be passionate about whether or not we’re going to make the streets safer,” says Sledge. 

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...