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Where do all the alleys go?

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Some years ago, Winifred, almost 3, totally naked and probably panicked, ran down a Missoula alley in search of her mother. Her streak down the narrow dirt road adjoining 821 Orange near the corner of Sixth didn’t end badly: She found her mother, Liz Dye, who wasn’t actually lost. Winifred did not run into a car, neither did a car run into Winifred. The alley remained quiet.

Fast-forward three years: Winifred’s alley, like a handful of others in Missoula, is about to get busier. City Council voted last week to rezone 821 Orange Street for commercial use—the house can now hang an open-for-business sign. Cars may soon buzz down this particular byway every 15 minutes. Is the job too big for a road so small?

“Alleys are supposed to be an accessory access to your property,” says Anne Kazmierczak, who defended the neighbors’ desire for quiet and private back alleys. “They’re being turned into streets.”

Alleys typically provide rear access to properties, trash service and off-street parking, says Carla Krause in the Office of Public Works. In 2002, Missoula counted approximately 55 miles of such alleys.

Aside from extra potholes and blotto bicyclists, what’s the difference between these narrow thoroughfares and the criss-cross of standard streets and avenues?

Sergeant Doug Hartsell isn’t the traffic expert, but he is willing to divulge a little. “You have to stop at the end of an alley before you enter a street,” he says, stop sign or not. Secondly, he says, you can’t park in an alleyway if your car would block a fire engine. Thirdly, however tempting it might be, the sergeant discourages the use of alleys to bypass street traffic. Lastly, he says, because alleys are poorly lit, poorly marked and offer limited visibility, the speed limit is a creeping five miles an hour (the limit is rarely posted).

With the rezone, the alley behind Orange will shuttle business clients in addition to neighbors, and it’s that non-resident traffic that upsets Winifred’s mother, Liz Dye. “When you live in a neighborhood—whether you own [a residence] or not—you become sensitive to what it’s about,” she says. Resident drivers understand that a tot might bolt down the alley now and again, she says, so they drive accordingly.

Driver sensitivities aside, is the city considering the purpose of these bumpy back lanes in the context of growth?

Says Kazmierczak: “We ought to.”

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