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Two-Way, or Not Two-Way

Walker Evans Walker Evans Two-Way, or Not Two-WayLooking North on Third Street on a Monday afternoon at 3:30pm.
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Like many cities, Downtown Columbus is full of one-way streets. Traffic engineers of the mid-twentieth century utilized them as a way of moving as many automobiles as quickly as possible through what were previously congested urban areas. Today, one could argue that one-way streets have done their job a little too well, and have hurt the effectiveness of Downtown revitalization efforts.

“We have made getting in and out of Downtown our highest priority instead of focusing on the quality of the experience,” says Brian Higgins, Founder of Arch City Development, an urban consulting and development firm located here in Columbus. “This perpetuates a circular cycle where people feel forced to drive because transit choices are poor, so we demolish buildings to create cheap parking and sacrifice the walkability of our streets.”

A perfect case study can be found on Spring Street and Long Street in the northeastern quadrant of Downtown where the majority of historic buildings have been lost over the decades to make room for massive surface parking lots that serve the Downtown workforce during weekday business hours. Spring and Long streets were long ago converted into a one-way pair that services traffic entering and exiting our Central Business District via entrances to Interstate 71 on the eastern border of Downtown. Currently, those highway ramps are closed to traffic during a long-term reconstruction project on the interstate. Which begs the question of whether or not Spring Street and Long Street should continue to function as one-way streets.

“We need to have the traffic pattern settle in after the first phase of construction is complete so that we can get an accurate picture of what we are dealing with before we make any changes,” says Rick Tilton, Assistant Director at The Department of Public Service for The City of Columbus. “If we try to make some guesses now, we could make a bigger mess than if we just waited to see what the traffic patterns are like after this phase of construction is done. So the plan is, after each phase gets done, we’ll take another look and see if it is feasible to go to two-way.”

Several Downtown streets have already been converted to two-way over the past decade, including portions of South Front Street, Town Street, Civic Center Drive and the much-lauded Gay Street, which has seen a redevelopment resurgence following its conversion. City officials see Spring and Long streets as unique challenges for conversion.

“Spring and Long are a lot more complex when it comes to the two-way issue,” explains Bud Braughton, Engineer of Downtown Projects for The City of Columbus. “The 2006 Downtown Columbus Circulation Study looked at those streets and didn’t recommend them for conversion because they would be high-risk. Not so much because of the area by Interstate 71, but because it would start to make intersections really congested and cause gridlock from Fourth Street back to High Street.”

Cleve Ricksecker, Executive Director of Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, served on the 2006 Circulation Study group and agrees that keeping certain Downtown streets in a one-way configuration can be beneficial.

“After weighing the pros and cons, the group recommended keeping them one-way to allow for traffic calming measures, including unrestricted on-street parking at parking meters,” he explains. “A two-way conversion would not allow for these measures. Unfortunately, the traffic calming measures were never implemented.”

Without traffic calming, vehicles traveling on these five-lane-wide streets can easily exceed the 35 mile-per-hour speed limits, as the built environment provides a wide path where it can feel natural to drive even faster, particularly during off-peak hours when traffic levels are low. If cars are exceeding 40 to 45 miles-per-hour, an unsafe environment is being created for pedestrians, cyclists, transit vehicles making frequent stops, and turning vehicles with limited lines of sight that can emerge from alleyways and cross-streets.

“Traffic calming is an excellent idea and the increased safety is exactly the reason why we need to seriously consider replicating this model throughout Downtown, Italian Village and Weinland Park,” says Higgins.

Randy Simes, an Urban Planner with CH2M HILL, agrees that safety is an important issue for consideration.

“While converting one-way streets to two-way streets may slow down traffic and offer better access to small businesses, it also increases the number of conflict points for pedestrians and bicyclists,” he says. “The safety of these two modes of transportation is often what drives the conversion of one-way streets to two-way, but that is not always what is achieved.”

Braughton also expresses concern that conversions to two-way streets can create additional safety risks during rush hour gridlock.

“What we are worried about is when we start making a situation out there dangerous because people are taking chances,” he states. “Drivers sit through a light that they’ve already seen change twice due to gridlocked traffic, and they run through it because they don’t want to watch it change red again. That’s what we’ve got to prevent.”

Higgins strongly disagrees.

“Sorry, but we can’t plan around the stupidity of drivers,” he says. “What if drivers start taking chances? What if pedestrians run amuck in the streets? What will happen to traffic during a zombie apocalypse? I would be very disappointed if we actively started assuming that people are going to be road rage jerks, and then started planning for it!”

With disagreements being commonplace between planners, engineers, neighborhood leaders, city leaders and residents, is there a realistic “happy medium” to be found? Is there a balance to be achieved between automobile traffic, pedestrian safety, the urban experience and other factors?

“The City of Columbus is generally too concerned about order and traffic flow,” says Ricksecker. “Certainly, the City can take measures to calm traffic without compromising access to Downtown. However, we should not go overboard. We don’t have a strong enough transit system to keep employers Downtown if access by car becomes too difficult. The employers will simply leave Downtown for the suburbs.”

An improved public transit system is a topic discussed regularly by Downtown leaders, planners and residents alike, and could potentially work in tandem to solve some of the traffic flow issues that have limited the uses and functionalities of our Downtown one-way streets.

“If fewer people drove Downtown this might not be a as big a problem,” says John Wirtz, a Transportation Engineer and Planner with Jacobs Engineering in Chicago. “Can the City of Columbus increase transit use to help reduce peak hour rush hour demand? That might allow more ‘Complete Street’ treatments Downtown.”

Aaron Renn, Urban Analyst and Founder of The Urbanophile provides another outsider perspective from Chicago.

“I’m not convinced that we need all two-way streets in Downtowns,” he states. “Cities like Columbus need efficient vehicle distribution, and even Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have predominantly one-way streets in their Central Business Districts. Instead, I would focus on one-way streets outside of the CBD for conversion, or perhaps consider select low volume CBD streets.”

The future of Downtown streets in Columbus will soon receive an updated manual with the development of the Downtown Action Plan this summer. The Downtown Action Plan will build upon the 2006 Downtown Columbus Circulation Study while also factoring in updates made with the 2008 Bicentennial Bikeways Plan and the 2010 Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan. This new document will outline how the various transportation recommendations will be engineered and implemented. The plan is currently being developed by the City of Columbus Division of Mobility Options.

“Mayor Coleman specifically wanted the Division of Mobility Options created because he wants to see more bikes, and he wants to see the city more pedestrian-oriented,” says Tilton. “He wants people to be less dependent on their individual cars. He wants the department to focus on bike lanes, bike ways, shelters and pedestrians.”

“But this is going to be an ongoing process,” he adds. “Back in the 50s and 60s there was a different way of looking at this. So we’re kind of paying for the sins of our fathers. But not only are we getting smarter about this, we are working to change the culture through a longer process.”

Looking East on Long Street on a Monday afternoon at 3:30pm.

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