No One Way About It
Which Way for Our Downtown Streets?
On August 19, the city's Urban Transportation Commission will review a two-year study by the Downtown Mobility Action Plan (DMAP) coalition, which was asked to find solutions for easing the daily commute for Austinites and suburban dwellers without destroying downtown's walkability -- and livability. Consensus will be hard-won in the coalition: Transit wonks from Capital Metro mingled with straight-and-narrow bureaucrats from the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation. Add to the mix: reps from the Austin Transportation Study committee, the Texas Department of Transportation, the city's Planning Department, and the Downtown Austin Alliance.
A major issue before DMAP is whether three pairs of one-way streets should be converted to two-way: Cesar Chavez/Second, Fifth/Sixth, and Brazos/Colorado. There is little controversy about the Brazos/Colorado conversions, because of their relatively low traffic volumes, and because of Capital Metro's plans to use the streets as alternatives to Congress Avenue for bus transfers. The debate centers on the first two pairs, which function to bring commuters downtown from MoPac and I-35, as well as providing connections between the two freeways for through traffic.
Austin's Public Works people have a long history of blocking the street-conversion idea, as far back as 1991, when the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) reported on its two-year study of how to revitalize downtown. Conversion of one-way streets to two-ways figured prominently in their report as a means of calming traffic and creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment, but their plans met with consistent opposition from Public Works, which views one-way streets as a priority to facilitate the daily movement in and out of downtown of 59,000 office workers, most of whom still commute solo in automobiles.
In 1992, the department's cost overruns stalled plans to convert Sixth Street east of Congress Avenue to two-way traffic, as part of a project that included wider sidewalks, brick pavers and landscaping. And in 1994, Public Works successfully delayed downtown two-way conversions again, citing their desire to await the results of the Capital Metro-funded Downtown Mobility Action Plan (DMAP).
Two years later, DMAP's results, which are expected to lean toward more innovative approaches like two-way conversions, will now be met with a pre-emptive strike from Public Works. Directed by the city council to study the effects of the proposed conversions, Public Works presented a report to council in June that found nothing good about two-way streets, and plenty of faults. The department touts the benefits of one-way streets primarily because they eliminate left turn conflicts from oncoming traffic. This speeds traffic flow by creating fewer delays for motorists at intersections. Public Works also claims that removing such conflicts reduces accidents, both automobile and auto/pedestrian, while smoother traffic flow decreases polluting emissions and fuel consumption. Furthermore, DPWT says no evidence exists to support claims that two-way streets would enhance downtown economic development, livability, and pedestrian environment.
A month later, however, architect Sinclair Black, a long-time proponent of downtown traffic calming, wrote a rebuttal to the Public Works report. Traffic accidents are less severe on two-way streets because speeds are slower than on one-ways, he says, and more complex intersections force drivers to be more alert and careful. Indeed, European studies have shown that slower speeds on inner city arterials reduce traffic mortality and serious injuries by half. Karen Akins, Chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, adds that although Public Works claims that one-way streets produce less air pollution, they fail to account for the increased volume of driving and tailpipe emissions generated by the urban sprawl and solo automobile commuting that one-way streets facilitate.
The city already has a few examples of conversions that appear to be working well for the neighborhoods around them. In 1989, the city council voted to reconvert First and Second Streets east of I-35 to two-way. Former City Councilmember Robert Barnstone says that Public Works presented a report predicting all sorts of problems, including massive traffic tie-ups. Instead, traffic flows smoothly, and businesses saw increased sales on the commercial corridor of East First, while East Second residential dwellers saw reduced speeds and a safer street, notes Barnstone.
Given the political power of commuters who work downtown, and of city boosters and developers who benefit financially from suburban sprawl, however, no downtown transportation plan is likely to succeed if it appears to delay peak-hour commuting. Already, the Austin American-Statesman has launched a series of editorials against the two-way plan, labelling it a "war on commuters." Proponents of traffic calming are likely to focus their attention on getting Sixth Street converted to a two-way, pedestrian-friendly boulevard, while shifting commuter traffic more to Fifth Street, and through-traffic to Cesar Chavez. Karen Akins says this plan has many advantages. Two-way traffic calming would enhance the entertainment district on East Sixth, and provide better access to budding mixed-use development on West Sixth. At the same time, a two-way West Fifth would still function as a smooth peak-hour conduit for commuters going both east and west, because there are no important intersections or left turn delays on the street west of Lamar, or between Lamar and Guadalupe.
Cesar Chavez and Second Street are already two-way, except for the five blocks between Brazos and San Antonio, notes downtown architect Kit Krankel. She, along with many urban planners (and motorists), would like to eliminate the "Second Street shuffle" -- the awkward maneuver that requires west-bound motorists on Cesar Chavez to jog north a block to Second Street where the two streets become one-way at Brazos. Making Cesar Chavez two-way for its entire length would allow it to more practically handle east/west through-traffic, much of which currently uses Sixth Street. "We do need better connections for pedestrians between downtown and the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail," says Krankel, "but I don't think that this would have to impede through-traffic."
Several options are avail- able, with some creative thinking on the part of Public Works and Capital Metro. Well-designed one-way streets can be as pedestrian-friendly as two-ways, as evidenced in other cities around the nation. Pat Pieratte, Florida's Assistant Pedestrian Coordinator, says that high car speed on one-way streets can be controlled by timing traffic signals to even the flow -- creating a less hurried pace, less fuel consumption, less tailpipe pollution, and fewer accidents. She notes that the city of Lake Worth, part of the Miami-Palm Beach metroplex, plans to calm traffic on a pair of one-way "raceways" through its downtown without converting them to two-ways. Besides retiming traffic light progression, plans include removing one of three traffic lanes on each street to make way for more on-street parking, and installing wider sidewalks, landscaping, and sidewalk cafes. "When you have trees, benches, and places for people to gather, drivers naturally slow down because they're interested in what is there," says Pieratte.
Options also exist for smoothing commuter traffic flow on two-way streets, such as eliminating left-turn signals during peak hours. The City of Phoenix uses such a system on its two major commuter-feeders to its downtown "with wonderful success," says their senior transportation official. From 6pm until 9am, when 80% of traffic is inbound, left-turn signals are disconnected and the center left-turn lane becomes an exclusive inbound commuter lane. The same occurs in the reverse direction, 4-6pm, as commuters drive home. The rest of the day, the arterials enjoy the calmer atmosphere of two-way streets with operating left turn signals.
As city officials and the city council look at the street conversion issue in the next month, the question of which part of the population Austin should concentrate on more downtown -- pedestrians or commuters -- could be answered: Both. "The relief of traffic congestion should not be an end in itself," Karen Akins says, "but rather the creation of an efficient multimodal transport system should be the desired goal... It is scary to think that, with all the talk of preserving Austin's livability, increasing the level of service for single-occupant vehicles is still being used as the sole criterion for evaluating which transportation projects will receive funding." Solutions also exist for calming traffic downtown that don't place a burden on commuters -- the question is whether the city's transportation bureaucracy is willing to search for those solutions.