End of the Road for Five-Way Stop?
A proposal to close Bruning Avenue stirs neighborhood debate
Unlike supposedly objective news outlets, we at the Chronicle make a point to be open about our biases. So I'll be up-front: I hate five-way intersections.
The fifth wheel analogy perfectly applies to the fifth street. Other intersections are simple and logical, but at five-ways, nobody knows what to do with that car over there, coming in from a strange angle. Drivers stare at one another, uncertain whose turn is next. And then they all go at once, slam on their brakes, and stare at one another again.
But this is Austin, eternally keepin' it weird, so it came as no surprise to find out some folks around the 51st Street and Duval Street area are fighting to keep one open.
The city has proposed closing parts of Bruning Avenue, a little street (0.3 miles) that cuts diagonally across a few North Loop neighborhood blocks to connect Airport Boulevard with Duval Street, where it is the fifth spoke of the 51st/Duval Street intersection.
Back in October, traffic lights were installed, but the city found that due to the five-way design, the lights just made the intersection less efficient. The answer, says the city, is to close off the ends of Bruning at 51st/Duval Street and 53rd/Clarkson Avenue. The middle portion would still be open.
"Temporarily closing the Bruning Avenue leg of the [51st/Duval Street] intersection will essentially allow the intersection to function as a simple four-legged intersection, which is safer and more accessible for all roadway users," city Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar wrote in a memo to City Council. "Closure of Bruning Avenue at E. 53rd Street/Clarkson Avenue is to prevent through traffic from coming to the closed intersection from the 'back side.'"
The city would study the effects for at least 90 days and see if permanent closure is warranted.
Neighborhood resident Bob Breeze – an employee of Austin Energy, the city's electric provider – is leading the charge to keep the street open. He acknowledges that he'll have to fight against people who share my bias; Breeze says he and another neighbor met with City Council Member Chris Riley, and "it appears that there are some people that absolutely abhor five-way stops.
"Actually, we consider that the uniqueness of that intersection is what made it safe," Breeze continues. "People would snap out of it, they'd look and go, 'Oh jeez, this is an unusual situation; I need to pay attention here.' That would slow their speed through the intersection. I look at that as maybe a hundred years from now, that's where the Flatiron Building's gonna be in Austin," referring to the iconic, triangle-shaped New York City skyscraper. "It could be some Plain Jane thing, or that can be a very unique location in the city."
But Breeze says he looks at it mainly for its use as an easy exit from the neighborhood. As his sister Gail Breeze put it in an email, it's "an important cut-through street to Mrs. Johnson's Donuts & Quality Seafood." (Actually, she should probably check her geography on Mrs. Johnson's – Bruning would actually take her away from there – but access to Quality Seafood is a pretty compelling argument. And it's a direct route to Highland Mall, the major shopping destination in the ... no, wait, scratch that.)
Bob Breeze agrees that 51st Street has problems but says the trouble point is 51st and Airport, crossing the MetroRail Red Line track. "The solution we're getting doesn't make any sense," he says. When 51st backs up, "Bruning serves as a safety valve. If you're trying to go east on 51st and you see that backup, your logical response to that is to go down Bruning."
Neighborhood opinion is not unanimous, however. Longtime transportation activist Patrick Goetz, a former member of the city's Urban Transportation Commission, supports at least trying the Bruning closure. He worked on the North Loop Neighborhood Plan back in 2003, in which closure of Bruning was suggested, so he says the Northfield Neighborhood Association was receptive when the city approached them about it this year and agreed to a temporary closure. (The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association has opposed the closure.)
"One of the concerns the parents at Ridgetop Elementary have is that there's a crossing guard on 51st Street, but there's not one on Bruning," Goetz says. "The traffic right now on Bruning is faster than on 51st." Indeed, Mike Wong, president of the Northfield NA and chair of the Ridgetop Elementary Campus Advisory Council, complained in an email that cars often go 40-45 miles per hour down Bruning, well above speeds safe for a neighborhood street.
"It's irrational to oppose a temporary closure," Goetz says. "The whole point of the temporary closure is to figure out whether this is going to improve traffic problems on 51st. I think everyone in our neighborhood association and the planning team agrees that if it doesn't work out, if it hasn't improved anything, then let's just dismantle the closure and go back to the status quo."