Sep 052012

Holistic medicine, not radical surgery

By David Shattuck

In the 13 years since Third and Fourth Streets were made two-way, we’ve heard developers and city leaders claim that one-way streets inhibit business development. We’ve also heard that two-way streets magically sprout commercial activity.

Evidence in Lexington, however, shows just the opposite. A dining scene has sprouted organically on Short and Limestone Streets. Crowd sizes at Thursday Night Live continue to grow. The Lexington Farmer’s Market remains a well-attended Saturday event. The highly anticipated Hotel 21C at Main and Upper Streets is coming. CentrePointe is coming, and so, too, might a Town Branch Trail. Both businesses and area residents, it seems, will flock downtown and inhabit one-way streets.  People simply do not allow issues such as “wayfinding” or parking to stand in the way of something they really want to do or someplace they really want to go. Continue reading »

Jul 012012

Planning for 2-way Lex

 By David Shattuck

The $465,000 “Traffic Movement & Revitalization Study” is now underway.  LFUCG gave final approval to the contract with Santec (formerly Entran) in mid-May.  According to its contract, the Santec study will “assess the ability of the Downtown Lexington street system to accommodate current and future year traffic conditions with all existing one-way streets converted to two-way operation.”  More specifically, “The study will help to determine if two-way conversion can reduce driver confusion, increase accessibility to downtown businesses, and moderate vehicle speeds for improved safety.”

One word that can’t be found in the contract for the “Traffic Movement & Revitalization Study” is “revitalization.” Indeed, an oft-repeated word in the contract is “mitigation”—a lessening, moderation—as in mitigating the traffic congestion caused by converting our downtown one-way streets to two-way traffic.  Other “r” words, however, are repeated throughout the contract:  roundabouts, right-of-way purchases, and a relocation of the Transit Center. Continue reading »

May 022012

…and their un-Earth Day environmental costs

By David Shattuck

In my three previous columns, I demonstrated that converting Lexington’s one-way streets to two-way traffic would result in unacceptable peak-hour traffic congestion; this congestion would be expected, in turn, to increase air pollution levels between 10-13%.  Recall, too, that Lexington already has the worst carbon footprint of 100 cities surveyed by the Brookings Institute in 2008.  In this column I explore some of the legal implications these facts raise.

As the 2007 Lexington Traffic Study explains, Main and Vine Streets (and also portions of some of the other downtown one-way streets) are part of the state highway system; accordingly, they cannot be converted unless the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) approves the proposal.  KYTC, in turn, is limited by federal environmental and highway laws in what it may approve.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates that planners evaluate potential environmental consequences before implementing proposals that will involve significant federal funding or involvement.  The first step in the NEPA process is an Environmental Assessment (EA).  If the EA determines that the proposed action “will not have a significant effect on the human environment” then KYTC may issue what is known as a FONSI (no relation to the Henry Winkler character from Happy Days.) Continue reading »

Apr 042012

By David Shattuck

Editor’s note: David’s previous two columns demonstrated that converting Lexington’s downtown streets to two-way traffic would result in unacceptable congestion at peak hours.  Currently, city leadership is once-again expending public capital to study two-way conversion as a means to improve the city.

Conversion proponents argue that slower traffic makes streets more “walkable,” thereby enhancing retail potential, and that retailers shun locating on one-way streets.  Slower traffic means fewer accidents, and is safer for pedestrians, they reason.  This column dispels these myths.

One would expect that conversion proponents would have evidence supporting their claims.  The Lexington Downtown Development Authority (LDDA), an entity that was created in large part to make conversion happen, offers none. Remarkably, as the LDDA wrote me last November, it “has conducted no research and has no information regarding the benefits and costs of converting Lexington’s downtown streets to two-way traffic.” Continue reading »

Mar 072012

By David Shattuck

The proposed Rupp Arena Opportunity Zone presents an opportunity to revisit an issue dear to developers:  the closure of the Vine Street curve to extend Triangle Park across Vine Street to connect directly with the Civic Center.  This idea was first floated in 2000; that same year Third and Fourth Streets were converted from one-way to two-way traffic.  During the summer of 2001, the Urban County Council voted 13-2 to close the Vine Street curve and to make certain one-way streets two-way, an action which Lexington businessman Warren Rosenthal called “very, very stupid.”  An outcry over the vote led the Council to hear public comments on the proposal at its next scheduled meeting.  About 50 citizens, myself included, showed up to speak against the proposal.  Prior to the meeting, however, as we gathered in the hallway, it was announced that the Council intended to reverse its vote.  It was our understanding that this was done in order to determine whether a traffic study would support the plan. [I’ve added the clause to make it fit with the term “It was OUR understanding…”]

It wasn’t until 2009, however, in response to an open records request, that I discovered that a traffic study had been conducted back in December 2000.  This study, captioned “Closure of the Vine Street Yoke Traffic Analysis,” was prepared by the same firm, Entran, that would later conduct the Lexington Traffic Study in 2007 that failed to support the recommendation that downtown’s one-way streets be converted to two-way traffic. Like its later cousin, the 2000 Vine Street Yoke study demonstrates persuasively that closure of Vine at the curve would result in unacceptable peak-hour traffic congestion.

Vine Street Yoke

The 2000 study analyzed five scenarios involving removal of the yoke and various combinations of two-way street conversions.  Significantly, in each scenario Short is retained as a one-way street (though now Short and Second are the first streets planners aim to convert) in order to accommodate eastbound traffic.  The Study explains that “approximately 15,500 vehicles per day are currently using the Vine St. Yoke.  This section of Vine St. is one of the heaviest traveled streets within the downtown network.  The Vine St. Yoke currently consists of four through lanes.  Vine St. serves as the major eastbound street within the downtown system, carrying vehicles from Newtown Pike and Leestown Rd. into the downtown.”

The study continues:  “When the Vine St. Yoke is closed, there are two important questions that need to be answered:  (1) Where do the 15,500 vehicles now using the Yoke redistribute to, and (2) What are the impacts of that redistribution?”  The study notes that “70% of the traffic that is using the Vine St. Yoke is currently destined to locations south of Main St.  The remaining 30% is destined to areas such as Midland and East Main Street.”  The study notes that “[t]raditionally, traffic volumes have increased 0.5% to 1% per year within the downtown area.”

Five options and an addendum

Scenario 1, which removes the Yoke and makes Main Street two-way to Broadway, redistributes 7,000 vehicles daily to Short Street, and results in a 40% increase in the time needed to travel down Main from Rose to Broadway.  Option 2 takes Scenario 1 and also reverses the direction of High and Maxwell, which “did not provide a significant decrease in delay on Main St. when compared with Option 1.”

Option 3 is the most interesting of all the scenarios studied, because it takes Option 2 and further assumes completion of Newtown Pike to Versailles Road, a project that has only recently been completed.  As I wrote in Business Lexington in spring of 2007, the Newtown extension is unlikely to play a significant role in reducing congestion on Main/Vine and Maxwell/High that would ensue with two-way traffic, since these pairs run in an east-west direction while Newtown runs north/south.  The Yoke Analysis predicted as much: even reversing the direction of High and Maxwell, extending Newtown to Maxwell results in the same overall delay on Main Street as Option 2—35%.  Indeed, careful observers should know by now that extension of Newtown has had no material impact on downtown traffic.

Scenario 4 removes the Yoke, two-ways Main to Broadway, reverses the direction of High Street, converts Vine and Maxwell to two-way traffic, and assumes an extension of Newtown Pike to Limestone.  While the model predicts that this option results in unacceptable congestion only on Maxwell Street (a prediction that I dispute for a variety of reasons), the study cautions:  “It is important to note that Newtown Pike Extended has not yet entered the preliminary engineering and environmental investigation phase.  The construction of Newtown Pike to Limestone is still a minimum of 8 years from completion.”

Option 5 removes the Yoke, two-ways Main to Broadway, converts High and Maxwell to two-way traffic, and allows for a left turn from southbound Broadway onto Vine Street.   The model makes two significant predictions under this scenario.  First, traffic volume on Vine remains at the same volume prior to removal of the Yoke—10,000 vehicles daily.  “The 10,000 vehicles turning left create a tremendous strain on the Vine St. and Broadway intersection as well as the intersections at Broadway and High St. and Broadway and Main Street.”  Second, the conversion of High and Maxwell to two-way traffic results in unacceptable traffic congestion.

The Yoke Analysis concludes that under each scenario except option 4—where Newtown is extended all the way to Limestone—“it becomes apparent that there does need to be a direct connection to Vine St. for eastbound traffic.”  Accordingly, the Analysis contains an Addendum dated February 2001 which analyzes Option 6—remove the Yoke, make Main two-way to Upper Street, and make Vine two-way to between Broadway and Limestone.

The study explains that if Main Street is converted to two-way between Broadway and Upper, then Vine must also be converted to two-way to Limestone in order to help ease congestion on Main.  Under this scenario Vine still carries approximately 80% of its original volume eastbound to Limestone, or some 8,000 vehicles (as measured in the year 2000).  The model predicts that this option “will not improve traffic flow in downtown, however it will function.”  In order to function, though, “several left turn limitations will need to be imposed on Main Street.”  In addition, converting Main to two-way traffic “will require the removal of some curb and other construction.”

Drawing conclusions

What is the upshot of all of this?  Obviously, the 2000 Yoke Analysis deals a devastating blow to any plans to close the Vine Street curve in order to extend Triangle Park to the Civic Center.  Whatever merit the idea may have in terms of making the park more attractive, allowing for sidewalk cafes and retail opportunities, the simple fact is that our spoke/wheel traffic infrastructure will not accommodate it.  No wonder, then, that the developers chose to retreat when those 50-some citizens appeared at a council meeting to oppose closure of the Vine Street curve.  And no wonder the Council reversed its initial 13-2 vote to close Vine at the yoke.

More important, though, the Yoke Analysis, and particularly its February 2001 Addendum, underscores the lengths to which developers and planners have gone in promoting, against the weight of evidence, downtown street conversion.  Recall that the December 2000 Analysis, Scenario 3, concludes that extending Newtown to Versailles Road has no material impact on downtown congestion.  Yet just two months later, the Addendum concludes that the extension “will help some of the congestion created by the closure of the Vine Street Yoke and the conversion of Main Street to two-way.”

Nowhere is the bias in favor of conversion more apparent than in the example of Maxwell Street.  The 2000 Yoke Analysis concludes that conversion of Maxwell isn’t feasible, as does the $100,000 2007 Entran Traffic Study.  The Downtown Streetscape Plan, released in summer 2008, cites the Traffic Study to conclude that conversion of Main and Vine would result in traffic congestion that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet would find unacceptable.

In the very next paragraph, however, the Plan completely ignores the findings of both the 2000 and 2007 studies which demonstrate that Maxwell is the least suitable for conversion of all the streets: “Discussions with the plan’s transportation consultants, Transportation Cabinet Representatives, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and LFUCG staff have indicated and [sic] that the conversion of Limestone and Upper and High and Maxwell could also be achieved assuming that council supported the strategy, funding was available, and that a comprehensive engineering approach was utilized for each successive conversion.”   In response to an open records request for all documents which might support this assertion, LFUCG produced a single one:  the 2007 Traffic Study, which, of course, reached the precise opposite conclusion regarding Maxwell Street!

Earlier this year, LFUCG awarded $450,000, obtained from federal stimulus dollars, to Entran—the same entity that conducted the 2000 and 2007 studies demonstrating conversion is not feasible—to design plans for reconfiguring all of downtown’s one-way streets to two-way traffic.  As I wrote numerous council members upon learning of this, “I find it remarkable that, with respect to Maxwell Street, we’re paying to configure a bridge to nowhere.  The 2007 traffic study concluded that conversion of Maxwell is a non-starter; it simply isn’t feasible under any scenario.  So I cannot fathom how it’s proper for us to use federal stimulus dollars to configure Maxwell for 2-way traffic.”  As regards the other streets, I wrote:  “We’re paying a consultant to configure plans which never had any hope of working in the first place.”

It is highly ironic, of course, that the same entity that in 2000 and 2007 concluded that conversion isn’t feasible will now be paid to make it happen anyway!

Feb 082012

By David Shattuck

In 2005, people from throughout central Kentucky identified their top 5 likes and dislikes about the region.  “Traffic blew away the competition in the dislike category,” wrote the Herald-Leader in November 2006.  Lexington is by no means unique in this regard.  In the last 40 years, traffic has consistently outpaced forecasts.  In early 2006 the Texas Transportation Institute predicted that if things continue as they are, by 2013 “midsize regions such as Omaha will have traffic problems that larger areas like Cleveland now have, and larger areas such as Cleveland will experience traffic problems that very large areas like LA or New York have now.”  So to be safe, we should assume that Lexington’s traffic will soon look about like that in Nashville or Charlotte just a few years ago:  we will experience big city traffic congestion.

Indeed, these days may already be upon us.  In 2002 the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for central Kentucky calculated the “travel rate index” for Lexington’s major roads at 2.81; this means it takes nearly three times as long as it should to travel these roads; by comparison, the average index for Los Angeles is 1.50!

State engineers report that traffic on New Circle between Russell Cave and Georgetown Road has tripled from 1964 to 2001; there is every reason to believe that traffic on Main, Vine, High and Maxwell Streets has experienced similar increases as well in the last three decades.  Over time, traffic always seems to get worse, never better (unless roads are expanded, such as the recent extension of Newtown).  According to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. will add 50% more houses, offices and shops over the next 25 years, which of course means even more traffic clogging our streets.

Yet a few developers, city planners, and Mayor Gray seem intent on making Lexington’s traffic problems worse.  Since 2001, they have insisted that converting Lexington’s downtown one-way streets to two-way traffic will help revitalize downtown.  As a Sacramento planner put it:  “Motorists who are forced to drive more slowly may notice businesses they might like to visit.”

The 2-Way Thesis

The zany notion that two-way traffic will help revitalize downtowns has its origins in a single paper presented in the early 1990s by Orlando archictect/planner Walter Kulash and his firm, Glatting Jackson.  Kulash’s premise is that two-way traffic will force cars to slow down, making streets more user friendly for pedestrians and businesses.  (In a future column I will dispel these myths).

That one way streets move traffic more efficiently is beyond dispute: seven lanes of a two-way street are needed to match the capacity of a four lane one way route.   So converting Main and Vine, or High and Maxwell, for instance, to two-way traffic could effectively cut traffic capacity—the ability to move cars through traffic—in half.  Kulash’s own analysis shows why conversion would necessitate unacceptable traffic delays in Lexington.  He reasons that “[m]ost downtowns have a well-developed street grid; this abundance of alternate routes is the inherent advantage that downtowns have over [suburbs], where all traffic is generally forced onto the one or two available arterials.”

Lexington is unlike “most downtowns” in this regard, for there is no “abundance of alternate routes” for getting from, say, the Masterston Station or Meadowthorpe area to UK or Chevy Chase. .  As Fred Pope wrote in Business Lexington in early 2006: “Lexington’s streets flow like the spokes on a wheel, outward from the hub of downtown.  It is a design made for congestion.” During a phone conversation on March 1, 2007, LFUCG’s Max Conyers stated that downtown Lexington lacked a grid system sufficient for a successful two-way conversion.  Businessman Howard Stovall confirmed this fact to Chevy Chaser Magazine last August. Stovall stated that “[i]f Lexington had an effective grid system so one could get across town without traveling Main and Vine, that would be one thing, but we don’t.”

Even in cities with an effective grid system, two-way conversion would cause significant congestion.  According to Kulash, “in most downtowns, the delay penalty will be small for the through traveler.  For instance, a decrease in average arterial travel speed of 5 miles per hour over a one-quarter mile segment of network yields an additional three minutes of travel time.”  Let’s apply this “delay penalty” to Lexington’s streets, with the caveat that I am a lawyer, not a traffic engineer.

Currently one can drive from one end of downtown to the other in three minutes or less, driving 25 miles per hour on Main and Vine, and stopping at no more than two traffic signals (such as Rose and Broadway) when the signals are working properly. During peak traffic hours, one could not expect to drive much faster than 10 miles per hour on a two-way Main or Vine, a reduction of 15 miles per hour.   Based on this assumption, it would take 18 minutes to get from one end of downtown to the other—an estimated half-mile—from Broadway to Midland, if Main and Vine were converted to two-way traffic.  And this doesn’t include the delay brought about by the inability to time traffic lights and by the absence of turn lanes such a conversion would necessitate.

We must not forget why one-way streets were created in the first place: to relieve traffic congestion.  Lexington drivers know traffic congestion; the average commute in this town exceeds 20 minutes.  Lionel Hawse noted in a letter to the Herald-Leader in November 2006:  “There was a reason for going to one-way streets 40 years ago.  On-street parking and left-turning traffic made driving in downtown exasperating.”  As Stovall wrote in Business Lexington in December 2006, the streets were made one-way because things were “a total mess,” with traffic gridlock “especially at the corner of Main and Rose.”

The LDDA, the Master Plan, and the Traffic Study

In the summer of 2004 the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (“LDDA”) was formed.  LDDA raised $450,000 from local “stakeholders”, including Keeneland, banks, utilities, law firms, and James Gray Construction Co.  In December 2004, the Herald-Leader reported that this money would fund a study with the idea of developing a “Downtown Master Plan.”  The paper quoted developer Bill Lear as saying Lexington needed two-way traffic but that it wouldn’t happen unless part of a master plan.

The Master Plan was released in summer 2006.  The Plan’s 17 recommendations included the conversion of all downtown streets to two-way traffic as well as the creation of a “linear park” to run through the middle of Vine Street.  Of these 17 recommendations, Bill Lear told the Herald-Leader that street conversion was by far the most significant.

A traffic study was to have been completed as part of the Master Plan, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, a traffic study which cost taxpayers $100,000 was completed in spring 2007.  The Traffic Study is like an elephant in a room; it has received remarkably little public attention, most likely because its conclusions are at odds with developers’ and city planners’ wishes.

The study, conducted by Entran of Lexington, revealed five areas “that likely would become congestion ‘hot spots’ if streets were converted to two-way.” Not surprisingly, these “hot spots” are at precisely the same locations which led planners to make these streets one way in the first place.  Significantly, Maxwell Street, in its entirety, is one of these “hot spots”.  Conversion of Vine, moreover, is not feasible unless the Transit Center is relocated, a proposal that no one contemplated seriously until federal stimulus monies became available.

Furthermore, by making unrealistic assumptions, the study understates the true impact conversion would have on traffic congestion, since it makes assumptions that are unrealistic.  For instance, assuming Main and Vine are narrowed to 1 lane in each direction, with a center turn lane, the model says it will take an additional 10.4 minutes to travel from Broadway to Midland on Vine.  But to travel from Midland to Broadway on Main, under this scenario, would take only an additional 2 minutes, a time that would certainly surprise anyone who has ever traveled Main during peak hours.  And the devil is in the details; actual traffic impact cannot be determined until it is known how the Main/Vine pair will be configured at either end.

More important, the study makes assumptions concerning housing density and bike/bus use that border on wishful thinking.  For instance the study assumes that, by 2030, increased density and bus/bike use will lead to a 50% reduction in interzonal auto trips within the downtown core.  Yet a Department of Transportation study concluded that “doubling an urban area’s density would, at most, reduce the total number of car trips by 10% to 20%.  No U.S. urban area has managed to double its density or to reduce car travel by these magnitudes.”  In addition, even if bike use approached that of Portland, Oregon, which boasts the most bicycle commuters of any U.S. city, only one in ten of us would be riding a bike instead of driving a car to work.  And, of course, it is not likely that Lexington’s bike commuter rate could ever match Portland’s.