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.