Tom Eblen: Two-way streets will be good for downtown

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenDecember 5, 2011 

Tom Eblen

As a boy in the late 1960s, Ken Silvestri worked weekends at his grandfather's fruit stand outside the McCrory's store on Main Street, where the Lexington Public Library now stands.

Shoppers were beginning to leave downtown for the new Turfland Mall and other suburban stores, "but there were still lots of people on the street," he recalled.

Then, in 1971, Main and Vine streets became one-way thoroughfares to speed traffic through the city. Other downtown street pairs were converted to become one-way including Short and Second; Maxwell and High; and Limestone and Upper.

"After Main became a one-way street, the traffic was moving so fast it changed the complexion of the place," Silvestri said. Fewer people walked by, and it was harder for drivers to stop to buy apples and oranges. Sales dwindled at his grandfather's fruit stand. "After a while, he just closed it," he said.

Many people now want to return those streets to two-way traffic. The Downtown Master Plan calls for it. The Urban County Council has endorsed it. Mayor Jim Gray has commissioned a study to assess the business, traffic and environmental impacts.

Although Gray favors the switch, he wants a big-picture review and solid data before making any decisions, Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to the mayor, said in a presentation Thursday to The Lexington Forum.

That review should be completed within 12 to 18 months, Shapiro said. The state Transportation Cabinet must sign off on changes, he said, but state officials "have been great to work with so far and have been very encouraging."

Many cities that created one-way streets downtown about the time Lexington did have switched back and been glad they did, Shapiro said. But every city and street is different. No matter what decisions are made, some people will complain.

"My experience," said former council member David Stevens, "has been that we have 300,000 traffic engineers in Lexington, and they all think they know what is best."

Here is the central question: Does Lexington want a downtown that is better to drive through or come to?

One-way streets do move traffic faster. Suburbanites who commute to downtown offices like that, as do people coming and going from the area's big events. One-way streets can also be less problematic for emergency and delivery vehicles.

Warren Rogers, a construction executive who said he has looked at cities that switched one-way streets back to two-way traffic, said accidents rose. That makes sense: motor vehicles may be traveling slower, but they mix it up more with each other, as well as with pedestrians and cyclists. And there are simply more pedestrians and cyclists on two-way streets.

"It's about priorities. Is our priority the car, or is it people?" said Renee Jackson, executive director of the Downtown Lexington Corp., which represents downtown businesses and property owners. "Two-way traffic really is better for business."

Two-way traffic encourages more people to use sidewalks, businesses have more visual exposure and streets are easier to navigate, especially for tourists and newcomers. Added traffic flexibility can ease congestion by providing more alternative routes.

While the city's big traffic study is a good idea, here's the thing: traffic, like water, tends to naturally make its way around obstacles. That's what happened recently when sidewalk improvements reduced traffic on Main Street and shut it off completely on South Limestone. Drivers adapted.

Downtown is coming back to life, and eliminating most or all of the one-way street pairs is an important next step to making the heart of Lexington more pleasant and prosperous.

Silvestri, the boy who worked at his grandfather's fruit stand, grew up to be one of Lexington's major commercial real estate brokers. He says eliminating the one-way streets downtown will be especially good for smaller, locally owned businesses. It will help create jobs and lower vacancy rates, which in turn will raise property values and tax revenues.

Many Lexingtonians will still prefer suburbia to downtown, and that's fine. Silvestri lives near Hamburg Place, which he points out has its own vexing traffic issues. "But at least," he said, "the streets over there are two-way."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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