What went wrong with American downtowns during the last half of the 20th century?
A lot, actually. But one big thing was that they were redesigned to work better for cars than for people. It's no wonder people abandoned them.
Lexington escaped the worst of it. Unlike many cities, Lexington didn't have an expressway routed through the middle of it. Interstate highways made America's small towns and rural areas more accessible, but they devastated many cities — cutting up neighborhoods and making downtowns less walkable, welcoming and safe.
Downtown Lexington's legacy from 20th century traffic engineering efficiency is its one-way street pairs — primarily the east-west corridors of Short and Second, High and Maxwell, Main and Vine and the north-south corridor of Limestone and Upper.
It was all done in the early 1970s with the best of intentions: Make it easier for shoppers to get to and from downtown so the stores won't move to the suburbs.
It didn't work. Worse yet, those one-way streets have hampered public and private efforts to reinvent and revitalize downtown Lexington ever since.
Here's the problem: Cars go faster on one-way streets, especially when lanes are wide. That makes traffic more dangerous, especially for pedestrians, and more noisy. One-way streets hurt business and confuse tourists.
Fortunately, after years of struggle, efforts to revive downtown Lexington are taking hold, thanks to some good planning and more than $300 million in private investment. Mayor Jim Newberry unveiled a new "streetscape" plan Thursday that could make downtown even better.
The plan, developed by Covington-based KKG Studios, would make downtown a more people-friendly place to live, work and play. It also would add bicycle lanes and 170 additional street parking spaces during non-peak hours. Wider sidewalks would allow for easier walking and more outdoor dining.
A water feature would be built along Vine Street following the path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried beneath the street generations ago. A European-style glass pavilion would be built on Cheapside, Lexington's historic marketplace, as a home for the Lexington Farmers Market and community events.
It's a terrific plan that could help downtown achieve its potential for contributing to Lexington's economy and quality of life. It also assumes the conversion of most, if not all, of the one-way streets back to two-way traffic. That follows the recommendation of Lexington's 2006 downtown master plan.
Plans call for Short and Second streets to return to two-way traffic within 12 months, said Harold Tate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. Limestone and Upper Streets would be made two-way within two or three years. But Tate said further studies are needed before setting a timetable for returning two-way traffic to High, Maxwell, Main and Vine streets.
At Thursday's news conference, Newberry was pessimistic about returning two-way traffic to downtown's biggest drag strips — Main and Vine streets. "It's very complicated," he said, citing likely pushback from state traffic engineers and others. Newberry said he didn't expect to see it happen "in my lifetime."
That makes no sense.
After all, Main Street is two-way in each direction until it reaches downtown. That means traffic speeds up just when it should be slowing down.
"We've had a failed 40-year experiment with one-way streets downtown," said Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer whose projects include Main & Rose and the Nunn Building Lofts.
Once other one-way streets are converted and the Newtown Pike extension is completed in 2014 to route through-traffic around downtown, there's no reason not to return Main and Vine to two-way, he said.
Van Meter Pettit, a downtown resident who is developing the Town Branch Trail, agrees. "Otherwise, we're saying that commuter traffic is a higher priority than urban redevelopment, when our master planning is telling us just the opposite," he said.
Successful cities across America are converting their one-way streets back to two-way and looking for other ways to make their downtowns work better for people than cars. In perhaps the boldest move yet, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans Friday to convert Times Square into a pedestrian mall by May.
Lexington's city officials and their consultants have invested a lot of time, effort and money in solid plans for revitalizing downtown. They shouldn't let nay-saying by state traffic engineers or others jeopardize those efforts.
If downtown Lexington is to achieve its potential, it must become a place people want to drive to — not drive through.