Op-Ed

Don't convert downtown's one-way streets to two-way traffic

Vine Street is among the one-way streets downtown that are being considered for conversion to two-way traffic.
Vine Street is among the one-way streets downtown that are being considered for conversion to two-way traffic.

The zany notion that congested traffic enhances downtowns has its origins in a single paper — prepared by the very firm Lexington intends to pay $450,000 to tell us that we should convert our downtown one-way streets to two-way traffic.

Yet just four years ago, we spent $100,000 on a study that dispels the myth that conversion is feasible here.

The downtown traffic study released in April 2007 concluded that conversion of Main and Vine streets and Maxwell and High streets would create intolerable traffic congestion at peak hours. The study 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 that led planners to make these streets one way in the first place. Conversion of Vine isn't feasible unless the Transit Center is relocated.

The study, in fact, understates the true impact conversion would have on traffic congestion because it makes assumptions that are unrealistic. For instance, assuming Main and Vine are narrowed to one 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 Avenue on Vine.

But to travel from Midland to Broadway on Main, under this scenario, would take only an additional two minutes, which 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.

Conversion proponents can point to no city similar to Lexington where conversion has made a difference.

Colorado Springs, Colo., commissioned a study of conversions in cities of similar size. Cincinnati is one of 10 cities surveyed in that study; it converted Vine Street in 1999 as part of a major revitalization effort. The study found that the Cincinnati conversion "didn't accomplish much" and "did not result in the revitalization expected in the area."

Although traffic speeds decreased, accidents increased. The city reported: "We are considering converting the street back to a one-way because the traffic flow on that street is important for travel between uptown and downtown."

Tucson, Ariz., had decided in 2004 to convert a major one-way pair running east-west through downtown. In February 2007, however, the city council voted unanimously to keep these streets as a one-way pair.

The Cincinnati and Tucson examples are particularly instructive for Lexington because Main-Vine and High-Maxwell are the only major streets running east-west downtown; alternative routes are not available.

Although the Downtown Master Plan includes conversion among its 17 recommendations, conversion has always been driven by housing developers. The Herald-Leader reported in December 2004: "Downtown developers, some of whom are helping fund the $500,000 master plan, have pushed hard for two-way traffic."

The paper quoted Bill Lear saying that Lexington needed two-way traffic downtown, but adding: "I don't think that will happen unless it comes out of a master plan."

Just as in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where the intelligence was fixed around the policy, a few developers wanted two-way, so they helped finance a study that, not surprisingly, recommended conversion. That conversion was predetermined can be seen from an examination of the minutes of the very first public meetings held on the master plan in February and April 2005.

Moreover, conversion was to have been supported by a traffic study. Yet the master plan was released at least four months before completion of the $100,000 traffic study. And, not surprisingly, in the years since its publication, the traffic study has received virtually no public attention because the study's conclusions conflict with the city's plans.

A 2006 study by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh noted: "Rarely do city councils receive information regarding the reality of traffic calming [measures], even though studies of the unintended consequences and disastrous results from other cities are readily available." The study concluded: "One-way pairs are safer for drivers and pedestrians and minimize congestion for commuters."

If recent letters to this paper and other writings are any indication, the public won't be fooled again. Public opposition will defeat the current conversion plans, just as it did 10 years ago when the council reversed its decision to close the Vine Street curve.

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