Over the past several weeks, work crews have been busy cutting out curbs for new turning lanes and installing new traffic light poles all over Downtown Dayton in preparation for the two-way street conversions that will be completed over the first few months of 2010 (view a map of the changes here). This major change to downtown’s street grid was first introduced in 2003, and initial plans were introduced in public sessions in 2007 – with fierce opposition from downtown business owners who rightly argued against the loss of the majority of street parking spaces that came with the plan. Consultants and engineers went back to the drawing board and came up with a final plan that converted fewer streets but also maintained the majority of parking spaces. As a downtown resident and business owner, I am happy with the changes that we will soon see.
As noted in this article from Governing Magazine, downtowns didn’t have one-way streets until after World War II when civil defense planners began to worry about nuclear war and the citizens’ ability to evacuate urban cores quickly. In the 60’s and 70’s when the masses fled to the suburbs, one-way streets offered the quickest way out of downtown and back to suburban neighborhoods. But while these mini-expressways may have been good for suburbanites trying to get out of the city as fast as possible, they also helped kill downtown vibrancy by making streets less pedestrian-friendly.
Eventually in past couple decades, cities started converting streets back to two-way with positive results. Just read this excerpt about what happened when Vancouver, WA did it last year:
Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver, Washington, has spent millions of dollars trying to revitalize its downtown, and especially the area around Main Street that used to be the primary commercial center. Just how much the city has spent isn’t easy to determine. But it’s been an ambitious program. Vancouver has totally refurbished a downtown park, subsidized condos and apartment buildings overlooking it and built a new downtown Hilton hotel.Some of these investments have been successful, but they did next to nothing for Main Street itself. Through most of this decade, the street remained about as dreary as ever. Then, a year ago, the city council tried a new strategy. Rather than wait for the $14 million more in state and federal money it was planning to spend on projects on and around Main Street, it opted for something much simpler. It painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights. In other words, it took a one-way street and opened it up to two-way traffic.
The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.
Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. “We have twice as many people going by as they did before,” one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. “It’s like, wow,” he exclaimed, “why did it take us so long to figure this out?” – Governing Magazine, “The Return of the Two-Way Street”
While two-way streets alone won’t magically turn Downtown Dayton into a thriving vibrant urban core, they are a significant piece to the puzzle. And that is only the beginning; in the next couple months we will find out if the 3C/D rail will get funded, and if so then a brand new passenger train station will be built at 6th and Ludlow/Wilkinson. There are serious talks about getting a streetcar system connecting UD, Tech Town and the CBD. City planners are busy working on several other placemaking projects that will make downtown more inviting and pedestrian friendly, with a focus on Patterson Blvd and Fifth Street. And soon, people may start complaining about something rarely seen now as they travel in both directions on our downtown streets – too much damn traffic. And yes, that will be a good thing!