Alan Ehernhalt, editor of Governing Magazine, has written a column in which he describes the efforts of Vancouver, Washington, to revitalize its downtown core. After big investments in the downtown park, subsidized condos and apartments, and a new hotel, the city still hadn't turned around the fortunes of Main Street.
The street, he notes, "remained about as dreary as ever" during the past decade. So instead of waiting for another $14 million in federal and state funds to sink into more revitalization projects, the city "painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights."
How could so small and inconsequential a change as turning a one-way street back into a two-way street make a significant difference? Yet that's exactly what happened:
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?"
A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. "One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas," says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "We've proven that."
It's a longish article that sketches the history of one-way street conversion back in mid-century and then surveys the landscape of two-way conversions across the US over the past decade.
It's worth reading in part for the author's treatment of the standard objections to two-way conversion - objections which materialize everywhere two-way conversion is proposed, and which turn out to be so much empty fear in those places where conversions are actually undertaken.
When it comes to designing or retrofitting streets, the burden of proof shouldn't fall on those who want to use them the old-fashioned way. It should be on those who think the speedway ideology of the 1950s serves much of a purpose half a century later.
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