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Downtown Austin Plan gets transportation completely wrong

Coverage by the Chronicle and Austinist, but I'll focus on two very narrow areas here where they are dead wrong. Note: I don't have the time to spend all day Saturday at the Convention Center to tell these guys stuff they already know deep-down, thanks.

The long PDF is here. Here's the two things I'm going to address (I agree with most, but not all, of the remainder of the thing, but nothing else is as remarkably wrong as these):

#1: Two-way streets are NOT better for pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing you have to do to throw out this ridiculous piece of conventional wisdom that we need to convert all our one-ways to two-ways is imagine being a driver who is sitting waiting to make a left turn from a 2-way 4-lane undivided roadway downtown into a driveway or cross street. Hey, there's a little break in traffic!, you think, GUN IT!. How's that going to work out for the pedestrian crossing on the flashing Walk signal? You know, the one you couldn't see until a split second before you hit him, because your view was obstructed by the oncoming traffic before the gap?

With one-way streets, you always get one cycle where pedestrians have a fully protected (solid-white walk signal) crossing (bar left-turn-on-red; which requires enough motorist vigilance to be very safe for pedestrians anyways). Crossing one-way streets as a pedestrian is comparatively much safer and much saner and much more pleasant than crossing a similarly sized two-way street.

The primary reason this 2-way nonsense keeps coming up is because people compare a narrow 2-lane 2-way street like 2nd street to a wide 1-way street with 4 or 5 lanes; and, of course, because they're completely car-centric to boot. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world have tons of one-way streets. Throw out this piece of 'wisdom' that 2-way is better; it's just not true.

(I plan on eventually writing a backgrounder on this one - suffice to say for now that you need to know that the primary motivating force behind this stuff are urban-but-suburban-minded business owners who want you to see their shop no matter which direction you're driving; not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in).

#2: The streetcar line proposed by Capital Metro will provide more people-moving capacity downtown - ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Compare/contrast with light rail, which certainly would have; and McCracken/Wynn's rail proposal, which COULD, but if and only if they get significant chunks of reserved guideway and don't follow Cap Metro's stupid up-the-rear-end-of-UT-and-out-Manor-Road route. The existing AND FUTURE density in central Austin is on Guadalupe, not on San Jacinto and Manor Road (neighborhood plans out there don't allow for enough future density to make running them a streetcar remotely worth the cost; and Guadalupe already has significant enough density to justify it).

If the streetcar runs in shared traffic, as it will according to Capital Metro's proposal, it will not be able to attract many more people than do the buses that currently run around downtown. This is important, because building new transit that doesn't actually get USED more doesn't actually help with the person-moving capacity of the corridor.

In addition, the streetcar line as proposed by Capital Metro will not be a significantly better way to distribute commuter rail passengers than will the buses that will do it on day one. Read my recent comments about streetcar versus bus for starters - Capital Metro's proposal runs entirely in 'shared lanes', meaning that the streetcars will be even slower and even less reliable than the buses these commuters won't set foot on today. So it's not going to be the 'dessert' which makes more people want to eat the 'meal'. Once again, no improvement in people-moving capacity.

These use cases basically show you what a passenger on the commuter rail line will face. Imagine that the last segment is on a streetcar, stuck in traffic behind their coworkers' cars, instead of on a bus. Does it make much difference?

I have a strong suspicion that the people working on the downtown plan know all of this, by the way, but there is a political risk to being too much against Capital Metro's transit plan and the 2-way-street conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, it would have been very helpful for some caveats to be included at a bare minimum, like they did with the commuter rail line itself (their quote below).

In its first phase, the Leander-to- Austin Commuter Rail Line will terminate in the extreme east/southeast quadrant of Downtown, at Brush Square. This peripheral location is not ideal, being about a 30-minute walk to the Capitol Complex, 10 minutes to Sixth and Congress (2.5 MPH) and 15 minutes to City Hall (2.5 MPH). While transfers to waiting buses are planned from the MLK Rail Station to UT and to the Capitol, as well as from Brush Square to Downtown destinations, it is unclear how desirable these bus transfers will be to the transit user.

Note the skillful caveats here. This particular page is well-done - it addresses the problem, while still being optimistic enough to satisfy people who think we can actually get more things done through consensus rather than forceful advocacy of our needs.

The rule of thumb for transit users is roughly a 5-minute walk, by the way, in case you were still wondering why I keep talking about what a disaster this thing is going to be. Light rail would have run to within a 5-minute walk of essentially all the major employment destinations in central Austin.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Urban Design , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues)

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Comments

What if you prohibit left hand turns on the two-way streets? That seems to get most of the benefits of two way streets without the cost you describe. It would cause a little more driving, but I would think this would be offset by the reduced amount of driving needed in a two-way street setup compared to a one-way street setup.

Shilli, the problem is that if you ban left turns, you haven't reduced driving (I'll still have to make 3 rights to get to the thing on the wrong side of the street). Much of the ridiculous arguments about two-way being safer rest on the premise that the longer drive times (safer per unit) multiplies the danger factor.

Congress Avenue is probably the best example of a two-way major street that allows left turns without dedicated turn lanes, and it's a mess. If you're driving, someone is guaranteed to either hold up traffic for a light cycle or two to make an unprotected left, or to gun it through a gap in front of you. If you're a pedestrian, someone is going to gun it to make it through that gap and hit you or come damn close, or blatantly run red lights because they don't have a protected left. It's a mess for everybody.

So, the 600 people in Brooklyn who showed up in March to testify against a plan to convert two-way streets to one-way are all urban-but-suburban-minded business owners?

http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/03/16/brooklyn-to-dot-one-way-an-unequivocal-no-way/

And the guys who made this video are "not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in"?

http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/park-slope-one-way-vs-two-way-streets/

There are tons of other factors involved, like width, number of lanes, light timing, driveways and visibility, but in general, two-way streets slow down traffic and are therefore safer and more comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians.

Good point, heyzeus. I'd say also though that 15th (which DOES have left-turn lanes) is only a bit more civilized - I have many of the same issues turning there when driving; the difference is that pedestrian traffic is so little that it hasn't yet become an issue like it has on Congress. In other words, I suspect the turn lane won't make that much difference - it's the turning itself against a bunch of oncoming traffic.

Unless you go the Florida route and don't allow any left turns anywhere on any streets except on the green arrow, which would go over here like a lead balloon.

Anecdote: I'm at Halcyon at 4th & Lavaca Sts. To get here, I had to bear an irate motorist using his truck to show me that my life hangs by a thin wire. My crime against him: Walking eastbound across Lavaca on the north side of 4th St., in the crosswalk with a crosswalk signal, while uselessly leaving plenty of room for him to go cleanly around me. He was making a left from 4th St. (two-way) onto Lavaca St. (one-way, northbound).

Cap'n,

I reject completely the idea that speed has much to do with safety on streets like this. I'd rather be walking alongside traffic going 35 which can see me than be walking alongside cars which turn left through a gap at 15 but can't see me while they do it.

As for the community in question, like many, they've been fooled by the "speed == bad" argument. Doesn't make them right.

I'm open to the possibility that they're misinformed or misled, but I wanted to point out that there are plenty of people who "honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in" and who believe that two-way streets are safer. Here come the science:

http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/04/06/primeggias-one-way-safety-claims-are-based-on-1970s-studies/

Thanks, the guy from austinist (Shilli) already pointed me there - but they've closed comments. I obviously disagree with many of his points - he's comparing some real, but old, studies against some anectdotal information on completely different streets (comparing two-way speeds on one street to one-way speeds on a completely different street).

Sorry, Tennessee. I'd take old science over new hand-waving.

Okay, here's another one:

http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/03/22/transportation-planner-one-ways-hurt-more-kids/

I honestly haven't had a chance to compare the various studies in detail, but I've lived near two-lane streets, some one-way and some two-way, that were very comparable otherwise, and I've never felt as threatened by the left-turning traffic on the two-way streets as I feel by the speeding on the one-way streets.

Again, my main point is that it's possible for reasonable people to disagree on this issue, even though all of them are pedestrian advocates who honestly care about the issue.

CT,

Yes, but I'd place the arguments as relatively uninformed from the pro-ped side. For instance, there is no reliable traffic data that indicates higher speeds on one-way streets versus two-way streets with everything else being equal - in downtown-type environments.

We're still left with one side having all the data and the common sense, and the other side just having anectdotes and feelings.

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