Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How downtown got so many one-way streets

Posted By on Wed, Jun 26, 2013 at 2:36 PM

click to enlarge One-way traffic on West Main Avenue. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • One-way traffic on West Main Avenue.

In this week’s paper, we have a story about how city staff, several City Council members, local businesses, and the Downtown Spokane Partnership allsupport the idea of downtown’s Main Avenue becoming a two-way street again.

In researching the topic, however, I wanted to understand how downtown turned intoa mass of one-way couplets. If one-ways are bad for businesses and the downtown climate, why did Spokane create them in the first place?

I dove into Google Archives, through old issues of the Spokesman-Review andthe Spokane Chronicle.

This is what I found:

1950-1951: State highway officials insisted that Second and Third become one-way streets. City officials asked for more time, at least until freeways couldbe built at either end. But highway officials argued that the experience withone-ways in Olympia has been wonderful, and that the change increases trafficflow and decreases traffic accidents.

Most interestingly, they make the counter-intuitive argument that studiesshow an increase in business for retail stores after a one-way isinstalled on their street. A year before, Portland had installed40 miles of one-ways, with surprisingly successful results.

Part of the problem was that, with an interstate freeway more than a decadeoff, Second and Third served as the major arterials, and extensive traffic flowstudies showed that traffic on those two streets justcrawled along. If you were traveling from Coeur d’Alene and Spokane,traveling through Spokane was a slog.

1952: In an editorial, the Spokesman-Reviewpraised the Spokane City Council for the conversions of Post and Wall toone-ways. While the full conversion had yet to take effect, the paper saidthat “… the plans for this diversion and speedup appear to be well conceived andconducive to general public cooperation.”

Noting rush-hour congestion remains a serious problem, the paper says theconversion to Second and Third turned into major successes.

1956: Spokane drivers continue to struggle to comprehend the concept ofone-ways, but a police campaign against making improper turns off the streets reducesthe problem

1959: To remedy the traffic problems and hazards to pedestrians, MainAvenue, between Lincoln and Monroe, is changed to a westbound one-way.Ironically, today, Main Avenue stops being a one-way street at Lincoln.

1964: Frustration over downtownSpokane’s one-way grid came to a head. The city manager and Elmer Leland,the city traffic engineer, found themselves besieged by angry merchants at aChamber of Commerce meeting at the Davenport Hotel.

Today, River Park Square is a major force skeptical of changing back to atwo-way on Main, specifically worried it would drive away out-of-town customers.

But back in 1964, The Bon Marche (located where Macy’s is today at River ParkSquare) led the frustration to what had happened to out-of-town customersbecause of the one-ways. While residents eventually learned the flow of one-waytraffic, it remained confusing for visitors.

"Spokane, more than any other community of its size that I know of, isdependent on people from small towns in Montana and Idaho — but we're losingthis market," said Phillip Alexander, managing director of The Bon, “Ourcommunity will cease to exist if we continue to decentralize.”

In defense, Leland presented the best traffic modeling understanding at thetime, that the one-way system would make traffic move faster.

“I’m trying to move traffic more efficiently,” Leland said. Besides Leland,the lone voice of support for the one-way system came from the bus line owner,who said buses moved 27 percent faster under the new system.

1966: The Division Street Businessmen Association absolutelyfreaks out about the prospect of a section of North Division converting to aone-way. They call the plan “hogwash, window-dressing, and ridiculous.”Businesses and homeowners worry about the road will quickly become a “racetrack” and that the Division-Ruby couplet will quickly lead to aDivision-Lidgerwood couplet.

1967: With the new freeway viaduct scheduled two years away, the City Councilexamines a decision to convert Monroe and Lincoln to one-ways, leaving Riversidethe sole two-way street downtown.

1969: The I-90 freeway viaduct, between Pine and Maple, finally opens,forever altering downtown traffic patterns. From here on, it becomes difficultto separate the impact of a one-way street grid and the impact of the freeway.Could the freeway have solved the downtown congestion problem, even if downtownhad never converted to a one-way system? There’s no way to tell for sure.

Today, the North Spokane Corridor promises to have a big impact onnorth-south traffic, something traffic planners have to consider when examiningslow traffic along Division and Market.

1977: After Expo 74, a downtownrevitalization plan supports retaining the one-way street system.

1985: City planning engineers, once again, explore turning Monroe and Lincolninto one-way streets north of the river to reduce North-South Trafficcongestion.

Today, state-of-the-art “smart” traffic signals can adapt to congestion andvehicular flow. Moving through multiple intersections isn’t as slow as it usedto be. And newer cars have improved emissions systems. Cars idling at stoplightsdon’t spit out smog like they once did.

As the city looks at returning Main Avenue to a two-way street, in otherwords, it’s a much different world from the ’50s and ’60s.

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