Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The not so smart streets idea

Don Wheeler

Pretty much everyone agrees that downtown South Bend would benefit from significant changes in traffic handling.  The streets are wider than necessary and many don't connect well.  Crossing them is challenging for pedestrians and the street scape is pretty uninviting for retailers and restaurateurs.

So groups have been pushing a plan they not so modestly call "Smart Streets".  "Smart" is a term marketers often use when they don't want people to think too hard about something.  It also tends to connote something new, and technologically advanced.  In actuality, the program hearkens back to the good old days.

The vision of the proposal has great merit.  Making the downtown more aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian and bicyclist friendly is an excellent goal.  Increasing citizen access to the river front is an excellent goal.  But though the proposal claims to resolve some significant challenges, in reality it does not address them in any meaningful way.

Below is the presentation the City has on their website.  The first forty-five minutes is essentially a sales pitch, with pictures of changed cities - many of which aren't particularly comparable to South Bend.  It's only at that point South Bend comes into the picture.  Unfortunately for viewers, shortly into the South Bend section of the presentation the slides no longer appear in the video.  This requires the viewer to use his/her best visualization techniques in an attempt to follow the presenter.

Essentially the idea is to change William, Lafayette, Main and Michigan/St. Joseph streets (two of which are now four lanes one way) to two-way streets with one traffic lane each direction and a center turn lane.  Sound crazy?  It is.

For most of the drivers who find themselves on the two main arteries, the downtown is an obstacle.  They are either north of it and want to be south, or vice-versa.  Typically, municipalities create some sort of bypass for this sort of traffic.  This makes it easier for commuters to commute, and for those wishing to do business or recreate downtown to do so in a more pleasant and relaxed manner - since much of the traffic has been relocated.  This plan offers nothing like that.  And the Bypass we have is several miles to the west, and can't serve this purpose.

The presenter pays lip service to this contradiction, but offers only magical thinking in response.  He claims placing a roundabout just south of the Leeper Park (Michigan Street) Bridge will result in an even distribution of traffic on each of the four new two-way two lane streets.  And unless I missed it, he doesn't address what happens with the traffic coming from the south at all.

As we know, traffic from the north often backs up ahead of the bridge currently.  This, even though it soon empties into four lanes.  Imagine the fun when it instead encounters a roundabout, then an assortment of single traffic lanes.

Then there's the street parking.  The concept is for angle parking on each side.

Small town America features many two lane streets with angle parking.  I've been in many of them.  You know what happens when someone wants to leave a parking place?  The traffic has to stop until the person backs out, then drives away.

In the end, it seems clear that vehicles will be bottled up downtown for much longer, emitting higher levels of exhaust, and causing a lot of frustration for a lot of people.  That doesn't seem so pedestrian/bicyclist friendly to me.  That wouldn't seem to advance the interests of commerce  Maybe we should try for a Smarter Streets proposal.

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