Fifty years ago, New Haven created one-way streets downtown so that people could zip home to the suburbs after work. Times have changed, said city traffic tsar Jim Travers—so it’s time to change the signs.
Travers (pictured) is looking for New Haveners to take a crack at updating the downtown traffic grid, to consider converting one-way streets to two-way streets. He’s inviting any and all interested parties to a four-day public “design charrette” next week, a massive brainstorming session for people to consider new ways for cars to maneuver through downtown.
Click here for the full charrette schedule, which starts Monday evening and runs to Thursday evening, at the New Haven Free Public Library.
The event will look at the possibility of one-way to two-way conversions, a shift that Travers said could have a number of advantages, including less congestion, less pollution, easier navigation, more exposure for businesses, and increased safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
The conversion would also follow a national trend. As more people move to cities and move away from using cars, cities no longer need to be designed for suburban commuters to rush in at 9 a.m. and zoom out at 5 p.m., Travers said. Cities are moving to traffic patterns that facilitate slower speeds and multiple routes through town.
A New Era
That wasn’t the thinking 50 years ago, when the city set up all the one-way streets downtown. “The thought was: Get ‘em in. Get ‘em out,” said Travers. Downtown was a place to which people commuted from the suburbs or from other parts of New Haven, to work. They didn’t live there. The city filled up in the morning and emptied out at quitting time. (Click here to see the existing downtown traffic system.)
That’s no longer the case, Travers said. The residential population downtown has boomed. The Taft Hotel is now apartments. Residential tower 360 State is no longer a parking lot. And 900 Chapel went from a mall to an apartment and office tower. Downtown New Haven is no longer a 9 to 5 city for commuters; it’s home to thousands of people. It’s also a destination for people looking for evening and weekend entertainment, people who want to explore the city, not just get to their office quickly.
Given those conditions, a largely one-way downtown traffic grid presents a number of problems, Travers said.
Travers, city traffic engineer Neetu Singh, and consultant Sarah Lewis (at right in photo above) laid out the problems in a transportation department conference room on Thursday:
For starters, it’s hard for drivers to get around a grid of one-way streets, especially if you’re not already familiar with the layout. “You see a business you want to go to and you can’t,” Travers said. A shop might catch a driver’s eye as he passes, but getting back to it isn’t just a matter of circling the block. It might mean circling four blocks or more, given the way one-way streets channel cars.
“To make it user-friendly, you want mobility options,” Travers said. A lack of those options leads to another problem: Drivers can’t escape gridlock. On a grid of two-way streets, if one route is clogged with traffic, cars can just try the next block. With one-way streets, your pathways through town are limited; everyone is forced onto the same few streets. Of course, those throughways are wider as one-ways than as two-ways, but the funneling action of the one-way grid still causes cars to pile up.
That leads to a third cluster of problems: more engine idling, more circling multiple blocks to get where you want to go, more pollution, more wasted fuel, more frustration.
Two-way streets, on the other hand, offer a number of advantages. These include more and better options for bus routes, so that people don’t have to walk blocks to transfer between buses. Cyclists and pedestrians are safer because car traffic is slowed down on two-way streets. (That’s not because the speed limit would change, but because drivers reflexively slow down on two-ways.) And businesses have it better because they’re more visible and easier to access.
Meetings with downtown neighbors, leaders and organizations have so far failed to turn up anyone who’s in favor of keeping the one-way grid, said Singh.
Conversion of all one-ways to two-ways is not necessarily the answer, however. In a preliminary plan for one possible short-term conversion scenario, the city would keep Elm and Temple streets as one-way, along with a number of sections of other downtown streets.
Conversions would present various levels of complexity, from simple re-striping to new traffic signals and new parking plans.
To demonstrate the potential for conversions, Travers and Singh climbed into Travers’ SUV and headed to Howe Street. To get there from the transportation department on Orange Street, they were forced to head east on one-way Elm Street, the direction opposited the one they wanted.
Travers ran into traffic on State Street. “If I wasn’t forced to go down Elm, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
He turned west on Chapel Street. He stopped at the light at York Street, which is one-way, headed north. “This is a great example,” he said. “If we wanted to go to the hospital we would take a left here.” As it is people rushing to Yale New Haven Hospital have to drive another block out of their way.
Singh later pointed out that the hospital is currently surrounded by one-way streets. It might be more accessible if they were two-ways.
Travers pulled up at the corner of Chapel and Howe and pointed out a sign on the Tandoor Indian restaurant: “Patron Parking In The Rear.” Parking is a nice amenity for a restaurant, but getting to the rear of the building is not simply a matter of turning the corner. Since Howe Street is one-way, drivers on Chapel have to drive another block, then take a three lefts to get to the parking lot.
Travers walked behind Tandoor and found only two cars in the lot.
Travers and Singh walked a little way north on Howe, to the parking garage there lined with empty storefronts. If the street were two-way, those might be occupied, Travers said. That’s because it’s easier for drivers to see buildings across the street, to their left while driving, than to see those on the right, said Singh. The phenomenon is called a “retail eclipse.” The parking garage storefronts are invisible to drivers on Howe Street because the cars only come from the south, putting the storefronts on their right.
“The opportunity exists here,” Travers said.
Next week’s charrette is meant to seize that opportunity. Travers said he’d like to have as much input as possible, and maybe more. “I want more people to attend than we can possibly handle,” he said.
“As much public input as we can get, the better it makes the solution,” said Lewis.