"the city should pursue one-way to
two-way street conversions that
enhance urban street life."
The new mayoral administration hit the ground running on downtown development and housing with a trip to Wichita and Oklahoma City. Both cities have aggressively expanded their downtown “live, work, play” initiatives through a coordinated effort between government agencies, developers, and non-profits. While neither city is a leader in winter or cold climate planning—for that look to the wonderfully innovative Minneapolis—they are similar to Anchorage demographically and economically. The policies Wichita and Oklahoma City have pursued are nothing revolutionary, but they have had an enormous impact on transforming the city centers and appealing to a younger workforce. Most of these ideas—private-public partnerships, tax incentives, walkable cores, creative financing, etc.—can be found throughout the country, from Seattle to Detroit and from Madison to Phoenix. Most cities have found great success upon implementing proven ideas and policies in terms of economic development, additional street life, and increasing appeal to young professionals. Many of these policies can be very costly and the planning process can be lengthy. However, certain policies can be implemented relatively quickly with little upfront investment and have an outsized effect. One prime example of such an idea is the conversion of one-way streets to two-way streets in downtown corridors.
The argument against one-way streets is multifaceted, encompassing safety, navigability, economics and livability. One-way streets serve to move cars as quickly as possible from one section of a city to another. This can be great for commuters, but it does little for residents and workers of downtown and fails to enhance the vitality of street life. Converting to a two-way street forces traffic to move at a more modest pace and additionally the common row of cars parked by the curb serves as a buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. It helps foster a pedestrian presence, which in turn contributes to local business. Take the example of Haute Quarter Grill and Crush Bistro, located on a two-way street and one-way street respectively. The outdoor seating at Haute Quarter is often full, while the roadside section of Crush remains vacant more often than not. Most customers probably do not wish to incorporate a mini highway ecosystem into their dining experience. Speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there's no conflicting traffic flow, which is a major problem when a city like Anchorage is trying to create a vibrant and 24- hour downtown. All other forms of travel—bike and walking—are discouraged at the expense of cars leaving the downtown core and its amenities. Additionally, one-way street networks are confusing for drivers— especially for tourists—which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
One-way streets also have been shown to be conducive to criminal activity. The lack of pedestrians and street life creates secluded and empty sidewalks for illicit activity. Sociologically high-speed one-way roads make it easier to keep an eye out for police, flee from the scene of a crime, and pull over into a lane to conduct a drug deal without disrupting the flow of traffic. The Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville found that when the City of Louisville converted two streets into two-way streets in 2011 there was a corresponding crime dropped along those corridors by 25 percent. The number of collisions declined by 60 percent, while pedestrian activity, property value and business receipts all increased. The study concluded, “To the extent that vice flourishes on neglected high-speed, one-way, getaway roads, two-way streets may be less conducive to certain crimes. If they bring slower traffic and, as a result, more cyclists and pedestrians, that also creates more "eyes on the street" — which, again, deters crime. A decline in crime and calmer traffic in turn may raise property values — which may also increase the demand of residents to police and care for their neighborhood.”
In the case of Wichita—where Anchorage leaders recently visited—the city converted Williams and St. Francis Streets into two-way corridors by simply repainting new traffic lines for about $200, 000. Each area saw a decrease in the number of vacant storefronts and surface parking lots, and saw growth of local businesses. These street improvements were later paired with tax credits to encourage further development and expansion in Wichita’s core. The once undeveloped areas became mini commercial hubs and increased property values, which in turn added to Wichita's coffers.
There is no reason to think the same cannot be done in Anchorage. Downtown Anchorage is primed for a street conversion. A and C Streets abruptly end downtown Anchorage by amputating all street life originating on 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue. 5th and 6th run through the commercial and cultural heart of the city, yet remain surprisingly barren and undeveloped. The feel and vibrancy between 4th and 5th Avenue is dramatic. 4th Avenue is teaming with well-regarded businesses and street life year round, where 5th street feels largely abandoned outside of events at the Egan Center or PAC. The crown jewel of downtown—Town Square—is crime ridden and underutilized due to the fact it is an urban island surrounded by 6 lanes of fast moving traffic. The commercial space on 6th Avenue across from Town Square would be teaming with businesses in most cities, yet in Anchorage the would-be prime real estate lays largely vacant and underutilized. To continue to develop downtown and encourage additional businesses to invest there, the city should pursue one-way to two-way street conversions that enhance urban street life. 5th Street and 6th Avenue—or both—would be the obvious examples to start, however, most one-way streets downtown could benefit from slower speeds and street improvements reminiscent of the F Street pedestrian upgrades. While some commuters would complain, those of us that live around downtown and spend large quantities of free time there would largely benefit. It’s time Anchorage leaders adopt policy for downtown which benefit actual stakeholders and not far away commuters who render the core a ghost town during the afterhours.