Reconfiguring downtown streets

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 21 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:38 am in
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The Gazette Editorial Board

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Dramatic improvements are unfolding in Cedar Rapids’ downtown — the NewBo City Market and other New Bohemia developments, the Paramount Theatre and Theatre Cedar Rapids renovations, the new public library, the hotel and convention center project, the nearby medical district, among others.

The intent is to enhance the downtown’s economic and cultural vibrancy, its appeal to outlying residents and visitors, as well as one where workers in the city’s core are apt to spend more time.

Jeff Speck offers another idea toward that goal: Replace traffic lights with four-way stops at many or all of the intersections between Second and Fifth avenues and First and Fifth streets SE. The Washington, D.C., consultant says that change would make downtown more pedestrian friendly. Motorists would avoid idling at intersections, waiting for lights to change.

And with the City Council weighing whether to convert those avenue sections from one-way to two-way streets, Speck said using four-way stops would bring savings to help offset the cost of changing the railroad crossing signals for two-way traffic, estimated at a hefty $250,000 for each crossing.

We like the idea of a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. But there’s much to weigh here.

The prevailing view among many city leaders nationwide is that one-way streets are better for traffic flow than two-way. On the other hand, one-ways force drivers to make more than the usual number of U-turns. Two-way streets slow traffic, which many believe makes things safer for pedestrians — and maybe drivers, too.

Not necessarily so. For example, according to a 2005 study of Denver’s decades-long conversion of one-way streets to two-ways by the Independence Institute, a research group that advocates for limited government, accidents increased 37 percent at the converted intersections.

As for four-way stops, the National Research Board, a division of the prestigious National Research Council, analyzed several data bases and concluded that all-way stops reduce accidents by nearly half in most cases.

Our conclusion? First, follow another Speck suggestion: Be sure the city’s traffic engineer and planners conduct their own research to see what best serves Cedar Rapids’ needs long-term. Then it’s time for a robust, public discussion.

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