Saturday, December 29, 2012

Downtown Mobility Study Summary: Full of Promise

The Downtown Mobility Study is a terrific start. All of the proposals have merit and some look good nearly as-is. Others may need more refinement or rethinking.

Most importantly, the study represents a serious look at restoring two-way traffic on several streets. 

Downtown Salem, July 2012
Just look at Vancouver, Washington.  In November of 2008, at the peak of the Great Recession, Vancouver went two way:
Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. "We have twice as many people going by as they did before," one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. "It's like, wow," he exclaimed, "why did it take us so long to figure this out?"

A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. "One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas," says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "We've proven that."
One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail area.

Can it be any clearer than this?

The other great piece is a serious look at connectivity for people who aren't in cars.

In general, one approach would be to think about connectivity in a high-low, alternating way:  Roughly every other street should have a high-quality lane for people on bike.

Study Area with Streets under Consideration
If robust, enhanced facilities are correctly staggered, striping sharrows on the the roads in between can  adequately serve many people on bike.

So in this approach State, Chemeketa, and Union would get high-quality, family-friendly treatments running east and west.  Church, Winter, and 12th would get high-quality treatments running north and south. 

Simple Fixes: Two-Way + Sharrows
More Robust Fixes:  Yay, Cycletracks!
  • State Street - a cycletrack or equivalent is right
  • Church Street - a cycletrack should be considered here. This may require more study.
  • Winter Street - see below. Alternative 4, cycletracks on each side.
  • 12th Street - add bike lanes!
Need more Study or Detail
After thinking about it for several days, I'm still not persuaded that a cycletrack is the best solution for Union Street, and I'd like to see more exploration there and a wider range of solutions for people-space and less for car-space. (On the other hand, if consensus truly gathers around a cycletrack there, it's not like we'd be making a big mistake. It would still be a very positive move.) And the connections around the north downtown area need more detail to make sense of.

Even with these two areas where I'd like to see more detail, the Downtown Mobility Study has potential to be a road map to a set of transformative connections to downtown and within downtown. It's a solid start!
A Cycletrack for Winter Street

Winter St. Alternatives
Winter Street should be the most relaxed, family-friendly connection. Consequently, Alternative 4, a cycletrack in each direction, protected by parallel parked cars, is preferable. Again, thought will need to be given to auto turning movements and visiblity in order to minimize conflicts at intersections.

And what about Chemeketa?

While Chemeketa is outside of the study area, it will very quickly be outpaced by the improvements to other streets. It risks becoming a Cinderella real fast.

Mid-Block Sharrow on Chemeketa
The traffic volumes on the part of Chemeketa between Commercial and High are actually a little higher than some of those volumes on Cottage.  And once we get a cycletrack, the sharrows will look paltry in comparison!

So if we want to maintain Chemeketa as the best low-traffic east-west connection into downtown, sharrows alone are not enough, and we will need to make improvements to it so that it is truly family-friendly. Right now it's a temporizing compromise, a pilot that has worked and set the stage for additional work. But we need to up its game so its not left behind!


Curt said...

If cycling is ever going to really compete with the automobile as the dominant transportation mode for short trips, cycle tracks have to become the default standard. If Union St. makes that happen it Salem, that is reason enough to support it. I doubt the cycle track on State St. will happen.

Winter St. is the least in need of improvement in my view. Like Chemeketa, the Capital Mall breaks it up so the route is not as attractive as Church St. for example.

Church and Court need other alternatives. The center lane won't be needed on those streets. Most of Court St. is through the Capital superblock where turning isn't even an option. Court would be the best place for the Downtown Partnerships streetscape.

B+ said...

Another great analysis and summary, SBOB!

For what little it is worth, I heartily agree with Curt about the necessity of providing cycle tracks for people on bikes to feel very safe in traversing downtown, if we desire to encourage (safe) urban cycling and change the character of our commercial core from an auto pass-through to a destination.

His analysis of the most effective options for downtown development rings true to my experience, as well. They strike a good balance.

The point of this, for me, is to provide the context for our historic downtown to serve as a place people want to be. That means making it inviting, people-centered, and creative. It also means making the environment more people-centered. Currently, the environment downtown alternates between freeways (Front Street/Commercial/Liberty/Pringle Parkway) and oddly desolate and underutilized asphalt-scapes (State/Chemeketa/Union--the list could go on for a while).

Cycle tracks would be a major element in bringing more timid potential cyclists online, would remove much of the conceptual road-block for cycling through downtown (and thus encouraging the use of current bicycle infrastructure), and would likely help in bringing the population to fill empty residences and under-patronized shops.

When cities come to realize their historic cores are really the defining asset--not just an quaint option--they begin a process that has far-reaching implications for the overall attractiveness of a community. Salem is late on the scene with this thinking, but it is not too late. The essential resource is there: the question is whether the vision and creativity are there as well.

Jim Scheppke said...

Thanks for these great posts SBOB. But I am wondering what happens next, and what citizens can do to advocate for some action on this in the near term. Can you enlighten us on that sometime?

Walker said...

"cycle tracks" is a terrible term ... One of those terms that is clear only to insiders. To me, it calls up an image of a track in a velodrome. Is there some plain English term that can be used instead?

Gary said...

Super series of posts SBOB! Yes, a 3x3 grid of protected bikeways (i.e. cycle tracks) with State/Chemeketa/Union and 12th/Winter/Church provides a good network of low-stress routes in the downtown area. It is really, really nice to finally see some options that would appeal to the less-than-fearless bike riders. Right now, Salem's downtown only appeals to vehicular cyclists, but that doctrine is quickly losing ground.

Curt said...

Walker: The Bikes Belong Foundation calls them "Green Lanes". Kenji posted the Union St. concept on FB and some racers thought the same thing. "Its just a bike lane?...sigh."

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

One way we know the mobility study is heading in the right direction? There's not a whole lot of "wrong" in it! You say "Court Street," I say "State Street" - and no matter which one gets the improvements, we win! It's really only a loss if nothing gets done to either.

In these posts, though, I have minimized attention to Court Street because it has seemed to me that robust facilities on State Street, with all its connections through and out of town, were more important. Maybe I should say more on why I think this.

It's not that I don't think Court Street merits improvements. But I have thought more about connections to downtown, than circulation within downtown. I rank external connectivity over internal connectivity. If we don't get people to downtown, there still won't be people to circulate.

State Street serves more external connections than Court Street. Court street doesn't help for anyone past 21st Street and largely duplicates Chemeketa - it serves a portion of NEN north of State Street. Because State Street is such a barrier, the Richmond/SESNA neighborhood south of State Street isn't really served by Court Street connections, no matter how magnificent. On the other hand, State Street potentially serves people well past 21st, and with a two-way cycletrack on the south side of the street it could also partially serve that Richmond/SESNA neighborhood. South of State Street, there's not a good way into downtown, especially as WU seems interested in limiting traffic through campus. At its other end, State Street is the gateway to Riverfront Park and the Minto Bridge. I think this connectivity is an important reason, related a little to equity I suppose, to rank State Street over Court Street.

But if you were to take State Street off the table, then of course I would agree Court Street should receive a greater and richer set of improvements for people-space! (I wish the Partnership would publish their boards so we can see them in more detail.)

Walker's right about "cycle tracks"! But "enhanced" or "buffered" or "separated" lanes or facilities all sound equally jargony. Green Lanes might be too Eco and Green to be truly non-partisan. Ideas?

As for lobbying, surely the most important constituency is downtown business and property owners. The adjacent neighborhood associations, who will be able to say, "we'll visit downtown more often when you make these changes" are also important. (That's another reason to include SESNA and not just NEN.)

If these two groups are mostly unified and demand the changes, they'll happen. And of course letting City Councilors know.

Thanks for the thoughts. It's exciting to have debate over various degrees of "good" and incremental improvement instead of just debate over varieties of lousy!

Curt said...

I don't think State St. is off the table. I'm just saying don't take the Union cycletrack off the table. Its important to test the concept somewhere and the political barriers to doing it on Union are lower.

I think the political reality is that when a couple of State St. business find out that the City wants to remove 8 parking stalls per block, they will throw a temper tantrum on the floor of City Council at the 11th hour and the protected bikeway could get thrown out.

Downtown merchants love biking right up until parking is put in the mix--then they go straight to the dark side and the claws come out.

What I have heard is that Willamette wants State St. to have 2 way + bike lanes. That is the way it should be, for all the reasons you mentioned. The question is how much political capital is Jim Bauer willing to spend to get it.

FWIW. The most recent drawings from the Partnership also had a protected bikeway with a 2 way State St.--presumably incorporating feedback from WU. Most of the greenscape they originally proposed was gone so Court St. will be the next best option for it.

Walker said...

Protected Bikelane works for me and, perhaps, the less-than-fearless types we hope to entice into venturing onto the roads on bikes