Wear: Downtown Austin’s future: Two-way or the highway

Looking at what the city of Austin has done, and intends to do, with its downtown streets, I couldn’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s comment about a St. Louis restaurant that had been one of his favorite haunts.

“Nobody goes there anymore,” the great Yankee linguist is reported to have said. “It’s too crowded.”

The genesis of this musing was city officials’ announcement last week, at a nondescript City Council committee meeting, that in early January it will convert five blocks of Brazos Street (between East Cesar Chavez and East Sixth streets) from a one-way street to two-way. Another five blocks north to East 11th Street will go two-way later in the year, and one-way Colorado Street will be converted in the fall of 2016.

Jim Dale, acting assistant director of the city Transportation Department, said the intention is to do the same with Seventh and Eighth streets (from Guadalupe Street to Interstate 35) at some near-term, unspecified point.

But this is only the beginning. The Downtown Austin Plan, approved by the City Council in December 2011, calls for converting 13 one-way streets in the city’s core to two-way. And even critical thoroughfares not on that list such as Guadalupe, Lavaca, Fifth and Sixth streets, the 203-page report said, should be prepared for someday going two-way.

Why, you might be asking?

To “calm” the traffic, according to that report. Or, as Dale put it last week, “the two-way conversion does lend itself to a more pedestrian-friendly environment with the tendency to slow down traffic.”

About now, some readers will be nodding their heads in agreement with the wisdom of all this. Many others, on the other hand, might be apologizing to a spouse for cussing in front of the children. To this second group, the actual traffic problem downtown (indeed, in Austin overall) has to do with lack of movement, not excessive speed.

This is nothing new. The City Council in 2000, getting on toward a generation ago, approved a “great streets” master plan that envisioned narrowing city streets by widening sidewalks. Various city reports for years have talked about converting the downtown grid of one-way streets to two-way, both to slow cars down (thus making it a more pleasant place to walk) and to create a more flexible system for drivers. Second Street several years ago went back to being two-way (as most downtown streets were in the 19th century and for much of the 20th, before Austin had choking traffic), as did a segment of West Cesar Chavez that had been one-way.

The policy, in other words, is well-established. The question is why?

Downtowns, most urban planners will tell you, are critical to the financial future of cities that anchor metropolitan areas. Let downtowns become (or remain) merely car-accessible employment centers that empty out in the evening and, as many of them did in the 1950s and 1960s, they will wither. But make them places people want to be after hours and on weekends, or even where they want to make their home, the thinking goes, and downtowns will prosper.

And with them, a central city’s tax base and regional primacy.

That’s what city officials say they’re up to with the great streets program and these two-way conversions. But listen to the rhetoric and it isn’t hard to detect as well (from some city officials, not all of them) a general bias against cars and trucks. Cars pollute. They’re loud. They’re dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. And they’re an expensive, four-wheeled embodiment of the occupant’s financial status. Cars=bad.

Yet, despite all that, almost every family or individual (of every political persuasion) has one or two vehicles. About 90 percent of us use them to commute, and the percentage on nonwork trips is even higher. Everyone knows why, of course. A car can get you anywhere you want to go, almost, and do it much faster than all those inflexible or poky alternatives. People, with the exception of those on the very bottom of the economic ladder, manage to afford them.

So we have a disconnect between city of Austin transportation policy and citizen of Austin transportation practice.

The result downtown is that it is becoming more and more difficult to get around in a car, and converting one-way streets to two-way streets will only make that worse. On purpose.

These city policies could lead, if the traffic becomes bad enough, to more people coming downtown by bus (since MetroRail has limited capacity and the light rail proposal was defeated last month), by bike or, for the increasing number living close enough to do it, on foot.

Or, like Berra’s restaurant, downtown could become so crowded, so frustrating to access and bereft of inexpensive street parking that “nobody goes there anymore.” The joke, at least with the restaurant, is that it was still crowded, only with different people from those who used to go there. People who like crowds and don’t mind waiting.

Maybe that’s what will happen with downtown Austin. Those who depend on a car but don’t want to creep through the streets — and then pay $10 to $15 for garage parking — will stay away, to be replaced by people of a different mindset. Perhaps downtown Austin, which has been on a roll for a couple of decades even with its speed-mongering one-way street grid, will prosper even more. Maybe the city planners have it all right.

But it’s worth noting that the current policy framework surfaced and was fostered under City Councils elected by the defunct at-large political system, one dominated by central city voters. The final makeup of Austin’s new 10-1 council won’t be determined until the Dec. 16 runoff but almost certainly will have more ideological diversity.

The restaurant’s management is changing, in other words. It will be interesting to see if the transportation choices on the menu change as well.

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