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Slow Down Before Speeding Up Spring and Main

By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, July 08, 2005, at 11:55PM
Bus Backup Eric Richardson [Flickr]

This upcoming Wednesday the issue of the Spring Street contraflow lane goes to the City Council's Transportation Committee (PDF Agenda). You probably know that I have some feelings on the issue, seeing as I've covered it before (and also tackled Spring Street parking in photo form).

Luckily this issue happened to be one on which someone, namely the Downtown News, was willing to give me a bigger platform to share my point of view. You can read my opinion piece on the Downtown News site, and I'll go ahead and copy its contents after the jump.

Here's the text...

Playing in the basement of the Natural History Museum is a film produced for the 1932 Olympic Games. It takes viewers around Los Angeles, introducing them to many of its sights. Downtown features prominently, and shots of what is now the Historic Core show an environment absolutely packed with life. The film claims that Seventh and Broadway was the busiest pedestrian intersection in the country at the time. One block over it shows Spring Street, the center of Los Angeles' financial universe; it was known as "Wall Street of the West" because of its numerous banks. In the film, streetcars and pedestrians dominate the transportation landscape.

Over the years the transportation make-up of Los Angeles has quite obviously changed. The popular conception of our city today is that the car is king and no one walks. The streetcars of old have been replaced by the MTA and its fleet of buses.

The composition of Downtown has changed just as dramatically, with financial institutions moving out and a new residential boom just starting to hit its stride. Today, Spring Street serves as an important transit link through Downtown and is heavily used by buses. Just a few weeks ago I sat outside my apartment and counted 46 of them in a half-hour span - and those were just the ones heading south.

Spring currently operates as a one-way southbound street, save for a single bus lane moving the other direction. The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Board of Transportation Commissioners recently approved a proposal to remove the northbound bus lane, often called a contraflow lane, as part of a plan to expedite bus traffic on Spring and Main streets. Southbound buses would continue to run on Spring, while northbound buses would be switched to flow with traffic on Main.

As a resident of Spring and someone who is dependent on public transportation, this potential move caught my interest. Remaking Spring into a true one-way street would be good for the community. It would create the potential for parking on the east side of the street, while removing a source of confusion for drivers and pedestrians.

Unfortunately, the nuts and bolts of DOT's plan give cause for concern.

The proposal deals with bus traffic and mentions off-hour parking, but does not seem concerned with any of the other uses along the street. In short, it overlooks a vital and increasingly common element on Spring Street and in the rest of the changing Historic Core: Neighborhood residents who actually walk.

Given the vast quantity of residential and retail development occurring along Spring and Main, DOT's preliminary plan makes little sense. They desire to remove the contraflow lane, which is good, but in its place they would create another peak-hour traffic lane. On the opposite side of Spring they would create a peak-hour bus lane. With four lanes of normal traffic and a fifth dedicated to buses, Spring would become a virtual urban freeway.

An article in the summer 2000 edition of Transportation Quarterly stated the nationwide fatality rate for pedestrians is nearly three times that of motorists. Pedestrians are a vital part of this equation; if people are really going to take to the sidewalks, they must feel safe doing so.

One way to increase safety in the Historic Core is through what is known in transportation circles as "traffic calming." Typically this means using engineering and street design solutions to change driver behavior, reducing speeds and improving the quality of life.

One method of traffic calming is to narrow a roadway. When drivers are given a wide street, they instinctively go faster. Conversely, a narrower street acts as a natural means to slow traffic. By functionally widening Spring Street and not allowing for any peak-hour on-street parking, DOT's plan would create a more rapidly flowing passageway for the automobile, but would increase the danger for pedestrians. In contrast, managed on-street parking would keep the street at its current lane level. It would also provide a buffer between the traffic and pedestrians.

I recognize that Spring and Main play a vital role in moving automobile and bus traffic through Downtown. The argument has been made that the streets need the additional capacity to more easily speed these vehicles through the neighborhood, and that any reduction in the number of lanes would increase congestion.

However, Spring and Main do not appear to operate at anywhere near capacity. What congestion occurs seems to be the result of other factors that should be examined and corrected. For instance, traffic on Spring often backs up as it approaches Sixth Street. The cause, though, is not a shortage of lanes. I've timed the light on multiple occasions (including during peak periods) and found that Spring is allowed to move for only 35 out of every 90 seconds. Meanwhile Sixth Street gets a comparatively eternal 55 seconds. Under those conditions, of course traffic on Spring will back up.

Similarly, drivers wanting to turn right at Seventh Street also face congestion. But here it seems that the culprit is a bus stop on the near side of the intersection; this causes drivers to question whether to go around or wait for the buses to leave before turning. These are just two simple examples of congestion caused not by any lack of capacity, but by factors that impede flow.

Downtown is changing, and Spring and Main should change with it. The operation of the roadway should reflect its functions, and current proposals fail to account for the urban life that lines the streets, now and in the future. This is the time to fully examine these two important streets and to develop a proper plan for how they can be assets for both regional transportation and Downtown life.


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