Corrected 20 August 2009
Readers of today’s News-Miner will already know: the FMATS Policy Committee scrapped the idea of a roundabout at the north end of Cushman St. and voted to plan for one-way traffic on the bridges south of the intersection. I fear that their decisions have just driven a nail into the coffin of downtown revitalization efforts.
The Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System Policy Committee “voted 5-2 to abandon talk of a roundabout,” with Assemblyman Luke Hopkins and Fairbanks Mayor Terry Strle voting no, and “voted 4-3 to plan for one-way traffic on bridges to the intersection’s south.”
Current plans are to build a bridge joining Barnette St. (to the south of the Chena) with Illinois St. (to the north). Barnette, Illinois, and Cushman, along with Doyon Pl. to the west east and Terminal St. to the east west, would intersect at a single point north of the river, between The Big I and Immaculate Conception Church. The Illinois Street Reconstruction Project has been under discussion and in planning for decades, and it seems finally ready to move forward. My understanding is that FMATS has recently been deciding whether to choose a roundabout or a signalized intersection.
While I have little experience driving roundabouts — they’re not very common in the United States, and I could count those in the greater Fairbanks area on one hand, even if missing three fingers — everything I’ve read about them suggests that they both increase safety and speed traffic flow. For one example, Slate recently ran a piece called “Don’t be so square: why American drivers should learn to love the roundabout” that makes the following points:
- Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections because they reduce the number of possible places of collision, eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic, slow people down rather than encourage them to “beat the light”, and reduce the severity of accidents.
- Though vehicles appear to be moving slowly through roundabouts, average travel time through the intersection is actually reduced, because nobody has to sit through a ninety-second light cycle.
- Stop-and-start queuing is energy-inefficient (burns more fuel), and studies have shown roundabouts to waste less energy and to cause less pollution.
- Roundabouts are good for public space: they require less pavement than signalized intersections, increase pedestrian and traffic safety in neighborhoods, and offer the chance to actually beautify an intersection.
The article does not address roundabouts in subarctic climates, or the safety of trucks, RVs, and other large vehicles going through them. It’s possible that winter driving conditions present some complication that makes roundabouts unworkable. But I doubt it.
What has me more worried than FMATS’s rejection of the roundabout is their decision to plan the Cushman and Barnette bridges for one-way traffic. Making those bridges one-way puts a major kink in the plan currently being pursued by the City of Fairbanks to turn both Cushman and Barnette two-way — and a two-way Cushman St. has been a central feature of the Vision Fairbanks downtown revitalization plan.
Some of the arguments for two-way streets in retail districts go like this:
- People are more comfortable driving fast on one-way streets, while two-way streets make them (on the whole) drive more slowly and cautiously. Pedestrians are more menaced and less welcomed by fast vehicular traffic. Creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial to a central commercial/civic district.
- With two-way traffic, businesses can be seen easily by drivers in both directions — for example, a cafe will be seen by both the morning and the evening traffic, so it’s more likely to get unplanned, drive-by business.
- One-way streets require more out-of-direction travel for people to reach their destinations. (“Is that it? Damn, I passed it. Well, let’s circle the block.”) This frustrates drivers and over time makes them less willing to enter an area.
Vision Fairbanks has tremendous promise. But the decision to plan for one-way bridges may well hamstring the revitalization. The planning consultants who drafted the original plan stressed that two-way traffic is a linchpin of making Cushman a thriving retail district.
I’m worried that the Vision Fairbanks plan is now being bled to death. If two-way traffic is as crucial as it’s been made out to be, the new retail and civic hot spot will be a bust. Then, of course, all the nay-sayers who distrusted city planners from the beginning will come out, crowing, “I told you so!” And those of of little imagination will have proven themselves right.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.