Call me a nutty guy, but for my money, there’s no greater production house for entertainment than local government. Besides being free, which is nice, the spectacle delivers pretty much the same ballgame as national or state politics sans the escalating moral depravity you’ll often find as you scope up to those levels. Just like the bush leagues, the players aren’t so wrapped up in the mystique of their high stations that they can’t shoot the breeze with the common folk, or otherwise get away with naked corruption up to and including literal murder.
All of which is to say, while a good chunk of folks spent their weekend glued to fictional dramas featuring adults play-acting as kings or wizards or dragon guys or whatever, I was riled up over the Austin Transportation Department’s announcement late last week that the long-planned Colorado Street two-way conversion would be put on hold, pending a second look at exactly how the switch would affect downtown traffic. Stuff your Game of Thrones in a sack, gang, this is pure electricity.
In case you’re just now tuning in, ATD was on the verge of transforming Colorado Streeet from a one-way three-lane southbound sluice — good for flushing cars out of downtown during afternoon rush hour — into a bidirectional street that would, in theory, improve mobility for cars and bikes.
Talk of the conversion, along with a new section of two-way on Fifth Street, has kicked around since the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until a 2012 bond election delivered $5.2 million for the Colorado Street Reconstruction Project that the plan finally had a ticket from drawing board to reality.
As so often happens though in this wacky town, the reconstruction project hit some snags, and the conversion, which was first expected last fall, snagged with it. But the project popped up again earlier this summer, with the word being we could finally travel north on Colorado Street (legally, at least) just as soon as ATD staff made it through the hassle of dealing with the annual citywide back-to-school traffic headaches.
All well and good, right? Sure, except that a last-minute stakeholders’ meeting late last month seems to have mildly mucked things up.
Not counting city staff, some twenty or so people packed into a small meeting room in the Norwood Building at Seventh and Colorado Streets on July 26. They pointed and poked at a 15-foot paper schematic of Colorado between 10th and Cesar Chavez Streets, muttering concerns to one another and occasionally affixing large sticky notes with comments to the map.
A recurring concern among those comments focused on the transition’s effect on cars trying to exit the street’s numerous parking garages. “First off, our parking garage as well as four others exit out onto Colorado Street between Sixth and Cesar Chavez Streets,” one of them read. “It is already difficult getting out in the evening, and now cars will have to exit against traffic from two ways.”
The pressure from these comments was apparently enough to convince ATD to “reevaluate traffic volumes along this corridor,” likely via a traffic flow study of some variety.
It’s a little late in the game for this kind of revelation, given that road crews have already sunk millions of city dollars into the reconstruction project, giving Colorado the Great Streets treatment as well as installing the stoplights necessary for northbound traffic. Keeping that in mind, you might understand why a fellow was on pins and needles for days thinking about the possibility of the two-way plan going pear-shaped before it even got off the ground.
After further investigation, it seems rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. According to ATD spokesperson Jen Samp, city staff don’t expect the results of a new study to be wildly different from previous analyses, the most recent of which was conducted earlier this year — if anything, we’ll likely see changes to the signals, striping, or on-street parking locations. And this optimism even accounts for the various proposed tower projects whose large parking plinths could very well open up onto Colorado Street.
Of course, since we all need a little suspense to spice up our otherwise crushingly dull lives, Samp went on:
“If the study shows completely different results than what we’re expecting, then we will have to reevaluate the conversion,” she said.
Interestingly enough, some commuters who just want out of downtown as fast as possible every evening would probably enjoy the living heck out of a conversion kibosh — but so would certain bike-and pedestrian-friendly urbanists.
One of the stated goals of running cars in two directions is to calm traffic on Colorado Street, the thinking being that giving drivers less room to maneuver while dealing with oncoming traffic one lane over will trigger more defensive driving habits. When you think of the high-speed lunatics that rocket down Guadalupe Street’s four southbound lanes every damn day, this idea seems to pencil out. However, Austin’s mad dog ur-urbanist, Mike Dahmus — a fellow with a confounding habit of often-correct contrarianism — has denounced two-way conversions as “an example of an urbanist cargo cult.”
“They don’t, in and of themselves, make the road safer,” he recently wrote on Facebook. “And if they make the traffic on the road go slower, it’s because of turning conflicts, which then reduce capacity (putting the lie to the universal claims of proponents that throughput after a conversion is the same or better).”
Dahmus also argues that pedestrian safety is reduced because of cars shooting gaps on left turns, a problem exacerbated on Colorado Street since it has a ton of curb cuts.
Solid arguments — and my personal, hail-mary proposal would be to ban cars altogether from the city’s central business district. But barring that perfectly reasonable and politically actionable solution, I look forward to the two-way conversion and the mobility bonus it will offer to my fellow schmucks on bikes.
To ride north through this section of downtown, your only current options are Congress Avenue or Lavaca Street, both heavy with their own problems: Congress Avenue is full of back-out parking, drunken tourists, and even drunker lawmakers and lobbyists, while Lavaca Street’s intermittent bike lane represents a tremendous dance of death between buses and right-turning cars. A less stressful path up Colorado Street, even if it is via a shared lane, certainly seems worth a try.
In any case, we’ll just have to hold out for the results of the city’s new traffic study. It’s always possible some deus ex machina could twist the plot in ways even the hackiest writer would blush at. To paraphrase today’s kids: For Colorado Street’s two-way conversion, winter could be coming.*
(*SPOILER ALERT: It’s very, very, very, very likely not.)