Two-way traffic will soon return to several east-west streets in downtown Raleigh – ending commuter-focused one-way patterns as the city center evolves into a visitor- and pedestrian-friendly destination.
The Raleigh City Council on Tuesday signed off on designs for two-way conversions on South and Lenoir streets between Boylan Heights and Shaw University. And the budget approved this month includes $1 million to make the same change on Jones and Lane streets, which connect the Oakwood neighborhood to the state legislature and Glenwood South.
“It’s one of the fundamental things you do in revitalizing a downtown,” said David Diaz, who heads the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “It’s more conducive to building on both sides of the street and slowing down traffic so that potential customers can look around and see a restaurant, a bar, a hotel or a retail shop.”
Downtown had a different role in the 1960s and ’70s when city planners converted nearly every downtown street to one-way traffic. Back then, hardly anyone lived around Fayetteville Street and most businesses shut down around 5 p.m.
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“Downtowns only functioned as employment centers, 9 to 5,” Diaz said. “Transportation planners made it very easy to get in and leave downtown as quickly as possible.”
The convenience came at the expense of neighborhoods bordering downtown. In Boylan Heights and around Shaw University, Lenoir and South streets carried commuters from the west and east until Western Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard were completed in the 1990s.
The blocks inside Boylan Heights returned to slow two-way traffic when Western opened. Today, only one section of South Street still looks like a three-lane racetrack. That will change next summer when city crews build a tree-lined median and on-street parking, allowing westbound traffic to return.
The plans are welcome news to Sam Kirkpatrick, who recently opened Boulted Bread in a cluster of storefronts at the corner of South and Saunders. The bakery is just three blocks from the Red Hat Amphitheater, but customers from downtown have to circle the block to get a loaf of bread.
“People do get confused,” he said. “It’s really exciting that people will be able to come from downtown.”
East of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, the city will convert the remainder of South and Lenoir streets to two-way traffic. Those blocks are beginning to see revitalization with several townhome developments in the works. The traffic shift is expected to slow traffic, in part because three unneeded stoplights will be replaced by four-way stop signs.
The changes, which will cost $2.66 million, should be complete in 2015.
South and Lenoir are the second pair of one-way streets to be converted. Two-way traffic returned to Hargett and Martin streets when Fayetteville Street reopened to traffic in 2006. That change has been largely successful, according to Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager.
“There’s a smidge of congestion” around rush hour as cars stop to turn left, Lamb said, but “that’s really the exception.”
Raleigh’s decade-old “Livable Streets” plan called for converting six one-way streets, but funding had stalled for several of the projects. The final two-way switch – Lane and Jones streets – secured funding this month, although construction is at least a year or two away.
While the one-way portions of Jones and Lane don’t have much room for development, city leaders and businesses hope the change will make for smoother connections between Glenwood South, Oakwood and the state museums.
“It will be easy for people to hop from one place to the other,” said Samad Hachby, whose Babylon Moroccan restaurant is surrounded by one-way streets, including Lane. “It’s easier for traffic, it’s safer and it’s better.”
Downtown’s other one-way streets will stay put for now. But there’s talk of making Person and Blount streets – and perhaps even Edenton and New Bern – into two-way streets, possibly starting at the north end of Person where a thriving retail district has emerged.
But Lamb said at least two streets will always stay one-way – McDowell and Dawson. The speedy connection between South Saunders Street and Capital Boulevard carries 50,000 cars a day.