Why we fight: In 2014, Jeff Speck told us how street design impacts our city.


Following is Jeff Speck’s preface to his New Albany Downtown Street Network Proposal. It has been featured here previously, but it never hurts to have a refresher.

Or to actually read it.

As you are doing so, bear in mind the mind-numbing pervasiveness of City Hall’s failure to date.

In which we catch Jeff Gahan in a flagrant, bald-faced lie about city streets, bridge tolls, and his city’s non-readiness (Feb 2016).

“Gahan said he doesn’t expect the project to be complete until after the bridges start tolling.”

Speck: “It will be considerably easier to accomplish prior to the 2016 tolling changes.”

The ineptitude starts at the top, with Daddy Parkbucks. What we have here is a failure to prioritize — and this comes as no surprise, does it?

Two Futures

Literally and figuratively, New Albany is at a crossroads. Significant changes, likely positive and negative, are underway. On the positive side, demographic shifts are powering a national resurgence of downtowns nationwide, and smaller historic centers like New Albany’s are demonstrating a newfound capacity to attract new residents and businesses. On the negative side, a new Indiana DOT pricing regime for Ohio River crossings, in which the Sherman Minton Bridge remains the region’s only un-tolled interstate path across the river, threatens to blight the downtown with a dramatic upsurge in what is already a burdensome amount of pass-through traffic.

Historically, traffic has been good for American downtowns. Indeed, many downtowns came into being because of it. However, a century of automobility has taught us that the form that traffic takes—the way it is shaped by local streets and roads—is the principal determinant of the fortune of the cities through which it passes. To illustrate with two extreme examples: plowing an elevated interstate through a city center, with no off ramps, can be expected to have a catastrophic impact on local property value, while welcoming vehicles along a tree-lined main street has been the very foundation of many a community’s success.

These two examples bookend a continuum of choices that cities can make about how their streets are designed and organized. While a relatively convenient flow of traffic is essential to a community’s vitality, allowing one or many downtown streets to hold traffic of inordinately high volume or speed is certain to undermine that vitality. For this reason, the more effectively a city is able to distribute its traffic through a robust network of thoroughfares, and the more each of these thoroughfares resembles a main street rather than a highway, the more auspicious that city’s future is likely to be.

Along that continuum from main street to highway, a key threshold is the transition from two-way to one-way flow. Because one-way streets provide passing lanes and eliminate opposing traffic, they encourage higher-speed driving and create a more highway-like environment for properties along them. They also undermine the robustness of the street network, by providing drivers fewer choices regarding their paths of travel. It is principally for these reasons that the introduction of one-way street networks to many urban centers in the mid-20th century has been associated with the precipitous decline of those centers, and explains why many American downtowns have been reverted back to two-way traffic, with celebrated results.

A second important threshold is the transition between two-lane and four-lane travel, for the similar reason that it introduces passing lanes, encouraging driver behavior that is not compatible with downtown pedestrian activity. Especially where traffic volumes do not demand the presence of additional lanes, their presence—and the additional road width that they create—push urban thoroughfares well down the continuum from main street to highway, with unsurprising results.

For this reason, it is essential that downtown street networks be designed based upon the amount of traffic that they experience rather than in anticipation of larger volumes. This is particularly the case when a community is threatened by an onslaught of new traffic as is feared from the new INDOT tolling regime. A street system that is designed around higher-volume and higher-speed traffic can be expected to quickly receive this traffic—especially trucks, whose drivers are keenly sensitive to the time and cost of travel.

In contrast, a street system that is designed to accept reasonable volumes at reasonable speeds is likely a city’s only defense against the noxious impacts of pass-through traffic.

This premise is not always an easy one to accept; nobody likes congestion or wants more of it. Therefore, it is important to lay out New Albany’s choices honestly. Decades of experience in other communities suggests that the City must choose between two futures: one with somewhat more peak-hour congestion at reasonable speeds, and one with considerably more car and truck traffic at high speeds. If the principal purpose of the City’s downtown street network is the vitality of New Albany, then the choice is clear.

Social Impacts of Street Design

This discussion takes place in a larger context, in which the reshaping of the American built environment around the automobile has been associated with a marked decline in the health of our population, especially children. As will be discussed ahead, the elimination of the “useful walk” from the lives of our youth has helped to create the first generation of children who are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. Almost nowhere is this more worrisome than in the Louisville region, which was recently ranked 49th out of the US’s 50th largest US metros in the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) American Fitness Index.

In New Albany, this status is only being further undermined by a County-wide school system that is closing walkable neighborhood schools in pursuit of a suburban model of fewer, larger facilities, mostly unreachable on foot. This effort is characterized by the recent shuttering of Silver Street Elementary, an older school that was walkable, diverse, and highly regarded; President Bush had visited there and called it a shining example of his no-child-left-behind agenda.

Against this backdrop, New Albany has the opportunity to encourage more healthy lifestyles by embracing national trends towards downtown living, walkability, and cycling. In pursuing those objectives, nothing is more significant that the design of downtown streets. When sized and oriented to welcome traffic of the proper volume and speed, thoroughfares encourage “active transportation” on foot and bicycle, while naturally providing more room for it. Excess driving lanes become available for other use, such as on-street parking and cycle lanes—the former essential to local businesses, and the latter much in demand by would-be downtown residents. Indeed, bike lanes, while a benefit in their own right, are often recommended to serve a different purpose: narrowing oversized driving lanes to a normal width to limit dangerous speeding.

What This Report Is and Isn’t

With an understanding that proper streets are key to New Albany’s future, this Proposal has been commissioned to consider the organization of the downtown street network and the design of all downtown streets. It focuses on the City’s historic core, roughly from W. 10th Street to Vincennes Avenue and from Culbertson Avenue to the River, but also extends eastward to Silver Creek along its principal East-West corridors, as well as northward along State Street to Floyd Memorial Hospital. With a focus on national best practices in network planning and street design, it proposes an almost comprehensive reintroduction of two-way travel, modifications to the current regime of traffic signals, and new curb-to-curb configurations for every street for which improvement is possible.

In the interest of economy, almost every recommendation pertains to striping and signalization rather than reconstruction. The principal study area is bounded by W. 10th Street to the west, Silver Creek to the East, Culbertson Avenue to the north, and the Ohio River to the south. This Proposal is a planning document and not an engineering document. It does not provide technical drawings or cost estimates. Nor does it specify priorities, though it can be said that the modified Ohio River bridge tolling regime, due in 2016, will make eastwest transformations a high priority. Determining a proper schedule for the recommended changes will constitute a larger project determined by the availability of federal, state, and local funds. Finally, this report does not try to address traffic safety comprehensively; such an effort has recently been initiated citywide as an independent effort.

Instead, this Proposal, after reviewing some of the most compelling reasons for making New Albany more walkable, lays out ten criteria that are understood to have the greatest influence on the safety of downtown street networks. As each criteria is discussed, and best practices described, specific recommendations for New Albany that arise from them are enumerated. A final section, the longest, describes redesigns recommended for every street within the study area for which change makes sense. Where a significant reconfiguration is recommended, illustrations are provided as well. In some cases, where more than one good solution exists, multiple alternatives are provided.

In every section, this Proposal attempts to explain fully the reasoning behind its recommendations. However, because each section builds from the ones prior, those attempting to implement this Proposal are advised to read it in its entirety. It is submitted with confidence that downtown New Albany, by welcoming traffic on its own terms, can redirect current developments and challenges to its own long-term advantage.

A Mandate for Action

New Albany has good bones to become a more walkable place: an efficient street network of small blocks, a healthy balance of land uses, and an improving downtown retail district surrounded by neighborhoods of character. The national website walkscore.org awards some close-in areas a rating of nearly 80 (out of 100). But New Albany can cultivate a truly excellent, walkable environment with limited, strategic changes and reasonable investments while still fully accommodating automobiles.

By metropolitan standards, the downtown grid system has almost no congestion, but it is in danger of receiving much more. The planned bridge tolling scheme threatens to undermine the downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods’ potential by injecting significantly more speeding traffic through the city. Prior to the construction of I-265 and the I-64 riverfront expressways, Spring Street was a state highway that carried more than 40,000 cars daily at its eastern segment. It now carries only 23,000 vehicles per day.

The new tolling scheme, scheduled to begin in 2016, threatens to re-convert Spring Street and other east-west thoroughfares into highways again, with a huge influx of car and truck traffic. This traffic can be expected to have a destructive impact on the downtown retail district, as well as its surrounding neighborhoods, unless the street network is modified to encourage less noxious driver behavior than is currently the norm. This report lays out a simple, limited-cost, and comprehensive proposal for this modification.

It will be considerably easier to accomplish prior to the 2016 tolling changes. Central to this proposal is the reversion of the downtown one-way grid back to two-way traffic, and the right-sizing of its component driving lanes (in number and width) to encourage the appropriate amount of traffic at the appropriate speed. These changes create the byproduct of increased opportunities for bicycling and on-street parking downtown, both beneficial to local businesses and residents. But these benefits must be understood as secondary to a primary goal: to allow New Albany to thrive in the face of an extraordinarily burdensome traffic regime.