South Bend: “But why slow down traffic at all? A major reason is economic growth. Smart Streets isn’t just a traffic project — it’s economic development.”

A mayor who makes public speeches? How is it possible?

Pete Buttigieg lays it all out. The thinking is clear, and the delivery conversational. I try to imagine a New Albany mayor — any of them — communicating like Pete Buttigieg. Surveying the aspirants, I still don’t see one. Is it time for the “Draft Ed Clere” movement yet?

Mayor: Smart Streets will mean a more vibrant downtown South Bend, by Pete Buttigieg (South Bend Tribune)

Walk around downtown South Bend today, and you’ll see tremendous investment and growth.

From the recently renovated LaSalle Apartments, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to the Courtyard Marriott under construction by the former College Football Hall of Fame, from the conversion of the JMS Building to the massive renovation of the former Chase Tower, there are signs everywhere of the fastest downtown growth in generations.

What you might not realize is that each of these projects happened with the help of Smart Streets.

Today we celebrate the completion of the repaving, streetscaping and traffic redesign known as Smart Streets, as planned and under budget. The city and our partners took roughly one year to complete work that would normally take three or more.

Doing it this way was disruptive, but allowed us to get it over with quickly — like tearing off a Band-Aid. I appreciate the patience of the commuting public as daily routines were impacted, as well as the efforts of the planners, engineers, and workers who made it happen.

We moved forward on this project after dozens of public meetings and several votes of the Common Council and Redevelopment Commission, with strong support from the downtown business community. Still, I recognize that not everyone is a fan of the changes.

In particular, some residents have expressed frustration with the idea of traffic calming, a major feature of the project. Why would the city ever deliberately act to make traffic go slower? Isn’t the point of a road to get cars where they are going as quickly as possible?

First, remember that the changes to commuting times are minor.

A recent side-by-side comparison by The Tribune showed just a three-minute change in the overall drive time from Angela Boulevard in the north to the Chippewa roundabout on the south side — almost the entire length of the city. You can still get across the core of downtown in less than five minutes, most of the time.

But why slow down traffic at all? A major reason is economic growth. Smart Streets isn’t just a traffic project — it’s economic development. And by that measure, it is already a tremendous success.

We’ve counted a total of over $90 million in private investment from businesses who say Smart Streets was a factor in their decision — a threefold return on our public investment.

If you’re glad that the Chase Tower is being renovated rather than torn down, or that Main Street Row is getting a new façade at private expense, thank Smart Streets.

A vibrant city has streetscapes that work not just for cars but also for pedestrians, bicyclists and shops. The old traffic pattern forced pedestrians on Main Street to walk alongside a four-lane highway blasting traffic out of the area as quickly as possible — not exactly an inviting place to walk, socialize or shop.

Today, our new downtown is a destination rather than a throughway. It’s a tremendous improvement, for which a few minutes’ slowdown is the price we had to pay.

The other major consideration is safety. Not everyone loves roundabouts like the ones we have installed, but they can lead to dramatic safety improvements.

Studies have found that roundabouts can reduce injury crashes by up to 80 percent. The slower speeds in the downtown area are also a safety enhancement: when speeds go from 35 miles per hour to 25, it cuts the risk of fatalities by more than half.

No street design can prevent all serious accidents. But we know that Smart Streets improvements can save lives in the years to come. This is one reason the U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognized South Bend with the Mayor’s Challenge Award at a road safety summit last year in Washington.

Of course, safety depends on users as well as engineering. We’re counting on residents to pay attention to signs and markings, and to familiarize themselves with safe use of crossings, bike lanes, roundabouts and other features.

Green crosswalks are for bike traffic. Red areas are forbidden to cars. Divided sidewalks indicate two-way traffic. Taking advantage of Smart Streets improvements means spreading street smarts about how to use them.

In the months and years to come, we will continue to tweak markings, signal timings and design to ensure the best environment for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and businesses.

But the bulk of the work is behind us. Now is the time to become familiar with the improvements and changes, and take advantage of the increasingly vibrant downtown that South Bend deserves.

Pete Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend.