Putting people before cars

Putting People Before Cars

By Scott Ford, 2013
River District Implementation Team Member
Associate Vice President for Economic Development, University of Notre Dame 

The present conversation surrounding the restoration of two-way traffic across downtown South Bend is about returning to the fundamental principles for how successful cities operate. It is about putting people before cars, and thereby creating places where people want to live and businesses want to locate. It is not a secret formula; it is the net result of thousands of years of human experience.

Winston Churchill’s adage that, “you can always count on Americans to do the right then…after they have tried all else” is especially apropos in the realm of urban design and city planning. After 4000 + years of organizing human settlements to promote the exchange of goods and services between people, a process that naturally created all of the cities, towns and neighborhoods that we cherish today, we began to tinker with the model.

In the decades following World War II, pedestrian malls, public housing tower blocks, urban renewal, monoblock ‘civic centers’, and urban highways, each in their own turn, were deployed as “silver bullet” strategies to reimagine the City for reasons that have been explained elsewhere. Well intended as they may have been, these actions eroded the underpinning framework that gives life to a city, and in so doing, they accelerated urban decline. The story is not unfamiliar to downtown South Bend.

Enough time has passed to distill the undesirable outcomes of the post-war urban strategies, and with these lessons in mind, cities, towns and neighborhoods across the country are returning to the fundamental tenets of urban design. When these principles are followed, struggling cities find themselves in rejuvenated circumstances, as evidenced by recent urban renaissances in nearby places as Crown Point, Ft Wayne, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, etc.

In South Bend, we have an opportunity to redress some of our local experiments of post-war urbanism. The introduction of one-way traffic in the 1960’s accelerated the decline of the core. Resolving the obstacles that the one-way highways created will not solve all of downtown’s challenges, but it will reposition our downtown to economically benefit from the renewed interest in vibrant, mixed-use urbanism.

To be sure, any investment of public funds to improve the infrastructure will be measured through an economic prism. The plans for streetscape improvements are in the early stages, and there will be iterative rounds of public involvement to refine the concept to ensure a design that balances costs and the benefits. Nationally, where one-way streets have been reverted back into two-way traffic, the results have been overwhelming positive. For example:

  • A survey of 25 towns and cities found that all had experienced an improved business climate, evidenced by increase sales, investment, and office occupancy rates. In particular, the $10M public investment in street conversions in West Palm Beach, Florida yielded approximately $300M in private investment.

  • On the other side of the ledger, 40% of the businesses along Cincinnati’s Vine Street closed when the two-way traffic was limited to one-way.

  • Anticipated traffic speeds will be slightly slower with two-way traffic. A recent study in Northern Virginia concluded that a 10% increase in traffic delay was associated with a 3.4% increase in per capita gross domestic product of a region.

  • A statistical analysis of Charleston South Carolina’s Upper King Street, following its reversion to two-way traffic confirmed a correlation between the two-way traffic and increased property values.

  • Lastly, it is worth noting that dense mixed-use development, the type of ‘walkable’ urbanism that our two way streets would foster, yields, on average, 800 times the property tax revenues on a per acre basis when compared to the values of auto-oriented “strip mall” development.

Transforming our streets downtown may require an upfront investment, but the positive economic and social benefits will improve the quality of life for people throughout our community.

By restoring two-way streets and making the city center more attractive, we can improve the business and residential atmosphere and help restore the vibrant core that once defined downtown South Bend -- for current and future residents.

>> Read full article in the South Bend Tribune