Two-ways the right way in Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids, Iowa City among cities around nation ditching one-way streets

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Traffic patterns in Cedar Rapids are a little tricky these days.

Old one-way streets are now two-ways. Others are still one-way. And several two-ways turn into one-ways, and then return to two.

“Once this is all sorted out and the construction is taken care of, I think it will be better,” said Andrew Gallagher, 32, who works downtown and lives near 19th Street and Third Avenue, which is slated to convert from one direction to two. “But right now it is chaotic.”

Cedar Rapids is midstream in converting at least nine one-way streets to two-ways, many of them tied to the downtown business district. The changes, which began about six months ago, so far are getting mixed reviews.

“I don’t like it,” said Craig Bean, 46, the former owner of Ruby’s Pizzeria. “I was used to the old way. They did it to put in bike lanes, and people still bike on the sidewalks, which is frustrating.”

City officials want to remind people the shift still is new, and it will take some time to get used to the changes. They eventually should lead to a more accessible city in which roads can accommodate bikers and pedestrians, they say.

‘Busier yet slower’

The City of Five Seasons isn’t alone in Iowa or around the country in ditching one-way streets, which gained popularity in the 1950s to curb congestion by moving vehicles more quickly from one area to another.

Iowa City has converted two one-way streets to two ways, including Washington Street in the heart of its downtown district, and additional prospects are on the horizon. Dubuque and Ottumwa switched several one-ways to two-ways. Court Avenue, a busy drag in downtown Des Moines, was restored to a two-way street to slow traffic and encourage motorists to check out the entertainment district.

Around the country, conversions began picking up in the past 15 years in cities such as Louisville, Vancouver, Wash., Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, and Oklahoma City.

“It’s the simplicity of operations, the safety improvements, ability to install bike lanes, better pedestrian crossings and more parking, and we are more able to control speeds,” said Matt Myers, Cedar Rapids traffic engineer.

One-ways have become passe, transportation and urban planners say. The one-way pattern promotes speeding, is bad for retailers, dangerous for bikers and pedestrians, and is confusing for visitors.

A 2016 research study by scholars John Gilderbloom of University of Louisville and William Riggs of California Polytechnic State University concluded conversions to two ways resulted in “busier yet slower streets that have the potential to increase the vitality of an area and promote economic regeneration through fewer traffic collisions, reductions in crime and increased property values.”

Cedar Rapids began discussing the plan about a decade ago, but the 2008 flood caused delays. 2015 saw the first wave of conversions with parts of Second, Third and Fourth Avenues, and Eighth Street returning to two-way traffic.

This year’s schedule calls to convert Seventh Street SE, from Fourth Avenue to 12th Avenue, this summer, and another four streets have been identified for the future.

Property owners in the Wellington Heights neighborhood on Thursday got to offer feedback on making two-ways of Second and Third Avenues, from MedQuarter to 19th Street SE. The latest design shows one lane in each direction with bike lanes, more parking and a possible center turn lane.

The conversion could happen this summer if it as simple as repainting lines, Myers said.

Walkable neighborhoods

Bob and Ann Tow of Third Avenue initially resisted the conversions, but now are supportive. Still, they wonder if traffic on Third will surge with motorists heading downtown, and they aren’t sold on the design of bike lanes, which vary across the city.

Doug Neumann, executive vice president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, was an early supporter of the conversions. He acknowledges some frustrations exist but said in the long run it will pay off.

“We want our core districts to be interesting, vibrant, walkable neighborhoods,” Neumann said. “Two-way traffic patterns are friendly to newcomers and infrequent visitors, and they also prove to be far safer and more comfortable for pedestrians and bikers.”

City council member Justin Shields voted against the conversions when the plan came before him. He recalled when Cedar Rapids went from two-ways to one-ways decades ago. It took a long time to get used to, he said.

He remains doubtful that returning to two-ways will reduce speeds or that the benefits offset the inconvenience, he said. Still, constituents haven’t contacted him with complaints or praise, he said.

“I think we’ve had so much construction in the downtown area, it’s hard to get an honest evaluation of what the end product will be like,” he said. “My gut feeling is the majority of people don’t like it now.”

Shields said he is glad the conversions are being phased in rather than affected streets being switched at once.

City officials don’t have early data showing whether the new patterns have led to an uptick in crashes.

Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids Public Safety spokesman, said he’s heard that confused motorists have flagged down officers about how to navigate the new configuration. Traffic engineers have advised police to use traffic stops for one-way violations as an educational opportunity, Buelow said.

In Iowa City, Kent Ralston, Johnson County Metropolitan Planning Organization director, said the conversions so far have worked well to meet the goal of a more “neighborhood feel” and calming traffic. There hasn’t been a rash of confused drivers getting into accidents, he said.

A consultant studied converting Jefferson and Market Streets to two-ways, Ralston said. City council will eventually review the study, but it hasn’t been scheduled. Converting Dodge and Governor Streets, busy north-south commuter routes, to two-ways also has been discussed, but because they are state roads they’d require coordination with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

That hasn’t been broached yet, Ralston said.

“We’ve only received positive feedback,” Ralston said. “The project is going exceedingly well, which is why we got some much interest in looking at other sections.”

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