CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids is nearing the end of its multiyear U-turn away from downtown one-way streets.
Last week, crews tore out sidewalk ramps and bump-outs along Third Avenue SE near Greene Square in the first steps to prepare for two-way traffic — something motorists haven’t seen there in half a century.
While a few two-way projects remain in the city’s planning hopper, Third Avenue SE is the final downtown street to undo the one-way conversions that took place in 1950s Cedar Rapids.
“All we’re doing is going back to what was originally intended, for all these one-way streets, they were all designed to be two way streets,” local historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said.
City officials say the transition to two-way streets, which began in 2015, is more than simply returning streets to their roots. The conversions are part of a larger effort meant to make downtown more friendly to pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and businesses.
“These two-way conversions are a critical piece to make it feel like a place where you would want to live and walk around and feel safe,” said Jennifer Pratt, the city’s community development director.
Some traffic history
By the 1950s, Cedar Rapids found itself in a predicament familiar to many communities — automobiles were significantly more affordable and streets were now becoming congested.
With downtown still the city’s hub for entertainment, dining and business, cars flocked to the downtown core.
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“All of a sudden everyone has a car and everyone wants to go to the city center,” said Stoffer Hunter. “Cities like Cedar Rapids weren’t ready for that.”
Matt Myers, a Cedar Rapids traffic engineer, said downtown streets like Second and Third avenues became the primary means of getting from one side of the city to the other. Some downtown streets saw as much as 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day, he added.
“Every inch of pavement that we had was used to move traffic,” Myers said.
To accommodate so many vehicles, the city shifted portions of Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth avenues to handle one-way travel.
“By the early 60s all four of those were converted to one-way streets and the whole idea was to get that traffic moving through downtown Cedar Rapids,” Stoffer Hunter said.
In the early 1980s, Interstate 380 was completed and much of the traffic cluttering downtown relocated to the new interstate.
Additional one-way streets were constructed at that time to connect and funnel traffic to the interstate.
A pair of one-way connectors were built in each quadrant; Center Point and Oakland roads in the northeast; E and F avenues in the northwest; 15th and 16th avenues in the southwest; and seventh and eighth streets in the southeast.
But despite a significant drop in traffic, downtown streets remained one-way routes for decades.
Myers said I-380 carries as much as 70,000 daily vehicles, leaving a few thousand vehicles per day on downtown streets like Second or Third avenues.
So the need for high-capacity one-way funnels hasn’t been necessary downtown since the interstate opened.
What’s more, one-way streets tend to result in increased traffic speeds, creating barriers for pedestrians, Myers said.
Plans to address the city’s one-way streets were often discussed, but it wasn’t until a 2012 conversation between city officials and national urban planning consultant and author Jeff Speck that the tipping point was reached.
Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” has long advocated for two-way streets, replacing traffic signals with stop signs and creating streets accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists.
“For the entire metro Cedar Rapids area to survive healthfully ... we have to keep improving the city core. That’s key to the identity of the whole community, so the two ways are a way to do that,” Stoffer Hunter said.
With Speck’s assistance — the city has paid him more than $50,000 for his services — the Cedar Rapids City Council passed a complete-streets design manual. In 2015, work began on the first two-way conversions.
Since 2015, conversions have taken place on Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth avenues and Oakland Road. Centerpoint Road, near McLoud Run, is planned to become a two-way street in the coming years.
Myers said some one-way streets outside the downtown core, like E and F avenues NW and Third and L streets SW, will remain one-ways for the time being.
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Pratt said one frustration among motorists is that the conversions have taken place piecemeal, over the course of several years. She said conversions became spread out as the city tried to accommodate large-scale downtown projects, like the CRST Center.
“The bad news is we can’t do everything in as orderly a fashion as we would have hoped, but the reason we had to speed up those segments was because of investment in our downtown,” Pratt said.
Officials with the Cedar Rapids Police Department have said that, while it takes some time for motorists to adjust to new traffic patterns, vehicles have slowed down on the streets that have been converted.
In Iowa City, a portion of Governor Street and a few blocks of Washington Street downtown were converted from one-way to two-way traffic several years ago.
Kent Ralston, Iowa City transportation planner, said the city’s two main one-way streets — Jefferson and Market — have been considered for conversion, but no serious conversations have taken place.
Any official action would come with public meetings and council approval, he added.
“I think it’s safe to say Jefferson and Market are being contemplated,” he said.
As for Cedar Rapids, Stoffer Hunter said he’s excited for motorists to be able to once again see the streets — and historic buildings downtown — from both angles.
“What I like about converting back to two-way is that all the local architecture, all the buildings and houses, are all designed to be looked at from both directions.”
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