There are 10 changes the city of Mobile can make to improve safety for pedestrians downtown and add to the walkability of the corridor from Broad Street to Water Street, a consultant said during a presentation recently.
Jeff Speck, a national city-planning consultant who promotes walkability, told members of the Downtown Mobile Alliance and others during a virtual presentation the city could make inexpensive changes, like adding bike lanes or on-street parking to wider-than-average streets, to enhance pedestrian and cyclist participation along the Central Business District.
Speck also suggested turning some one-way streets into two-way streets as a way to slow traffic and make the area safer for those on foot or bike.
“It all boils down to driving speeds,” he said. “A car going 35 miles per hour is seven times more likely to kill you than a car going 25 miles per hour. This is all about how to get drivers closer to the lower end of the spectrum.”
Slower driving speeds are especially important in Alabama, a state that ranks as the second deadliest in the United States for pedestrians, Speck said.
“Most of that is not happening in Mobile,” he said. “It’s a place where people drive more slowly than in the rest of the state.”
However, the design of many of Mobile’s downtown streets, Speck said, invites speeds that are inconsistent with the goal of a more vibrant area.
“Slower means a healthier and more productive downtown,” he said.
One of the keys to slowing traffic in the downtown area, Speck said, is to make sure streets don’t have any more lanes than are needed.
“The more lanes a street has the more it looks like a highway,” he said.
Speck said he and other consultants did what is called a lane audit on the streets downtown. A lane audit is where they calculate the number of lanes and the number of vehicle trips per day during peak hours to find the number of lanes needed for a particular street.
“A two-lane street can handle 10,000 car trips each day,” he said. “If you do it right, there won’t be added congestion.”
As expected in downtown Mobile, there are a lot of vehicles each day on Water Street, Government Street and the areas near the interstate onramps. However, if the perimeter areas of downtown, including Government Street and the outer portions of the Henry Aaron Loop aren’t included, the vast majority of downtown streets see less than 5,000 trips per day, Speck said.
That’s about half the amount of what a normal, one-lane street can handle, he said.
“Mobile has so many choices,” Speck said. “Most cities are blessed with this. There’s not a single one of these streets that can’t be one lane or less.”
Streets with two many lanes are prime candidates for re-striping, Speck said, to include additional on-street parking or bike lanes.
For example, he said, Canal Street has about two and a half more lanes than it needs, but unfortunately, it’s not a good candidate for added on-street parking because there is not a demand for parking in that area of downtown. In addition to Canal, Congress Street could be two lanes instead of four, Spring Hill Avenue could be two lanes instead of four and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard could be two lanes instead of its three or four in places.
Meanwhile, Washington Avenue, Royal Street and Claiborne all have extra turn lanes that are not needed, Speck said.
These streets are all better candidates for additional parking — where it doesn’t already exist — or bike lanes, he said.
Interestingly, Speck said, Dauphin Street, west of Claiborne, has an extra lane it doesn’t need.
“That’s all money in the bank in terms of opportunities to make downtown better,” he said.
In places where there are the right amount of lanes downtown, the lanes may be too wide and invite faster driving, Speck said. A 10-foot lane is plenty wide enough to handle traffic on a “high-capacity” street, he said.
There was an effort beginning in the 1980s to mesh highway design and residential street design, Speck said. The result of this trend, he said, was lanes that were too wide in downtown areas all over the country. Mobile is no exception.
“A 12-foot lane is a 70-mile-per-hour lane,” Speck said. “There’s no reason for a 12-foot lane downtown.”
Speck gave several examples of streets downtown that were too wide: a section of Congress Street has 15 extra feet, St Joseph Street should be 30 feet wide, but is 45 feet wide, North Washington Avenue is too wide, Claiborne is too wide, as are Conti and Conception streets. St. Michael is 16 to 17 feet wide and should be 12 feet wide at most, Speck said.
A solution for some of those extra-wide streets is to revert them from one-way to two-way. This could be the case for St. Michael and St. Joseph streets. The city is already working to make St. Joseph a two-way street.
“It turns out one-way streets are more dangerous than two-way streets,” Speck said. “Studies show two-way streets make drivers more comfortable and are more successful for business.”
Dauphin Street, although very wide and even two-laned in places, is not a good candidate to swap back to two lanes, Speck said. To make Dauphin a two-way street would force the city to remove the ability to park on both sides.
However, Hamilton and Jefferson streets could be good candidates for two-way traffic.
Speck also came up with a recommendation for a series of connected bike paths that would increase the presence of cyclists downtown. He said bike lanes could be added inexpensively all over downtown by either re-striping streets or adding planters to protect the lanes.
Speck also recommended more crosswalks be added to Government Street, and with a project to better synchronize traffic signals along the corridor on the horizon, add some flashing beacons.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson listened to the presentation and seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of changes to the streets.
“I was very impressed with Jeff Speck’s presentation and work that has gone into the Downtown Mobile [Alliance’s] Street Optimization initiative,” he said in a statement. “There still needs to be a good deal of internal conversation with our traffic and engineering teams, but there are already some recommendations from this initiative I believe the city of Mobile could and should implement.”
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