In just four years, Louisville’s Southern Indiana neighbor quietly redesigned its entire downtown road network — a feat unmatched virtually anywhere else in the country.
Meanwhile, across the Ohio River, Louisville has seen almost no progress on its downtown road redesign efforts. A study commissioned by Louisville in 2009 made many recommendations, almost all of which are still unrealized today, more than 10 years later.
As momentum built for the Ohio River Bridges Project in the early 2010s, city officials in New Albany knew they had a problem: The project could swamp their city with traffic.
While Louisville delayed its plan to redesign Market Street in NuLu so as not to interfere with traffic from the interstate expansion project and a new ramp was being appended to the Clark Memorial (Second Street) Bridge in Jeffersonville, New Albany officials began a plan to do the opposite of what every other city in the region was doing.
They initiated a project to limit the effects of the highways on their city.
They made streets two-way to slow and contain traffic in the downtown.
“The backdrop was the toll,” New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said now, looking back. “We knew we had too much capacity on our roads, and with all of this excess capacity, we were going to turn our downtown into a drag strip. People were going to cut across Clarksville and blow through New Albany to get on the no-toll bridge. We knew that we needed to make a change.”
The reason was that the two new bridges — one in downtown as an expansion of Interstate 65, the other connecting Interstate 265 across the Ohio River east of downtown — would leave New Albany with the one no-cost interstate bridge in the region, Interstate 64’s Sherman Minton Bridge.
With a grid of one-way streets and timed traffic signals in their downtown, they suspected that their city would become a thoroughfare for fare-dodgers.
Then, in 2011, with the Ohio River Bridges Project still in the planning phase, the Sherman Minton temporarily closed due to structural problems. In the six months that the bridge was shut down for repairs, New Albany officials saw their city affected in just the way they thought it might when the bridges opened — with drivers using city streets as a pass-through on their morning and evening commutes.
In the spring of 2014, New Albany invited one of the country’s foremost urban planners to the city to begin work on a comprehensive downtown redesign plan. The author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time,” Jeff Speck is one of the founders and leading figures of New Urbanism, an urban design movement that aims to return cities to vibrant, bustling, walkable spaces rather than sprawling suburbs. And eight months after being hired by the city, Speck delivered a report with his recommendations: to revert nine one-way roads back to two-way, to replace excess driving lanes with bike lanes and to convert five downtown traffic signals into four-way stops.
And this, normally, is where the story stops.
How New Albany Broke the Mold
Cities pay for plans.
Plans get put on shelves.
In fact, this seemingly had already happened in New Albany. In 2007, the city had conducted an engineering study “to examine traffic calming solutions that would make the downtown street system more pedestrian friendly” and “to gauge impacts to the community with respect to converting portions of the existing one-way street system to two-way traffic.”
Yet by 2014, there still had been no restructuring of the downtown grid.
Quietly, though, changes were already in motion.
In the same month that Speck presented his plan to the city, New Albany implemented its first two-way reversion — a five-block stretch of Fifth Street.
And at the same time that Speck’s plan was being discussed in the press and at public meetings, the city was moving forward on an improvement project of the city’s historic mansion-lined Main Street. The Indiana Department of Transportation, or INDOT, had relinquished control of Main Street to the city and given New Albany a $3 million check for the road’s maintenance.
This was a gift on top of a gift.
Cities are constantly at odds with state transportation departments, whose engineers seem to use a different calculus than those of city planners in determining what an optimal street looks like. But in this case, the state’s relinquishing of Main Street and funds of $3 million immediately gave the city the opportunity to implement a redesign it had long imagined.
The city extended curbs, installed improved street lighting and built a tree-lined median on the 50-foot wide road, which narrowed 18-foot driving lanes to 10 feet. The project was underway in the fall of 2014 and completed a year later — and paid for entirely by the INDOT relinquishment funds.
“We had wanted to do something with Main Street for years,” Gahan said. “But we didn’t have the funds to do it. So when the opportunity came, we said we know exactly what we want to do with it. In fact, we already had a plan. We took this 50 foot-wide road and made it a much more pleasant place.”
The single most ambitious and controversial change proposed by Speck’s plan was for Spring Street, New Albany’s central corridor.
Going On A Road Diet
Entering town from the east, Spring Street was a two-way, four-lane road with no on-street parking or bike lanes. It had been designated part of Indiana State Road 62, and its design was that of a highway. Drivers coming from Louisville or Clarksville on 62 would be traveling 50 and 60 mph as they entered town.
“There’s no question that New Albany is a jewel,” Gahan said. “But I always thought that Spring Street was, sort of, off. And I didn’t know what it was.”
As the road approached downtown at the Vincennes Street intersection, the design of Spring Street changed. It became a one-way street heading west, with eastbound traffic moved a block south to Market Street — a common practice referred to as one-way pairing. Once in downtown, parking lanes were removed and driving lanes expanded. Finally, on the west side of downtown, the houses, businesses, sidewalks and street trees that make up the urban fabric disappeared, as the roadway prepped drivers to enter I-64.
Two blocks from downtown, the dashboard view — a grassy berm, an empty skyline, an expanse of road in front of you — would not be any different were you entering onto the interstate in farm country.
Speck’s plan called for a complete overhaul of Spring Street: a two-way conversion of the one-way section, with lane reductions, permanent on-street parking and the addition of bike lanes. The industry term for this kind of reconfiguration is a road diet, the idea being that reducing the number of lanes naturally constrains speeding and makes the road safer.
Speck proposed a similar treatment for Market Street and also suggested removing traffic signals and installing four-way stops in their place in order to further slow travel speeds.
Few things in local politics are as toxic as upsetting people’s drives. Take away parking or add extra minutes to a commute, and you’re asking for neighbors and business owners to come after you. That is one reason why many plans die on the vine — mayors or city officials are unwilling to go to battle over a change no one was asking for in the first place. The status quo can be a powerful deterrent, and change a four-letter word.
Before committing to Speck’s plan, city officials wanted to study it.
Would It Help?
Conveniently, planned utility work and a beautification project on Spring Street would be temporarily shutting down lanes to a degree that exceeded what was proposed with Speck’s road diet. The city monitored traffic levels during the lane closures, noting few back ups. Seeing the negligible effects the lane closures had on Spring Street’s traffic, city officials breathed a sigh of relief.
“At that point, we knew we could do it,” one city official told me.
They followed up their observations by contracting with an Indiana engineering firm, HWC, to build a traffic model based on the two-way system they envisioned implementing. It too checked out, and the city was now all-in on making the changes.
In December 2016, the city completed the first half of the Spring Street project — the section up to Vincennes Street. In September 2017, they started work on two-waying the downtown grid, a 14-by-14-block polygon. The two-way work was completed in May 2018, about four years after Speck first stepped foot in town.
Et Tu Louisville?
Every city has plans.
The vast majority of those plans sit on shelves.
There are so many reasons a plan can fail that it’s impossible to enumerate them all. Political leadership can change. Local and state priorities can be in conflict. The cost of a project can be too high. The political will of a project can be too burdensome. A plan can simply be bad. Funding can fall through. Governments can be poorly run. The list goes on.
Across the river from New Albany in Louisville, a number of plans from the last decade or so have stalled out. There is the $10 million East Market Street redesign in NuLu, the $7 million Bardstown Road redesign and the $20 million Beargrass Creek Trail extension. The city is currently working with planners on an Olmsted Parkways redesign, a Ninth Street redesign and a Broadway redesign.
Whether any of these plans will ever become reality is anybody’s guess.
Louisville, in fact, has its own two-way conversion plan, which it received in October 2009. In the eleven years since, no Louisville street in downtown has been completely reverted back to two-way. In 2018, two (nonconsecutive) blocks of Third Street were converted, then in 2019, two more blocks were two-wayed. For the six blocks of Third Street between Main Street and Broadway, four blocks are two-way, two are one-way. Part of the reason for the half-completed conversion is the fact that, though the conversion is a city government project, Third Street is controlled by the state. This adds a layer of bureaucracy to the planning efforts.
The city has also received federal funds to two-way Seventh, Eighth and Jefferson streets, among others, in downtown and NuLu. Metro recently announced that work will begin on these projects, which were initially slated for 2018, in spring 2020.
This cataloging of stalled and aborted plans does not make Louisville unique.
It’s the open secret of the planning community.
Emily Talen, who like Speck is a nationally-known planner and leader in the New Urbanist movement, wrote a paper in 1996 on this topic titled “Do Plans Get Implemented?” In the article she wrote, “The planning community has shown a curious lack of interest in developing methods to evaluate how successfully plans are implemented.” Little seems to have changed in the quarter century since.
This makes New Albany’s success not only in implementing a plan but completing it over the course of four years all the more remarkable.
Shepherding a plan to its completion is the thankless work of city employees. Planners like Speck write books and give TED Talks. When they come to towns, their role is often to excite enthusiasm — to meet with decision-makers, to grant interviews to local media, to raise awareness and to frame the conversation locally. It is not a knock on Speck to say that New Albany hired him already knowing it wanted to two-way its streets. The city was aware from his books and talks, roughly, what a “Speck plan” would turn out to be. The plans are often the political catalyst — the ingredient needed to get the project jumpstarted (or not).
These plans are delivered to city engineers, project supervisors and mayors who then have to do the dirty work of finding the funds and political support to make them happen.
Sometimes, they succeed.
Most times, they don’t.
The Newer New Albany
It was a hot, bright summer day in 2019. The streets of New Albany had been converted to two-way now for over a year, and Speck was in Louisville for the annual conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He was standing at the front of a TARC bus with two New Albany city employees, Larry Summers and John Rosenbarger. We drove up and down the streets of downtown New Albany — the Main Street mansion row, before circling back into town on Spring Street.
“I wish you could’ve seen what it looked like before,” Speck told the audience, a crowd of conference attendees consisting mostly of professional planners, transportation engineers and architects.
Rosenbarger is the Public Works projects supervisor for New Albany and has worked for the city since 1975, nearly half a century. He served as the director of the city Plan Commission for six years in the mid-2000s, which led to the city’s first two-way conversion study. Summers is the New Albany city engineer, hired in 2014 and the first ever Professional Engineer (P.E.) to hold the position. Before Summers, the city engineer had also been the local bread truck driver.
Speck led the presentation, discussing aspects of his plan as we passed by the reality of what has come to be. His plan called for parking-protected bike lanes, he noted, but New Albany has implemented a more traditional type — paint only, no physical barrier. Speck mentioned that his plan recommended removing multiple stop lights on Market but the city had kept them. On Spring, the two-way conversion does not extend all the way to I-64 as his plan had suggested. Instead it stops three blocks short.
After each Speck observation, Summer and Rosenbarger chimed in to offer an explanation for why the city made the decision that it did — the political realities that were at play. In one area, a city trucking company asked for a wide turning lane to access their property. A lot of the local pushback to the project, they say, was about the bike lanes, so the city made them more conventional to placate the opposition. Some officials thought that stop signs would make the city “feel like a small town,” so they kept the traffic signals.
As the ride continued up Elm and back down Market, Summers and Rosenbarger began to take over more of the narration of the tour. They told the story of the local toll bridges and noted that the city wanted to get project done as quickly as possible in order to negate the effects they anticipated with the completion of that project. Traffic counts in the city have remained constant, they say, despite Sherman Minton’s traffic counts increasing by nearly 30,000 cars per day.
“We wanted to limit our capacity,” Summers said. “We didn’t want our downtown designed for peak hour.”
Rosenbarger noted some of the economic development along the route — a new apartment building on Spring Street, an assisted living center on Main Street, a greenfield development on Market Street.
We got off the bus in downtown New Albany at the site of the city’s farmer’s market, where Mayor Gahan and the city’s Police Chief Todd Bailey waited to greet us. Bailey recounted some of the public safety statistics that have improved in the last year — less speeding, fewer crashes involving pedestrians, a “smoother” flow. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen for public safety in 22 years,” he said.
Gahan addressed the crowd.
“The average person isn’t asking for these kinds of changes. You’ve got to make the case. But also, ultimately, you’ve just got to make the decision to go for it, because a lot of people won’t understand it until it’s done. We wanted downtown to be a place to be, not just a place to drive through.”
From the crowd of New Urbanists, this elicits a round of applause. Speck approached Gahan and addressed both him and the group.
“I’ve done 10 of these plans for different cities,” Speck said, putting his arm around Gahan. “This one was both the fastest and got the most done. And I just want you to know, I’m grateful. Thank you.” •
Two-Way Streets Make Better Cities
Who says two-way streets are better than one-way streets for cities?
UofL urban and public affairs professor John “Hans” Gilderbloom and William Riggs of the University of San Francisco say they can be. They based their conclusion on a study of what happened to two one-way streets, Brook and First streets, in Old Louisville after they were made into two-way streets. They found that Brook and First had fewer collisions, less crime and higher property valuations than did parallel streets, Second and Third, that remained one way.
Riggs told The Washington Post in 2015: “What we’re doing when we put one-way streets there is we’re over-engineering automobility at the expense of people who want a more livable environment.”
They also did a citywide analysis used Census tracts to compare multi-lane, one-way streets to those without them.
“Our results show a higher incidence of collisions and injuries on multi-lane streets than on their two-way counterparts — for motorists, bikes and pedestrians,” they wrote in their study. “This research supports expanded thinking about one- to two-way street conversion as a method to improve safety, connectivity, community and sustainability.”
Chris Glasser is the executive director of Streets for People, a Louisville-based, multimodal advocacy organization.