Saturday, September 21, 2013

Two Way Street Restoration - Why are we here?

Lowell has been very seriously been considering the restoration of two-way traffic downtown. I think it's impossible to not be skeptical about this, as traffic often gets choked-up today and it doesn't seem like an apparent reduction in capacity could do anything but make the situation worse.

I'm not going to argue point-by-point if it should or shouldn't be done (but for the record, I'm for giving it a try as we have professional engineers with experience doing this sort of project saying it'll be fine): I want to talk about how we got here: Why did the streets become one-way and why change back?

Let's go back to the end of World War II.

War-time rationing and mobilization put an end to the growth of the domestic automobile industry for the duration of the war. Once it was over, the United States found itself as the only major industrial power still standing, with a newly expanded middle-class, and a love for technological progress (after all, we were the only country with The Bomb).

Add the GI Bill and the Baby Boom to the economic expansion we were having, and the conditions were right for the real, earnest beginnings of what we think of today as Suburbia. The construction of Levittown, New York began in 1947, and in the mid-1950s Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

The Car was here to stay, and was going to be front-and-center in the lives of every American family:

Levittown, PA
Eisenhower receiving a 10-year highway plan 
Shoppers World, Framingham, 1951
First corporate McDonald's, 1955
The general idea seemed to still be that people would commute into traditional downtowns to work and shop. They would need to be able to get there, and they would be doing it by car. To this goal, Lowell—already reeling from a collapsing industrial base which the end of wartime production accelerated—would be brought into...The Future.

The Future, 1962
So, in the 1950s, we began re-designing Lowell around the car. I got to visit the Department of Planning and Development library and leafed through A Master Plan of Highways for the Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill Metropolitan Areas, May 1956. In it, the highway that was then called a replacement for MA-110 and today is I-495 was laid out. It was a research piece on to re-think the cities of the Merrimack Valley to handle the traffic load of the 1980s.

By the time of its publication, the streets downtown had already been reconfigured as one-ways the year before, and were viewed as a great success. According to the National Bridge Database, the VFW Highway was built in 1949 and the Hunt's Falls Bridge in 1954. However, they would clearly not do in The Future. Keep in mind all these maps were made at times when there was no computer-aided design!

First, some overview maps. Note the proposed Lowell Connector and its extension through Back Central and into Downtown. Also Note the Lord Overpass area (which of course was largely built), and the new roads through both Lower Belvidere and Christian Hill to service the just-built Hunt's Falls Bridge.

495, Lowell Connector, and various street changes in green.
The intersection of 3, 495, and the Lowell Connector. Note the Gorham St ramp instead of Woburn St
Central Lowell, proposed changes in green

Some close-ups:

A demolition of large parts of downtown intended to make it easier to drive through it as quickly as possible. 
A help with context. Bye-bye old police station, Saab building, Pollard's Exchange. Hello more one-way high-speed roads!

Who needs Back Central?!

What became the Lord Overpass, and some changes the the Dutton/Thorndike intersection that did not happen.
An Artist's Rendering thereof. It sure looks swell!
There is zero consideration here for what it means to be a person and to walk places, and to be in an enjoyable, humanized environment...because that's not part of the equation. It's all about accommodating the car: how can we reconfigure our city to make it easier to get to Chelmsford from Dracut as quickly as possible?

To be fair, if you look at some of the proposed alignments in the current Rourke Bridge Study, not every crazy proposal is to be seriously considered. However, even the most overkill early proposals in that study—none of which made it too far into serious consideration—could hold a candle to the types of plans drawn up in the 1950s-70s. At that time, a lot of what was proposed for Lowell was quite serious, and up to and through the 1970s, the plans for getting us into The Future accelerated.

The world of 1997, in 1965.
This is a plan from the 1970s, for what became the Sampson Connector (Thorndike/Fletcher/Dutton):

Scheme D for Thorndike/Fletcher/Dutton. This was considered the most rational plan. A maze of ramps removes the at-grade intersection, makes Fletcher St one way, makes Adams and Suffolk Streets dead ends, etc.

A highway to the Acre?
Lowell, for reasons that are well documented, had every reason to look for any way out of its socioeconomic situation in the 1960s and 1970s. Bulldozing half the city might've just saved it they figured. Of course, at some point in the 1970s, things started to go a bit south for the car-craze. The miracle technology started to become a little less shiny, and the problems it directly brought became clearer:
Gas Shortage, 1979
Moratorium on highway construction inside of 128, 1970

So, what did we learn?

Unquestionably, the car enabled the suburbs. I'm going to basically skip over the obvious sidetrack of the other side of mid-century urban issues: Laws, policies, and social phenomenons such as blockbustingredlining, failed housing projects, white flight, and deindustrialization. They all have some ties to the rise of the car. The relationships are far too complex for me to even pretend to take a stab at.

The end result of all of this is that at some point we came to realize that our places started being made for the car, instead of the car being a tool to get around our places. These places are disjointed, inhuman, and ugly. It just isn't always worth the slightly easier drive. Books, of course have been written on this, such as The Geography of Nowhere. Think about New York, San Francisco, or Boston and how few expressways there are. Think about how much nicer Boston feels with the Artery underground. Compare these very nice cities to places like Detroit with great expressway access. Highways have been shown to be bad for people and society and should be built very sparingly.

So, over the past few decades, we've come to value The Past in how we look at our built environment. Time-tested systems of how people interact with their environments in a happy and healthy way have regained focus over the irrational-exuberance of the car age. Perhaps it's partially nostalgia: we are in a poor economy with an uncertain future after all. However, a lot of it is also about learning from our mistakes misusing the technology of cars.

One-way streets are often seen as one of those mistakes. They make streets feel like highways instead of places for people. They make it so people don't see many businesses as they're funneled into a particular set of roads going in one direction, and a different set on the way back. They're disorienting to visitors. They're just plain overused and should be an absolute last resort and not a preemptive miracle cure, which is what they were used for in the past.