Janesville61.8°

Will conversion make downtown more pedestrian-friendly?

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JAMES P. LEUTE
February 6, 2011
— The speed limit is 25 mph, but the driver was pushing 40 mph when he locked eyes with the ladies crossing three lanes of West Milwaukee Street on foot.

Just into the center lane, the women froze, and the pickup truck sailed by in the left lane.


It's a story with many variations that downtown Janesville business owners have recounted for years.


As the city council considers whether to convert a six-block stretch of West Milwaukee from one-way to two-way traffic, the stories will resurface.


But that's all they are: stories.


Anecdotes.


A recent analysis of downtown traffic doesn't support an argument that such a conversion would make streets safer, a city official said.


The analysis also doesn't suggest that a conversion would make streets more dangerous.


"I have not been able to find, either locally or nationally, anything that gives a clear indication that one system is safer than the other," said Carl Weber, director of public works.


Making West Milwaukee a two-way street between Main and Locust streets will undoubtedly slow traffic. That's inherent in any switch from a three-lane one-way street to a street with one lane of travel in each direction.


"If traffic is put into a single lane rather than three lanes, it will slow down," Weber said. "There's no passing, and there's a supposition of conflict such as traffic coming from the other direction in close proximity. Other potential conflicts are cross streets, driveways and parking, so traffic will slow down."


Slowing traffic is a goal of downtown business owners who want their businesses as visible and accessible as possible.


Many of those same business owners have said that the conversion will make that access safer for pedestrians and motorists.


That supposition is supported only by anecdotes.


At the Gazette's request, city officials tallied information on traffic volumes and accidents reported to police.


Between December 2007 and December 2010, there were 94 accidents on Milwaukee Street between Atwood Avenue and the Five Points. Eighty-seven percent occurred at intersections, rather than mid-block.


For the same time period, an equal-length stretch of West Court Street between Pearl and Crosby carried 64 percent more vehicles but had 48 percent fewer accidents.


A simple conclusion is that the two-way stretch of West Court is much safer than the one-way stretch of West Milwaukee.


It's not that simple, Weber said.


Too many variables make a comparison difficult, he said.


They include on-street parking, pedestrian activity, lane widths, driveways and associated traffic volume, visual distractions and the number of intersections and traffic volumes from side streets.


For street conversions, the city has a model to study. It changed Jackson Street from Rockport to Centerway from one-way to two-way in September 2006.


In the three years before the switch, 48 accidents were reported to police. Since the conversion, there have been 50.


The city also converted Franklin Street, but Weber said the accident numbers are inconsequential because the street hasn't been a continuous through street since a YMCA expansion vacated part of the street.


After much study and discussion with downtown property owners, the Downtown Development Alliance has supported the conversion, which would cost an estimated $120,000.


The group and the city have considered other alternatives that ranged in price from $385,000 to $1.8 million. All called for converting both Court and Milwaukee streets to two-way traffic and varying options for handling traffic flow at Five Points.


The latest proposal shortens the Milwaukee Street stretch and leaves Court Street one-way.


Jeni Sauser, the DDA's chairwoman, said the group believes the West Milwaukee Street conversion will help downtown businesses. It will ask the city in writing to put the conversion on an upcoming council agenda.


When that happens, Weber said he will confer with the city's consultant to verify his cost estimates for the project.



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