One of the first things I noticed about Boise when I moved to Idaho six years ago was the prevalence of one-way streets. I picked up on this the very first day while driving north on 15th Street. At a light, I found myself staring across the intersection at a driver in my lane who was staring back at me.
Luckily, when the light turned green, I was able to make a left turn out of her path. I made a mental note then not to take the streets of Boise for granted.
Since then, I’ve survived a few other wrong-way blunders. I’ve seen realization dawn on other drivers that they’re going against the rest of the traffic. And I’ve learned the careful planning necessary for traveling in a car from, say, Big City Coffee to the Bandanna running store.
And I’ve wondered… why all these one-way streets?
As it turns out, I’m not the only one. The Capital City Development Corp. gets questions about them all the time. And when a team from the International Downtown Association visited Boise in 2008 they did more than wonder: They analyzed the downtown and issued a report recommending that the city change its streets back to the more traditional two-way pattern. The same conversation is going on in Nampa.
That’s because one-way streets are a lot more than a puzzling aptitude test for out-of-towners. They’re an unwritten declaration that the downtown area is a place to get through as quickly as possible. Study after study shows that drivers speed up on one-way streets and are far less likely to stop.
In Boise, you don’t need a planning expert to show you this. All you have to do is wait at the light on 8th and Front street as five lanes of high-speed traffic roar by. It’s a superhighway-sized roadway that bisects The Grove from BoDo, and it’s a little disheartening. Are we a downtown or not?
Anyway, the CCDC has taken all this to heart. Their mission is to promote a walkable, liveable downtown, a place where people can impulsively stop for a coffee or window-shop after dinner. It’s opposite to the paradigm the planners started using in the 1950s when they made the streets one-way. Back then, downtown was just a place to get through quickly on the way to the suburbs.
CCDC plans to change things up a little in the coming year. They’re part of a working group that also includes Ada County Highway District, the city of Boise, the Downtown Boise Association, and Valley Regional Transit that has commissioned a study from the transportation consultancy Kittelson & Associates, Inc. They’re going to look at converting 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and Jefferson streets from one-way to two-way. The ultimate decision will belong to the ACHD commissioners.
If the streets go two-way, fewer people will find themselves driving away from their destination, not toward it, because they’re trapped on a one-way grid. Fewer will make the adrenalin-pumping discovery that a wall of cars is headed their way. Driver’s ed classes won’t have to make a special stop in the capital city to teach new drivers how to navigate the one-ways.
Traffic will move through town more slowly, which research has shown leads to more impulsive stops at shops and restaurants. Hopefully in turn, drivers will start to see that the downtown area is not a place to rush through, but a destination with its own sense of place, always changing. And far less bewildering.