More than one way

If some of Sacramento's older commuter routes become two-way streets, will quality of city life improve?



For decades, the central city’s one-way streets have served as rapid fast-tracks to the freeway. But Sacramento is changing, and advocates for smart urban planning say the city should no longer operate by archaic, 1960s principles of traffic engineering.

They want to see the city consider entirely converting fast-moving, one-way streets—including I, J, Q, Fifth, Ninth and 10th—into two-lane avenues meant less to serve suburban commuters and more to serve the community.

Supporters of the idea say these so-called two-way conversions would benefit businesses and increase pedestrian and cyclist safety by slowing traffic.

“Decisions to run freeways through the city were epic mistakes that, unless we reverse, will prevent Sacramento from attaining its full potential as an attractive, prosperous city,” says Chris Morfas, a Sacramento-based policy advocate for urban transit and air quality. “Busy one-way streets aren’t compatible with the idea of turning the city into a 24-hour hub.”

During the middle of the 20th century, numerous central-city streets were converted into rapid one-way arteries, linking the grid to the mighty new freeways at the west edge of town. Fifty years later, the picture of suburbanites zipping into the city to work and fleeing again at rush hour has become an outdated cliché and increasingly less reflective of Sacramento urban life.

William Burg, president of the Sacramento Old City Association, feels the old-school vision of a properly functioning metropolis, with freeways and massive boulevards conducting streams of busy traffic, has expired. People today want to live in the city, he says, or stay after hours before leaving for home.

“But it’s just not livable in a lot of places because of high-speed traffic,” he said.

This could change, though. Burg points to K Street as a prime model for what a city street should look—and sound—like. The streets are layered with brick, making fast driving unpleasant. The lanes are also narrow—another traffic-calming feature. “There are broad sidewalks and very limited parking,” Burg said.

Street makeovers are on the surface about cars and traffic, but pedestrians and cyclists experience immediate benefits, too.

“There’s the debate about whether people should be riding bikes on the sidewalk, but we haven’t given these people safe alternatives,” said Jim Brown, executive director with the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. He says dividing three-lane one-ways into streets with a lane in each direction would leave ample room for a bike lane on either side, and would coax cyclists who habitually use the sidewalks into newly retrofitted streets.

Safety, too, would increase. That’s because anytime two adjacent lanes of traffic move in the same direction, pedestrians and cyclists using a crosswalk are in danger of being waved through by a motorist in the first lane while motorists in the next lane fail to yield. Such sketchy traffic dynamics can be eliminated with two-way conversions, advocates say.

Some local two-way conversions have been completed already. Parts of N, Third, 19th and 21st streets, among others, have been converted from two ways to one. Now, activists have more suggestions for what streets to convert next, including Fifth, Ninth, 10th, I, J, P and Q streets.

At University Art, manager Dave Saalsaa says he’s “open to the idea” of converting J Street from one way to two. His main doubts are hinged on concerns about how such a project might affect traffic in the surrounding area.

“For our type of business, this would slow down traffic and give us exposure from both directions,” Saalsaa said. “It would help bring people into the city core, not just help them get out.”

Installing traffic lights down J Street could slow the traffic, if dividing the road winds up not being a suitable option. “The only thing is, people tend to gun it on the yellow light,” Saalsaa said. The speed of traffic, and accidents, are a concern for Saalsaa, and for good reason: Three times in his years as manager of the store, a vehicle has careened off of J Street and crashed into the front of the shop.

The Midtown Business Association’s executive director, Emily Baime Michaels, likens crossing J Street to crossing a freeway. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic would increase if J Street was slowed and divided, she says, and businesses that rely on pedestrian traffic would directly benefit.

“We find that the pedestrian experience on J Street is not as desirable as it could be if traffic moved slower on that street,” Michaels said. “J Street’s primary focus seems to be on moving people through Midtown rather than to our destinations in Midtown.”

J Street could become “a walkable urban village,” Michaels says, if it is properly retrofitted.

Converting a street from one way to two can be as simple as putting paint on the asphalt but is usually more complicated and expensive, requiring alteration of existing traffic signals and other infrastructure, according to the Department of Trasportation’s senior planner Sparky Harris.

He says the city will consider turning one-way streets into two-ways but is currently uncertain whether such measures will provide a net benefit to Sacramentans. A downtown transportation study, to be completed late next year, will analyze what specific changes to the existing street design might best facilitate the patterns of locals. Harris acknowledges that locals are spending more time in the city core than they were in the era when the region’s freeways—and one-way street connections—were first built.

“The trend of people moving outside the city is reversing, and it makes sense to see if the grid is working for people who live, work and play in the downtown,” he said. “One-way streets are typically designed to move traffic faster over long distances. Now, we’ve got a whole different take on moving people through and into the city.”