Sunday, October 4, 2009

Slow Down

Having to dodge traffic around the circle while I dash across the street to get a cuppa coffee at the local coffee shop, being made a mite less hazardous would be a good thing.

Officials eye traffic-calming measures


As a delegation of civic leaders from New Braunfels evaluated various Texas downtown revitalization efforts this week, Monique Vernon couldn’t help but notice a central theme.

“They’re all using traffic calming measures, and they’re working,” said Vernon, the city’s downtown development coordinator on Tuesday.

Twenty area officials traveled to Georgetown, McKinney, Denton and Grapevine this week to study what those cities had done to boost economic activity downtown, and which strategies New Braunfels could incorporate into its own revitalization effort.

What they saw were slow-moving cars, heavy pedestrian traffic and bustling downtowns.

“What was obvious was that creating a downtown that was more pedestrian friendly had greatly benefited the businesses in those cities,” said City Manager Mike Morrison.

Torti Gallas Partners, a consulting firm hired by New Braunfels to form the downtown implementation plan, has suggested making the downtown friendlier to people on foot by slowing down traffic around Main Square — ideas that were met with skepticism by some in the community.

The firm had recommended a “road diet,” squeezing the lanes on Seguin Avenue and San Antonio Street down to one lane each way, and having only a single lane around circling Main Plaza. Torti Gallas also advised cutting off the roundabout in front of the Comal County Courthouse so pedestrians could have safe access to the Bandstand.

A number of residents, including Comal County Judge Danny Scheel, suggested that fewer lanes would only make traffic worse, particularly in a city projected to grow dramatically over the next 20 years.

But cities toured by the delegation this week had shrunk their downtown lanes and received positive results.

That was especially true in Denton, where fast-moving traffic around the historic courthouse had created a serious safety risk for pedestrians, said Julie Glover, the economic development program administrator for the city of Denton.

“Most of the people were upset at first that they were going to lose their little racetrack,” Glover said Wednesday. “But eventually most people get over it. The whole point is to make your downtown a destination, a place where people come to, not through.”

The streets were either one-way or one-lane each way in McKinney’s flourishing downtown, a collection of busy restaurants and successful boutique stores. McKinney is roughly twice the size of New Braunfels, and traffic flows smoothly on its smaller streets.

The subtraction of lanes also has translated into more space for wider sidewalks and additional parking.

While it may uncomfortable at first, New Braunfels Mayor Pro-tem Kathleen Krueger said it could be a boon for the city in the long run.

“What we’re trying to do is spur economic development downtown and encourage retail growth, and one way to do that is to make the area more pedestrian friendly,” she said. “While it might not be customary, we might find that we like it. I’m not 100-percent sold on it, but I’ve now seen it can work in other cities.”

Smaller traffic lanes are just one of the number of ideas put forth by Torti Gallas and observed around the state this week by the fact-finding group.

The city also is looking at other traffic calming devices, such as extended curbs at intersections, and ways to improve downtown parking and boost retail sales and restaurant profits.

The process is ongoing, and Torti Gallas is hosting a town hall meeting on Oct. 20 to gather citizen input.

A final draft of the city’s downtown implementation plan is not expected until January.