This summer, the long awaited Central Salem Mobility Study kicked off.  The first proposals to emerge from the project were unveiled at a public forum on Dec. 12. “This study has been envisioned in our urban renewal plans for years,” said project manager Annie Gorsky.

“We have made significant investments in downtown and along the riverfront and we know people need better access to them.” 

To achieve this goal, the city is studying possibilities for reconfiguring select streets for two-way traffic and improving bicycle and pedestrian access to downtown attractions and businesses.


Is one way thinking suffocating downtown?

In the 1960’s cities began converting portions of their downtown grids into one-way couplets. Traffic engineers like one-way streets because they can handle higher traffic volumes without additional right-of-way.  One-ways also make it easier for engineers to synchronize traffic signals and maintain traffic flow.

However, this efficiency comes at the cost of local connectivity.  One-ways require more out of direction travel, more turning movements for local trips and more potential conflict points with other users.
“We have been asked about two- way streets for years,” said Gorsky.  “What I hear is that two-way streets increase access and visibility—which are key for downtown.”

Salem resident Lee Roden agrees that one-way streets are a problem.  He primarily walks or bikes downtown from his home near 15th and C St. “I think the best thing we could do to improve the flow downtown is changing the streets back to two-way…

Willamette University to Wild Pear currently makes for a long and convoluted drive.  A two-way State St. would enable visitors to
use State St. to reach a State St. address.

Scott Mansur is a consultant for DKS Associates, the firm contracted to conduct the mobility study.  He has worked on similar projects in Spokane, Medford, and Oregon City.

“Think about an average trip from say, Willamette University, to a downtown restaurant. Then consider how much out of direction travel it takes to get there.”  He went on to explain that one-ways can put off visitors. “Visitors expect that they will be able to use State St. to get to a State St. address.”

Recently, Oregon City, Hillsboro, and Vancouver, WA, jumped on the bandwagon by restoring two-way traffic to their downtown street grids. While hard evidence in the form of before-and-after studies are hard to come by, the two-way camp often cites the example of Vine St. in Cincinnati.  When it was converted to a one-way street, 40% of the businesses on that street folded in the years that followed.

The Oregonian and Governing Magazine also report that business leaders in Vancouver, WA, are celebrating their recent switch to two-way streets as an unqualified success.

Specifically, Salem is looking at converting State, Court, High, Church, and Cottage Streets to two-way traffic. City of Salem transportation planning documents suggest that these streets are operating at only a fraction of their designed capacity.  The Salem Transportation System Plan (TSP) provides policy guidance for street features like the number of lanes, lane widths, parking, bike lanes and turning pockets.

Many of the new street configurations the study proposes include new bike treatments.  Treatments range from shared lane markings, or “sharrows” like the ones recently installed on Chemeketa St., to parking protected, two-way cycle tracks proposed for State St. and Union St.  Unlike a typical bike lane striped next to a motor vehicle lane, a cycle track uses parked cars to create a protective barrier between the cyclist and car traffic.

Bike advocacy groups like the Bikes Belong Foundation are hoping these will become the new standard for bike lanes because they reflect what has been called the 8-80 standard; streets that people ages 8 to 80 can feel safe and confident using on foot, on a bike or in a car. Protected cycle tracks would be a first for Salem.

According to Jim Peters of DKS Associates, protected cycle tracks offer a greater level of comfort and safety than the typical bike lane, making cycling a more realistic option for people of all abilities.  Peters says New York City has proven that these improvements benefit everyone with slower traffic, fewer crashes, more pedestrians and cyclists.

New York retailers located on improved streets have even seen increased sales.

Calmer traffic would be a welcome improvement for residents like Roden, who says that “currently, Salem’s downtown streets are not family friendly for people who want to walk or bike.”

Some of the proposals will be controversial. Critics often fear that reducing lanes will induce gridlock. However, data collected by the New York Dept. of Transportation shows that reducing the number of travel lanes from three lanes to two did not result in slower travel times or divert traffic to other streets.

Mansur says the next step will be to test the new configurations using their traffic models. Then they will have more precise data on how the proposed changes will impact traffic flows, safety and connectivity.  There will be more opportunities for the public to give feedback in the coming months.