Experts: Make street safer with crosswalks, medians

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 9, 2013

SALISBURY — Experts who spent three days studying two Salisbury streets did not take a position on left turns at the Square, but they enthusiastically recommended a road diet for Long Street.
Five consultants from Raleigh and Asheville came up with ways to make Long and East Innes streets safer for pedestrians, mostly by slowing traffic, narrowing the distance to cross the street and adding landscaped medians to serve as pedestrian refuges. Their work is part of a $120,000 study spurred by the deaths of two people in recent years who were trying to cross East Innes in the middle of a block.
The public will have a chance to comment on the proposed changes in coming months. Consultants presented a rough outline last week after a three-day design workshop.
The study continues, and consultants will meet with steering committee members appointed by City Council for feedback. Ultimately, City Council would approve changes to the streets, some of which also may require a nod from N.C. Department of Transportation.
Although downtown advocates have pushed for left turns at the Square for years, consultants stopped short of endorsing the idea. Instead, they gave several options for the intersection of Innes and Main, some with left turns and others without.
Regardless, consultants recommended bumping out the curbs by eight feet at each corner on the Square, which would narrow the distance for crossing the street by a total of 16 feet.
The beefed up sidewalk areas on each corner also would provide more space for outdoor dining, if additional restaurants should open on the Square, as well as for public gatherings. The effect would slow or “calm” traffic as motorists approach the Square, consultants said.
“We determined that the corners can be very active,” said George Alexiou, a traffic engineer.
They also advocated, in most scenarios, narrowing the lanes to 11 feet, which they said has become the national standard for urban areas.
Left turns could occur at the Square with the existing four lanes, allowing motorists in the inner lane to turn left or go straight. However, at peak times, traffic might become backed up behind a driver turning left, as it does at Lee Street. Drivers also would veer around a stopped vehicle waiting to turn left.
Four lanes with a left turn “would work from a traffic perspective, but it’s not a great option,” Alexiou said.
Another possibility is changing the Square from four lanes to three — two travel lanes and a dedicated center turn lane. With only one through lane in each direction, drivers would see additional delays at peak times, Alexiou said, with traffic possibly backing up to Church Street and Lee Street.
However, some motorists eventually would find another way to drive through town, he said.
“You have a great grid system,” Alexiou said. “People will find alternative routes.”
Any left turn plan at the Square would require the blessing of N.C. DOT, which is helping to fund the study.
With just three lanes on East Innes, the street could accommodate angled parking like Main Street, which could add up to eight spots per block, consultants said.
They acknowledged the strong desire of some people for left turns at the Square.
“But what we really want to encourage is making the downtown environment an awesome place to be and walk around and shop in,” designer Glenn Walters said. “… The benefits of creating a really walkable, comfortable downtown have to rank up high when comparing to a little bit of convenience loss.”
John Ketner, a local resident and developer on the steering committee, said at least four institutions rely on quick transportation via the East Innes corridor — the VA Medical Center, Novant Rowan Medical Center, Livingstone College and Catawba College.
“They will question that delay,” Ketner said.
Walters called the idea of 18-foot sidewalks and curb bumpouts on the Square “transformational.” Salisbury resident Jonathan Cerny, who serves on the steering committee, agreed.
“Left turns could get people here, but bumpouts and wider sidewalks, that’s what will keep people here,” Cerny said.
City Councilwoman Karen Alexander said if motorists avoid the Square due to traffic back-ups, that could deter national retailers. She warned that traffic counts could dip below required numbers for national chains. About 21,000 vehicles travel East Innes per day.
While some consultants touted Hillsborough Street in Raleigh as an example of pedestrian-friendly changes that have lured more retail and restaurants, Mayor Paul Woodson said he’s driven on the street at rush hour and found it backed up.
Mark Lewis, president of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said the majority of downtown merchants want left turns at the Square.
“Merchants say we need to slow traffic down,” Lewis said. “We continue working to create a sense of place in the downtown, and we need to back it up with public infrastructure.”
Three problem areas need immediate attention, consultants said: North Long in front of Rowan Helping Ministries, South Long in front of Lincoln Park Pool and the intersections of East Innes and Shaver and Clay streets, near locations where the pedestrians died.
Each of these trouble spots need crosswalks and pedestrian signals to encourage people to cross in designated areas, as well as alerting motorists to the presence of foot traffic, consultants said.
With the new homeless shelter opening on North Long across from the existing facility, more RHM staff members and guests will be crossing the street. North Long at RHM is the only stretch of road where consultants recommended the expensive process of moving the existing curb line.
Narrowing the road by moving the curbs will put more green space between the street and existing sidewalks, giving pedestrians a bigger buffer from vehicles and a shorter space to cross. The road would widen again to accommodate trucks turning into Chandler Concrete, consultants said.
Elsewhere on Long, they recommended a road diet — maintaining the existing curb line but narrowing the street by turning some travel lanes into bike lanes and on-street parking and adding medians.
In places, South Long is five lanes and 80 feet wide but carries only roughly 9,000 vehicles per day, they said.
“It’s almost like a drag strip there,” said William Peoples, a neighborhood advocate and member of the steering committee.
Consultants proposed taking South Long from five lanes to two lanes split by a wide, landscaped median and bordered by parking and bike lanes, as proposed in the city’s bike plan. On stretches where Long is now four lanes, the city could choose to put parking on one side and a bike lane on the other, they said.
“The more you start to confine the corridor, you will start to change behavior,” Walters said.
Drivers will slow down when they see trees, medians, on-street parking and pedestrian crossings, he said. The proposed medians would taper at each intersection to allow left turns.
A road diet would calm traffic and make it safer for pedestrians, especially people who are disabled, elderly or have children in tow, Alexiou said.
“We’re not trying to make it more inconvenient for the motorist,” he said. “If you drive through these sensitive areas, that’s fine, but we’re trying to create a design that encourages lower speeds.”
He said consultants ran scenarios through software that predicted traffic patterns for 20 years to make sure their suggestions would stand the test of time.
After the steering committee has a chance to consider the proposals, the consultants will host another community input session and allow people to vote on different options for East Innes, North Long and South Long streets.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.