Streets for People: Louisville’s roads need to be designed for citizens, not cars

This is the first in a series of articles written for Insider Louisville focusing on Louisville’s street design. Written by Bicycling for Louisville’s Executive Director Chris Glasser, the “Streets for People” series will be published with the goal of encouraging a (polite and civil) online discussion of these topics. 

In Louisville, it’s easy to drive just about anywhere. I live in the inner Highlands, and a car ride downtown takes 5 minutes, to my mom’s house (near the zoo) 10 minutes, to my in-laws’ (Norton Commons) 20 minutes, and to the far reaches of the county (Jefferson Memorial Forest) 30 minutes.

This is a problem. And it’s one we as a city need to talk about.

It’s so easy to get around Louisville in a car that we’ve sacrificed our ability to travel in any other way: transit, biking, and walking are not even options for most people in most areas.

One-way streets, traffic signals timed to 35 mph, abundant surface parking lots, and arterial intersections where there’s nary a traffic jam. These design choices compromise our city’s ability to do what great cities do best: bring people together. They undermine walkability by making the public space of the street inviting only to cars. Instead, I’d like to see us design streets for people.

What we’ve gained in efficient traffic flow and easy access to parking, we’ve lost in places actually worth arriving at. In a town where we have (a) bad public health, (b) poor air quality, (c) an urban heat island problem, and (d) dilapidated urban infrastructure, we’re incentivizing driving in a way that only exacerbates each of these problems.

The intersection of Story and Main streets. Removing the concrete barrier, adding crosswalks and a traffic signal could remake this throughway into a node.

The recent uproar over a parking fee at Waterfront Park crystallizes the point about our city’s auto dependency. “Keep Waterfront Park Free!” is the rallying cry — but, of course, the park still is free; it’s just you’ll now have to pay for the convenience of driving your car and parking there. In our city, this distinction is almost meaningless.

Mayor Greg Fischer, it should be noted, is fantastic at talking about the need for our city to shift away from its car dependency. Fischer was one of the driving forces behind a national report on “Innovation Districts”, which advocates for redesigning cities’ infrastructure for improved walkability. In his strategic plan for Louisville, the top goal is to “improve multi-modal transportation and community streetscapes.” Fischer is as well-spoken as any leader on the importance of walkable, bikeable, inviting city space.

This is great. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

When being interviewed by Charlie Rose recently, the Mayor argued that actions speak louder than words. “You know, what I always say is, I don’t watch the lips, I watch the actions,” he said. “That’s really what’s critical and that’s how people judge us.”

To take Fischer at his word and judge him by his own standard, our city is falling well short of the administration’s stated number one goal. Fischer’s annual budgets speak volumes on this matter — they’re his defining action, louder than his words. Yes, there is a small amount allocated to build a bike network — a pittance that Metro Council undercuts every year during the budget review period — but beyond that, there is virtually nothing that will begin to push us toward achieving Fischer’s goal of 25% of trips occurring on foot, bike, or bus by 2030.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s stated “Goal 1” in his strategic plan is to create a city where 25% of trips happen by foot, bike, or transit. Despite this, funding for street redesign is sparse and remains controversial.

What can be done? Here are three suggestions, along with a map to show where they could be implemented:

Fund two-way street conversions in urban neighborhoods.
The streets of Phoenix Hill, Russell, Portland, Shelby Park, and other urban neighborhoods should not be designed as arterials for suburban commuters. Fischer proudly promotes a “compassionate” agenda, along with his interest in a multi-modal city. Converting the one-way roads in these areas to two-way would be a great measure affirming the value of the citizens here — making these streets safer for residents and their families.

Remove traffic signals, replace them with stop signs.
Similar to two-way conversions, removing traffic signals and replacing them with stop signs would calm traffic and make neighborhood streets more liveable. Already implemented in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, studies have shown that all-way stops reduce crashes, as well as the severity of those crashes, while also saving money (stop signs are cheaper to maintain that traffic lights).

Design major intersections to be nodes, not throughways.
This will be the most difficult proposal to implement. While Metro can make the above changes without consulting the state-level transportation cabinet, these changes would require their approval. Still, they should be pursued. When our roads converge in our spoke-and-wheel street grid, engineers have designed throughways for car traffic. At the intersections where Main and Baxter converge, there literally aren’t crosswalks — making it not only difficult but actually illegal to cross the street on foot.

I invite you to review the map, comment with suggestions, and email your elected officials (Metro Council and the Mayor’s Office) asking them to begin to prioritize (read: “allocate money for”) these kinds of changes to our city.

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