Engineering traffic safety
Last summer, Asheville, N.C., reconstructed a main downtown corridor to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, traffic flow, and add parking. The College Street Gateway Boulevard Project converted an existing four-lane, undivided road to a two-lane, median-divided roadway with turn lanes, bicycle lanes, pedestrian crossings and additional landscaping.
Before the streetscape project began, pedestrian safety was a significant problem on College Street. Employees and visitors at the Buncombe County Courthouse — a 17-story, prominent historic landmark and popular destination — parked in a lot across the four-lane road and dodged traffic to cross the street. Speeding drivers often took advantage of the open road and limited traffic signals, disregarding pedestrians, and causing several accidents as a result.
In 2003, the city’s engineering department began redesigning a quarter-mile-long section of the road to improve speed-limit compliance and reduce traffic accidents. Because traffic on College Street averages 13,000 vehicles each day, city engineers determined that two lanes would be sufficient to handle the traffic. By eliminating two travel lanes, they could add landscaped medians, bicycle lanes and on-street parking spaces. Engineers also decided to replace a traffic signal one block east of the courthouse with a roundabout that clearly marks the transition from a multi-lane, moderate-speed street to a narrower, low-speed downtown street. On the east end of downtown, engineers planned to widen College Street back to four lanes, adding a second left-turn lane for traffic leaving downtown going toward I-240.
On Jan. 15, 2005, the public works department broke ground on the project and used city crews to complete most of the work. The city added 12 metered parking spaces, a transit shelter pad at a bus stop adjacent to the courthouse and a variety of trees and shrubs for the medians. Additional shrubs and flowers were planted by a local non-profit agency, and locally based Green Light Electric wired the area to power the medians. To clearly mark crosswalks and ensure their accessibility, the city installed brick red concrete safety tiles manufactured by Castek, a subsidiary of New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Transpo Industries, as sidewalk ramps. The roads were closed temporarily on a few weekends to complete utility work.
While not unanimously popular, the street changes have reduced drivers’ travel time through downtown and improved pedestrian safety, according to Anthony Butzek, Asheville traffic engineer. Drivers’ almost always yield to pedestrians since construction was finished June 30, 2005.
Recently, Asheville has begun converting several blocks of downtown from one-way to two-way streets, and reconstructing the historic square and government plaza in the city’s center. “Private investments often follow public ones, and several high-rise projects are currently under development on the reconstructed street,” Butzek says. “I expect the new College Street to be a contributor to the success of our downtown for decades to come.”