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Oncoming traffic

Boise pushes for two-way grid downtown

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On a sunny spring day, drivers slide their cars into parking spots along Bannock Street downtown. Bannock is one of the few two-way streets among downtown Boise's circuit-board grid of one-way streets. But a movement is afoot to change the one-way grid so that more downtown streets resemble Bannock.

The idea of changing downtown's one-way street grid to a two-way grid began as a rumble in the downtown business community years ago. But now, the idea has reached Boise Mayor David Bieter, who has publicly acknowledged his interest in a grid change. Adam Park, spokesperson for Bieter, said that the mayor is very "intrigued" by the idea.

Business owners like Clay Carley, who owns properties in the Old Boise Historic District, argue that a two-way street grid would create a calmer, more enjoyable downtown. And that, said Carley, would be good for businesses.

"Downtown needs stops, getting in, getting out, walking around, intersections," said Carley. "Those are all things that make for a really vibrant downtown, and we compromise the vibrancy of our downtown by having a one-way grid."

A recent visit by Brookings Institution scholar Christopher B. Leinberger lent a new urgency to the idea of two-way conversion. Leinberger told the Downtown Business Association's annual meeting that Boise needs two-way streets downtown. DBA has also advocated for the change.

Boise's one-way grid dates back to the late 1950s, a time when suburban housing began to flourish and downtowns were changing from places to live to places to navigate through. In retrospect, these changes in downtown infrastructure contributed to the decline of urban areas across the United States in the 1980s, as suburban flight took root.

Interest in changing downtown streets isn't limited to Boise. Advocates say that changing one-way grids to two-way promotes a more walkable, calm urban space while promoting less driving, slower traffic, better interaction with the streetscape, and makes streets more visitor-friendly.

But not all are in agreement. There is data that argue for both one-way and two-way streets as the safer option. Robbie Johnson, spokeswoman for the Ada County Highway District, said that one-way streets are safer in many important ways.

"The advantage of one-way streets is that pedestrians and bicyclists only have to look one way for traffic," said Johnson. "For vehicles, there are fewer head-on collisions."

The city is just one player in any potential change to its downtown grid. The streets are actually owned and maintained by the ACHD. Any change to the grid would ultimately have to come from them.

The city has invited ACHD's Terry Little to meet with the City Council to informally discuss the possibility of changing some of the smaller downtown streets from one-way to two-way. Johnson said Little will recommend that big streets, such as Capitol, Main and Idaho, not be changed.

Change, if it comes at all, will come after considerable study, said Johnson.

"We wouldn't just arbitrarily make that decision," said Johnson. "We don't have a transportational reason to change, but we certainly want to hear what the city and businesses have to say."

With the state in fiscal malaise, proponents of a change might find it difficult to convince ACHD to ante up. The cost of a large change to the grid system depends on how many streets are switched from one-way. Johnson said changing 11th Street itself could cost between $100K and $200K, and might reduce on-street parking.

Many business owners favor conversion to two-ways.

"It's much more difficult for visitors to find their way around with one-way streets," said Stephanie Telesco, owner of Brick Oven Bistro. "The parking is really simple downtown, and there's a lot of it. But there is a reticence and a difficulty that guests have because of the one-way grid."

Sandie Waters, waiting to cross the street at State and Eighth streets, said that safety should be a priority when considering a change to the grid system.

"My preference would be whatever is safer for bikers and pedestrians."