Restripe the Street

This newspaper made a recommendation on May 31 about the stretch of Willamette Street being contemplated for redesign. People are still talking about it. The editorial suggested that the city restripe the street for a three-lane configuration, plus bike lanes. Why not give that proposal a trial run, just so people can see how it will work?

A steady stream of letters to the editor have continued to opine, for and against the three-lane configuration. Here we have a rare opportunity to move beyond argument by assertion and experiment with alternative outcomes.

Will bicyclists flock to the area and the shops doing business there, or will they still prefer other routes with less motorized traffic? Will drivers use the middle lane for left turns, or will the single-file oncoming traffic leave no opportunity for turns? Will busses without turnouts create frustration for drivers or danger for pedestrians? Will emergency vehicles gain safe passage when necessary?

These are good questions. We don’t know the answers. That’s what experiments are good for.

Last month, Eugene hosted another iteration of its summertime Sunday Streets. Large swaths of Broadway and 8th Avenue were closed to motorized traffic for several hours on a Sunday to “give the streets back to the people,” if only for a few hours.

Local bicycle activist Sue Wolling and local physician John Alcott advocated an occasional Sunday morning closure of Willamette Street five years ago. (I wrote about that idea in May, 2009.) Residents and city staff scoffed at the idea back then, claiming that any change from the status quo — even for a few hours — would be an unwelcome disruption.

Other cities have learned otherwise. Next weekend, Portland will host its 18th annual Bridge Pedal, where bicyclists are allowed to take over each of the city’s eleven Willamette River bridges for a short time. They expect 20 thousand participants.

Eugene now has staged Sunday Streets in several neighborhoods, though not yet Willamette Street. More importantly, city officials have seen a shift in attitude. “When we first started it, people were skeptical,” Planning and Development Director Sarah Medary told me. “Now people are calling us and asking when can it be their turn.”

Exactly. People don’t fear change. They fear uncertainty. Oftentimes, the new is more pleasant than the old. But until that’s certain, status quo offers the comfort of familiarity. We often prefer to stay with “the devil we know.”

So it wasn’t surprising when representatives for Lane Transit District and the Eugene Fire Department stated for this newspaper that the current configuration works fine for them. Each later had to “walk the cat back” and clarify their official position. Both emphasized later that they would adapt their practices to whatever design is ultimately chosen. We all will.

“There’s no excuse for the city not to restripe the street and give people a chance to see if it works.” This statement was made to me this week by a local expert on using paint and other simple means to create entirely new experiences for large numbers of people.

In Jim Roberts’ world, it’s called stagecraft. After staging literally hundreds of different shows in the same space at Actors Cabaret in downtown Eugene, Roberts knows how to make people suspend their disbelief. He has “street cred” about how to give this stretch of street some credibility. It also doesn’t hurt that he lives in south Eugene and knows the neighborhoods that would be affected by any change.

It’s not very often that such a big change can be tested so easily. A few gallons of paint and some temporary signage will change the Willamette Street experience literally overnight. Maybe the alternative will be better, or maybe we’ll learn better to love what we’ve already got. The trial run will reveal advantages and difficulties that nobody anticipated.

If you want certainty, I can offer you only this. Trying the new way for a short time will improve the ultimate outcome. Whatever final decision the Eugene City Council makes for south Willamette Street, its implementation and acceptance will be improved by what we can learn by testing the alternative.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.