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Changing Directions -- Downtown streets puzzler for decades PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jack Money   
Tuesday, 24 March 2009 15:21


Robinson Avenue - when it was a two-way street. 

MARCH 22, 2009: Oklahoma City Council members voted 87 years ago this week to limit the distance trucks could travel on Robinson Avenue to just a block.

The problem, council members were told, was that students at Oklahoma City's Central High School would be disturbed. With warmer weather coming, the school's windows would have to be opened to keep temperatures tolerable.

Cooler air wouldn't be the only thing let in by the open windows, council members were told. Students also would be assaulted by the noisy traffic outside of their classrooms' windows, said the Patrons' club of the school.

Also, given the significant numbers of churches and the presence of the Carnegie library located along the street, limiting truck traffic also would allow for less-disturbed activities within those buildings as well, city officials reasoned.

shot of Central High School
     Council members considered eliminating truck traffic entirely, but agreed to the one-block limitation in order to allow deliveries, they decided. (1)

By 1922, traffic problems in downtown Oklahoma City already were a constantly-nagging problem for the city's residents, and for city officials.

But until 1946, the city hadn't really sought any outside help to deal with them. By then, however, driving downtown and then finding a place to park had become quite a challenge, the city's leaders perceived.

Then, they finally asked for help -- and that help came from George W. Barton, a nationally-known traffic engineer and consultant.

Barton told city officials they needed a fulltime traffic engineer and a city department exclusively responsible for regulating the movement of vehicles through the city.

In 1946, after all, one city department was responsble for painting lines on roads and putting up signs, while another, the fire department, was responsible for regulating traffic lights.

Barton also offered his firm's services to look at the city's traffic and parking issues. City Manager William Gill, clearly bugged by the situation as it was then, agreed to propose a contract with Barton's firm to conduct a study.

He was supported by Dan Hollingsworth, director of the Oklahoma City Safety Council.

"There's lots of talk about our traffic problem, but no one seems to be doing anything about it," Hollingsworth commented to a reporter. "It's pretty bad. And it is going to get worse." (2)

City officials hired Barton and his firm.

The summer of 1947, Barton returned to town, first commissioning studies undertaken by the city's staff to determine existing traffic patterns. The results of checks at two intersections north of downtown showed a considerable number of vehicles moving through the area.

Nearly 42,000 vehicles went through NW 10 and Broadway during a 12-hour-long count, for example, and more than 26,000 vehicles went through NW 10 and Robinson during a similar stretch of time. Automobiles outnumbered trucks in both intersections by a four-to-one ratio, studies found. (3)

Walker Avenue claimed the title of busiest street during rush hour, with one count showing it carried 1,265 cars north out of downtown between 5 and 6 p.m. It also carried a high volume of traffic into downtown on Saturdays, as motorists headed for downtown's retail to shop. (4)

By now, word already was out on the street -- Barton was working to develop a one-way street grid for the downtown district.

In a November hearing on the plan before Oklahoma City's Traffic Commission, members of a Downtown Business and Property Owners association attacked the plan to make Walker a one-way south street, Harvey a one-way south street for half the day and a one-way north street for the other half, and Hudson Avenue a one-way north street, calling it impracticle and a threat to the values of the properties along the streets.

The plan also proposed making NW 5 and NW 6 one-way streets, one headed east and the other headed west. Opponents countered with a plan proposing to create one-way streets on downtown's edges, pairing Lee and Shartel as one-way north and south streets on the west, and Oklahoma and Walnut Avenues as one-way north and south streets on the east.

But City Manager Gill said told protestors at the hearing that he supported the proposal, even though only council members would get to vote. He also was backed by Oklahoma City's Real Estate Board, which maintained that downtown eventually would become worthless if traffic and parking issues were not addressed.

"You have been worrying about what will happen if your store is on the other side of the street," said Ray Byler, president of the Realtor's group. "You'd better worry what will happen if people quit driving downtown altogether." (5)

Ultimately, the traffic commission recommended a 90-day trial for the plan. But instead, council members chose to compromise, starting only by making Hudson and Shartel one-way traffic arteries, with the streets allowing for southbound traffic in the mornings and northbound traffic during the evenings.

Among those speaking in favor of the plan were E.K. Gaylord, publisher of The Daily Oklahoman, who noted that every major step of progress for Oklahoma City only had been achieved after bitter fights.

"Oklahoma City must go ahead," he declared, "we have 80,000 cars here now and will have another 5,000 cars in the next five years, as soon as they become available. If we don't relieve the traffic condition, downtown businesses will move out." (6)

Of course, a key piece of the plan, Barton told city officials, would be the restudying of downtown traffic flow patterns after the changes had been made. He returned to Oklahoma City in 1952. By then, Broadway was being rebuilt, and members of the traffic commission decided they needed to ban all parking along Robinson Avenue because of the additional traffic it was carrying.

"One mail or beer truck can block a whole land of traffic, and in the condition we are now, that's bad," said Commissioner E.V. Dennis. The group decided, however, did set aside two hours a day -- 10 a.m. to noon -- to allow for commercial vehicles to park along the street to make their deliveries. (7)

Ross Taylor, the city manager at the time, agreed to issue an emergency order issuing the ban.

But a day later, a reporter from The Daily Oklahoman couldn't see any signs it was being enforced. Charles Etheridge reported seeing a linent service truck double-parked on Robinson, just south of Main Street. Beer, soft drink and ice trucks were double parked nearly every block along the street. He observed a U.S. Mail truck left at the curb outside of the First National Bank for half an hour, right next to a no-parking sign. Motorists routinely were turning left onto NW 1 from Robinson Avenue, violating a posted prohibition.

Jaywalkers also were a problem, Etheridge, noted, especially at 3 p.m., "across the N Robinson canyon from the First National to the Cravens Building. Like swarming bees, the office girls appear from the skyscraper and defy the heavy traffic. They barge across the center of the block to the coffee shop in a solid mass of humanity. Trucks and cars move at their own risk. Ten minutes later, the swarm returns by the same route." (8)

the canyon
     A week later, city officials were fighting with the U.S. Postal Service about mail trucks parking on Robinson. Even though police were issuing citations to the offenders, they routinely continued to park their vehicles on the street and leave them unattended, city officials complained. (9)
     In 1954, Barton returned again, with a recommendation to make many other downtown streets one-way as well. Main Street would be made one-way, headed west, and Robinson Avenue would become a one-way street for southbound traffic. 

 Headed south                                                              Walker Avenue would be one-way northbound, Dewey would be made a one-way street headed south, Lee would be made a one-way street headed north, and Shartel would be made a one-way street headed south. (10)
    City leaders bought into the plans, and quickly started widening intersections to allow for the new traffic flow.
City planners estimated 2,256 new signs would be needed to help motorists find their way around the new traffic grid, about half of those designating traffic flow, and the remainder being no parking signs.
    The local newspaper, trying to be helpful, told readers in mid-May, 1955, that it would print a detailed map of the new street system Memorial Day weekend. "We suggest you plan to clip it out and perhaps carry it in your car as an aid to easier driving during the change," the article read. (11)
     After that, the local paper published a string of articles extolling the benefits of the new system. "Traffic Rush Time Slashed By One-Ways," one article headline read. Another article, titled "Traffic Plan Smooths Out Street Woes," started this way: "A little courage and a few dollars has improved traffic movement in downtown Oklahoma City 200 percent in the past four years." (12)
     But not everyone was happy. The Downtown Association asked Oklahoma City for an updated look at downtown traffic in 1959, saying some of its members "feel they were sold down the river" by some of the plan's features.
     Initially, association members declined to put up any money for a st'udy. But by 1961, they changed their minds, saying they would be willing to pay up to $8,000 for the work. "We are really hurting downtown," said Howard Bozarth, the group's president. (13)
     But the city forged ahead to make even more downtown streets one way. In 1962, members of the city's traffic commission agreed to make parts of NW 2 and 3 one-way streets, and to convert Reno and California Avenues into one-way streets too.
     Downtown merchants decided they were fed up. They demanded a meeting with the mayor, council members and city manager of Oklahoma City, asking for two-way traffic to be returned to Main Street and to Sheridan Avenue. Council members ascented to the request. Joe C. Scott, chairman of the Downtown Traffic committee, said the area had been losing ground to suburban shopping malls and that the bleeding had to be stopped. "This won't take care of everything, but it is a start," Scott said. (14)
     While city officials told the newspaper the change was one the plan proposed, and that it was just being done early, the council's decision prompted the chairman of the Oklahoma City Traffic Commission, Jack LaMonte, to resign from the board.
     "My interest has waned in voew of the apparent intention of city officials to disregard the considered judgement of traffic commission members who have served the city long and, I believe, effectively. It seems futile to me to pay for traffic studies and then to ignore them," LaMonte said. (15)
    But for Oklahoma City leaders interested in remaking downtown, the change only would be a temporary setback. Once the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority unveiled its plans for a shiny, new downtown Oklahoma City, Barton and his firm, Barton-Aschman Associates of Chicago, returned with yet another plan that would eliminate some sections of streets and push through earlier recommendations that had been dropped because of opposition. NW 5 and NW6, for example, were nominated yet again to be a one-way couplet.Another part of the proposal to make Reno and Sheridan a one-way couplet was debated, too. Neither made it through the process, however -- until later.
     In 1975, the city opted to make Reno and Sheridan one way streets through downtown while part of Interstate 40 was being worked on. City officials pushed for the change to be permanent, but, because of oppositition, the city council agreed to make the change only temporary. In 1978, they returned to being two-way thoroughfares.
     In 1986, city leaders finally got the approval they were looking for to make NW 5 and NW 6 one-way, saying the change was needed to accomodate downtown's tie-in to the new Centennial Expressway. (16)
     The next traffic pattern change for downtown Oklahoma City would not come until after 1995, and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. After that event, Oklahoma City closed a block of NW 5 that used to pass in front of the building, allowing for the land to be used as part of a permanent memorial to those who died there. The city also changed NW 5 and block to the east and west of the memorial, allowing for two-way traffic.
     In 1999, Oklahoma City decided it needed to look again at downtown traffic patterns and consider whether some streets should be allowed to carry traffic in two directions. Jay Swearingen, director of the Automobile Alley Main Street Program, said the look was needed. "We have far too many one-way streets in downtown Oklahoma City," Swearingen said. "They can discourage people who don't have much downtown driving experience.
     "And the effect on pedestrians is just enormous." (17)
     By 2001, a plan was ready to be looked at. But as some feared, traffic planners recommended keeping many of downtown's core streets carrying one-way traffic, at least within the central business district. North of NW 6, one way north and south streets would be changed to two-ways, while it proposed making NW 5 and NW 6 two way, west of Broadway.
     "In general, the study is a good start," remarked Kenny Walker, who owns the Walker Companies on NW 6 between Broadway and Robinson. But he added he had hoped for more.
     "I thought we were trying to make everything simpler," he said, "but this makes it seem like we are making everything more confusing. And anyone who knows me knows I hate one-way streets. I see no purpose in them." (18)
     When the city chose in 2001 to adopt the changes, not everyone was happy -- of course.
     Gus Gianos, a downtown business and land owner for decades, said he was happy with the current configuration. "We want to stay downtown, but we are tired of the city coming in and making these types of decisions," he said. (19)
      It would be another seven years before changes actually would be made.
     But in 2008, Oklahoma City's downtown drivers once-again had to learn a new system of getting around downtown Oklahoma City.

1) Trucks on Robinson May Run One Block, The Daily Oklahoman, March 15, 1922
2) Traffic Expert Offers Advice on City Snarls, The Daily Oklahoman, December 4, 1946
3) City Corner Has A Busy 12 Hours -- 42,000 Vehicles, The Daily Oklahoman, August 15, 1947
4) Busiest Rush Period Street? It's N Walker, The Daily Oklahoman, October 24, 1947
5) Tempers are One-Way, Too, Hearing is Hot, The Daily Oklahoman, November 22, 1947
6) Hudson, Shartel to Become One-Way Traffic Artereis, The Daily Oklahoman, December 18, 1947
7) City Plans Order to Bank Parking on N Robinson, The Daily Oklahoman, July 3, 1952
8) Traffic Nervy Ones Get Away With It, The Daily Oklahoman, July 4, 1952
9) The Mail Goes Through Fine, But N Robinson Traffic Doesn't, The Daily Oklahoman, July 10, 1952
10) 1-Way Street System Urged for Downtown, The Daily Oklahoman, July 15, 1954
11) Robinson, NW 16 to Be Key, The Daily Oklahoman, May 18, 1955
12) Trafic Plan Smooths Out Street Woes, The Daily Oklahoman, October 25, 1959
13) Councilmen Show Interest In Downtown Traffic Study, The Daily Oklahoman, May 10, 1961
14) 2-Way Traffic Set to Return on Main Street, The Daily Oklahoman, August 1, 1962
15) Traffic Planner Resigns, The Daily Oklahoman, August 26, 1962
16) Two Downtown Streets Due to Become One-Way Arteries, The Daily Oklahoman, October 2, 1981
17) Green Light Given To Traffic Study, The Daily Oklahoman, April 26, 1999
18) One-way or another, cure sought for downtown roads, The Oklahoman, May 28, 2001
19) City plan to change streets draws challenge, The Oklahoman, Sept. 06, 2001

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 March 2009 17:13