In our little corner of the Southeast, there’s no topic as tired as the old saw “What the hell is wrong with Birmingham?”
Often, there isn’t even consensus on what the problem is, much less an attainable solution. We’ve seen snake oil, magic beans, and good old-fashioned bond debt all presented as the answer to all our troubles.
But in a city rife with so many problems, real and imaginary, little is said about the problems in Birmingham’s aging and outdated infrastructure. (Aside, of course, from our fiscally-crippling sewer system and associated administrative debauchery.)
Being “aging” and “outdated” aren’t the same thing. And Birmingham’s problems tend to lie firmly as the latter. Bill Bell’s administration, aided by the industrious-if-not-clever ALDOT, have repaved what seems like the entirety of the city in just a few years. But little has been done to change the way our streets and sidewalk actually function.
As it stands, the city of Birmingham’s streets serve only one purpose: to expedite the flow of traffic out of the city. Surely we can all recognize how counter-productive a goal like this is! We’re investing millions of private and public dollars to revitalize our urban core, but our main traffic goal seems to be making sure people get the hell out of town as quickly as possible.
Take a walk in downtown Birmingham any afternoon around five and what you see looks less like the largest urban center in the state, and more like a series of one-way highways interrupted by a pesky old city. Some of these streets, like 19th Street N, offer FOUR LANES of one-way pavement, as wide and unrestricted as our busiest highways.
Dozens of writers more knowledgeable and qualified than I have written on the numerous problems of the one-way. Though created in attempts to reduce collisions, they are often less safe than two-way streets, since drivers will speed down them at highways speeds without the “friction” of oncoming traffic. They are exceptionally confusing to visitors and often increase trip time due to extra turns and traffic signals. And they can poison a busy street-life, essential to any productive urban area, more thoroughly than almost any other policy a city government can set out.
One-ways, especially the wide asphalt expanses of downtown Birmingham’s “modern” street grids, are only comfortable to one type of person: drivers. When unimpeded by cross-turning traffic and given the freedom to jockey about four lanes, drivers experience something like tunnel vision. Anything on the street’s periphery is ignored, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians or cars leaving parking spots. Both pedestrians and residents are off-put by the increased noise and speed generated by one-ways. A person on the street feels out of place, casually walking while cars scream by in only one direction. When people feel uncomfortable, they are far less likely to spend time in a given place. When that place is your city’s sidewalks, you’re essentially shooting your redevelopment efforts in both feet.
Some of America’s most appealing (and affluent) urban areas are places that have challenged the hegemony of the car, either by not surrendering their historical urban fabric, like large parts of New Orleans, or by reclaiming what the roadbuilders took away, like Austin or Portland. Cars are an absolutely vital part of American urban life, but in Birmingham, like many other cities, we make sure their needs are paramount, even at the expense of the city itself. Birmingham won’t survive without cars, but we’ll remain on life-support if we can’t do something to promote pedestrian activity downtown.
Think about the area around 3rd Avenue North and 19th Street, home to the magnificent Alabama Theater, its rapidly-recovering sister the Lyric, the McWane Center, and various commercial and residential buildings in different stages of occupancy or development. It takes little imagination to see the huge potential in this area. Imagine a Friday night with both theaters lit up, with crowds walking around visiting the restaurants and bars that many entrepreneurs are already planning. Residents in the soon-to-be completed Whitmire Lofts are enjoying drinks on their balconies that overlook what would be the most scenic ands vibrant street in the Magic City.
If you’re anything like me, your little fantasy probably didn’t include seven lanes of 40-plus MPH traffic streaming through this intersection. But that is, of course, the current state. Why on earth would we want one of our prime civic destinations to only be accessible from the west and south? Why would anyone think the magnificent Alabama is best viewed at 45 mph from the driver’s seat of a car? As our one-way grid flows now, downtown workers headed to the southern suburbs don’t even drive past this area, as westbound traffic is routed down 4th Avenue N, another street that would greatly benefit from the reduced speeds and pedestrian-friendly mechanics of the two-way street. The Alabama at night is one of the city’s most wonderful spectacles, and our traffic system discourages people from driving by.
Or consider the 2nd Ave district, home to some of the most successful new businesses in the city. Like the theater district, this area is located on a one way street. And just like the theater district, it can’t even be directly accessed from 20th Street, Birmingham’s main artery. A commuter coming from the west would have to turn east down 1st Avenue, then turn left twice across multiple lanes of traffic just to get to Urban Standard for their morning coffee.
Perhaps this is just an “inconvenience”, but convenience is the lifeblood of many modern businesses. We’re hurting local entrepreneurs not only by limiting access to their stores, but also by creating an environment hostile to enjoyable street-life. How much better could this growing part of town be with two-way traffic and the improved walkability that comes from it?
Perhaps the biggest shame is that our one-way streets never come close to reaching their maximum capacity. Of course, this only further decreases the friction of traffic, encouraging higher and higher speeds. “Plenty of room with nowhere to go” may not have been our traffic-engineers’ guiding philosophy, but that’s the destination to which a long series of bad decisions has brought us.
Making the change from a one-way system to a two-way or mixed system is neither an overnight nor a free solution. But the minimal time and resources required could have both an immediate and long-lasting effect on the viability of downtown Birmingham as both a destination and home to our urban dwellers. In the past five years, our city has made impressive strides in both public and private development. It’s time for us to examine how our streets and sidewalks connect these developments and what we can do to improve them. By focusing on eliminating some of these one-way urban freeways, Birmingham can help give the downtown area a friendlier, more comfortable environment. The more welcoming the city becomes, the more people will come downtown. The more people come downtown, the more money they’ll spend. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.