I was disappointed to see that the City of Iowa City staff has recommended modifying past Council’s decision to convert Jefferson and Market Streets from one way to two ways. At first glance, this seems to be a superficial, unimportant decision, but it is actually a big deal, signaling that our community remains set in a carbon soaked auto-centric mindset where law enforcement remains the primary method of maintaining safe streets.
Why such a big deal?
First, let me trumpet one way street’s virtues … If you like carbon emitting vehicles, one ways move more cars quickly and efficiently than two way streets. That’s why in the 60’s and 70’s so many urban planners converted two way streets to one way streets. They work very well at moving large volumes of cars at greater speeds.
But their virtue is their vice. They move large volumes of vehicles at greater speeds and in many cases, at dangerous speeds for residential neighborhoods. For residential neighborhoods, 25 is the maximum safe speed, and even 20 is more ideal. 35 clearly is not safe in a residential setting. In historically designed neighborhoods (Pre-WWII), there is very little need for law enforcement to enforce traffic speeds, something that most of us agree is a commendable community safety goal. Think Longfellow Neighborhood in Iowa City. Its narrow streets, grid network and 10 foot lane widths nearly guarantee safe speeds.
The City of Iowa City made very clear commitments to Freedom Riders last summer, and one of the central themes was a commitment to reduce unnecessary contacts with law enforcement without compromising the legitimate need for the important functions that law enforcement do serve. Safe speeds are a legitimate need. Street design allows us to have our cake and eat it too: safe speeds without unnecessary contacts.
Two ways encourage safe speeds by the natural friction of seeing an oncoming vehicle. Drivers naturally slow down when they see oncoming vehicles. Conversely, they speed when unobstructed. When you couple with narrow streets, a very pedestrian friendly safe environment occurs, which encourages walking and biking, two low carbon friendly transportation modes. Better yet, you get this without unnecessary law enforcement contacts. Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot of great officers! But, speaking as of n of 1, when I ran for City Council, people of color identified unfair harassing contacts with law enforcement in 100% of my conversations. This means not just some, not just majority, but in every conversation with people of color that I completely trust. In the majority of conversations, those mentions were not even the point of the conversation, but as a fact of life, just the way things are, something to endure as part of the Iowa City experience. These sorts of conversations happened 100% of time when I campaigned for council with people of color. And I have to assume they are just the tip of the iceberg. This was the obvious backdrop to the rage Freedom Rider protesters felt last summer as after the death of George Floyd.
They protested, made demands, and most importantly, the Iowa City Council promised to meet many of those key demands, including most importantly, reducing unnecessary contacts with law enforcement. Traffic enforcement clearly serves an important function of law enforcement, but it becomes much less necessary if street design can achieve the same outcome. Two ways are a critical aspect achieving that goal.
In addition to safe speeds, two ways also eliminate an entire category of one way ticket violations. Iowa City can be very confusing for new arrivals to the area, especially its one ways. Nearly everyone of us has experienced waiving at a driver confused about one of the many one ways. I don’t have the data on number of one way ticket violations by law enforcement, but Jefferson and Market are key East/West city streets. I would anticipate that a significant number of one way violations do occur, especially late at night.
And less than 8 months of having made those promises, Iowa City staff has recommended changing the Jefferson/Market conversions without a work session or consulting with Council first. Now, the ball lies with the Council. Will they override staff’s recommendation or will they defer based upon “micromanaging” critique? Staff’s purpose is to carry out the strategic plan of council and that includes carrying out the promises that Council made last summer.
And on racial justice issues, I absolutely want Council “micromanaging” Council’s commitment to the promises it made to protesters last summer. Those promises were made and they must be kept. Two way streets promote legitimate needs of safe streets while reducing unnecessary contacts with law enforcement, a felicitous stacking of urban planning functions.
This will be a key test of Council’s leadership. I am hoping they do the right thing: reversing staff’s recommendation and leaving the prior one way to two way Jefferson/Market conversion in place.
If you’re interested in reading more on the virtues of two ways, read Jeff Speck’s Walkable City.