Columbus motorists who travel 13th Street between 5th Avenue and 13th Avenue — between downtown and the Midtown area — next week will be making a major adjustment due to the closure of outside lanes.
The reduction in lanes along the viaduct that crosses an active Norfolk Southern rail yard and proceeds farther east to the intersection of 13th Avenue, where Kinetic Credit Union has its main office, will be part of a two-week test to determine if fewer lanes should be permanent.
“What we’re trying to do is create an environment that brings life back to the street, creates a calmer and slower 13th Street with these temporary outside lane closures,” said Anne King, executive director of MidTown Inc., an organization that works to improve life in the city’s central core. “It’s to demonstrate that businesses can flourish, and that cars, people, walkers and cyclists can coexist on this important connection between Uptown and Midtown.”
City crews are expected to begin installing barrels and barriers next Thursday to close off the outside lanes for the test period, which runs through May 27 and has the approval of the Georgia Department of Transportation. That means the 13th Street viaduct will have four primary lanes instead of six, with the short center left turning lanes remaining at each end.
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From 13th Street’s intersection with 10th Avenue to 13th Avenue, there will be three overall lanes during the test period, which includes two moving lanes and a center turning lane. That portion of the project is similar to the conversion earlier this year of four lanes between 13th Avenue and Lakebottom Park to two moving lanes with a center turning lane and small bicycle paths on each side.
Like the earlier reduction in lanes near the park, the closed lanes during the coming two-week test period will be available for pedestrians and bicyclists to move back and forth from Midtown to downtown. There will be a variety of activities scheduled over the two weeks to promote such usage of the non-motorized areas to demonstrate the future potential.
“The ultimate goal is to get more people walking and cycling on 13th Street from Lakebottom to Phenix City,” Columbus traffic engineer Alex Laffey said Friday in an email. “MidTown has generated concepts for each of these sections, which could include bike lanes and on-street parking in order to reinvigorate the business area between 10th and 13th (avenues). Both of these concepts will be tested simultaneously with the use of barrels which will mimic a construction project, closing off the outside lanes. However, there will, of course, be no construction and pedestrians and bicycles are encouraged to utilize the areas behind the barrels for the duration of the test period.”
The stretch of 13th Street that is part of the test is about three-quarters of a mile long, with a speed limit of 35 mph. Georgia Department of Transportation traffic counts show 19,100 vehicles a day in the area closest to 13th Street and 13th Avenue. Near 13th Street’s intersection with 5th Avenue, the count rises to 21,800 vehicles per day, then grows along 13th Street after passing Veterans Parkway and moving toward the bridge connecting Columbus and Phenix City.
King and others say part of the issue now is that many motorists speed through the test area — particularly over the wide bridge — essentially blowing by businesses that shriveled and died after their on-street parking was eliminated years ago to make way for two extra lanes. That move crowded the corridor and made it uncomfortable for sidewalk pedestrians only a couple of feet from rushing traffic.
What would improve that portion of 13th Street with buildings on each side would be to “calm” the traffic with fewer lanes, say proponents of the Midtown area, including Will Burgin, who redeveloped a nearby area called The Village on 13th. He said traffic in and of itself is not the issue.
“The problem is people come off of that bridge at 50 miles an hour and they race down there through that area thinking about which lane they need to jockey into,” he said. “So if we can get them to run the speed limit, come into some order and make it feel like a place, then I think we’ll have an opportunity” to renovate and revitalize businesses along the street.
Already, the previous conversion of 13th Street to three lanes instead of four in front of Burgin’s “Village” of businesses has made a big difference, he said. Fewer horns are being honked and people don’t appear leery of navigating the crosswalks in fear of getting hit by a vehicle. He’s heard no negative responses.
“Having no response either means that it was such an obvious occurrence that nobody thought anything about it, or it was so well received that it wasn’t worth comment,” said Burgin, who asks that motorists give the coming lane downsizing a chance and try driving through the area to see what it’s like.
“What I don’t want folks to be is nervous to try it,” he said. “Everybody should try it and give it a fair shake and we’ll see how it goes.”
Jack Hayes, a broker with KW Commercial, with several buildings for lease along 13th Street, also believes the reduction in lanes is long overdue. He envisions possible on-street parking on the street, plantings and other aesthetic enhancements. It could give the area a major boost that it sorely needs, he said, while also making commuting safer for everyone involved.
“You’ve got to have walkable communities, and a project like that would make it walkable,” he said. “Can you imagine walking over that viaduct right now? People do it, but they’re kind of taking their lives in their own hands.”
The entire effort is being generated out of the Knight Cities Challenge Minimum Grid Project and its “mobility plan.” King sees nothing negative from the elimination of the street lanes, while she also believes that there can be some sort of tourist-like promotion of having people bicycle and walk across a large viaduct, or bridge, with trains actively moving underneath. Some sort of viewing areas could possibly be installed at some point, she suggested.
“The goal is to better connect our core community of Midtown and Uptown for all modes of transportation — people who are walking, people who are riding bikes, people who ride the bus, and drivers. We want to create active public spaces where people and cars and business and recreation can coexist and connect.”
There also is the element of economics and improving the area for those considering starting and growing a business in Columbus, she said.
“You’re building places that people want to live in and move to, and that’s how you attract business and talent and how you keep talent in a community and make all of your citizens happier and healthier,” King said.