Is it time for Main Street to run both ways?

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Oneonta as a city that has converted portions of its main downtown streets to two-way traffic.

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CORTLAND, N.Y. – At a meeting of Cortland Common Council Tuesday night, lawmakers voted 5-3 to apply for a $35,000 state grant to conduct a traffic analysis of a two-way Main Street.

For some city lawmakers, a closer look at converting Main Street back to two-way traffic is a long time coming, while others feel the street should be left alone.

Regardless of opinion, cities across the country–including several in Central New York–have converted their downtown street networks from a traditional one-way operation in favor of two-way traffic.

Among other intended benefits, converting to two-way traffic has, in some places, led to improved traffic flow and reduced driver confusion–and some city officials think a similar fix could work for Cortland.

In fact, Main Street was once a two-way street, as evident in this photo:

G.H. Wiltsey (donated by Linda Kline)


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Why did it change in the first place?

In the late 1950s, a portion of Main Street between Tompkins Street and Groton Avenue was converted to a one-way street largely in response to a new shopping trend: strip malls.

Businesses began to build their own parking lots, providing drivers with free parking and offering consumers a seemingly more convenient shopping experience.

In response to this threat to the downtown core, many cities began to convert their main streets into one-way streets, according to Mack Cook, director of administration and finance for the city of Cortland.

This change allowed city planners to increase the amount of parking spaces available in the downtown area.

“We started to think we needed more parking on Main Street in order to compete against the free parking in the suburbs,” Cook said.

Now, city officials want to find out if a two-way Main Street would hurt or hinder commercial businesses in the downtown area.

What are the potential benefits of converting to two-way traffic?

In 2004, the City of Elmira converted portions of two of its main downtown streets to two-way traffic, partly in response to business owners who said they didn't receive enough foot traffic.

Cities like Batavia and Hamburg have also made similar changes.

“It has been a very common transition of a Main Street back to its historical traffic patterns,” Cook said.

One-way streets can lead to higher traffic and decreased pedestrian safety, while two-way streets can be more easily buffered to slow traffic down and are better suited for bike lanes, Cook said.

There’s research out there to back up some of Cook’s claims. In a 2012 study published by a civil engineer at Penn State University, Vikash Gayah argued that converting one-way streets to two-way traffic can actually decrease congestion, especially in smaller cities.

Two-way streets can also increase economic activity and improve livability in downtown areas.

“Two-way streets are better for local businesses that depend heavily on pass-by traffic,” Gayah writes. “Additionally, traffic signal timing on two-way streets forces vehicles to stop more frequently than on one-way streets, giving drivers more exposure to local businesses.”

Having a two-way street can also increase the visibility of downtown by making the street itself more accessible, Cook said.

Why is the city applying for a grant?

Because the city of Cortland does not have an urban planner or traffic engineer on staff, officials would use the grant money to hire an outside engineering firm to conduct a study, Cook said.

“If we don’t get the grant, then maybe we’ll do it ourselves,” he said.

The city must submit the grant application by the end of July and will likely hear back by the end of the year, Cook said.

“It’s time to take a look and say, ‘What is the reason why it was converted, and are those still relevant factors?”’

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