ST. PETERSBURG — Should a downtown have more one-way streets or two-way streets? When it comes to that question, St. Petersburg and Tampa are driving in opposite directions.
Tampa has quietly shelved plans to switch several one-way streets to two-way. In contrast, St. Petersburg is weeks away from putting two-way traffic on the streets running north and south on each side of the BayWalk complex.
You might think this would not make much difference, but traffic engineers, urban planners and businesses say it does. The two kinds of streets do different jobs.
A one-way street is basically a traffic funnel designed to quickly and efficiently sweep cars through an area. Two-way streets tend to be better for businesses — they're slower and more inviting to pedestrians, generating more customers. Cars are less likely to barrel past shops and restaurants, and walkers are more likely to drop in.
"The tendency now is that more cities are going back to two-way streets," said Wilson Stair, Tampa's urban design manager.
Tampa Bay's two biggest downtowns will continue to have a mix of one- and two-way thoroughfares, but the trend is leading away from one-way.
St. Pete shuffle
Two-way traffic might boost business, but St. Petersburg's main reason for making the switch is to make its downtown less of a pain for drivers.
"We get complaints from people visiting downtown that our one-way streets make it confusing," said city transportation director Joe Kubicki.
Within 30 days, the city will convert First and Second streets from one-way to two-way traffic between Central and Fifth Avenue N, the area around BayWalk. Officials have been meeting with property owners to talk through concerns, including the need to get cars in and out of BayWalk's parking garage.
Two years ago, when the city converted these same two streets between Central and Fifth Avenue S, it ran into opposition from Bayfront Tower residents. This time, the idea appears to have support from nearby businesses and residents.
"The one-way streets are totally inefficient. Every trip you take is twice as long as it needs to be," said Timothy Baker, past president of the city's Downtown Neighborhood Association, who lives on Second Street.
While Tampa has spent more than $800,000 a pop to convert some of its one-way streets, St. Petersburg will spend only $50,000 on this job. But that's just to adjust traffic lights and signs. That figure doesn't count the cost of repaving because the city was planning to do that anyway, Kubicki said. Also, pricey traffic signals designed to withstand hurricane-force winds won't be installed until later.
The city has converted one-way stretches of Second avenues N and S and Third Avenue N, and it may tackle other parts of those roads in the future.
Still, the major one-way routes leading into and out of downtown are going to stay one-way. That includes First avenues N and S, which cross the city; Fifth avenues N and S, which link to the interstate; and Third and Fourth avenues, which are controlled by the state.
Most of downtown's one-way patterns were devised a generation ago when the city expected massive population growth to create monster traffic jams.
"We built this in anticipation of something that never really came," Baker said. "You look at some of these streets, they're five lanes wide and there's no cars on them most of the time."
During her first term, Mayor Pam Iorio announced a multiyear plan to put two-way traffic on four of the smaller east-west downtown streets just north of Kennedy Boulevard. They had been one-way for 50 years, but Iorio and downtown boosters wanted a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
Madison Street was converted in 2006, Twiggs Street in 2007. Since then, more businesses are slowly taking root there.
"Two-way traffic slows things down and creates a more interactive environment. It's been a good thing for us," said Jeff Darrey, president of Indigo Coffee, which opened a shop on Twiggs this year. A pizza place and a sandwich shop will soon open in the same building.
Zack and Polk streets were to be next, starting this summer. Cass and Tyler streets might have followed, although major one-way arteries like Florida Avenue, Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard were off the table.
Then the city ran out of money. Rewiring the downtown street grid is surprisingly expensive, it turns out. Two-waying Madison cost $810,000, Twiggs $870,000.
Why so much? Crews repaved the streets or replaced damaged brick on the road surface; installed new traffic and pedestrian signals and faux-brick crosswalks; put down new stripes and arrows with thermoplastic paint; and reconfigured parking spaces and meters.
Some still hope to see Zack and Polk streets get the switch.
"It's good for business because it's good for people. It makes downtown more user-friendly," said John Bell, president of the Tampa Theatre, which sits between the two streets.
But the two-waying project is on hold, perhaps permanently.
"That's on the back burner for now," said Tampa public works administrator Steve Daignault. Instead, downtown property taxes are being used for a new $15-million riverfront park.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.