That most American cities suffer from a plethora of one-way streets is a blog topic in and of itself. After all, just last week I revealed on my personal blog how Houston’s vast downtown only has five streets with two-way sections, and not one of these streets completely transects the city center. The desirability of one-way versus two-way is an argument I’ll save for a later point, when I’m better prepared to identify the streets in downtown Indy that are the top candidates for a conversion. No doubt we can all think of that one irritating block where we can never turn the way we want to go.
But what about the civil engineering necessary in order to make the existing one-way streets feasible? Not every major street can switch from two-way to one way with the simple wave of a magic wand; typically, the entire point of converting a street to one-way is to aid in the flow of higher-speed traffic at the busiest times, allocating more lanes to improve Level Of Service during high-volume periods. But if a street already features numerous traffic lights and requires a stiff 90-degree turn in order to gain access, the one-way standards are not going to make a huge difference at improving the LOS. More often than not, transportation engineers enhance these one-way streets with higher maximum speed limits, gentle turn radii, constrained on-street parking, and timed traffic signals, so motorists don’t have to stop at every intersection. Just as a railway avoids right angles because a train cannot negotiate the curve at a high speed, most one-way streets split from a two-way arterial using as gentle of an angle as possible.
I can think of multiple examples where these “access spurs” exist in downtown Indy. The map below circles a few of them, in either red or purple; for the sake of brevity, I will only focus on the two in red, which seem the most problematic.
Let’s start with the one in the southeast quadrant, where a one-way, eastbound Maryland Street merges with a one-way, westbound Washington Street just to the west of Alabama Street. From the New Jersey Street intersection and westward, Washington Street is two way. But this wasn’t always the case: I have vague memories of a time when both Washington and Maryland were both two-way streets, as recently as the 1980s and even into the early 1990s. During the construction of White River State Park on the west side of downtown, engineers rerouted Washington Street into the serpentine design we use today; as most readers no doubt know, the pedestrian-oriented sculpture garden that links to Indianapolis Zoo forms the historic bridge for Washington Street and the National Road (U.S. 40). Concurrent with the construction of the curvy bypass, traffic engineers converted Washington Street’s divergence at Maryland into a pair of complementary one-way streets. Prior to this point in time (as confirmed by historical maps), Maryland Street terminated at Alabama, since the railroads and heliport prevented it from continuing eastward. But, upon converting Washington and Maryland into dual one-way streets, engineers decided that the eastbound Maryland needed to reconverge with Washington at the opposite side of downtown. Thus, we get this:
I’m standing at a point where Maryland Street has fully curved—after the intersection with Alabama Street in the photograph’s background—and the street is preparing to merge with Washington Street. Here are a few more views, pivoting from a direct westerly view toward the northwest:
And now a view to the northeast, where Maryland Street fully merges into what will be two-way Washington Street.
This is the “spur” that essentially allows Washington and Maryland Street to operate as complementary halves of an expansive, 12-lane arterial that just happens to have a full city block wedged in the middle. Standing at the intersection of Alabama and Maryland, one can see how all of Maryland’s many lanes flow in a single direction.
And here’s the view from the opposite direction:
Prior to the extensive surgery of the early 1990s, Maryland Street terminated here, at the viaduct/parking lot for the Indianapolis Heliport. Now the spur veers off to the far left of the photo, back towards Washington Street, as seen below.
Is this a problem? From a vehicular LOS perspective, absolutely not. Traffic usually flows unencumbered on both Maryland and Washington. What makes this contrived street segment frustrating is that it essentially reduces an entire downtown block to its lowest and weakest possible use: surface level parking.
Here’s a higher-grade view of the block that would be enclosed by Alabama Street, Washington Street, New Jersey Street, and Maryland Street—if it weren’t for the spur that now runs at a 45-degree angle.
And here’s the other side of the spur, pivoting just a little bit to the east:
With the exception of the three-story brick structure in the distance to the right, the entire block is a parking lot. And I’m not aware of a proposal in even the distant future that will change this condition. Here’s a Google Map view of that ill-fated block:
In terms of basic geometry, the oblique angle that Maryland forms differs little from Massachusetts Avenue to the north. But Mass Ave doesn’t have those high speed “exit ramps” with turn radii that obviate the need for motorists to slow down. The engineers were even generous enough to create a hairpin ramp that allows vehicles to reverse their direction 180 degrees, from eastbound Maryland onto westbound Washington! Essentially, the design of this junction gobbles up more developable space on the block than it ever would if it were a conventional 45-degree intersection, as is plainly visible on Massachusetts or Virginia Avenues. The combination of both the unconventional parcel shapes resulting from this street as well as the desired LOS (essentially just funneling high-speed traffic to its next destination) makes this last black of Maryland undesirable both as a pedestrian and from a development standpoint. Notice that on either side of the street, it can’t support even a single curb cut.
Not even the owners of the parking lots resting on either side of this 45-degree angle want vehicles to enter or exit on this ungainly street segment. The design intends for nothing more than to convey traffic, and, barring any further civil engineering, it will probably remain this way.
In an ideal world, Maryland would stretch to the next block, hugging along the Heliport’s viaduct and elevated parking until it could terminate at New Jersey Street. Such a design would give the block a more conventional square shape and render development feasible on this giant parking lot.
The utility poles in the center of the above photo show the ideal trajectory for a Maryland Street extension that follows the conventional street grid. But this would necessitate an even greater infrastructural investment, coupled with either the removal of a part of the heliport’s viaduct or an attenuation of Maryland Street as it sidles around the viaduct to the north. Since 100-year-old maps of the city reveal that, even then, the railway viaduct prevented Maryland Street from continuing eastward to intersect with New Jersey, we’re unlikely ever to see a break from tradition. The only initiatives that would ever prompt this to happen would be if market forces demanded it—developers pushing the city to redesign the street segment so they can build to a higher or better use than the current parking lot. Developmental pressures notwithstanding, the condition of the Maryland Street spur is unlikely ever to change.
The other critical example of this one-way street stub occurs just north of downtown. Its design is much more straightforward, so it doesn’t warrant as lengthy of an explanation. Here’s a close up of the intersection:
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that, in the good old days, the block used to be framed by Illinois Street to the east, 10th Street to the south, Capitol Avenue to the west, and 11th Street to the north. Once again, I remember the street adhering a much more conventional configuration when I was growing up, with 11th Street east of Capitol proceeding straight eastward, only to terminate (if I recall correctly) in a dead end where it would otherwise meet both the I-65 exit ramp and the portion of 11th Street serving that exit ramp. These days we get a sinuous curve where a two-way 10th Street east of Illinois forks to become another pair of one-ways: westbound 11th Street and curvy eastbound 10th Street. Here’s how it looks at the ground level, with my camera pointed eastward:
A two-way 10th Street stretches to the horizon from its intersection with Illinois Street. In the foreground, the pedestrian to the right is crossing at the one-way 10th Street. And to the left, 11th Street begins its one-way fork. Here’s how it curves to meet with the “actual” 11th Street at the intersection with Capitol.
As for the block carved out by the spur, it’s nothing but a huge parking lot on either side of the street. Here’s a view at the intersection of 11th and Capitol, looking southward (directly east of the yellow Stutz Building from the previous photograph).
Interestingly, the Google Maps shows some three-dimensional shadowed structures on the eastern side of the block (fronting Capitol Avenue), but they are no longer standing. Perhaps they were demolished in the past few years, but all that is there are some scrappy vacant lots for sale.
No prospects of anything else happening on this block, at least that I’m aware of.
In many regards, the 11th Street spur is a more egregious design than the Maryland Street one. Not only does the curvy shape of the street effectively preclude any development because of the consequent unusual shape of the parcels (hard to build without resulting in a lot of wasted space), but the 11th Street one-way doesn’t even offer a significant means of reaching any destination. 11th Street only continues for four blocks, changes names to Oscar Robertson Boulevard at the intersection with Martin Luther King Street, then, after another two blocks, merges back with 10th Street in a two-way design. I suppose this pairing between 10th and 11th Street helps for traffic flow in the area around the IU Medical Center and for some of the IUPUI commuters, but the designers of the road could have achieved a similar one-way pairing with 10th and 11th without having to render an entire block unusable through the construction of the 11th Street stub. The curvy layout is less compatible with urban design than a 45-degree approach.
Indianapolis is hardly unique for containing these street segments, grafted onto the grid ex post facto during an era when the greatest priority was to channel traffic through downtowns that were persistently losing jobs to the car-friendly suburbs. In the early 1990s, when public investment in downtown revitalization still seemed like a huge gamble with a questionable payoff, these one-way spurs surely seemed like a smart decision. With the wisdom of hindsight, it now seems clear that they not only detract from the pedestrian density that endow downtowns with their inherent appeal, but they repel any further private investment, at least on the blocks that the spurs directly impact. I’m not sure I can offer any realistic short-term solutions, which goes against my principles in writing urban advocacy blogs. My only hope is that market forces will eventually force engineers and planners for the City to identify a better use of these blocks—particularly the one at Maryland Street, sitting just four blocks from the absolute center of town.