How narrow is too narrow for Liberty Street?

How narrow is too narrow for Liberty Street?
Posted at 8:00 AM, Mar 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-02 09:16:14-05

CINCINNATI -- A compromise might be the best shot neighbors have at getting some traction to fix a broad gap through the middle of Over-the-Rhine.

That gap is Liberty Street, a suburban-style corridor bisecting Over-the-Rhine into northern and southern halves. Its crosswalks take twice as long for people to get across as other neighborhood streets; neighbors complain about dangerous traffic and that it simply doesn't feel safe; and, some believe, it's a barrier to Over-the-Rhine's renaissance reaching farther northward.

BACKGROUND: How Liberty got to be this way

Plans and studies have been in the works for years. And now, the city is trying to get some consensus around any two of eight possible options for narrowing the street -- or nine, if you include doing nothing at all.

City Architect Matthew Andrews talks about some options for Liberty Street during an open house at the Woodward Theater. Photo courtesy Mel McVay.

Right now, Liberty Street is a seven-lane road: two dedicated parking lanes, two travel lanes in each direction, plus a center turn lane. Crosswalks are about 70 feet long; in other places in Over-the-Rhine, they're 35 to 40 feet.

Options offered up by the Department of Transportation and Engineering ran the gamut -- bike lanes and no bike lanes, permanent parking lanes and no parking lanes, even a wide sidewalk as a shared bike-pedestrian path. And, critically, several of the options would reduce the street's right-of-way, which could make half-lots on the street's south side large enough to build on.

Survey results the city released Tuesday night during a meeting at the Woodward Theater show a preference by neighbors for two of those options, both of which would narrow Liberty Street significantly -- and both of which come with their own set of drawbacks.

Oh, and the city doesn't think one of those options is very realistic. At least, not right now.

A five-lane option got the most votes; it would take the street right-of-way down to 70 feet from 90 feet, adding 20 more feet to those small half-lots. Crosswalks would be cut down to 50 feet. And, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., there'd still be two travel lanes in each direction, plus a permanent center turn lane. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and on weekends, City Architect Matthew Andrews said, the curb lanes could be used for parking.

A five-lane proposal for Liberty Street, as envisioned from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays when on-street parking would be prohibited. Image provided by City of Cincinnati

The same section, as envisioned on weekends and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays, when on-street parking would be allowed on both sides. Image provided by City of Cincinnati

But, the design doesn't have any bike lanes, and some aren't convinced it would fix the traffic problem.

"I think that it may be a half-measure, ultimately," OTR resident Bill Cappel said. "You're still going to have two lanes of traffic in each direction. You're still going to have race car behavior and traffic weaving."

Cappel, like a lot of others, told Andrews they want to see Liberty as a three-lane street: permanent parking on both sides of the street, one travel lane in each direction and a center turn lane and bike lanes.

That design, a pretty standard "road diet," was the option that came in a close second in the city's online survey. The problem, the city says, is that it's really not feasible. And traffic data obtained by through a public records request appear to back up the city's position.

A lengthy guide from the Federal Highway Administration warns a road diet might not work on streets that have to handle a high volume of cars, or a glut of cars at rush hour. Plus, you've got to pay special attention to all the turning movements vehicles make onto and off the street, too, the FHWA says.

About 20,000 vehicles a day is the maximum the FHWA says is feasible for a three-lane road diet; as for rush-hour traffic load, the FHWA says anything above 875 vehicles per hour per direction probably won't work.

The city data is a mixed bag, with the average daily traffic coming in below the recommended maximum, but some key areas of Liberty Street hitting well above the maximum rush-hour load.

Specifically, data from the section between Elm and Race streets showed 16,000 to 17,000 vehicles on Liberty on Nov. 13 and 14, 2012; that's well below the 20,000-vehicle threshold the federal government uses as guidance.

But a week earlier, at Vine Street, a city consultant counted 912 vehicles headed westbound during Wednesday evening rush hour on Nov. 7, 2012; the next day, the consultant counted 966 vehicles headed westbound at Race Street during the same evening rush hour, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., suggesting the high load wasn't a one-day fluke.

Bryan Williams, a city traffic engineer, said he spent two weeks driving Liberty to help generate a computer model of what would happen if Liberty were cut down to three lanes. The model, which he showed Tuesday night, had "serious congestion at east-west intersections and north-south intersections."

The data also show Liberty doesn't have neat peaks of traffic during rush hour; on most major streets, Williams said, traffic is heading in one direction in the morning commute and then in the other direction for the evening commute. With a road diet, he said, you can sort of grin and bear it during those peak times if it's just heading in one direction.

"Liberty, the peaks come up in the morning, and they're both directions just about equal. And then they stay that way; they don't come back down, and they stay up there through the p.m. peak, so that makes it a little different than our other arterials," Williams said.

Some wondered why an objective wasn't to divert cut-through drivers to another route, and if that might not make a three-lane design more feasible.

"People reroute their routes after the road will shrink," Cappel said. "People will take other ways."

But, according to Andrews, there's simply a lack of alternatives.

"Central Parkway takes you south before it takes you west or east, and then McMicken takes you north," he said. "And there's really no connected east-west streets other than Liberty. But you'll also negate a lot of truck traffic, and trucks are jobs -- that's Christian Moerlein, that's getting concert venues open, et cetera, et cetera. We're not killing any jobs for this."

Plus, Williams said, traffic data show that most people driving on Liberty are going to or from somewhere in the adjacent neighborhoods: "You hit every red light, so you're not getting on Liberty to cut through town."

Andrews argued, too, that getting to a five-lane design could get drivers to slow down, because the half-lots would become large enough to support new buildings.

"And if they get built on, you narrow the street both physically in its width but also visually with new buildings being built," he said. "And Liberty will look more like Vine or Main or Elm Street, and hopefully, that will naturally calm traffic, which will also make it beneficial for bicyclists and pedestrians."

Frank Henson, a Cincinnati bicycling advocate, takes the long view and sees fixing Liberty as a two-stage process.

"The issue we have now is the existing width of Liberty," Henson said. "And we need to get it smaller. And so this five-lane effort does that. And then in the future, we can work on getting bicycle stuff in. We don't have to have it all right now."

It's a possibility Andrews said the city has considered: If traffic reroutes or reduces, he said, the five-lane design could be pretty easily converted over to the three-lane design.

"We're hoping, as you guys hope, that the traffic is reduced and evaporates, and that evaporation will occur by not driving or by taking McMicken or Central Parkway," he said. "It's hard to model what the future's going to be."

That future, many like civic activist Casey Coston hope, will look a lot like the past.

"It's amazing how we were able to function in the early 20th century," he said, "when Liberty was a two-lane street or neighborhood road."

What's Next

Any changes to Liberty Street are likely years off.

Andrews said the city is going to take feedback from Tuesday night's meeting to figure out what the final two options will be; then, they'll study those some more, and eventually ask for neighborhood input to cut it down to one option. City staff still needs to talk with property owners along Liberty, as well as the Over-the-Rhine Community Council.

No money is budgeted for construction, and the city has no estimates yet of how much any of the options might cost to build.