The city is scrapping new traffic patterns on East Exchange Street by the University of Akron after a groundswell of negative public feedback.

“Oh, nice,” UA junior Dylan Wilson said when he heard that city engineers will restore the second westbound lane on Exchange Street, which was replaced in August with a bike lane, parking spaces and bus stops.

“Everybody always talks about the bike lane. It causes traffic,” said Wilson, who gets off state Route 8 and weaves through campus to reach a parking deck, all the while avoiding Exchange Street.

City officials say the stretch of Exchange will be restored to the old traffic pattern by Oct. 15.

The new traffic pattern designed by Miami-based Street Plans Collaborative was supposed to stay in place through February as local officials collected data and feedback from motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. A little more than a month into the Knight Foundation-funded experiment, the city has heard enough.

“Have you seen the traffic jam today at 1 p.m.?” one commenter submitted to the city on a recent Thursday. “Are you kidding me? This is STUPID!!!!!!”

“I completely stopped driving my car on Exchange Street unless it is super early in the morning or later at night,” another driver commented.

“I’ve almost gotten into three accidents,” a third motorist said.

City, university and philanthropic leaders say the experiment was meant to inform a complete reconstruction of Exchange in 2021.

“It’s better to make a $40,000 mistake with private funding then a $7 million mistake with public funding,” said James Hardy, chief of staff to Mayor Dan Horrigan.

“The cool thing about this is it didn’t work, but it can be taken out with relatively little expense,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron director of programming for the Knight Foundation.

"Exchange Street is a vital corridor for walking, biking and driving, and we need to find the best way to accommodate all of those interests," said Kimberly Cole, UA vice president of development. "As we all work together to improve our city, we need to be willing to explore different ways of achieving that goal and learn from those experiments. That’s what this project enabled all of us to do.”

Safety experiment

The Knight Foundation gave $40,000 to the university to engage the city and hire the design firm. The new lanes were painted or outlined in pylons. Volunteers did much of the work. And there’s money left over to cover the cost of restoring the road to its original format.

The Hands on Exchange experiment was meant to pilot safer travel for all users of Exchange, a pedestrian-heavy, arterial route for vehicles spilling through downtown to get around the Central Interchange project. One less lane of traffic was supposed to make crossing the street safer for pedestrians. The bike lane would provide a cushion for students who travel the sidewalk lining UA. And the bike lane, in turn, would be buffered by on-street parking from cars that seldom travel at the 25 mph speed limit.

No westbound passing lane certainly slowed down traffic — maybe too much.

Eastbound traffic piled up, unable to turn north across a line of bumper-to-bumper vehicles heading west, at times backed up from Grant Street to state Route 8. When classes let out and workers are out getting lunch, cars block intersections after the lights turn red, which has the domino effect of causing traffic turning onto Exchange Street to back up through campus or the side streets between student housing to the south.

What in theory seemed like a safer travel pattern for pedestrians and bicyclists actually backfired. “I think it’s almost more difficult to cross the street, and I haven’t seen anyone use the bike lane,” said senior Alexa Paolucci, who makes the weekday commute to class from Fairlawn. “It sucks because I really think [biking] would be an eco-friendly alternative.”

Public response

Among 1,095 people who submitted their opinion of the project online to the city and its partners, two-thirds said the experimental traffic pattern caused delays. Another 20 percent said the traffic and congestion forced them to change their route.

Even cyclists, who got a safe path to travel for a couple of months, expressed little enthusiasm. Two-thirds said the bike lanes made no impact on their commute and only 11 percent said it made matters safer.

Hardy and Kutuchief are pleased with the bad results. After all, experiments are conducted to inform, not affirm. “You’ve got to be willing to pivot,” Kutuchief said.

“It’s back to the drawing board,” Hardy said.

Exchange Street will be redesigned. Hardy hopes that people see this failed configuration as proof that the city is engaging partners and the public before rolling out disruptive, new traffic plans.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.