One way or another, Akron had to do something about its crowded downtown streets.
Rush-hour traffic tied the city up in knots. Major intersections turned into bottlenecks as motorists attempted to make turns against a nearly endless parade of oncoming vehicles. Four-way stops were as slow as molasses.
City Councilman Bill Denning, a Democrat from Ward 5, had a plan to break the logjam.
Chairman of council’s traffic committee, Denning introduced an ordinance in early 1956 to eliminate two-way traffic on two major thoroughfares, turning Broadway into a northbound route and High Street into a southbound one.
Denning said one-way traffic would speed the flow downtown and allow drivers to park on one side of High Street. Councilmen Gilbert J. Green Jr., John H. Campbell and John A. Head, who also served on the traffic committee, endorsed the idea.
“We want to work up some plan ourselves before we are besieged by plans from these barbershop engineers,” Campbell noted at one meeting.
Denning believed the measure could be enacted swiftly, saying in March: “Traffic is going to be increasing soon now that the weather is improving, and I’m also interested in providing some downtown parking spaces, if possible, for these spring sales.”
But one-way traffic hit a roadblock.
Akron Traffic Engineer Herbert Woodling was skeptical that downtown streets, particularly Exchange, could handle more drivers making left turns.
“Right now, everybody is turning left off Broadway to go east on Exchange,” he said. “What will happen when we force them to use High and Exchange for these turns?”
After studying the issue for a few months, Woodling reported back to the panel that its one-way plan was “not feasible at this time.”
Nearly 35,000 vehicles passed through the Broadway-Exchange intersection between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day, he said. One-way streets would make it worse, he said.
“There’s no room for more traffic,” Woodling said.
City Council briefly revived the issue in 1959 during construction of the West Expressway south of downtown. Highway engineers had designed the ramps on the “super road” for one-way traffic.
Downtown merchants feared they would lose customers if new traffic patterns forced changes in parking. Firefighters worried that engines would drive against traffic to reach emergencies. Transit workers believed they would lose riders if bus stops were moved.
The council voted 10-2 against one-way streets.
In 1963, Mayor Edward O. Erickson urged city officials to develop a traffic routing program to handle the influx of automobiles when the expressway opened at the end of the year.
“The feet of the people of Akron are firmly planted on the road to progress,” he said. “The prospects are bright. This will be an unprecedented year in Akron history.”
One-way streets were back in favor, although the city reversed course after Polsky’s store officials feared that the traffic change would block their new parking deck.
High Street would be north and Broadway would be south.
Mayor Erickson explained that the plan “must be viewed as an experiment.”
“This is an attempt to try to move traffic better through downtown,” he said. “We may have to make some changes. So don’t conclude that this is it!”
South Akron traffic was the first to change.
Main Street became southbound from Hackett Street to Ira Avenue and High Street became northbound from Long Street to Hackett. The one-way traffic pattern began Dec. 10, 1963, one week before the expressway opened.
Despite 6-foot signs reading “All Traffic Must Turn to One Way,” several motorists ignored the barriers. A wrong-way driver bumped into a police cruiser. Another motorist honked at approaching traffic before realizing he was the one going the wrong direction.
One older woman told a cop who pulled her over: “Young man, I’ve been driving this way for years and I don’t intend to change now.”
In February 1964, Polsky’s backed down from its objections, so Akron officials reverted to the original plan. High Street was south and Broadway was north. Drivers didn’t know if they were coming or going, so the best tactic was to follow the arrows.
“It happens at the witching hour tonight,” the Beacon Journal reported Aug. 23, 1964. “Akron’s downtown one-way street pattern will become official at midnight and scores of Akron motorists likely will find it, like black magic, a little baffling at first.”
The switch was delayed until 6 a.m. Aug. 24 and there were a few bumps along the way.
Officials forgot to remove a left arrow that used to direct westbound Exchange Street traffic south on Broadway. Drivers who followed it screeched to a halt against oncoming traffic.
Crews also didn’t get around to adding green-arrow lenses in traffic signals on cross streets. So drivers had to wait for an opening.
And someone forgot to paint over an arrow on Broadway. The driver in the east curb lane went straight but the driver in the second lane made a right turn. Minor accidents ensued.
Police had to direct confused motorists at major intersections. However, Traffic Engineer Woodling, the former foe of one-way streets, said drivers were adjusting “as well as can be expected.”
Rush-hour commuters continued to jam Exchange Street so another plan was developed in 1964. Exchange would become a one-way route west from Main Street to Rhodes Avenue, and Cedar Street would be extended to Rhodes to serve as a one-way conduit toward downtown.
“The idea is to split the traffic up,” said Charles E. Susong, deputy manager of Akron’s engineering bureau. “There is no good way to use Cedar Street at present. You have to jog around so much to get to it that people just won’t do it.”
The project wasn’t completed until the mid-1970s.
Now it’s changing again. Sections of Exchange and Cedar have reopened to two-way traffic.
“By carefully converting one-way streets back to two-way traffic, we are making it more convenient for motorists to access their downtown destinations,” Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan explained in a prepared statement this month. “This conversion of Exchange back to two-way movement will allow safe and efficient access to Akron Children’s Hospital and the Exchange Street corridor.”
Didn't Mayor Erickson warn us in 1964?
“We may have to make some changes,” he said. “So don’t conclude that this is it!”
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3850.