by Jordan Green
North Main Street property investors and business owners clamor for pedestrian-friendly design, but members of city council remain skeptical.
Traffic consultants hired by the city of High Point to evaluate a proposal reducing the number of lanes in a five-bock section of Main Street north of downtown have concluded that the number of diverted cars is relatively small.
The initiative is a recommendation of the Ignite High Point master plan, developed for the city by urban planner Andrés Duany and local architect Peter Freeman, designed to make the Uptowne area more pedestrian friendly and attractive for business. The technique has been successfully implemented on West Fourth Street in Winston-Salem and South Elm Street in Greensboro, along with countless other municipalities across the nation.
Some council members have expressed concern that the reducing the number of lanes on North Main Street would cause motorists traveling through High Point to drive through residential neighborhoods in an effort to avoid congestion caused by the changes.
Fred Burchett, a transportation engineer with Kimley-Horne & Associates who is part of the consulting team, said only 15 percent of southbound traffic and 10 percent of northbound traffic on the street is headed through the city as opposed to destinations within the core. He estimated that slowing traffic on North Main through lane reduction — known as “road dieting” — is likely to add only about a minute to travel times through the corridor.
Burchett and other consultants presented their preliminary findings to members of city council at the High Point Museum on July 22. Interim City Manager Randy McCaslin said the full study is not expected to be complete until October, at which point the council will need to make a determination about whether to go forward with implementation.
Traffic volume has been falling on North Main Street since before the 311 Bypass — now Interstate 74 — opened in 2004. Burchett said motorists who want to avoid North Main Street while traveling through High Point to Archdale and other destinations have plenty of alternatives, including the bypass. Hamilton/Wrenn St. and Centennial St. also run north to south roughly parallel to North Main Street.
“We found that we’ve got a pretty significant proportion of traffic that’s destined for downtown, but there’s also some that could be diverted,” Burchett said, adding that motorists traveling south through the city could use Hamilton and Johnson streets instead of North Main Street.
“I could argue they don’t need to be there; they can find another route through High Point,” he added. “They’re just doing it because they’re used to doing it.”
The consultants described the corridor as “autocentric,” giving the street high marks for level of service for cars but low grades for walkability, with a higher crash rate than similar streets across the state. While sidewalks on both sides of the street and multiple bus stops bode well for biking and walking, a high density of driveways, lack of mid-block crossings and nonexistence of bike lanes and racks generally discourage pedestrians.
Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall expressed skepticism to the notion that people drive much faster than the posted speed limit of 35 through the corridor. But Councilman Jay Wagner, a lawyer whose firm is located near the corner of North Main Street and Lexington Avenue, said it’s not uncommon to see people driving 50 mph.
Mendenhall suggested lowering the posted speed limit to get people to slow down. But Burchett countered that people generally drive according to the design specifications, and merely changing the speed limit will only result in unhappiness by police officers who are forced to issue more tickets and motorists who get stopped.
“If you take away a lane, the travel speeds will be lower,” he said. “There just won’t the opportunity for the gentleman to go 50 miles per hour because there will be more friction on the road.”
The consultants mentioned examples of road-dieting projects that have either been completed or are underway in other cities, such as Gaines Street near the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee, Hillsborough Street near NC State in Raleigh and High Point Road between Four Seasons Town Centre and the Greensboro Coliseum.
Stephen Stansbery, a planning engineering who is part of the consulting team, responded, “If you’re going to have a great street in your city it should be your Main Street. It’s where you have all your parades. It’s the front door to your neighborhoods.”
Aside from Wagner, a proponent of the North Main Street road dieting and a business owner on the street, no members of the current council stuck around to hear from commercial property owners on the corridor during a focus-group discussion that followed. The session drew mayoral candidate Bill Bencini and at-large council candidate Cynthia Davis.
Property owners expressed a general sense of frustration that the street feels hostile to pedestrians, with police failing to enforce traffic rules, and secondarily that their businesses are suffering because of it.
“I think it functions more like a highway,” said David Riedlinger, an investor who owns the Time Square building on North Main Street. “Even though the speed limit is 35, it’s not enforced. If you slow down to 35 you’re honked at. It moves very fast. There’s a lot of trucks going through there. They’re not using the bypass like the intent was because it’s easy and it’s an old habit.
“You can see a couple of areas around town where you have crosswalks,” he continued. “If you choose to use that crosswalk, which you are entitled to do, you’re taking your life in your hands. On the other side of it, as a driver — I happen to live in Sarasota, Fla. half of the year — and I can tell you, you abide by pedestrians walking across. It’s posted. It’s a $117 fine for not stopping or yielding to a pedestrian. And they do because it’s enforced. But here if you stop your car, which I tend to do regularly, you almost get rear-ended. People are honking at you and flying by. The guy that’s trying to walk across the street… I had a car swerve around me and the poor guy that was walking, he had to dive to get out of the way. He almost got killed.”
Bencini said he thinks the city should give road dieting a shot on North Main Street.
“I think it’s worth trying,” he said, “and I think the city of High Point deserves a focal point besides the Palladium.”
Davis said after the session that she is sympathetic to the need to improve North Main Street, but that council needs to be mindful of the cost.
“Achieving whatever we need to achieve needs to be done in a cost effective way,” she said. “What’s not being talked about is the cost to the city of High Point. $450,000 in bond debt increases the tax rate by a half a cent.”
Wagner said North Main Street is not currently conducive to local business.
“When people are driving so fast, they speed past businesses,” he said. “There are people who want to open restaurants, but they want to do sidewalk, café-style dining. And they can’t do that unless they want it to be their Last Supper.”