If you drive into downtown Kansas City every now and then for a concert, you probably know the feeling.
Lost in a maze.
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Two-way streets suddenly bleed into one-way streets. All those one-way streets are going the opposite way you want to go.
And be careful — with one turn you can find yourself on a wrong-way street facing three lanes of traffic headed straight at you.
Wherever it is you’re going, it can feel like you can’t get there from here.
This month it gets a little better.
The city plans to convert some of the most vexing one-way stretches to two-way. Walnut Street both north and south of the Power & Light District will go two-way, as will a few blocks of Baltimore Avenue and a stretch of 14th Street by Bartle Hall.
The city continues to consider further changes.
For Convention Centers Director Oscar McGaskey, the conversions can’t come soon enough.
“I personally have witnessed people going the wrong direction,” McGaskey said of the two-block segment along 14th Street between Broadway and Wyandotte Street. Currently, all cars head one-way eastbound into two-way traffic that begins just past Wyandotte.
“It’s very confusing,” McGaskey said.
Also applauding the proposed changes is Rick Hughes, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. For visitors, suburbanites and anyone unfamiliar with downtown, the change to two-way streets should help, Hughes said.
“The primary motivation is threefold: easier access, traffic calming and local business support,” he said.
The city’s traffic engineers have been working on the conversions for quite some time, said public works spokesman Sean Demory.
“It’s something we’ve heard from motorists, that downtown is tricky because of all the one-way streets,” he said.
Helping drivers is not the only motivation, although that’s a big plus. Some say this simple traffic engineering change can be another ingredient in downtown’s revival.
“One-way streets can be hostile to pedestrians and residents,” said Councilman Russ Johnson, chairman of the council’s transportation and infrastructure committee. “Two-way streets are more conducive to mixed-use urban areas. It tends to slow down traffic, is more pedestrian friendly.”
It used to be even worse.
For years, downtown’s one-way streets, including Main Street, propelled people in one direction –– straight out of downtown, recalls Sean O’Byrne, vice president of business development for the Downtown Council.
“The engineers were trying to get 90,000 office workers out of town,” he said, adding that the philosophy has changed dramatically since then. “It doesn’t need to be that rapid evacuation of office workers. We would prefer you go to Joseph A. Banks or go to dinner at Power & Light.”
Main Street was converted to a two-way street in 2006, and Walnut became two-way from 12th Street to Truman Road, within the Power & Light District, in 2008. McGee was also converted to a two-way street years ago.
Now that downtown has 20,000 residents and is no longer just a daytime office environment, O’Byrne said, it makes sense for the street conversions to continue accommodating changing traffic and lifestyle patterns.
Weather permitting, crews will convert Walnut Street to a two-way street between Truman Road and 20th Street on Sunday. A week later, weather permitting, Walnut Street will be converted between Fifth Street and 12th Street. By mid-May, Baltimore will be converted between 10th and 12th streets, as will the 14th Street section.
The downtown streetcar is one impetus for converting Walnut Street now, Johnson said. The streetcar will run primarily on Main Street, so allowing traffic to travel both ways on Walnut should ease some congestion, he said. But it also made sense because Walnut is already two ways within the Power & Light District.
“This finishes Walnut,” Johnson said.
Kansas City traffic engineers have actually been recommending two-way street conversions downtown for more than a decade. A 1999 traffic circulation study pointed out that, for the previous 50 years, one-way streets were used to eliminate traffic congestion. But then the thinking changed.
Johnson notes that the conversion has taken years in part because of funding. It costs money to change the traffic signals, and much of that has been grant funding. The latest conversions will cost about $500,000.
The city is also planning to convert Charlotte Street from Independence Avenue to 11th Street later this year, but the timing has not yet been determined.
It won’t be possible to convert all one-way streets, especially going east-west, Johnson said.
“Some one-ways won’t go away because of the lane width,” he said.
So it may never be possible to entirely uncomplicate driving through downtown.
For example, despite the conversion, Baltimore Street between Ninth and 10th streets will remain one way just to the west of the downtown library.
The explanation: That’s already a narrow street lined with trees and other landscaping, and it just makes sense to keep it one-way for library delivery trucks and other vehicles.