City Looks to Two-Way Streets, Enhanced Signal Timing to Slow Down Traffic Woes

Jun 11, 2015

There are a couple of new trends in Austin transportation that will change the pace, and on some streets the direction, of traffic.

In an effort to make downtown streets safer and more attractive to Austinites on foot or on bike, the city has been converting certain one-way streets downtown into two-way streets. And the city is also working on some upgrades to traffic signal systems, with a goal of alleviating some of the red light frustrations drivers face downtown. 

One-Way Out

Starting this weekend, traffic patterns are going to change a little on Third Street downtown. There will be some lane closures between Guadalupe and Nueces streets, part of a long-term project that is drastically changing Third Street.

“The Third Street reconstruction project, this phase is the final phase of the corridor project that’s improving Third Street from Trinity all the way up to Nueces Street,” says Randy Harvey of the city’s public works department.

Harvey says when this final phase is done, Third Street will have new, wider sidewalks and a protected bike lane that’s part of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway.

It is also gradually going from being a one-way street to a two-way as each phase is completed. Currently, Third Street east of Congress Avenue has gone from a one-way to a two-way street. Next month, Third Street west of Congress Avenue to Guadalupe is set to go from one-way to two-way as that phase of the project is completed.

This change from a one-way street to a two-way street, which has happened on other downtown streets and is on the way for even more, is intended to help make streets downtown safer and more attractive to all road users. Phase 4 of the Third Street reconstruction is expected to take about a year. Other one-way streets under consideration for conversion to two-way are Brazos, Colorado, Seventh and Eighth streets.

Sending the Right Signals

As for the other arbiter of traffic flow in Austin — traffic lights — there's  a complex method to what can sometimes seem like a mind-numbing madness of signals. After four years of updating, Austin actually now has one of the more advanced traffic management systems (which controls the timing and coordination of traffic lights) in the country, according to the Austin Transportation Department. But the city isn’t fully utilizing it yet.

“We now have a system that we can take advantage of. If we want to get the full value out of that, we now need to activate our transportation management center, and have people staffed as much as possible – not quite 24-7, but pretty close to 24-7,” said Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar in a City Council budget session yesterday. Spillar noted that right now, El Paso runs their traffic management system more than Austin does. 

Spillar is asking council to approve funding for 12 new positions in his department to help actively manage the traffic signal system. These operators, he says, “would actually make the call to either change the signal system in response to traffic they observe, or respond to problems.”

One hurdle is that Austin’s traffic, though it may seem like it’s always terrible, is actually quite variable and difficult to predict, Spillar said. "Austin has some of the most variable traffic I've ever seen," he told the council, noting that three very different sets of employers have large numbers of employees moving in and out of the core of the city (the state, the University of Texas at Austin, and businesses with offices downtown. 

The city is talking to regional and state transportation agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation and Capital Metro to look into transitioning to a unified regional transportation management system, instead of the several separate systems that exist now. It would also allow Austin to learn from the traffic management systems of other Texas cities. "Houston treats their evening commute exit from downtown as if it were an evacuation of downtown Houston," Spillar told the council. "That's a very different way of thinking about how to get people out of downtown than we currently operate here."

As for why sometimes it seems you catch every red light for blocks in a row? Spillar told the council that sometimes the signals might be in the middle of changing over from one traffic pattern setting to another. In that case, you’re just unlucky.