Over the last two decades, Birmingham has been a city that has worked at visionary urban design while remembering to preserve its heritage. Nearly 20 years ago, the city hired a master of New Urbanism, Andres Duany, who created a master plan, the Downtown 2016 Plan. The 2016 Plan helped the city redesign a new city square in the form of Shain Park, reinvigorated the downtown shopping district with streetscaping, led to the creation of the bistro licenses, as well to the creation of mixed use districts, such as the downtown area, Rail District and Triangle District, and mixed use buildings, where residential, retail and commercial uses are all utilized in one five-story building. Few would say that Birmingham was better off 20 years ago than it is today.
Yet not all change is for the better.
A year ago, the Birmingham City Commission expanded the duties of its Traffic and Safety Board to a Multi-Modal Transportation Board. Previously, the city commission had approved a Multi-Modal Transportation Plan, which provides guidance for all future transportation projects in Birmingham. The process was begun in May 2012, when city planners began the creation of a master plan for multi-modal transportation which they believe will transform the future usage of streets, sidewalks, rail, busses, bicycles and other forms of movement in the city for all users. The goal is that as roads and streets are repaired and redeveloped, they will be looked at, analyzed and redesigned with more than just cars in mind.
West Maple between Southfield and Cranbrook roads has been under the microscope of the multi-modal committee, and we applaud them for taking a look at this high volume, high impact roadway as it comes up for reconstruction in 2016. Currently under review is a plan that includes relocating bus stops closer to pedestrian road crossings, installing islands to facilitate safer road crossings, and converting its four lanes into a three lane road with a center turn lane and bike lanes along its edge on both sides.
While cycling is utilized for both recreation as well as transportation, and some foresee its use growing throughout the 21st century, many active cyclists tell us they would be hesitant to use bike lanes on the sides of West Maple, fearful of its traffic. A half-mile in either direction are Oak and Lincoln, much more amenable to bicycle traffic.
Which leads us to traffic on West Maple. It's fast, it's active, and it's a major east-west conduit, both in and out of downtown. Reducing traffic to two lanes, one in each direction, will force drivers somewhere else, whether to other major arteries or to side streets. Locals will be forced to side streets, creating dangerous driving hazards within communities. Turning left out of one of the neighborhood streets onto Maple now can be difficult, even dangerous. We don't want to create even more hazards.
City leaders must also consider the financial toll diverting traffic away from Birmingham would take. The efforts of the 2016 Plan have created a viable, walkable downtown whose retail and entertainment businesses boast a 97 percent occupancy rate. But that is fragile. Let's not give residents and visitors any reason to drive away because it's too much of a hassle to drive here.