Lately, Hennepin County has pushed closer to its goal of reducing parking spaces on West 50th Street to improve traffic flow. But doing so would be a classic case of over-engineering, and the consequences for 50th could be devastating. Commerce along this street depends upon available parking; eliminating it to "improve" the vital thoroughfare would be like throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
Recently, I decided to incorporate 50th (between Lyndale Avenue and Highway 100) into my daily commute in order to assess the traffic situation for myself. Based upon my experiences, I have concluded that many commuters on 50th need to improve their driving habits, not cry for the elimination of on-street parking.
For those who "get" city driving, 50th delivers extremely reasonable commute times. I found that, in general, traffic flows pretty well. But there are plenty of others who are responsible for their own commuting nightmares. The question becomes whether or not we should make big changes to a great street to better accommodate them. I believe any rational thinker would answer with a resounding "No."
Example 1. By far, the best example of people hurting their own chances for a decent commute is failing to skirt left-turning traffic. The current parking scheme for 50th Street intersections allows plenty of room -- for those who are bold enough to take it -- to swing around left-turners. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how many drivers are willing to simply squat at an intersection and wait it out while the cars in front of them turn left. Further, they fail to learn from this and repeat it at each subsequent intersection. Go around!
Example 2. Then, there are the drivers who rely on others to pay attention to traffic signals for them. They don't move until they sense movement from surrounding cars -- and then only after pausing to double-check the light (just to be sure). If they are toward the back of traffic, they often screw themselves out of making a light.
Example 3. Many drivers could stand some improvement in timing the lights, too. I'd like to know which deranged Driver's Ed teacher has been instructing pupils to tap on the brakes once they see the "Don't Walk" signs blink. No kidding, I've seen some cars come to nearly a complete stop for green lights in Southwest. I would imagine that people who are stopping for red, yellow and green lights are making very poor time. Use some common sense.
Example 4. An entire book could be written on distracted drivers. Though it has become a clich to pick on cell-phone users, there's good reason for it. They are even more annoying in traffic (where public safety is at risk) than they are on elevators and in restaurants. This seems particularly true along 50th. Presumably they need the phone to call ahead and tell people that they're stuck in traffic. Pay attention!
There may be no solution to poor drivers, though perhaps George Carlin offers some of the best insights. He thinks that all cars should be equipped with suction-cup darts that can be fired at people who aren't paying attention to the road. Get three darts and the cops ticket you for being an [expletive].
We will never be able to save people from themselves. In the case of West 50th Street, the best plan is to leave things as they stand. Those of us who are serious about our driving experience pose few problems; those who are not will continue to wait in traffic. Why should the rest of us accommodate them? Will it really save them time in the long run? Do we really want them to have more time in the long run?
Tony Harvath commutes through Southwest, occasionally for research purposes.