Far from pumping an additional $100,000 a day into the local economy, the city’s decision to convert Tejon Street to two-way traffic could actually cause a decrease in revenue for downtown merchants.
“Planners argue that converting one-way to two-way streets will make them more pedestrian friendly and better for business,” according to “No Two Ways About It: One-Way Streets are Better than Two-Ways,” a report written by Michael Cunneen and Randal O’Toole for the Independence Institute during 2005. “They offer no evidence for these claims, which had been disproved by engineers 50 years ago. But few people remembered the benefits gained from converting two-way to one-way streets, so many believed the planners.”
O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said that when cities turn their two-way downtown streets into one-way streets there are significant reductions in the number of traffic accidents — and that when the one-way streets are converted to two-way streets, there is an increase in traffic accidents — to a level that was proportional to the decrease when the change was first made.
“Every study that studied the impact on business showed that turning a street into a one-way was beneficial to business,” he said. “If the street is turned back into a two-way, they could have proportional decrease in sales.”
O’Toole said that urban planners don’t seem to care about the numbers.
“They come up with some great ideas this is going to help such and such, but they never measure the change afterward,” he said. “Part of being a planner is you don’t have to prove your hypotheses. We have evidence showing that one-way streets are better for business.”
However, based on a study performed by BBC Research and Consulting on behalf of the Downtown Partnership, City Council on Tuesday approved spending $125,000 to convert Tejon Street from one-way to two-way.
The BBC study said that traffic volume on Tejon will increase by about 50 percent, from 7,500 to 11,000 vehicles per day, and that sales could be expected to follow suit.
“If Tejon Street is converted from a one-way to a two-way street, total daily gross sales in the study area could increase by $105,400, a 53 percent increase in annual sales compared to one-way street,” the report said.
That assumes the “capture rate” of vehicular traffic by merchants on Tejon remains at current levels after the conversion.
“If the ‘capture rate’ for two-way traffic is higher or lower than under the current one-way traffic pattern, these projected changes in retail sales may be under or overestimated,” the report said. “The analysis also assumes that retail sales are primarily related to vehicular, rather than pedestrian, traffic.”
Todd Picton, a director at BBC, admitted that a one-to-one capture rate, and a 50 percent increase in sales, is a “best-case scenario.”
“We know that the capture rate will be above zero,” he said. “How far above, we don’t know.”
Picton said that the study hedged its conclusion by pointing out that the economic benefits of conversion could be above or below forecast levels.
However, the study’s executive summary highlighted the 50 percent sales increase as one of “several key results” that conversion would bring, while the uncertainty about the capture rate was buried in the body of the report.
The Cunneen and O’Toole report takes a dim view of extrapolating economic benefits based on converting traffic flow, pointing out that “the variables affecting customer purchases are so many that the effect of one-way streets cannot be isolated from other factors.”
The BBC study also acknowledged that while most shoppers interviewed were neither for nor against the conversion, an overwhelming majority cited parking as downtown’s biggest problem.
And since, as the study points out, parking places on Tejon have a utilization rate of more than 90 percent, there would seem to be no available places for the extra drivers to park even if they did want to stop and shop.
Frank O’Donnell, who owns property on the present one-way segment of Tejon Street, expressed skepticism about the conversion.
“They’re just making a leap of faith,” he said. “They’re presuming that commuter traffic on Nevada and Cascade will somehow become shopping traffic on Tejon. I can’t see that shifting traffic over a block is going to magically make them stop and shop.”
Testifying before council on Tuesday afternoon, O’Donnell said that he’s been opposed to the change for many years.
“I think there’s real risk, especially to the retail community,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make economic judgments on the basis of traffic flows alone.”
Jeannie Galvan, a Tejon retailer, also was doubtful.
“I may be terribly naïve, but I can’t understand how this conversion will increase my business by 50 percent,” she told council. “Of course, I’d be really happy if it did!”
Galvan urged council members to focus on downtown cleanliness, panhandling and safety before spending money on the two way conversion.
Even those who addressed council in support of the change were, at best, cautiously optimistic.
“Let’s face it, downtown is hurting,” said Luke Travins, co-owner of several downtown restaurants. “We’ve gotta do something to make ourselves more attractive to the suburban market. Briargate isn’t even on our radar screen.”
While council voted to pay $125,000 for the conversion, it was not without reservations.
“I’m not sure that I buy the $100,000 per day,” Mayor Lionel Rivera said. “I see this as one of many small moves.”
Vice Mayor Larry Small echoed Rivera’s sentiment.
“This is not a panacea,” he said.