A better Wilkinson Boulevard is balanced.
Traffic, traffic, traffic congestion. Cars speeding, speeding, speeding.
The comments and observations concerning “what” people think of Wilkinson Boulevard are as opposite as can be. We’ve collected plenty from the Build a Better Boulevard Facebook Page and during the recent two-day workshop. Many say that cars travel too fast on the boulevard, that it is dangerous to drive and scary to turn on to. Just as many say that the traffic is so bad, that back-ups and waiting at lights have become so common, that they wouldn’t mind seeing a few more lanes added to get traffic moving.
Whose statements are accurate? As is almost always the case, all of them are. It just takes a bit of detective work and data collection to figure out the “where-and-when” side of the story.
Our team has been observing Wilkinson Boulevard since the start of the year. We’ve been watching it even more intensely over the past two months, filming it with a drone (thanks to Wil Neumann at Hawkeye Aerial), photographing it from the ground, and of course, driving it. Weekends, weekdays, rush hour, and mid day…sunny, rainy…even one stormy day. And yes, we experienced the ultimate worst case…an accident on I-85. We have also reviewed data: traffic counts provided by the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln MPO and the State and Charlotte DOTs.
What have we found? First the data:
The average daily traffic counts on Wilkinson Boulevard have been declining steadily over the past 10 years. In fact they have been declining for over 20 years, although complaints about congestion on the Boulevard began far more recently. Wilkinson currently handles approximately 16,000 to 17,000 cars per day. A reasonable question would be whether the decline has anything to do with the severe recession. According to the data, no. The decline was occurring during the development boom before the recession as well.
But how can that be? More people live in the immediate area than before, and there have been a few large developments such as Montecross. Other nearby stretches of Wilkinson Boulevard in Gastonia and on the Charlotte side of the Catawba River handle many more daily trips, upwards of 30,000. For streets with similar lane counts and divided highway design, it is not uncommon to reach counts of 70,000 average daily trips.
Why are there fewer cars on this stretch of Wilkinson? Here is where the detective work comes in…call it Town Whispering. When all the data is examined, it appears that the surrounding network of streets, roads, and Interstate 85 handle traffic differently than they once did. The reasons for this have much to do with where people are now living and where businesses are now locating.
The data shows that, as traffic heads east out of Gastonia toward Charlotte, the car count on Wilkinson steadily diminishes. This is particularly the case at the intersections of north-south streets that have interchanges with I-85 such as New Hope Road, Cox Road, and S. Main Street. Drivers are turning off Wilkinson to access homes and businesses that make up Gastonia, and for those traveling on to Charlotte, the route of choice has become I-85.
The same is true for drivers heading west out of Charlotte toward Gastonia. By the time traffic has reached Little Rock Road, Billy Graham Parkway and I-485, most drivers have turned off Wilkinson to businesses and homes in Charlotte, or they have opted to jump onto I-85 to continue west. This is reflected by the significant increase in average daily trips along I-85 since 2000, now over 130,000 at the Catawba River Bridge.
Other streets and roads that have experienced increased traffic counts are those north-south connections along the peninsula between the South Fork and Catawba rivers. Park Street, Lakewood Drive, and N. Main Street have seen increased traffic. In fact, N. Main handles as many cars just to the north and south of its intersection with Wilkinson as does Wilkinson, 16,000 as of late 2013. Park now handles upwards of 27,000 cars a day, 10,000 cars more than Wilkinson where it crosses the Boulevard. It is becoming clear that the prevailing car movements in the Belmont, Cramerton, and McAdenville area have become more north south as population has increased along the Catawba River.
For cars heading east or west, the choice has clearly become I-85. This correlates well with some observations on the ground. While the entire corridor between Market Street to the west and Catawba Street to the east is and has been zoned highway commercial for decades, almost all new development over the past 20 years has occurred in close proximity to just a few intersections: Lakewood Drive, Park Street and N. Main Street. Business owners along Wilkinson located away from these intersections have confirmed that the traffic flow has changed. They inform us that there is no longer the steady flow of cars throughout the day. Cars now bunch up during the morning and evening rush, leaving few cars traveling at other times. This is apparent in the closing of some businesses along Wilkinson Boulevard that are beyond the reach of intersections.
The comments from people concerned with speeding and dangerous driving now begin to make more sense. After all, how can a road that is perceived to be congested also encourage fast driving? The answer is that Wilkinson Boulevard itself is not congested, and at 6 wide lanes and a median, it offers people a rather quick way to access minor trips to and from the north-south system of streets and I-85. During most of the day the Boulevard is quite empty, as witnessed by the drone video and photographs we’ve been posting over the past month.
So what about the congestion side of the story? If we look carefully at where congestion is occurring and what the data tells us about the direction of the traffic at these points, an interesting clue comes to light. The intersections with Wilkinson Boulevard at Park and N. Main streets handle more traffic than in the past, as drivers shop the various stores, travel north-south, and access I-85. Even though this is the case, the timing of the signals at the intersections still give preference to through traffic on Wilkinson. In other words, turning off of Wilkinson onto either Park and N. Main, turning off of Park and N. Main onto Wilkinson, or traveling through these intersections to cross Wilkinson on these streets is given less signal priority than for drivers traveling straight through on Wilkinson.
In many instances the difference in signal timing is extreme. The average green for north-south turns onto Wilkinson and for drivers looking to access north-south turns to leave Wilkinson is 19 seconds. The average red for these same movements is 1:15 seconds. These times were collected (with thanks to our summer intern Brian Elgort) at 8:30am and 5:30pm on Wednesday August 27 using three separate observations. Similar data was collected for Wilkinson Boulevard and N. Main Street with slightly higher delays for non-Wilkinson movements. Do you know you can not make a right on red from N. Main onto Wilkinson?
The comments from people concerning the congestion now begin to make more sense. There is congestion, but mostly for those who are looking to access other streets from Wilkinson, or to get onto Wilkinson from those same streets. The back up from the left turn lanes as a result of the current signal timing causes cars to stack into the through lanes on Wilkinson, slowing traffic during the two rush hours. This may also explain the terrible back-ups and traffic paralysis that happens when an accident on I-85 closes lanes and forces drivers to detour onto this stretch of Wilkinson Boulevard.
Through listening, observation, and data analysis, we have determined that everyone’s comments have truth to them. The “what” has been confirmed. The “where” and “why” is now more clear.
The Build a Better Boulevard team is currently compiling recommendations based on the above findings and continued research of the traffic data, suggestions of the Stakeholders groups, and contributions of local citizen experiences and observations on Wilkinson Boulevard.
Written by Demetri Baches AICP, ULI, CNU-A of Metrocology, Inc.