Like thousands of small towns across America, Jena, Louisiana’s main street is also a federal highway: U.S. 84. That’s actually been a positive thing overall for this town of about 3,000, which relies on passers-by for business. Until recently, U.S. 84 was simply a two-lane road through Jena’s historic downtown, indistinguishable from any other road, design-wise.
But following Hurricane Katrina, U.S. 84 was to be widened; the road was among those targeted as an evacuation route from New Orleans. Little downtown Jena was right in the path.
Main streets that are also state or federal highways pose special challenges. The key to maintaining a functioning road for the community is to understand that main streets are places, in addition to thoroughfares, says Jim Charlier of transportation planning firm Charlier Associates. Charlier led a webinar on the topic this week with the Sonoran Institute.
“Why is it so hard when your main street is a state highway,” he said. “The state highway function starts to take precedent over the main street function.”
Charlier and his associate, Vickie Jacobsen, had some advice for communities in this position. It’s important to consider the unique conditions of every town in a road design, they said, but there are key hallmarks of successful main streets.
The most important ingredient in a main street, says Jacobsen, is on-street parking. “It is a critical aspect,” she said. “It has a role in how fast traffic moves through. The activity that happens in that lane slows traffic down.”
If there’s no street parking, businesses will start to supply it next to their buildings. Which leads to the second most important ingredient of a successful main street: few to no curb cuts. “Adding multiple driveways immediately erodes the ability for pedestrians and cyclists to negotiate the area,” Jacobsen said. “It makes it a much more car-oriented street.”