There are a lot of people downtown nowadays who don’t really want to be downtown. They’re spending more time than they really want to spend here, and a lot of them don’t seem very happy about it.
I guess I can’t blame them for that. Sitting in a car in traffic is probably one of the least enjoyable pastimes we offer. But it is one of the inevitabilities of diverting 30,000 vehicles a day around the Henley Bridge closure. The vast majority of those travelers seem to be following the detours the state set up to redirect traffic to the James White Parkway and points north and south. But whether by necessity, habit, or stupidity, a lot of drivers are ending up in the maze of downtown’s grid.
Aside from the usual rush hours, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason for some of the congestion. Twice a week, I return from a regularly scheduled trip via Neyland Drive, up Walnut Street, and onto to Hill Avenue. Some days it doesn’t seem any different than before the bridge was closed, and others it’s bumper to bumper. Similarly, sometimes there’s hardly a car in sight at Gay Street and Main, while other days it looks like a parking lot. Mornings and afternoons, you can pretty much count on stop-and-go traffic the closer you get to the Gay Street bridge as drivers make their way over from Henley via the various cross streets.
I hesitate to recommend that people crossing the river avoid downtown altogether. There’s plenty here worth taking some time to enjoy. But to anyone thinking that cutting through downtown might be a quicker way to get to Moody Avenue, where the James White detour rejoins Chapman Highway, I’d suggest you think again. As traffic along Gay reaches the one-lane bottleneck before the bridge, traffic stacks up and drivers grow a little frustrated. Same goes for the opposite route, but much of that traffic turns immediately down Main, headed for the interstates, one block in.
I hear a lot more horns than before the shutdown. And they’re not the “Hey, look out for me” kind. They’re more of the “Honk you!” kind. There seem to be a number of folks who are accustomed to exit ramps and turn lanes, and not so familiar with parallel parking and red lights without turn signals. Traffic on downtown streets can come to a complete stop for what can appear to be no reason. But that’s rarely the case. Cars move in an out of street parking, pedestrians cross side streets, and trolleys pick up and drop off people all around downtown. It may not be obvious from behind the wheel four cars back, but there’s a good chance that idiot in front isn’t just admiring the scenery.
One of the worst displays of bridge rage that I’ve seen happened last week as a pickup truck on Gay waited patiently for oncoming traffic to pass before making a left onto Cumberland. I was waiting to cross Gay, and could see the driver of the car behind huffing and puffing. With the light still green, the driver of the truck was finally able to make his turn. No more than halfway through it, the huffy puffy man laid down on his horn, hit the gas and swung around the turning truck, holding high out his window the most cowardly middle finger I have ever seen. A half a block down the street, he was sitting still again.
The closure’s not just affecting vehicles. The two-block span of Gay between Cumberland Avenue and the bridge has probably been the most jaywalked section of downtown for years. But I’m seeing a lot more people wait for the pedestrian light before weaving between bumpers lately. Even when the red hand disappears, and the walking man beckons from the signal, it’s still best to keep an eye out. Some people have been waiting well over a minute to make a turn, and they’re not going to let some pedestrian slow them down another five seconds. And once they clear an obstacle, you’ll hear engines revving up to make up that time on the next block. The savvy jaywalker has got to be a little more careful along the length of Gay these days.
Finally, let me offer a little advice. If you find yourself stuck in traffic on Gay and you don’t actually know a better route, don’t just take the next cross street you come to for escape. There you will join the other clueless, stopping-where-there’s-no-stop-sign, direction-asking lost souls who are being directed back to where they just came from. And you already know what that’s like. Rather, just find a nice parking spot and enjoy downtown for what it’s supposed to be: a destination and not a shortcut.