EP Award Promo

The Elbert Files: Changing downtown traffic


The last time Des Moines made major changes in downtown traffic patterns was 70 years ago when more than a dozen streets were converted from two-way to one-way traffic.

The goal in 1953 was to increase the flow of traffic into and out of the central city.

It worked. In fact, it worked so well that the suburbs grew faster than Des Moines and eventually siphoned off much of downtown’s retail activity.

Fast-forward 50 years and we find city officials desperate to keep office workers downtown after 5 p.m. and attract people willing to live close in. 

A lot of what they did over the past two decades worked, and now officials are experimenting with reversing mid-20th-century traffic patterns and returning one-way streets to slower-moving two-ways.

The goal this time is not to increase speed but to protect pedestrians and bicyclists who are the new lifeblood of the downtown core. 

To understand downtown traffic, it helps to look at population trends.   

Between 1900 and 1950, Des Moines’ population tripled to nearly 178,000. By 1960, it increased again to nearly 209,000. But then it began a 20-year decline, slipping to 191,000 by 1980. Since then, the total has gradually climbed back, reaching a new high of 214,000 in 2020.

By the 1950s, downtown traffic was creating rush-hour snarls as more people drove to work instead of riding streetcars, which by then had converted to overhead electric power supplied by webs of wires that blanketed the central city. 

It’s worth noting that in 1953 transit operators were the only opponents of one-way streets. They said it would cost $100,000 to move overhead wires to conform to new traffic patterns, although a later report put the actual expense at about $25,000. They also said the new system would overload the power distribution and burn up power lines; it didn’t. 

The conversion was preceded by a three-year study. The change to one-ways cost the city about $226,000, which seems amazingly low today. Adjusted for inflation the total is roughly $2.6 million in 2023 dollars, which is a fraction of what it could cost to return to two-way traffic. 

The change was initially scheduled for Sept. 1, 1952, but was delayed by transit officials. 

Finally, at 5 a.m. on Sunday Feb. 12, 1953, after weeks of educating the public, the switch was implemented. Overnight, Grand Avenue became a one-way westbound from East Sixth Street at the foot of Capitol Hill to 18th Street where Fleur Drive begins, and Locust Street became one-way eastbound from Fleur Drive to the state Capitol. 

Walnut Street, Mulberry Street and Court Avenue also became one-ways, as did several north-south numbered streets west of the Des Moines River.

Downtown traffic lights were reset to allow motorists to travel unimpeded at 19 mph, which was significantly faster than the 12 mph timing that existed before the change. 

The only complaints recorded by a Des Moines Tribune reporter 10 days after the change were from bus drivers, who said their biggest problem was changing lanes to make left-hand turns on Locust Street. 

Everyone else agreed the new one-ways were an improvement. 

When Interstate 235 was built along the north edge of downtown a decade later, it also reduced drive time for commuters.

But traffic problems continued to grow along with downtown.

Rush-hour snarls led to a recommendation in 1960 that a series of parking garages be built away from the central core. It was a valid suggestion but for various reasons did not take hold until the turn of the 21st century. 

In recent years, the downtown population has also soared from a low of several hundred in the late 1990s to more than 10,000 today. 

Retail has also returned, especially in the East Village near the Iowa Capitol and the Western Gateway Park area. 

Planning for a return to two-way traffic was slowed during the COVID pandemic, but it has now resumed with efforts already visible on parts of Grand Avenue and Locust Street.

The biggest changes, including a redesign of the Fleur-Grand-Locust intersection, are still to come. I’ll write more about that later.


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

Email the writer

shivehatterty web 070123 300x350