Viewpoint: Why Higgins Avenue needs to change
Jeremy Keene, PE
We have a problem with Higgins Avenue. Too many people are getting injured. Left-turn restrictions and one-way streets make it difficult to access parking and businesses. Bike lanes end abruptly, forcing cyclists to use the sidewalk or compete with cars in the driving lanes. Wide intersections and poorly defined bus stops make it difficult to walk and use transit. Narrow lanes next to parking lead to sideswipe crashes and leave little room for snow storage. As a key gateway and connection to downtown, Higgins needs to change.
These problems are largely the result of a singular focus to move cars. Like many U.S. cities, Missoula abandoned its trolley lines and wide parking streets for more vehicle lanes to move cars as quickly as possible. The “Great American Automobile Experiment” opened up vast tracts of inexpensive land for housing in the suburbs, and cities fueled the American Dream by building roads and adding more capacity for cars.
What cities failed to recognize was this focus on cars didn’t make our streets safer. U.S. traffic deaths hit a 20-year high in 2022. Pedestrian deaths are increasing faster than all other traffic fatalities. Drivers struck and killed an estimated 7,485 people on foot in 2021 – the most pedestrian deaths in a single year in four decades and an average of 20 deaths every day. That’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every single month.
In Missoula, the Higgins corridor sees an average of 55 crashes each year, including five involving people biking or walking. Nearly a quarter of these crashes result in injuries, and people biking or walking account for 30 percent of all injuries.
We’ve identified the problem, and it’s our responsibility as a local government to act. Our recommended design is expected to reduce crashes by as much as 50 percent. Cars will always be a welcome and necessary part of downtown, but by prioritizing space for pedestrians, bikes, transit, turn lanes and on-street parking, the Higgins corridor will be safer, provide better access to downtown businesses and parking structures, and offer more transportation choices for getting downtown.
The trade-off is an average of 51 seconds of delay during the hour of peak traffic. This is not trivial, but models show future traffic volumes and delay will increase over time with or without these changes. Our ability to accommodate more people downtown depends on designing streets that provide safe, convenient alternatives to the sole use of a car.
We believe this is achievable. Downtown Missoula already has one of the highest mode splits in the country, with more than 50 percent of trips made by modes other than single-occupancy vehicles. Actual traffic volumes for the past 20 years have been flat, despite significant new growth and investment. We believe this is because downtown is already very walkable and bikeable and has great transit service. People who live and work downtown make fewer car trips.
This project recommends investing in those outcomes. Providing safe, convenient options will allow more people to make that same choice. The vision for Higgins is a safer street for all users, a street that serves as a gateway and a destination, and a street that supports the economic health of Missoula.
A multimodal transportation system is essential for meeting our community goals. The average Missoula County household spends 54% of their income on housing and transportation. Tailpipe emissions account for as much as 35% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing our dependence on cars isn't just good for transportation - it is essential for improving affordability, reducing our climate impacts, and maintaining financial sustainability.
For more information on this project, visit https://www.engagemissoula.com/higgins-avenue-corridor-plan.
Jeremy Keene is the Director for Public Works & Mobility at the City of Missoula. He is a licensed Professional Engineer with 28 years of experience working on transportation solutions in Missoula.