Last Sunday afernoon, I took two minutes of video of South Lamar that illustrate (almost) everything wrong with the street.
For a relatively narrow, 3-mile long commercial street running into the heart of a big city, South Lamar does a good job of allowing drivers to get down the street quickly, other than at rush hour. It does a good job because South Lamar is optimized for drivers who are just passing through. South Lamar's lights are spaced far apart, South Lamar's green lights are held green forever, and South Lamar has no pesky street parking to make drivers slow down (or even pay close attention).
And that's the fundamental problem with South Lamar. It has been programmed for the benefit of the through driver to the detriment of every other user. It's not just bad for pedestrians and bicyclists, and for bus riders -- who are pedestrians before they are riders -- but it's bad for drivers who are taking short trips on South Lamar, who are just trying to get to or from one of the businesses along the street, or who are trying to enter or exit neighborhoods from one of South Lamar's (few) cross streets.
I acknowledge that the only thing more mundane than traffic is probably a video of traffic, but this two-minute clip illustrates four very specific things that are wrong with South Lamar. The video was taken at Kinney Road, looking south, at around 2:30, on a Sunday with nothing special going on downtown or in Zilker Park.
The first is that there are no virtually no pedestrians. This clip was taken on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon with the temperature in the low 70s. At the 0:17 mark, if you look closely, you can see some guy across the street leaving a store and walking to his car. At the 0:27 mark, a couple walks past me on the sidewalk. And that's about it for pedestrian activity on this stretch during this span -- on a pretty day, on a busy commercial corridor just two miles from City Hall.
The second is that there's no place to cross the street. Pedestrians who do venture onto South Lamar are confined to one side of the street for long stretches. Here, the closest light to the south (at Bluebonnet) is not even visible on camera, because it is a quarter mile away. The closest light in the other direction (at Oltorf) is about 1,000 feet away. The distance between these two lights is almost half a mile. That's a long way to go in between opportunities to cross the street. This makes the street dramatically less convenient for pedestrians and for bus riders, who must walk way out of their way to get to a bus stop.
Third, because the lights are spaced so far apart, and the lights held green for so long, and there are so few obstructions requiring drivers to tap their brakes, through traffic tends to organize itself into large, synchronized platoons. Traffic on South Lamar is just one long platoon after another. At the beginning of the video, you can see the front line of a traffic platoon at the far end of the street. It is impossible to tell whether the vehicles that precede it are stragglers from the last platoon, or are a sort of recon unit for the platoon behind it. But once the platoon arrives, the cars continue to zip past, in procession, for a solid minute. After the one minute mark, the platoon thins out a bit, but the gaps are quickly filled by drivers who have been biding their time. A new platoon comes into view towards the end of the video, and is back in original position at the 2:00 mark. This 2:00 cycle corresponds, not coincidentally, to the two-minute cycle length (give or take) at Bluebonnet.
This is the archetypal traffic pattern on South Lamar except when traffic is very light, or in rush hour, when traffic is dictated by the bottlenecks at either end of the street and by traffic conditions on MoPac.
This platooning pattern causes the fourth problem, which is the post-platoon scramble. Because of the irregular and uncertain breaks between traffic, drivers entering or leaving the parking lots on either side of the street must make do as best they can. A common technique for those attempting left turns is to pull out quickly into the center turn lane and wait for a gap to merge into traffic. You can see this in the video at the 0:38 mark, when two vehicles across the street simultaneously pull into the center turn lane, one behind the other, to wait for the platoon to pass by. This is a stressful maneuver to have to pull every time you stop at a store along the street.
When local residents complain about how bad traffic on South Lamar is, I think this is mainly what they are referring to. It's certainly what I mean when I complain. If you are not part of a platoon, you are at the mercy of a platoon. And it's very frustrating that running even quick errands by car on a primary commercial corridor is such a pain in the ass.
What should be accessible feels very inaccessible. The inaccessibility and inconvenience are not caused by "too much" traffic. They are not caused by some intrinsic quality of the development on the street. They are a direct result of the way the street has been programmed.