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Green Arrows and Red X's Once Ruled Traffic on Union Avenue



From the 1970s to 2001, the mighty, six-lane Union Avenue flowed four lanes west in the mornings and then four lanes east in the evenings. Reversing the flow of this urban behemoth needed only the flip of a switch. 

That switch produced cold, unyielding green arrows or red Xs above the street. They told Memphis motorists which lanes were paths to the promised land (the green arrows) and which lanes were highways to hell (the red Xs). And those could switch immediately (and they did every day, twice a day). 

"You know, it was the time before video games, and we had to make our own fun," said Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn.

Formally, they were called "reversible lanes," and, before Interstate 40 was completed here, they made perfect sense. An additional lane on Union was opened up to carry the swell of commuter traffic heading in one direction at peak times, in the mornings when commuters were headed to work and in the afternoons when they left. 

Lights strung above the street changed to tell drivers which lanes were heading in which direction. If it sounds confusing, that's only because it was confusing.

In 1997, the Flyer had a Best of Memphis category called "Best of Memphis Drivers," in which one of our on-the-scene readers explained the confusion of the times. 

"Oh, the horror! You can see them coming from blocks away," the reader said. "You check to see if you have an arrow or an 'X.' Sure enough, you're in the right [lane], involuntarily sucked into a deadly game of chicken."

Flinn said the reversible lanes confused his Rhodes College classmates. If their questions about the sanity of such a scheme came as they were behind the wheel, Flinn's advice was quick and urgent: "Just trust me. You want to get over right now!" 

John Vergos, co-owner of Charles Vergos' Rendezvous, was on the city council when those reversible-lane lights came down. Traffic engineers were wary of removing them, he said.

"They told us it would be all doom and gloom and wanted to study it for six or eight months," he said. "In the end, the council just forced them to change it. They told us all kinds of horror stories, but it worked perfectly from day one."

Now, the mighty Union Avenue runs three lanes east and west all day long. But changes are afoot. 

John Cameron, director of the city's engineering division, said a left turning lane will soon be installed between Cleveland and Bellevue. It will help alleviate some of the traffic trying to turn onto Bellevue to Methodist University Hospital. Also, the lane and a new light will allow left turns for the "first time in years, and years, and years" from Union onto Cleveland. 

"If [the left turning lane] works, we'll look at moving farther east and making some of those other signalized intersections in places where you can turn left," Cameron said. "It may even help folks getting in and out of businesses along Union to have that left turn lane."

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