Is the Two-Way Street Conversation Simply a One-Way Street?

Pedestrian Crosswalks at Broadway/Henley and Western/Summit Hill, Knoxville, November 2016
Current Satellite View of Henley Street

Conventional wisdom decades ago dictated that modern cities needed to have a grid of one-way streets in order to move cars quickly through the traffic corridors. By the time I could drive, downtown Mobile, Alabama, my hometown, offered a test of guess work as to which street went which way and whether a turn down one of these would lead to the desired point on the next street over or would require making another block. It also sometimes resulted in a certain young guy driving a Dodge Dart the wrong way down a one way street.

In addition to confusing infrequent visitors into the city, other negative side-effects emerged over time. The grids of one-way streets didn’t invite businesses to grow along side them as the potential exposure was limited to half the traffic of a two way street. And then there is speed. In general, people drive cars at greater speed if they aren’t worried about a potential collision with a couple of tons of opposing force.

In general, modern urbanists suggest a return to two-way streets. Writing for Strong Towns, Rachel Quednau laid out the basic reasons in her article, “Three Reasons to Turn These One-Way Streets into Two-Ways.” She says essentially that one-way streets encourage drivers to speed, are bad for business and make navigation unnecessarily difficult. Given that, it seems pretty obvious, right? She says it’s a question of whether we want a place to be “a place to drive to or a place to drive through.”

Writing for City Labs, Eric Jaffe lays out, “The Case Against One Way Streets.” He reiterates some of the above points, of course, but he adds another which is really more a clarification or expansion. His points include (in reverse order) 1) Economics – “Local businesses believe that two way streets increase visibility.” 2) Safety – Speeds are higher and drivers are less attentive because they aren’t worried about oncoming traffic. 3) Navigation – More miles are traveled circling blocks and bus riders have to find different exit points on alternate direction streets and 4) Liveability – With vehicles stopping less frequently and traveling faster, it’s less safe for everyone else.

Henley Street Looking North, Knoxville, October 2014

So, that settles it, right? Not so fast says Andrew Price, also writing for Strong Towns, whose article, “The Case for One-Way Streets,” he says should have been titled, “The Case for Streets Where Vehicles Can’t Sneak Up Behind You From Directions You’re Not Looking,” except that wasn’t very catchy and he meant it as a response to Jaffe’s article. His point isn’t that all one-way streets are great, but there are some he really likes that don’t seem to fit the criticisms leveled at one-way streets generally. He feels safest, he says, crossing one-way, narrow streets.

Finally, an alert reader sent me a link to, “Do Two-Way Streets Help a City’s Economy?,” a CityLab article by Richard Florida and Alastair Boone. As you might expect from the title, Boone cites a recent study which challenges one of the commonly accepted modern conclusions in the discussion: that two-way streets  spur economic growth and health. His conclusion is that its more complicated and that the areas converting streets were likely helped by other factors already in force. While there is evidence of higher incomes and housing growth, that may have been the trajectory with or without the street changes.

So what’s a modern city to do? Knoxville addressed this several years ago in their Downtown Circulation and Mobility Plan. I wrote about it here and quite a conversation erupted. A number of modest proposals were included, some of which have been implemented, while others, perhaps wisely, have not. To the topic of today’s article, it was noted that 48 of 80 road segments (blocks) downtown were one-way. The proposal was modest: to make nine of those forty-eight segments two-way. There were other changes proposed in the study.

Changes have been made since then. Gay Street has always been two-way, of course, but it also has had widened sidewalks, narrowing at points and new surfaces at intersections in the last couple of years. State Street in front of Marble Alley became two-way, which makes sense. Clinch west of Gay was left to its one-way orientation and Union – which strangely was to be converted to one-way, was spared that fate. Other portions of the plan remain unimplemented.

Pedestrian Crosswalks at Broadway/Henley and Western/Summit Hill, Knoxville, November 2016

So, what of all this? Speaking at a pedestrian and advocate for walking and cycling, I have to say that some of this leaves me scratching my head. Say you need to cross Main Street across from the City County Building or Clinch between the Holston and the East Tennessee History Center – do you feel afraid? No. The one-directional traffic moves slowly and the cross-walk in front of the City County Building is one of the few cross walks where drivers stop their cars in anticipation a pedestrian might cross. It’s the same a block away on Cumberland.

Try another mental exercise: How do you feel crossing Henley? How about Summit Hill, say at the Broadway intersection? How do the Balter customers feel crossing Broadway? Those are all two way streets which, by the current reasoning should be “better” for pedestrians. So what gives?

To me, it all comes down to speed, amount of exposure and direction of the threat to my survival as I walk on the street. The speed of the vehicles determines how much time I have to see them and how dead I will be if they hit me. Every step above twenty miles-per-hour increase my chances of death should I have an unfortunate encounter with a vehicle.

By amount of exposure, I mean how wide is the area I have to traverse while susceptible to a car-strike. The smaller the better. That’s one reason traffic islands – good ones – make us feel better: It’s a shorter walk/run to the next point of safety. It’s one reason crossing Clinch feels safe. It’s the primary reason that Henley, Summit Hill, James White Parkway and Hall of Fame should not exist in their current form inside any reasonable city.

But there is also the issue of directional threats. If I cross at the middle of a one-way street, I can only be killed from one direction. I watch that direction. If I cross the middle of a two-way street, I can be killed from two directions. If I cross legally – at an intersection – of one-way streets, I can be killed from only two directions – the direction of the street I’m crossing and turning vehicles from the direction of the cross street. At an intersection of two two-way streets I can be killed from four directions – the two on the road I’m crossing and turns from either direction on the cross street.

So, give me shorter distances to cross, slower cars and fewer directions to watch, regardless of how you configure traffic flow. I’ve mentioned before that a number of crosswalks in Paris are offset from the intersection to remove the turning threat. Many of the streets are one way. It makes for a safe crossing as long as the speed of traffic is modulated. It’s a classic battle of conflicting desires and needs: Drivers want to go fast and pedestrians need them to go more slowly. How we build our city reveals our priorities.

So, what do you think? One way? Two way? Are there crossings you hate? Crossings where you feel safe? What can the city do to make us all more safe (remember, drivers park and then become pedestrians)?