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

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)?


  1. colleen scott says:

    I previously lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They, too, decided to “Un One-Way” several downtown streets. Knoxville should do this too.

  2. Kenneth Moffett says:

    Many years ago, the street grid of Knoxville’s tiny downtown was largely one-way, and in fact several design initiatives recommended making this even more systematically one-way. But in the years since, a hodge-podge of changes have led to the present chaos of mixed blocks of one-and two-way streets. A return to logically alternating one-way streets, with exceptions such as Gay Street, still seems like a good idea.

  3. I feel like the biggest priorities would be to do something to narrow Henley to allow more businesses to locate there, and make it easier for pedestrians to access them, and narrow Summit Hill to allow more buildings to be built on Gay Street’s original layout.

    Side note: is the UT conference center ever really used anymore? I went there for four years and never heard of a single event happening there, and whenever I walk by it’s always empty. Is it just my timing, or is it drastically underused? Because if that is brought back into the private sector, that building could become something amazing.

  4. Oren Yarbrough says:

    Great article Alan! When the weather is nice I will run around downtown and the neighboring areas along the river. For the most part, Knoxville is a safe place to walk for pedestrians, especially in the immediate core of downtown. I think the major entry and exit points into the city with the wide and fast-moving lanes of traffic are the obvious worst locations for safety. Some of the most unattractive and underused land in the city also happens to be the most dangerous for pedestrians, in my opinion, namely the massive paved wasteland of parking lots and roads that make up the land surrounding the Civic Coliseum, Hall of Fame, & E. Hill Drive. This land is surprisingly open and vacant and I think it leads the driver to want to try and get through it as quickly as possible, making it very difficult for a pedestrian to navigate the oversized roads safely. I desperately wish that this portion of the city will get more mixed-use and residential infill in the future to make it more attractive and provide a connection for people in the Morningside community to downtown that isn’t a gigantic parking lot.

  5. The Modern Gal says:

    Great topic, and I think you hit the nail on the head: it’s not about the direction of the street but about the speed. Beyond the traffic furniture you’ve mentioned, there’s another way to calm traffic: narrow lanes. The less space you have to navigate in a vehicle, the more nervous you get about going fast. More street parking, wider sidewalks, (preferably protected) bike lanes could achieve that.

    Back when The Sunsphere is Not a Wigshop was still alive and kicking, we had an interesting conversation about what it would look like if Summit Hill was removed and the original grid in that part of downtown restored. I’m not sure it would be possible without disrupting current businesses, but what a dream. (Note that my opinion in that comment section has since evolved.)

  6. Karen Sundback says:

    I think that most of the one-way streets downtown are a good idea. Since many of them are narrow, it would be difficult to make them two-way and also provide on street parking – which is something that many downtown visitors seem to want. As a pedestrian, I generally feel safer with the one-way streets. However, there are a few problems that should be addressed to increase safety.

    Locust, between Union and Clinch is a one-way that seems to encourage speed with its three lanes and the wide swooping corner cut at the NW corner of Clinch and Locust. This enables/encourages a car fly down Locust and turn right onto Clinch without loosing speed. Every time that I cross the street there, or watch someone else, I fear the car will be speedily cruising through the turn and not see the pedestrian trying to cross. There are several possible fixes for this. One seemingly easy one would be to “square up” that corner so the car has to slow down to turn. This would enable the car and pedestrian to see each other more easily.

  7. The Broadway/Jackson intersection (at Balter) will soon be much more pedestrian friendly. Two lanes on Broadway (one in each direction) has been eliminated on the south side to allow for the construction of wider sidewalks. When TDOT improves the Broadway viaduct, the lanes on the north side will also be reduced and bike facilities will be added in their place. Crosswalks and pedestrian signals are going to be added for all legs on the intersection too. I think this intersection will go from pretty hostile for pedestrians to pretty comfortable. I believe the sidewalk work and pedestrian crossing improvements will be complete in the next couple of months.

  8. On the bright side, there are good greenways all around, and plans to extend them further into Downtown.

    I think there are two schools of thought here, as outlined in the article, the view (perhaps more “old fashioned”) that making it easier for cars is best, and the other that making it easier/safer for pedestrians is best.

    In my brief experience in such things there are elements in the city government (the “deep city?”) at odds with the two views, and until there is clear leadership and agreement on this issue there won’t be a good solution for either. Good to discuss it here, and maybe a consensus will eventually drive a vision.

    On a slightly different topic, how about requiring all new construction over a certain level to include sidewalks that lead to a door of the building? Much new sidewalk design does not reach the business entrance itself, forcing pedestrians to cross parking lot traffic. Seems like a no-brainer that needs to be codified.

  9. Marshall Stair says:

    Great discussion, thank you. Street design has been overlooked for too long.

    I think you have it exactly right, width is the main factor in pedestrian safety, and for long street crossings we need to create islands/refuges/medians to help protect pedestrians and slow traffic.

    As to one-way v two-way, I think each street has to be looked at individually. Generally, (as noted in the articles above) changing a two lane one-way street into a two lane two-way street is a good thing, like we’ve done on parts of State and Union. However, not sure changing a one lane one-way street into a two lane two-way street is a good move. This was proposed on Clinch west of Gay, and I am opposed to this because it requires the removal of great street trees and street parking, both of which make pedestrians safer.

    I think the most important thing is cities and people (like you!!) are thinking about these issues and addressing pedestrian concerns. For too long the entire goal of traffic engineers in our country was to move as much vehicle traffic as quickly as possible. We’ve finally realized this is deadly for downtowns/pedestrians experience, and the engineering culture is adjusting to embrace the needs of pedestrians.

  10. Changing Central to two-lane from Summit to Neyland would make it less of an on-ramp to Neyland. Cars often pick up a lot of speed on that straightaway. I’d also like to see the city sacrifice the north-bound turn lane from Summit onto Central and replace it with a pedestrian island like you see at Summit and Gay. I’ve seen pedestrians (sometimes with dogs) trapped on the existing concrete strip when the light changed and it is not a pretty site given that cars pick up a lot of speed at that spot.

  11. Knoxville is the easiest city I’ve ever driven in bar none. That’s one of the things I love about it. I think the layout is brilliant for efficient flow of traffic.

  12. The single-lane one-way streets near Market Square (Wall, Union, Market, Clinch) are ideal for pedestrians. Cars move very slowly on the narrow streets and pedestrians confidently cross wherever is convenient.

    The sidewalk extensions the city put on some Gay Street intersections are a great improvement. It’s weird they didn’t install them at every intersection.

    The intersection of Union and Gay is a strange one that is often annoying. There is a huge flow of pedestrians crossing at that point, but there are no sidewalk extensions to narrow the crossing, and the walk signals are truly bizarre. Often the walk signals display “stop” when the traffic on Gay is stopped. It’s dopey. So people cross whenever it seems clear even though it’s not too easy to see down the street because of the lack of sidewalk extensions.

  13. I don’t have a super strong opinion on one way streets in general, but there are a few cases in which things are seemingly needlessly convoluted; for example, streets that transition from one way to two way, such as State Street transitioning from two way to one way at Union Ave, and the parallel Central Street (south of Summit) being a quite broad, two-lane street which is inexplicably one-way.

    I understand State Street not being two-way for it’s entire length because there’s a narrow ‘pinch point’ behind the Tennessee Theater, but if anything I would have expected it to be one-way its entire length, and Central would be a two-way until it connects to Neyland.

    You mention crossing Broadway/Henley… this is a pedestrian/biker’s nightmare. At Jackson, a biking/walking route could be conceived which travels not along Jackson itself but goes underneath the Broadway viaduct along the train tracks. Why go across the scary road when you can go under it?

    No such option exists for Summit and Broadway, because the space underneath is filled by interstate connectors. As a pedestrian I honestly just give that junction a wide berth. Unfortunately it’s not very pleasant trying to cross Broadway/Henley anywhere downtown – let’s say you’re already at Jackson and want to cross and travel West… the safest place to cross is the pedestrian bridge to the south, but you also have to travel ‘inland’ downtown to board the bridge – or deal with street crossing at the crosswalk beneath it, which is stressful if the goal is to avoid gasoline-powered missiles in general, and those on bikes won’t find the bridge very useful, as it requires a dismount at the opposite end.

    I don’t know what ‘underground’ looks like beneath Henley Street, but if you’re in the World’s Fair Park, you can see, well, underground stuff beneath the Clinch Ave bridge extending East (right next to the Sunsphere). I don’t know how far or deep it goes. And the interstate connectors are obviously underground… I’m kinda fantasizing about walking/biking connectors that would travel underneath Broadway/Henley in general.

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