Infrastructure & Environment

The Return of the Two-Way Street

Why the double-yellow stripe is making a comeback in downtowns.
by | December 2009

Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver, Washington, has spent millions of dollars trying to revitalize its downtown, and especially the area around Main Street that used to be the primary commercial center. Just how much the city has spent isn't easy to determine. But it's been an ambitious program. Vancouver has totally refurbished a downtown park, subsidized condos and apartment buildings overlooking it and built a new downtown Hilton hotel.

Some of these investments have been successful, but they did next to nothing for Main Street itself. Through most of this decade, the street remained about as dreary as ever. Then, a year ago, the city council tried a new strategy. Rather than wait for the $14 million more in state and federal money it was planning to spend on projects on and around Main Street, it opted for something much simpler. It painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights. In other words, it took a one-way street and opened it up to two-way traffic.

The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.

Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. "We have twice as many people going by as they did before," one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. "It's like, wow," he exclaimed, "why did it take us so long to figure this out?"

A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. "One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas," says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "We've proven that."

The debate over one-way versus two-way streets has been going on for more than half a century now in American cities, and it is far from resolved even yet. But the evidence seems to suggest that the two-way side is winning. A growing number of cities, including big ones such as Minneapolis, Louisville and Oklahoma City, have converted the traffic flow of major streets to two-way or laid out plans to do so. There has been virtually no movement in the other direction.

Minneapolis opened its First Street and Hennepin Street commercial areas to two-way traffic on October 11, hoping to pump some life into a stagnant corridor. It's too early to draw any firm conclusions, but the early responses were mixed. First Street is home to several nightclubs, and some of them complained that bringing in two-way traffic made it difficult for bands with large trucks to park. "The city has royally screwed us," one club manager declared. The city basically shrugged those complaints off. Its planners claimed the clubowners were making self-interested arguments that ignored the common benefits of a healthier street life.

Before World War II, one-way commercial streets were pretty rare in the United States. People frequented downtowns in which buses and streetcars negotiated two-way traffic, and they got off to shop at the stores that lined both sides of the street. Those who drove could park right along the sidewalk.

After the war, a couple of things happened. Civil defense planners, taking seriously the threat of nuclear attack, worried that residents trying to escape would create gridlock on the crowded two-way streets, imprisoning themselves in smoldering cities and causing many more casualties. The arterial streets were the only escape routes they had. Making them one-way, on an alternating basis, would speed things up and save lives. Or so it was thought.

But atomic bombs were only one factor that made civic leaders and transportation planners partial to one-way streets in the postwar years. They were worried about congestion, period. Some thought that the frustrations of moving through downtown the old-fashioned way were driving people to do their shopping in the suburbs. More mobility might mean more customers. Others, in those pre-Interstate days, cared mainly about the satisfaction of the suburbanites themselves. These people were using the arterial roads to commute in and out of the city, and there was little dispute that one-way streets could get them back and forth more quickly.

By the 1970s, though, there were new urban realities. Large portions of the Interstate Highway System were built, so nobody would have to flee the Soviets on gridlocked city streets. More important, downtown retail customers were shopping at suburban malls no matter what the local chamber of commerce did to try and stop them. Downtown had begun its long, familiar decline. The one-way streets fashioned in the 1950s and 1960s were still pretty good at whisking people out of central cities, but far fewer area residents wanted to enter the cities in the first place. Many downtown one-way streets became miniature speedways that served largely to frighten anyone who had the eccentric idea of strolling down the sidewalk.

Anyone who travels a lot to the center of big cities has had an experience like this: You arrive at night, and start looking for your hotel. You find it, but you can't drive to the entrance because the street is one-way the other way. Finally you come to a street that goes the way you want, but once you get close again, the signs won't allow you to make the turn you need to make. You can waste 20 minutes this way. And as you keep driving, you notice that the streets are empty anyway. Any reason that might have existed for turning them into single-purpose speedways simply did not apply anymore.

Meanwhile, local governments were slowly learning that the old two-way streets, whatever the occasional frustration, had real advantages in fostering urban life. Traffic moved at a more modest pace, and there was usually a row of cars parked by the curb to serve as a buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. If you have trouble perceiving the difference, try asking yourself this question: How many successful sidewalk cafés have you ever encountered on a four-lane, one-way street with cars rushing by at 50 miles per hour? My guess is, very few indeed.

So over the past 10 years, dozens of cities have reconfigured one-way streets into two-way streets as a means of bringing their downtowns to life. The political leadership and the local business community usually join forces in favor of doing this. There are always arguments against it. Some of them are worth stopping to consider.

Among the critics are traffic engineers and academics who were taught some fixed principles of transportation in school decades ago and have never bothered to reconsider them. Joseph Dumas, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argued a few years ago that "the primary purpose of roads is to move traffic efficiently and safely, not to encourage or discourage business or rebuild parts of town . . . . Streets are tools for traffic engineering."

If you agree that streets serve no other purpose than to move automobiles, you are unlikely to see much problem with making them one-way. On the other hand, if you think that streets possess the capacity to enhance the quality of urban life, you will probably consider the Dumas Doctrine to be nonsense. That is the way more and more cities are coming to feel.

There are other arguments. It's sometimes said that more accidents occur on two-way streets than one-way streets. The research that supports this claim is decades old, and to my knowledge, has not been replicated. Even if you accept this argument, though, you might want to consider that, at slower speeds, the accidents on two-way streets are much more likely to be fender-benders at left-turn intersections, not harrowing high-speed crashes involving cars and pedestrians.

Finally, there are complaints from fire departments that it takes them longer to reach the scene of trouble when they have to thread their way around oncoming traffic, rather than taking a straight shot down a one-way speedway. I can't refute this, and in any case, I don't like arguing with fire departments. But I have to wonder how many people have died in burning buildings in recent years because a fire truck wasn't allowed to use a one-way street.

I wouldn't argue that two-way streets are any sort of panacea for urban revival, Vancouver's experience notwithstanding. And I understand that they are not always practical. Some streets simply are too narrow to have traffic moving in both directions; others have to be designated one-way because their purpose is to feed traffic onto expressways.

What I would say is this: When it comes to designing or retrofitting streets, the burden of proof shouldn't fall on those who want to use them the old-fashioned way. It should be on those who think the speedway ideology of the 1950s serves much of a purpose half a century later.

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