Are Two-Way Streets the Way of the Future?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re featuring a post from San Francisco’s Pedestrianist about two-way street conversions in Minneapolis and how such changing traffic patterns could benefit pedestrians and other users:

3291357587_5bdc4ca1a8The city of Minneapolis is about to return two of its downtown streets to two-way traffic after nearly 30 years of one-way flow. Those streets, like many in downtowns across the country, were converted to one-way couplets by auto-centric traffic engineers in the middle of the last century.

Their goal was to squeeze more cars through older, narrow streets as fast as they could. And that’s exactly what happened. The problem is that the fast, thick traffic along these one-way streets has proven to be dangerous to vulnerable road users, especially pedestrians, and has often pushed away much of the street life.

In San Francisco, the grid of one-way streets on either side of Market and around the old ramps to the Central Freeway in Hayes Valley and the Western Addition are among the most dangerous places to walk. The recent killing of a woman on Fell Street has prompted numerous calls to calm the traffic on that and other unidirectional expressways. One of the more common sentiments expressed in comments on Streetsblog is that these one-way couplets should be restored back to two-way traffic.

Two-way streets are naturally calmer because cars approaching from opposite directions make each other nervous. Nervous drivers are slower and more alert to their surroundings. Two way streets are also easier for bicycles to navigate, and the presence of bikes on a street further calms car traffic.

There is, in my opinion, no reason not to begin restoring two-way traffic on San Francisco streets, starting with the most dangerous first. The lives of our neighbors are too high a cost to justify a slightly faster car commute.

More from around the network: FABB Blog and Missouri Bicycle News call attention to a Parade magazine article about the bicycling mayor of Columbia, Missouri. Greater Greater Washington scrutinizes the National Park Service’s rejection of a request to use Rock Creek Parkway for an organized bike tour event. And Let’s Go Ride a Bike has more on the biking gender gap.

Photo by wvs via Flickr.

  • boomshanka

    Is there evidence that two-way streets are actually safer? I always avoid riding my bike on two-way Manhattan streets, and as a pedestrian one-way streets are easier to cross. Maybe it’s different in San Fran, but do any NY’ers actually prefer Houston, 14th, 34th, 42nd Streets and others to the one-way avenues and side streets?

  • JTS

    I don’t think there is much evidence to suggest that two-way streets are safer (or slower). 15th Street NW in Washington DC is about to become a two way street (with a contraflow bike lane). Many are worried that traffic will actually increase as 15th St will present a more straightforward way to get downtown (unlike 14th and 16th, which are both two-way, 15th has no traffic circle and park to break up the flow). Currently, although 3 lanes wide (maybe 4, can’t remember), 15th is actually quite a quiet and pleasant one way street. I know it is a unique situation, but I would caution all streetsbloggers not to get behind two-wayification too quickly.

  • rlb

    Instead of comparing Houston to a one way avenue, try imagining Houston AS a one way avenue.
    That’ll replace the whale in your nightmares.

  • boomshanka

    I imagine that Houston as a one-way avenue would actually have safer intersections.

    Here’s some evidence (although a bit dated, I’m sure there’s more recent info). Top 10 Most Dangerous intersections for pedestrians in Manhattan were all intersections with two-way streets.

    http://www.transalt.org/files/resources/crashmaps/manhattanpedworst.html

  • How about the effect of proper light timing on traffic speeds? Lights are timed (when configured properly) on one way streets to ensure that traffic can continue the entire route without stopping as long as traffic is proceeding at approximately the speed limit. Any faster, and you will get caught at a light. Thus, there is an incentive to drive around the speed limit, because you will actually reach your destination faster than if you were to drive significantly faster. You can’t time lights like that on two way streets, and you will always reach your destination faster if you drive faster. The incentive is gone.

  • rlb

    boomshanka,
    That’s true, but I think it’s an inconclusive bit of evidence because all of the widest crosstown streets in Manhattan are two ways.
    That said, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, particularly if there is more than one lane in each direction.
    But streets that are now two lanes in one direction would benefit greatly from being two way streets. I think of 8th ave in park slope, many of the north south streets in Crown heights, Dekalb and Lafayette in fort green, skillman and 43rd in sunnyside… it’s a longer list than that.
    Also, consider the impact if Avenues A B C and D were one way.

  • Allan

    in downtown portland we have all 1-way streets timed between 12 and 18 mph. no pedestrian unfriendliness here 🙂 why isn’t this done instead? basically punish speeders for going fast w/ red lights

  • I \v/ NY

    i’d rather 2 lanes in each direction on 1 street than 4 lanes in 1 direction on 1 street. it seems the more lanes you have in one direction the more expressway-like it is.

  • Lane width affects driver psychology more than directionality or lane quantity.

    Eleven foot lanes mean 20-35mph; thirteen footers, 45-50mph. In there is all the difference in the world.

    viz. Prospect Park West, with three Interstate grade lanes and no functional green wave; compare with the West Street boulevard, which has _four_ eleven-to-twelve foot lanes and a green wave, and on which traffic is steady and below 30mph.

    Speaking as a driver and ‘effective cyclist’ both, I’d rather see our avenues lose a foot or two per lane and get a parking-for-bikelane swap, than have to deal with bidirectional traffic.

  • Tubulus

    I’ve always felt much safer cycling on 1 way streets/avenue, rather than 2 ways. One main reason – I’m not going to t-bone anyone making a quick left turn in front of me. There are just fewer places for cars to come from. On wide 1 ways (like 2nd ave) you don’t get cars weaving from lane to lane to avoid cars turning in front of them, and there’s a natural “safe” place to ride – left side of the rightmost lane. On a street like Park or 14th where there are 2 lanes in each direction, cars weave between blocks to avoid stopped cars trying to turn, and there’s no real safe lane. This is not to say that these streets can’t be made safer – change the light timing to make people drive slower – but not sure 2-way-ification is the way to go.

  • Kaja is completely right. Narrow is better. Boston recently got a federal waiver to allow them to paint 10 foot lanes on mass ave, instead of the currently allowed minimum of 11.*

    (Maybe its 9 and the current minimum is 10?)

  • Not federal waiver, state waiver. I guess Mass Ave is a state highway.

  • Mike, the government people at a community meeting said federal waiver. Perhaps they misspoke, but I’m just repeating what they said. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a federal minimum on street lane width, but it’s entirely possible. Mass Ave is not a state route or highway in the portion that’s inside Boston.

  • There is no federal minimum lane width except for interstate highways.

  • Streetsman

    Agreed it’s all about width (exposure) and number of lanes. A street with 2-3 moving lanes is probably safer as two-way (like 8th Ave vs. 7th Ave in Park Slope), while a street with 4-5 moving lanes may be safer as one-way (like 5th Avenue vs. 34th Street in midtown), unless the two-way design has medians with pedestrian refuges extending beyond the crosswalk, maybe some bulbouts at the corners, and trees and other vertical elements to calm traffic.

  • Ian Turner

    Agreed it’s all about width

    That’s what she said. ?

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