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Are One-Way Streets Always Bad?

This is a hot-potato topic, but I’ll be brave. In the rush to convert one-ways to two-ways, I worry we’re trending the wrong-way. “One-ways bad, two-ways good” is almost a tribal chant now, and it’s getting a little loud. The rush to convert is an understandable reaction to engineering failure, but we may be blaming the wrong thing – ready to throw a fine baby with a lot of potential out with the bathwater. Soon, no one will dare speak of virtue in one-ways for fear of career-altering ridicule.

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Rachel Quednau of Strong Towns has a great article about problems she sees with a one-way couplet in her neighborhood. It boils down to being too fast. She argues that converting it could be a good way to slow it down and make it safer. It probably would slow it a bit, but other low-cost strategies might slow it more – without losing the good parts of couplets. John Gilderbloom and William Riggs have an insightful piece showing evidence that property-values along older one-ways is much lower than along similar two-way streets. The same link also implies that just “changing the signs” to two-way has helped revive land uses in some cases – no calming enhancements required.
Again, their observations boil down to high-speed. So, are one-ways inherently high-speed? Or do these findings simply indict older designs that aimed for high-speeds? (And sometimes inadvertently caused high speeds where not intended, due to lack of calming features).

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Instead of asking “which is better,” maybe ask, “Can one-ways be tamed?” If yes, the next question is how do one-ways and two-ways differ in terms of their ability to “dance well” with other modes, and promote high-density, walkable development? I think one-ways can work better than two-ways in many cases for the things the Strong Towns / CNU audience cares about. If so, we can start a new chant: “One-ways good here, Two-ways good there,” recognizing different roles for different environments.

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Multi-Part Series

There’s a LOT of momentum swinging the pendulum too far toward two-ways, so I’ve got a LOT of material to challenge you with. Part 1, addresses the existing one-ways of pre-war tight grids. Later I’ll address whether couplets can play a positive role in new urbanist projects at Brownfield, Greyfield, and even Greenfield locations. I’ll probably dig deeper into analysis also.

Case Study, Prospect Avenue, Milwaukie

Look at Rachel’s couplet in Milwaukie below. First, it’s signed for 30 mph. This is high-density residential, so 25 or even 20 makes more sense. There are few visual queues telling drivers to be cautious, and aggressive drivers know they can usually get away with 9 mph higher than the speed limit without a ticket, so closer to 40 mph will be common. Switching signs to two-way will reduce speeds a bit at virtually zero cost (slightly higher sense of caution, and inability to pass slower drivers). But then it will be harder for both autos and pedestrians to find acceptable gaps in both directions, and there are more conflict-points for both autos and pedestrians in general. That will increase accidents, although reduced speed will offset the increase. I think there’s a better way…

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A Friendlier Cross-Section

Below, I used the free “StreetPlan.net” to quickly sketch Existing vs. Restripe. The lack of white stripe between left parking and the travel lane subconsciously says “it’s wide.” If the goal is 25 or below, then 9-ft lanes will better delineate parking from traveled way, and greatly improve the bike lane to attract the non-spandex crowd. Nine-foot lanes are certainly not what traffic engineers want when aiming to help drivers get 5 or more miles up the road (hence the yellow warning). But most drivers here won’t be going 5-miles anyway. And if a lot do, then tough luck – the change will motivate them to move closer to their job. By the way, the red / yellow / green advice in StreetPlan comes from best practice guidance of both ITE and CNU, so if engineers say “It’s too tight for standards,” ask them, “Are you up to speed on your own industry? 9-ft is narrow but allowable – and recognized as a good way to reduce speed.”

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Managing Intersections

Prospect Ave. looks like a drag-strip for half a mile, so I feel like hitting the gas. If the community can raise a little more money, minor intersection modifications will force drivers to slow down. Raised table-top intersections with alternative coloring would work, and/or forced curvature.

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I’m a terrible artist, so I stole a picture of bulb-outs on a two-way street, and modified to show how streetscape extensions (shaded blue) could force one-way traffic to slow down. This could be temporarily achieved with something as simple as a row of cinderblocks to create the blue spaces and some planted pots and lawn-chairs in the voids.

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So if you want to do something and the city’s too slow, take a cue from activists in San Francisco, and get some neighbors to pitch in for blocks and lawn chairs to force 5-pm drivers to go around you! You won’t be seriously impeding traffic, so you shouldn’t get in much trouble, but you’ll make the evening news and be a long-way toward demonstrating that couplets can be easily improved.

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Positioning for Hundreds of Years of Intensification

Think about downtown Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Manhattan, and dozens of other ultra-high density locations here and abroad. What do they all have in common? One-ways are a BIG part of how they achieved and maintain such densities. Their tight grids matter, but ever since Henry Ford, the ability for vehicles to flow also matters to buses, trolleys, UPS trucks, cement trucks, taxis, and automated vehicles. Two-ways will simply gridlock at lower traffic volumes than one-ways. It’s physics.

“Good, we hate those climate-disrupting drivers anyway! Make them suffer and they’ll do something else.” Yeah, like not live there, opting for sprawling suburbs instead. When ANY mode becomes unattractive, the market is hindered and will sprawl elsewhere. Engineers used to focus on both high-volume and high-speed. But you can still have high-volume at low speeds. As Andrew Price pointed out in his Strong Towns post “A case for one-way streets” traffic and other modes dance well on one-ways in major downtowns because it is slow. Pedestrians cross at-will anywhere they want, as they only need a gap in one direction. Mother Nature discovered our blood “network” is best managed as one-way streets: arteries for oxygen, veins for return. “Two-way blood-vessels” would mean high blood pressure and stunted growth.

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One-Ways… What Kind of Drug Are These? Let’s Discuss!

No wise doctor would ever discount all potential uses of a drug just because negative side-effects outweigh benefits when applied incorrectly. In our “bio-engineering” of the urban body, I’m convinced low-speed one-ways can have impressive benefits. But they’re a powerful drug that’s been abused in the past, and too many are too scared to prescribe them. They’re a bit hallucinogenic, and I’m not sure who’s hallucinating the most – me or the critics. Am I missing key weaknesses? Are critics unfairly blaming the wrong thing? Are there cases where conversion makes more sense than traffic calming?

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I invite you to weigh in, or notify anyone with a lot of experience to weigh in. I’ll respond to comments where appropriate, and hope you’ll watch for Part 2 with examples of how couplets outside downtowns can help to kill stroads!

Billion-Dollar Projects, Redefined

What comes to mind when you hear news of a pending transportation project that will run into the hundreds of millions or even billions? Invariably it is a freeway or urban rail project. It’s a celebrity culture, and freeways are the celebrities of our auto-worshiping culture.  If freeways have issues, everyone knows it and everyone’s ready to spend whatever it takes – especially on celebrity-worthy alternatives like glitzy rail.  If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with “morbidly obese” freeways like that above, or more double-deckers.

In the meantime, your region may have hundreds of ugly stroads that in aggregate are a lot more troublesome than the next freeway bottleneck. Some stroads are excessively congested. Others were once super-sized because they were popular, but have since become blighted and under-utilized. Virtually all are heavily auto-oriented, and dangerously high-speed for the level of on/off/across multi-modal activity involved.

If they could be reinvented as mixed-use livable boulevards with place-making intersections, then the reduced congestion per dollar spent would be more impressive than similar dollars spent on freeway and rail projects. And more than just congestion, we’d also be setting the stage for safer, more beautiful streets that accommodate all users much better. And these streets could then attract new growth, making it more possible to get by with #NoNewStreets.

 

Communities would love to create great streets, but they bump up against harsh realities – they haven’t budgeted even for potholes, let alone amenities that make up a walkable Complete Street. So they require developers to plant a few rinky-dink trees, half of which will be dead in a year.

Freeways Get The Attention; Stroads Deserve More Attention

Why do freeways get all the attention?  Here are three reasons…

  1. Freeways are everyone’s problem:  Stroads are just too local. Even if everyone in the state as an ugly, congested stroad problem, the state itself does not have your stroad problem. When there are problems with freeways, everyone cares.
  2. With freeways, the solution is “obvious”:  Anyone can arm-chair quarterback the most common freeway problem. “It’s congested, so make it bigger!” Few appreciate the subtle consequences of freeway expansion, such as resultant induced demand, sprawl, white-knuckling through high-speed spaghetti, and sucking the funding opportunities away from other needs. The solutions for troubled stroads are purplexing to everyone. Commerce is dying! But how do you fix that? Or maybe there’s too much congestion, but widening would have hundreds of serious impacts. How do you fix that?
  3. States fund mega-projects:  Even if the state owns your stroad, there is no statewide excitement to fund localized improvements for congestion relief, bikeways, transit, and premium streetscape in someone else’s city. But there may be excitement for a huge bundle of projects designed to reinvigorate languishing communities!

To Rally Attention to Stroads, Redefine the Mega-Project

We need to redefine “the billion-dollar project.” A 10-mile freeway bottleneck gets funded because 200,000 drivers per day depend on it. For the same billion, you might bundle dozens of Complete Street projects, benefiting even more people every day with stronger, more vibrant communities along with less congestion. So stop settling for piecemeal arterial funding with minuscule budgets for bikes, transit, and pedestrians, and instead rally stakeholders and legislators around a “billion-dollar investment” in arterial streets as a single project, like they’re already used to doing with freeways. If such a project were defined in detail using this Shared Solution toolbox, it would be easy to demonstrate greater effectiveness on congestion and 7-D land uses than similarly expensive freeway and rail projects.

 

Addressing Critics

Many will look at the above picture and say, “all you’ve done is prettied things up and done nothing for congestion relief!  It’s even worse because I could turn left before and now there’s a tree in the left-turn lane.  At least the freeway project can help me get home for dinner!”

That’s the point of the toolbox.  The Place-Making Intersections like the Quadrant and the Bowtie (Thru-Turn) are both able to reduce congestion by relocating lefts to where they’re easier to manage.  And to those who would critique that the off-freeway network is now great, but the freeway itself remains a problem, review our suggestions for Managed Motorways, which can get freeways flowing again without needing to expand them again.

In Summary

Stroads are everyone’s problem, yet nobody’s problem.  If we elevate visibility by packaging dozens of stroad overhauls together in a single project on-par with a freeway project, there is a better chance of getting state funding because everyone will get something at the same time.  When the “project” concept varies so radically, you can still compare apples to apples when the money is similar.  Not only will this strategy prove more effective at reducing congestion, but there will be gains in alternative modes, a thriving economy, and improved safety that blowing another billion on a freeway just can’t match.

8-F’s of Transit Ridership

Why do we prefer trains over buses? Maybe there is magic in steel wheels, but there are also practical reasons. Say you see a random bus. Is it an option for you? Not if you don’t know where it came from, where it is going, or how often it comes by.  Here are “8-Fs” for helping any form of transit attract more riders.

8Fs of Transit Ridership

  1. Frequent – Make sure service is frequent enough for the market you are targeting.
  2. Familiar – Branded “bus tracks,” etc., help more people become passively aware of their transit options.
  3. Fares – Match the market rather than repel it.  “Free” should be considered, as it can double riders.
  4. Fast – Reduce time spent stuck in congestion, waiting at stops, getting to stops, and boarding.
  5. Focused – Avoid circuitous routes and low-value diversions. Direct routes are easy to remember.
  6. Fun – Attractive vehicles, stops, & creative marketing remove stigmas.
  7. Fusion – With land use.  Create walkable, high-density, connected infill near stops.
  8. Frugal – Avoid ribbon-cutting glamour. Minimizing cost per rider = more riders for same cost!*

*Be sure to assess the full cost: Annualized Capital + Operating + Maintenance costs

Here is another way of saying it:

  1. Frequent – Don’t give people with choices a reason to choose something else.
  2. Familiar – Help people become aware of transit options.
  3. Fares – Know what target markets are willing to pay.  “Free” can double or triple riders.
  4. Fast – Many strategies can help transit move faster.
  5. Focused – Connect the “Big Dots” via popular corridors. Direct routes are easy to remember.
  6. Fun – Attractive vehicles, stops, & creative marketing remove stigmas.
  7. Fusion – With land use.  Create walkable, high-density mixed-uses near stops.
  8. Frugal – Avoid ribbon-cutting glamour. Minimize cost per new rider.

 

We elaborate on these concepts in this white paper entitled “The Eights” of Making Buses More Like Trains! Additional topics in the paper include:

  • 8 Rules for Creating Multi-Route Branded Corridor Segments (a strategy for creating an “almost no-cost track” where 2 or more routes happen to overlap).
  • 8 Transit Enhancements to Attract Riders
  • 8 Strategies to Minimize Operational Costs and Acquire Operating Funds
  • 8 Rubber-Tire Vehicle Styles That Could Work Well for Circulation
  • 8 Examples of Branded Bus Corridors in the US and Australia

To be clear, trains may well be the right solution for many situations.  We are not “anti- train!”  These are ideas to help you get greater return on your investment in buses – the lion’s share of most systems.