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The Problem(s) With One Way Streets

Rivers were meant to run in one direction. People are not rivers.

Alan Ehrenhalt makes an interesting case for two-way streets.  There’s evidence that one way streets increase operating speeds, reduce neighborhood accessibility and can sometimes hurt commercial districts. The UK has already implemented broad design guidelines which call for phasing out one ways in residential areas. In designing streets based on future level of service calculations, we may be sacrificing neighborhood livability.

I know of several residential streets in Baltimore which are currently one way and operate at speeds well above the posted limit. Some of these streets are also excessively wide and could easily handle 2 lanes of bi-direction traffic and full bike lanes. While there are situations where one way streets are needed, these are extreme cases and fall within a limited context.

This post comes from a death-defying attempt to bike west from the Inner Harbor to Hollins Market.  While the future bus/bike lane on Lombard should help, the speeding traffic on the one way pairs on every single east-west downtown street up to Saratoga creates mini-highways which are uncomfortable to walk on and dangerous to bike on. (A quick aside: Eutaw and Saratoga Streets, two of the handful of two-way downtown streets, have much more active retail and street life than most other streets in the CBD).

Another example of a questionable one way pair is Pratt and Lombard east of President St. Pratt bisects Little Italy and Albemarle Square – both of which are small, walkable neighborhoods made up of narrow (more so in the case of Little Italy) local streets.  Pratt as a one way divides these neighborhoods, encourages speeding, and creates a dangerous situation for cars and pedestrians traveling north-south that are trying to cross Pratt/Lombard. In an effort to get as many cars out of downtown as fast as possible, east bound Pratt St. traffic is not required to stop between High St. and Central Ave. This doesn’t seem like a big deal when you’re looking at a map, but when you’re on the ground walking or on a bike, and you combine the one way traffic with a lack of traffic control, it’s obvious this road was designed as a quick exit to Central Ave. and not as a neighborhood street.

View Larger Map

Sure, if Pratt were converted to two way, we’d lose a parking lane with peak hour restrictions. But really, how useful is peak hour restricted parking to residential neighborhoods?

These one-way streets were created with efficiency in mind. So, to my colleagues around the country designing urban streets, I ask; what’s the rush? Who cares if it takes 3.5 minutes or 4 minutes to get to the nearest highway? What good is saving a minute of travel time when you sacrifice walking/biking/retail/comfort/livable streets in an effort to maximize technocratic efficiency? It’s like zooming around Yellowstone Park and claiming you had a great trip because your visit only lasted an hour.

Update: Richmond, VA is planning to convert a plethora of downtown streets to two way to improve navigation, pedestrian accessibilty and spur economic development.

References: TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium

  • Trorb
  • Doug

    Actually, the vast majority (I think it's like 90%) of people don't leave their cars when visiting Yellowstone… bad example.

  • Mark

    Great video, Trorb. Doug – Mt. Zion is a better example. I find the irony of picking Yellowstone kinda funny, though.

  • Patrick McMahon

    The issue isn't so much whether the streets are one-way but how they're managed if they're one-way. It's easier to manage speeds on one-way streets than on two-way streets by timing the traffic signals for 40 mph progression (as has been the typical practice in Baltimore City) or to time them consistently for 20-25 mph progression. The status quo times the streets for speeds faster than the speed limit or appropriate for residential neighborhoods.

    The challenge has been the lack of clear City policy on this issue and signal timing has taken place without clear input. The neighborhood associations from North Ave. to Univ. Parkway wrote to BCDOT back in January to push for appropriate speeds on streets in that area and to institute a Citywide policy (I need to follow up on that). The Planning Division of Baltimore City DOT should be working with the Traffic Division to ensure that new timing plans are designed to manage speeds in residential neighborhoods and never to time corridors for speeds above the legal speed limit.

    Making streets like Pratt or Lombard two-way results in significant conflicts between turning and through traffic, resulting in longer delays for pedestrians and automobiles. Rather, the number of lanes on those streets should be reduced, the signal timing should be for slow but steady progression of traffic, and the building should be consistently oriented to the street with appropriate sidewalk widths for pedestrians. It's not as flashy as converting them to two-way, but far more effective at achieving the livability goals and balancing the needs of multiple users.

  • Nate Evans

    Mark – if you want to get across town to from the Inner Harbor to Hollins Market you have some options:

    Take the Pratt St bike lane around to Conway. Although moderately hair raising, take Conway (ok or the adjacent sidewalk – its wide enough) to Howard & across to Camden St. Either take Eutaw to Lexington west or Camden to Washington thru Ridgeley's Delight. With both, access the MLK Sidepath to Hollns St and west towards the market. Hollins St has serious bike blvd potential.

    If you want to avoid Conway, take the easy route along the Gwynns Falls Trail around Ravens Stadium, a right on the Russell Service Drive to the MLK Sidepath and up to Hollins.

    Coming home, Hollins to MLK Path, then south to Pratt and take the bike/bus lane east. And you already know about the storm grates.

    Keep your chin up, Mark. You're becoming an urban cyclist!

  • Steven Vance

    Edited – double post.

  • Steven Vance

    “Who cares if it takes 3.5 minutes or 4 minutes to get to the nearest highway?”
    -I learned how to calculate travel time savings as part of urban planning classes recently. After projecting how many cars will be using the road per day, you can calculate how much time these drivers will be saving. And if you can estimate the wage for these drivers, then you can calculate how much money these drivers will saving by not spending their time in a non-productive way. Eventually, you can calculate emissions. All of these calculations can be converted to either TIME or MONEY. And TIME=MONEY.

    “What good is saving a minute of travel time when you sacrifice walking/biking/retail/comfort/livable streets in an effort to maximize technocratic efficiency?”
    -Someone needs to figure out a way to convert these values to TIME or MONEY.

    Time and money can be express in easy-to-understand numbers. Projects can be easily compared based on these values. Until “livability” can be transposed to a time or hour value, I think it will be hard for many villages, towns, and cities to justify changing their policies or rationale.

    The federal Department of Transportation has shown that it understands that not every project can be compared like this. Livability is a factor in awards decision, but still hard to quantify.

  • Mark

    You bring up a good point, Steven. Traffic speeds and volumes are easily quantifiable. “Livability” is not. This is why it's easy to fall into the trap of designing roads which meet traffic engineering policies but fail on many other levels.

    Patrick – good points, but signal timing can only do so much for one ways. The spaces between the signals will still be subject to the same environmental psychology due to one-way flow. The turning traffic vs. through traffic conflict is real, but delayed greens at key intersections can help. Studies have also shown storefront visibility and pedestrian safety improve with two-ways, but I am not an ideologue and enjoy opposing viewpoints. This is really a qualitative comparison of the experience of biking/walking down Baltimore St. (awesome) vs. Pratt St. (horrible), with traffic flow being one important factor of many.

  • Dukiebiddle

    Re: the speed limits set for 40 mph in the Downtown/Charles Village corridor, while the speed limits are set at 25 to 30 mph: THANK YOU! It didn't take me long to figure that out back in my driving days, drive 10 miles over the speed limit – make ALL the lights.

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