Monday, January 18, 2016

We need to stop converting streets to one-way

New York is famous for its livable streets revolution, where Janette Sadik-Khan, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg, turned the city Department of Transportation from an agency focused on moving traffic and placating angry drivers into one that prioritized the safety and movement of pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders. Under Sadik-Khan the DOT took away some car lanes and narrowed others to install pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes.


Under Mayor de Blasio and his transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, the DOT has shown more timidity and more deference to unelected "community leaders," but it has continued to install safety measures and bus lanes, sometimes taking space from cars to do it. Where neither administration has been very good is on one-way streets. It's pretty uncontroversial that one-way streets have less head-on collisions. It used to also be the consensus that they are safer for pedestrians. Instead of looking for cars from two or even four directions, people crossing a one-way street only have to look in one or two (or maybe three, but who's counting?).

More recently, people have come to realize that the old consensus was too simple. Removing most of the danger of head-on collisions only encouraged people to drive faster, increasing the danger of other collisions. Drivers have to drive further to get to their destinations, adding to congestion and turning moves.

One-way streets have also had a negative effect on street life. The difficulty of navigation, and the difficulty of parking next to speeding cars, have discouraged drivers from patronizing businesses on one-way streets. The danger, noise and unpleasantness of speeding cars have discouraged walking. Stores and restaurants have closed, giving people less reason to walk. This is a vicious cycle, because just the absence of other people drives pedestrians away.
New York was an early leader in the movement against converting streets to one way. In fact, it was a plan by the City Department of Transportation to funnel cars into the Barclays Center that demonstrated the livable streets movement's growing power. Stirred by a series of Streetsblog posts, 650 people came out to speak against the DOT's proposal to convert Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Park Slope to one way.

Since then, other cities across the country have converted one-way streets back to two way. The size of the crowd was probably a factor in Mayor Bloomberg's decision to appoint a reformer like Janette Sadik-Khan as Transportation Commissioner. With the support of Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives, and against the opposition of community boards dominated by local driving elites, the DOT rolled out bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and intersection redesigns to make streets safer.

The odd thing is that as far as I know New York has not converted any one-way streets back to two-way, either before or since 2007. I haven't heard anything about the issue from Sadik-Khan, Streetsblog or TA. The architect John Massengale wrote about street safety last month and even spent a paragraph talking about the dangers of one way streets, but for some reason did not explicitly include returning the streets to two-way in his list of recommendations.

What is even more surprising is that since 2007 the DOT has continued to convert streets from two-way to one-way. For example, under Sadik-Khan they converted 49th Avenue in Long Island City and 58th Street and Maurice Avenue in Maspeth to one-way. Under Commissioner Trottenberg, they have converted Fifth Street in LIC, and have proposed converting 77th Street in Jackson Heights (PDF).

To be fair, these streets are not like Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 58th Street and Maurice Avenue are industrial truck routes, and 49th Avenue and Fifth Street are primarily residential. Both are in areas with higher car ownership rates. These factors can explain why livable streets advocates didn't notice or draw attention to the conversions.
But those factors don't mean that we shouldn't try to stop these one-way conversions, and they don't mean we shouldn't talk about them. People need to be safe where they live and work, not just where they shop. These neighborhoods have a lot of pedestrians, and we need to protect them from the demands of the driving elites who dominate their institutions.

By the way, this applies to narrower streets too.

13 comments:

Unknown said...

This kind of seems like an article of faith among urbanists, but I've never found it convincing. Maybe it's because I lived and worked for several years in downtown San Diego, which is highly walkable, and also consists almost entirely of one way streets.

I've never been able to find any stats that show that two way conversions actually save lives (not saying they don't exist, I've just never found any). I'd imagine any increase in safety would be largely due to slowing traffic down, and there are other ways to do that besides two-way conversions. It's true that since there's fewer "driving halfway around the block" moves in a two-way network, there are fewer total vehicle/ped conflicts, but in a one way network, left turns don't require the motorist to keep track of peds as well as oncoming traffic - as a ped this is the situation that worries me most.

I've also found it strange that nobody ever seems to advocate doing away with right-on-red, since this seems like the biggest source of ped/vehicle conflicts of all.

Capn Transit said...

Unknown, there are studies at the foot of the Streetsblog page I link to above. It's not an article of faith. But I agree with you about right-on-red. It is already illegal in most of New York City, and when I leave the city I feel much less safe because of it. Anyone want to write about that?

Alex Knight said...

I noted this briefly on Twitter, but not far from 6th and 7th Aves in Park Slope mentioned above there are a few streets in Windsor Terrace that badly need to be converted to two-way. 10th Ave, 11th Ave, and Terrace Place are all one-way and extremely wide, so they become defacto drag strips even though they're all less than half a mile end-to-end in that area. The worst is 11th Ave, which runs over the Prospect expressway. There's an onramp just past that overpass and cars turn onto it from BOTH lanes. I've almost been taken out several times there with my daughter while trying to cross because drivers don't bother to even look for pedestrians, especially when they're turning left from the right lane. It's a deathtrap. I simply cannot imagine why they are one-way. One especially lovely woman on Twitter scolded me once for suggesting making them two-way because that would require "lots of extra stop signs cluttering up the neighborhood." You can't make this stuff up.

As for the right on red, I think there are lots of people who would love to see that more widely implemented, at least in city down-towns. I've noted that it is one of my favorite things about New York City. Of course, in car-centric America they are appalled at the few extra seconds it costs them.

Jeff said...

To me, there is a huge psychological difference. A one-way street sets a tone for all users that the street is a place to get through, whereas a two-way street feels like a place to be. For urban streets, the latter is preferable.

mike said...

I totally agree that two-way streets are more urban, but there isn't (yet) any empirical evidence. Empirical evidence of the kind that traffic engineers pay attention to does say several things:

-Two-way streets have more accidents at intersections because of left turns across oncoming traffic.
-It is much safer to cross a one-way street or the side street of a one-way street (all things being equal), because your exposure to turning cars is limited.

I think some of this is that a two-way to one-way conversion is not all things equal in the sense of a regression analysis. A two-way street is two lanes in each direction, which limits the design speed of the street. A one-way street of the same width is two lanes in the same direction, which has a much higher design speed. A two to one-way conversion that truly prioritized safety might (re)establish wider sidewalks and a lower functional design speed rather than two full travel lanes.

There is some good work here for a livable streets-oriented traffic engineer to demonstrate some evidence and find design principles for what works!

M1EK said...

One-way to two-way conversions are a cargo cult for some urbanists. There are plenty of very walkable very friendly very safe one-way streets in cities all over the world, and plenty of horrible two-way streets.

What usually happens in a successful conversion are a bunch of other ancillary streetscape improvements. Rarely if ever is a conversion just "put new paint on the street and do precisely nothing else", which is what would actually be required to make a valid test.

Nathan Landau said...

People need to distinguish between fast multi-lane one way streets and slow two lane one way streets with lots of traffic signals, both of which exist right outside my office. The latter type can be very pleasant, and creates little urgency to convert to two way.

Corey Bea said...

Not a fan of "one-way" streets and often saw a NIMBY-ism in such installations in and around where I live in northeast Queens and certain names where I know the lay of the land. It certainly seems counter-Vision Zero to introduce a street measure that facilitates speeding.

e4bdee58-6c6e-11e4-a383-6b5eb3721e67 said...

30% of all pedestrian injuries in NYC are caused by left turning vehicles. Turning one way streets into two way will only increase the number of dangerous left turn intersections. Does any of the analysis you quote take this into account? Also, I reference exhibit A in bad two way streets -- Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Illegal U-turns are happening all along the street and would not be possible on a one-way street. Once the traffic thins out speeding is rampant. Compare this to Smith Street just to the south? It's a vibrant livable street with no illegal u-turns and fairly safe driving speeds even at night. Does any of the analytics supporting two way streets assume non-enforcement of traffic rules by the police?

As a bicyclist and pedestrian, I'm much more nervous crossing a two way intersection than a one-way intersection. There are too many opportunities for conflict.

I say make the traffic lanes narrower with bulb-outs, bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Two way streets are not the answer.



Unknown said...

Capn, the studies Streetsblog links to are similar to others that I've read - they make arguments based on street geometry in favor of two way streets, but don't seem to have anything in the way of statistics that demonstrate that one-way to two-way conversions actually save lives.

Alex Knight, I've observed similar behavior on one way streets. One side of the building used to live in fronted on a one way street that was about a block down from where a freeway off-ramp funneled directly into it, and people used to barrel down it. If they got green lights, people would take a good 4 or 5 blocks to slow down to even halfway reasonable speeds for city driving.

e4bdee58-6c6e-11e4-a383-6b5eb3721e67, I feel the same way - maybe that's because I've lived both in highly walkable places with extensive one-way street grids, as well as places in Los Angeles with two way grids where, despite a fair amounts of pedestrian traffic, you felt you were taking your life in your hands crossing certain intersections. There are ways to calm traffic down without getting rid of one way streets, which I feel have clear advantages for peds and bikes.

Capn Transit said...

I wrote a reply the other day that got swallowed by my browser cache.

You all may be right that we don't have solid evidence, but because we're talking about saving lives the Hippocratic principle applies: don't change things unless you can be pretty certain the new arrangement will be safer than the old one.

Maybe you're right and that means we need to do some more research before converting one-way streets to two-way. But if so, it also means we should stop converting two-way streets to one-way.

Marc said...

When we think of the "big bad one-way street" as a killer of urbanism, maybe it's just the "big" part that's really problematic? When I think of one-way streets that were really unpleasant for me as a pedestrian, they were all 3+ lanes.

I've always found Center City Philadelphia a sheer delight to walk around, and it's overwhelmingly composed of narrow one or two-lane one-way streets. Coupled with excellent signal timing, I think Center City's narrow streets allow pedestrian activity to easily spill from one block to the next; Broad and Market are obviously exceptions but still decent IMO.

Finally, there are plenty of awful, repellent, wide, high-speed two-way stroads in both urban and suburban areas that feel just as bad as wide, fast one-way streets. Maybe the sheer number of lanes (which can induce lane-jockeying), lane width, and pedestrian/transit-unfriendly signal timing are bigger killers of urbanism than one-waying per se?

One-way streets may be getting a bad rep because they've traditionally (i.e. since the 50s) gone hand-in-hand with the "improvements" listed above. But I've seem enough examples of decent one-way streets and lousy two-way streets to wonder if M1EK is right: that two-waying might be an urbanist cargo cult.

Capn Transit said...

Marc, there's no question that big is bad, especially when the streets are wide enough for speeding. But even your standard eighty foot NYC avenue is worse when the lanes (two moving plus two parking) are all going the same way, and your standard sixty foot side street is worse when it's one big wide lane (plus parking) than two narrow lanes.