Back in December I noted that there are actually three ways to adjust the balance of a road to favor pedestrians over cars, or vice versa. You can have expensive, permanent infrastructure: curbs, barriers and stop lights. You can have regulations marked with signs, paint and enforcement that can be changed relatively easily but take some time to get used to: one-way traffic flow, curbside parking and bus and bike lanes. You can have regulations that change with the time of day: reversible lanes, signal timing adjustments and rush hour parking restrictions.
Beginning in the 1950s, transportation planners rolled out more and more one-way streets. This approach has been discredited more and more over the years, and its Waterloo was probably Mike Primeggia's Park Slope one-way proposal that brought over 400 people to a community board meeting in 2007.
Pedestrian advocates here in New York may have stopped that one-way pair, but they have had less success reversing existing one-way pairs such as the Eighth Avenue-Prospect Park West pair that terrorizes park visitors. In other cities like Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, however, one-way streets have been returned to two-way flow, increasing pedestrian safety and comfort.
We should examine restoring all our one-way pairs to two-way. Four of the streets on Tri-State's Most Dangerous Roads list are one-way: Amsterdam Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue, and Bedford Avenue. Other pairs that make for a lousy pedestrian environment include Crescent and Thirty-Third Streets in Astoria, Skillman and Forty-Third Avenues in Sunnyside, Court and Smith Streets in Cobble Hill, and Lafayette and DeKalb Avenues in Fort Greene.
The Manhattan avenues are roughly a hundred feet wide. The one-way avenue pairs that I mentioned above in Brooklyn and Queens are seventy feet wide, with two lanes of traffic and two parking lanes. But we need to go beyond those. The vast majority of one-way streets in New York City are fifty-foot streets with one lane of traffic and two parking lanes. It's harder to imagine those as one-way streets, but you remember this picture of West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village, from the time when it was two-way.
It's easy to make a fifty-foot street one-way, as was done on Fifty-Eighth Street right here in Woodside, by removing a parking lane. That goes counter to the hierarchy of street allocations that I posted earlier, because moving cars are worse for our goals than parked cars. But what if you kept the parking lane? Well, there's a precedent for that.
This is Saint Johns Road in Newport, a pretty town on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England. It's thirty-five feet wide, and it's two way with occasional parking on one side of the street. The car in the foreground is waiting for the light to change; the cars in the background are parked. What happens when cars are coming in opposite directions? One of them yields to the other. The parking spaces are distributed so that there is always room for one car to pull over. This is what Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck call a "yield street."
You may be thinking, "gee, that sounds like an invitation to head-on collisions!" I didn't see a single head-on collision during my visit, and the UK Department for Transport says that "road layout" was a factor in only two to three percent of crashes in 2011 (PDF). Keep in mind that "road layout" includes bends and hills in addition to "narrow carriageway."
Why doesn't every driver on the Isle of Wight die in a fiery head-on collision as soon as they get on one of these roads? Because they are aware of the risk and adjust their driving accordingly, going slower and paying a lot more attention to what's around them. The same as with any traffic calming technique.
We should go beyond returning hundred-foot and seventy-foot avenues to two-way flow, and examine some of our fifty-foot streets. Any street in a neighborhood slow zone that sees a crash should be a candidate.
The biggest political obstacle to implementing yield streets is the need to remove some curbside parking spaces to make the yield zones. Some of our alternate-side-obsessed neighbors may not appreciate this. And that in turn points to the need to adequately price curbside parking in the city. Curbside parking is a privilege that should never have been given away for free.