New Urbanists on One Way Streets

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This is Indianapolis… not the 500, but rather one of the city streets.


   One-way streets are routinely reviled by New Urbanists for turning city thoroughfares into low-friction automobile raceways, but are they always horrible? I posted the following a week ago on Facebook while in New York City and got this following flood of insightful responses: "To all my #NewUrbanist colleagues who feel that one-way streets are terrible, why is Manhattan not a wretched, dysfunctional place?”


 Belle Ducray if done with for thought one way streets are awesome (santa barbara ca for example has them down to an art)


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John Z Wetmore A lot more goes into what a street is than one-way vs. two-way. Compare the one-way street grid in downtown Portland, OR, with Salt Lake City. Narrow streets, small blocks, slow speeds. Often two-way streets are converted to one-way to create wide fast-moving automobile sewers, at great cost to the people living along them. See, for example, Lansing, MI, on the second interview. Episode 122


Michael Moule John Z Wetmore I’ve been saying this for years. I compared Portland’s downtown one way streets with Tampa’s. A world of difference; the biggest factor in that case is signal progression speed; block size and street width are fairly similar in those two cities.

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Daniel Ashworth Jr. It is context. There is a difference between the one-way narrow street in a tight gridded network and the one-way multi-lane couplet speedway in say, downtown Tuscaloosa, AL (but take your pick of any town with this).


Sean D. Sweat As a pedestrian, I love one-way streets. I think New Urbanists are wrong on this one.



Michael Kilcullen as a pedestrian, you should still look both ways before crossing a street, sometimes cars and bicyclists are going the wrong way. There is not much advantage from that point of view (pun!), insofar as one way or two way streets. I think, in general, one way streets tend to lead to higher road speeds, as drivers perceive that it is safer withiout risiking headon crashes and higher auto speeds are worse for pedestrians. One-way streets are never about road traffic accessibiity to businesses and homes, unless they are in the middle median or block between one-way couplets.  Everyone else, the one way street system actually makes one direction of traffic take a longer path and double back on itself, adds slightly to road congestion for half-blocks. One way streets are for throughput, to get more cars through, from one neighbourhood thru to another, one ways are not about accessibility to the buildings that are on oneway streets.


Sandy Sorlien New Urbanists don't ban them. As Daniel says, context, and as Jennifer says, make them narrow, and as John says, small blocks. They should be more or less alternating so you don't have to go too far to turn the other way, and so they are predictable. Newport RI is a problem because they have places you can hardly get to because too many streets go one way in the same direction. By the time you get to one that goes the direction you want, you're like, screw it, I'm going home.


Sean D. Sweat Sure, look both ways, whatever. But you're not playing frogger on a one-way street.

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Ryan Wozniak If the block lengths are super short, it matters far less (1-way vs 2-way). But, you are always pushing for the ideal... And I respect that. New Urbanism comes from a tradition of incremental improvements to the disappointing contexts in which we find ourselves.


Paul Westhelle Going to assume there are degrees of wretchedness... Midtown has subways that go both ways. And, more recently, bike lanes and increased walking space allow more 2-way movement, making things much less wretched. As for cars... those are for the ignorant tourists and the "bridge and tunnel" crowd. In southern parlance: bless their hearts.


David Moye inherent demand and legacy built environment overcomes a lot, also the density keeps cars slow, however, many would consider Manhattan to be wretched.



Matthew Petty 1. Lots of it is.
2. Enough people walking overcomes a lot of bad design.



Kirk Westphal Yes... plus there's (almost) always parallel parking on each side, generous sidewalk width, and to your point, such high densities that retail and restaurants thrive there despite the fast-ish moving cars. (This last point is helped by the fact that much of the historic fabric has been preserved = fine-grained storefronts.)


Erik Bootsma New York is the exception to many things that work everywhere else.




Kirk Westphal Can we even count how many times everyone outside of New York and Chicago have wanted a "Central Park" or "Millennium Park" in their low-density downtowns?


Kevin Klinkenberg Kirk Westphal Or now a High Line.

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Mark Schnell I think there are a few urban design "rules" that NYC gets away with breaking thanks to the high density and inherent walkability in the urban design. In a similar way, I don't think the High Line would work in most other places, because it works against street life to some degree. But I don't think the one-way streets are all that great in NYC. With a few exceptions, the big north/south avenues (particularly in Midtown) are not where the magic happens in NYC.


Nancy Bruning But today, as a pedestrian, you need to assume all NYC streets are two way since bikes often go in the wrong direction.



Nick Rolinski Nancy Bruning this is an important point. It’s very dangerous to step out into a one-way without checking both ways. Plenty of cars and other vehicles travel the wrong way every day in every city.


Jennifer Hurley Narrow, one-way streets that are part of a grid of one-way streets are not terrible. In fact, they can be great for peds because you only have to look one way to cross, and crossing mid block is much easier. Downtown Philly is a great example. Wide, one-way couplets designed to funnel lots of traffic quickly in and out of a downtown are terrible. Most one-way streets in the US are just too wide with too little traffic so they encourage speeding. I’m a NU heretic because I’ve been praising narrow one-way streets for years.


Sandy Sorlien Agree about Philly and other cities like it, of course. The key is a tight network with frequent opportunities to turn the other way. That's more important for car/bike/bus options than narrow/wide. You could have one narrow one-way couplet in and out of a small town or a downtown, i.e., a one-way Main Street, and it could kill your shopping district. Agree about the pedestrian crossing, narrow is good, yay for the jaywalking!


Nick Rolinski The SmartCode gives nice options for 1-way streets, and they can really help with street hierarchy. I don’t think all New Urbanists dislike them generally, but the one-way pairs which act as arterials in many American towns and cities tend to emphasize vehicular traffic in other ways too, which contribute to the bad rap. Also, Manhattan is different animal altogether.


Tim Wilson Three-ways>one-ways

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Janna Whitley I love narrow one-way streets, but for the life of me I can't only look one way. It always takes me a minute to remember which way I am supposed to look. 🙃


Cindy Van Empel Lemaire Because of the vibrant non-automobility and density!




Jeff Donnelly When I moved back to the City in 1964, the new (to me) one-ways clearly favored autos over other street users. Great for people who wanted to cut quickly from east t-west in Manhattan; terrible for those who once used neighborhood residential streets for play.


G.b. Arrington Downtown Portland is apparently “cursed” with a network of narrow one way streets on a grid of 200 x 200 foot blocks. The result is one of the most livable downtown’s in North America and no doubt beyond. Traffic speeds are set to have the walk signals change at the speed up walking on a street. The debate on one-way streets by New Urbanists needs to become much more nuanced. Problems are much more complex than planning dogma on what is good and what I’d bad.


Ian Manire Came here to suggest exactly this. Lived in downtown Portland for years and because of the small blocks and pedestrian-speed traffic, it was immensely walkable and human-oriented. I live between two one-way "thoroughfares" now in east-side Providence, RI and it's also lovely--becauee the streets are one-lane narrow road bed with naturally slowed automobile traffic. All about street scale and tighter grid-weave.


John Massengale G.b. Arrington At the same time, Portland’s public life would be better if 1) there were fewer cars, and 2) many of the one-way streets were then converted to two-way.  Most of the one-way avenues in Manhattan that got the suburban-style road diets would be better as two-way streets with a lot less paint. Yes, the new avenues are better than what came before, because of the new bike lanes, but they are an interim step that will never get us to the Vision Zero goal of zero deaths, AND they induce demand. “C’mon In,” they say to suburban drivers, “Our streets are just like yours.” All street design is contextual. There is no such thing as Best For Everywhere. Eliza Harris Juliano


G.b. Arrington John Massengale you couldn’t be more wrong. Context is everything. Portland’s one way downtown streets are slow. Narrow. Safe and timed to be friendly to pedestrians as the first priority. Manhattans n/s streets are dangerous speedways in my experience. The two are sets of central city streets could not be more different.


G.b. Arrington John Massengale if you can improve on this by changing the direction of cars I'd be floored

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G.b. Arrington John Massengale or this

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G.b. Arrington John Massengale or this - all one way streets within an environment that celebrates life at the scale of walking. Yes in many contexts one way streets are terrible. But the context such as street width, design speeds, signal timing and intersection spacing are all more important whether something is a one way or two way street. I first had this argument with Peter Calthorpe in the 1990's. time to get beyond the dogma and respect the context.

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John Massengale G.b. Arrington If people in Portland reduce car use — which is necessary for the future of the city – many streets will be better places with two-way streets. It’s a change from transportation to place. Very few Portland streets would not be better streets for people with fewer cars, less parking, and two-ways.


G.b. Arrington John Massengale come to downtown Portland, experience how the commitment to making streets wonderful public spaces has been practiced. Portland will never be NYC - but quoting from Bike Portland, "Portland’s auto ownership per capita has fallen. The percentage of Portland households that include more workers than automobiles hit another high in 2017: 24 percent, enough to account for about half the city’s net household growth since 2007." that said Portland like just about every other US city is seeing transit use decline, but not because if one-way streets.


Richard Stowe To the degree that New York is "not a wretched and dysfunctional place" in the context of street design is not due to perceived benefits of one-way streets, but instead largely attributable to the fact that off-street parking was not permitted in much of Manhattan until 1939. One-way streets are primarily vessels designed to accommodate taxis, Uber & buses. This observation is from the vantage point of frequently bicycling into Manhattan from Connecticut. Outside of Central Park, impervious surfaces (asphalt & concrete) dominate the streetscape. Moreover, due to the car-first design (which include one-ways) - little sensible investment has taken place with regard to intelligent design upgrades of MNR, NJ Transit, LIRR, and Amtrak commuter rail lines in the past century; ditto NYC Subways & PATH. p.s. Don't necessarily agree with your premise that "New York is not a wretched and dysfunctional place." Two examples quickly come to mind: the demolition of Pennsylvania Station (https://bit.ly/2LXOhl0) in 1963 & Bonwit Teller (https://bit.ly/2vQGDAG) building in 1980. The replacements are wretched and the builder in one instance many consider to be vile.

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Pennsylvania Station (New York City) - Wikipedia


Mike Lydon One of the great advantages of one-way networks in a pedestrian rich city is you only have to look one way before crossing the street, not two. This is why most New Yorkers step off the curb. We know we only have to peer around one lane of parked cars and then we can continuing walking, even if against the light. If we didn’t do this, pedestrian congestion would be even more intense than it already is in many parts of Manhattan.


Nancy Bruning Mike Lydon sorry, Mike, not anymore in Manhattan, where bikes too often go the wrong way. I have had one crash into me and many close calls so I now look both ways. 😢


John Massengale Nancy Bruning Correct. Especially with the 25 mph electric bikes.

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Ann Daigle Mike as a bicyclist I hate one way streets. Options. We need more options!

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Jon Seward There's plenty of wretchedness in NYC. Most streets are so narrow, that you'd lose half the parking, if you converted to two way. Maybe that's fine, but the transportation need still has to be accommodated. Some major cross streets are two way, and they're generally a nightmare. Some avenues might be improved by becoming two way. Might be worth some study.


Eliza Harris Juliano I actually had the same question because I used to live in Manhattan, so I've been thinking about it for a while. The density in Manhattan is so high that most people aren’t driving so aren’t affected by the redirects associated with one ways. Basically street life isn’t reliant on people driving in. In a smaller city many of the downtown visitors and residents are also drivers so creating a driving environment (direct trips, slow, legibility) that supports Urbanism is more important. The one ways are terrible for biking unless you’re a scofflaw (which is dangerous) or there are two way bike facilities. I used think New York City was pretty perfect (20 years ago) because my bar from suburbia was so low. Then as I watched the conversation from groups like Transportation Alternatives, I learned there was a lot of room for improvement particularly as it relates to safety. One way streets can encourage speeding which is of course a safety issue. In the more congested parts of NYC it’s probably not a big problem but late nights and on the edges it’s more likely to endanger pedestrians.


David Moye Think about the pedestrian plazas that have been created in the last 20 years, namely times square.


Eliza Harris Juliano Below is a link to a fact sheet we did for a recent project. The proposal includes a lot of other improvements too (bikeways, landscaping, bumpouts). We think a big win is having only one lane in each direction so you avoid any double (and triple) jeopardy situations for people at midblock crossings (i.e. if there's a median refuge, you only have to deal with one car and one direction at a time) and the slowest driver sets the speed because there's no passing. You can also add green medians where turn lanes aren't needed. In a situation where you are going from 4 or 5 lanes one way to 2 lanes in each direction the calculus might be a little different. We also have people doing crazy stuff intentionally driving the wrong way for short distances to avoid having to go the long way around. Maybe that doesn't happen in Manhattan. It's probably a function of irregular blocks and driveways and the overall lack of a complete grid.  https://www.dropbox.com/.../216024_NQ-TwoWayComparison...

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Eliza Harris Juliano Backstory: ~ 2013 Ian Lockwood was trying to convince me that our Orlando streets needed to go to two-way. My immediate response was "I lived in NYC with one-way streets for five years and it was great." Over the intervening years he won me over and we recently led a project together to design the conversion a portion of downtown Orlando to two-way.  I still think it's less critical in a place like Manhattan, but I see that there could be benefits if done well. The bigger problem in Manhattan is that in a city where more than half of people don't even own a car (76% in Manhattan) there is still too much street space devoted to cars no matter what direction they're going. (http://blog.tstc.org/2017/04/21/car-free-new-york-city/)

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How Car-Free is New York City? - Mobilizing the Region



Eliza Harris Juliano I'm thinking mainly of the Avenues. I haven't put much headtime on the side streets. Immediate problem might be bikes. In Paris they allow "wrong-way" bike travel on one-way streets but they also don't have on-street parking in those locations.


Andy Malone The one way avenues could very reasonably be converted. I don't think the conversion to two way on the streets makes sense unless you eliminate parking (which I'm not in favor of - I do think there's lots of opportunity for better parking pricing though).


John Massengale Andy Malone No one size fits all. We need to transition to fewer cars, including fewer parked cars.


Mike Huston I have a draft article about "urban mistakes" in Manhattan - one of which is the prevalence of one-way streets. But I try to turn it around and argue that they work well on mostly residential streets where ROW is limited. In these cases, ample sidewalks are more important than the vehicular lanes with two-way traffic. And even on commercial corridors, Manhattan storefronts are less dependent on auto exposure for business than typical Main Streets.


John Massengale Mike Huston No one size fits all. We need to transition to fewer cars, including fewer parked cars. Three-quarters if Manhattanites don’t own a car. We have to stop subsidize so much free parking. Eliza Harris Juliano


Mike Huston Agree! Lack of free parking is perhaps the factor for choosing alternate forms of transportation. Think of how many New Yorkers would own a car if they just had some place to park it.


Catherine Hartley This is a great discussion!




Ellen Humphreys One way streets work fine in NOLA.




Kurtis Hord In Louisville the one-way streets are mostly the legacy of white flight and hyper segregation. As wealthier residents moved further into the suburbs, they needed the former dense urban areas and historic neighborhoods to be "drive thru". The lights are all timed to provide commuters a way to get out of the city which became a no-man's land after 5pm. It seems like they work in larger density, but they served a specific a diabolical purpose which changed the neighborhoods they passed thru forever. proto-highways.

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Active Now

Victor Brandon Dover In the Street Design book John Massengale and I carved out a nuanced position that supports one-way streets in occasional circumstances, and we included many examples. (That passage immediately attracted flames from various extremists and zealots among our pals, who like to use words like "Never.") I remain convinced that when there is a fine-grained web of streets, it's perfectly okay to choose to demote some segments to a less-trafficked status in the grid as narrow one-ways, with less pavement for #drivists, in order to achieve intimate, slow, pedestrian-dominated spaces, when the context is right. The same applies to occasional pedestrian-only high streets. Examples of both are illustrated in the book. (These professional prescriptions should come with labels, of course, reminding us "use only as directed" and "stick to the prescribed dosage.") What usually doesn't work out well? Wide one-way pairs within coarse networks of supersized blocks, devised only to speed up motorists, implemented throughout the whole neighborhood, along with the entire suite of pedestrian hostility tools and attempts to speed up suburbanites as they flee. (Richmond, Westphal once quipped, turned itself into "The City of No Left Turns," for example.)

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Mike Hathorne Victor - fantastic explanation and photos. Thank you for sharing.





Melissa Meyer Victor Brandon Dover, where is this?



Victor Brandon Dover Melissa Meyer, that's St. Augustine.



Melissa Meyer Victor Brandon Dover, I thought so! I love it there. Better cite the other pics you posted.


Victor Brandon Dover

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Steve Mouzon This is such an outstanding series of comments that I'm tempted to turn it into a blog post, with full credit to everyone involved, of course. If anyone objects, please let me know and I'll adjust accordingly. If a lot of people object, I won't do it. But it seems a shame to let all this wisdom just get buried in the timeline where it'll soon be almost impossible to find. Thoughts?


Daniel Ashworth Jr. Sounds good to me!


Frank Starkey I think Manhattan succeeds in spite of its block sizes and street detailing, not because of them.


Mike Hathorne I concur



John Massengale Frank Starkey Manhattan has LOTS of room for improvement. As I said, three quarters of us don’t own cars. We need to transition to more recognition of that. Our cars are killing us and the planet.


Kevin Klinkenberg John Massengale there’s a lot to love about New York and Manhattan, but yes, it generally is vastly overrated from an urban design standpoint. It just has such phenomenal, abundant human life and a legacy transit system to overcome many flaws. Compared to many foreign cities, basically any Dutch city for example, it’s livability falls short on many levels. The avenues are pretty awful streets by and large, though obviously getting better.


John Massengale Kevin Klinkenberg After Move NY comes Slow NY http://bit.ly/nytnycsts

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Opinion | There Are Better Ways to Get Around Town


John Massengale

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John Massengale Kevin Klinkenberg

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Lloyd Alter It is a wretched dysfunctional place because of the one way streets, the whole urban pattern of New York is dumb. They should never have made the avenues one way, it ruined the city.

https://www.treehugger.com/.../instead-whining-about...

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Instead of whining about people who walk and bike breaking the law, how about fixing the problem?


Lloyd Alter Look at John Massengale s photo here https://www.treehugger.com/.../how-cars-have-squeezed...

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How cars have squeezed pedestrians off the streets and made it almost impossible to walk


Rob Steuteville There is more than one factor that creates a good or bad city. NYC has so many things that are good going for it. The automobile orientation of the avenues is both a necessary compromise and also can be absorbed into the overall dense, mixed-use city.


Rob Steuteville I had an article on one-way streets last week that includes the following qualification: "Although one-way systems can sometimes work well—particularly if there is a dense network of narrow streets—mostly these conversions greatly damaged downtowns by killing off retail and turning city streets into, essentially, surface highways, Speck writes." So, here's another question: How many cities have one-way streets that are unnecessary, and how much damage do they do to those cities?


Kirk Westphal Rob Great article! I was just going to reply to a comment above, “Chances are if the one-way conversion happened after 1950, it’s a bad one.” 


Rob Steuteville Here'a link the article: https://www.cnu.org/.../cities-benefit-one-way-two-way...

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Cities benefit from restoring two-way traffic


Rob Steuteville And here's one more question with regard to New York. If NY one-way avenues did not have short blocks, small curb return radii, wide sidewalks, buildings up to the street, mixed-use, high-density, interesting variety of architecture, etc., how well would those one-way streets work?


Erik Bootsma It's worth noting that Victor Brandon Dover's examples are all narrow pedestrian streets. NYs avenues are as Lloyd Alter points out essentially auto sewers. NY has good street life everywhere other than the avenues. Park Ave is really unpleasant and 6th is worse.


Bill De St. Aubin Cars don’t matter in New York




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   ~Steve Mouzon

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