The Case for One-Way Streets
February 11, 2016

From the title, you might think that I am trying to convince you why one-way streets are great. I'm not. I am just going to explore a few things I enjoy about them.

Since moving to Hoboken and commuting to Manhattan every day, I get to experience the street only on foot. What I have noticed is that most people jaywalk. By jaywalking, I mean that they look down the street to see if there is anything coming, and at the first opportunity they cross - regardless of if they are at an intersection or if the signal tells them to.

Jaywalking at the first opportunity in Hoboken.

For the most part, this works, because the majority of the streets throughout Hoboken and Manhattan are one-way - we get used to only looking one way for cars, and if there is nothing coming, we can cross safely without worrying about anything sneaking up behind us.

In fact, I often feel safer crossing a street on my own judgement than crossing when a signal tells me to, because this usually happens;

Cars turning into the crosswalk while people are crossing the street in Manhattan.

The little white light lies to us. It tells us that we have right-of-way and that we are safe. Yet, we still need to watch out for cars turning into the lane that we are trying to cross. I do not believe that any additional rules or amount of signage or signals will make a street safer. Much like how speed limits are pretty much disregarded and we should design streets for the speed we want people to drive, we should design our streets in a manner that allows people to cross safely at their own judgment - since that is what they are going to do anyway. We should design streets to be safe on the assumption that the average person is going to jaywalk.

Everyone looking down the street in Manhattan as they cross. Perhaps they are not fully trusting the signal saying that nothing is going to hit them?

Streets that are only crossable at intersections are not ideal, because;

  1. Intersections have multiple sources of potential danger. Cars can turn into you at the last minute or sneak up from an unexpected direction.

  2. Whereas when you are in the middle of a street, you can easily be well aware of oncoming traffic.

  3. You cannot directly cross to the same point on the other side of the street. At the most extreme case, you are must walk the length of the block, just to end up in the same position as you were.

  4. So out of convenience, people will cross the street without walking to the nearest intersection.

Perhaps we can address both of these problems by installing traffic lights for a pedestrian-only crossing at multiple points along a block?

Traffic lights and a crosswalk midway up a block in Adelaide.

But this presents two problems; traffic lights cost a lot ($250,000?), and it’s going to be really inefficient for cars if there are too many crossings that they have to stop at.

A one-way street in Adelaide with a crossing halfway up the block. A slightly better solution, but how often should we place the crossings? What if we wanted the entire street to be a crossing?

I like one-way streets because they mean we only have to look in one direction at a time without worrying about any vehicles sneaking up behind us. If you must take a risk when you cross traffic, it would be preferable if there were a single direction that cars could potentially come from, to avoid a vehicle sneaking up behind you unexpectedly.

This street in Hoboken is easy to cross at any point because cars are only ever coming from one direction.

I called this piece “The Case for One-Way Streets”, mostly as a rebuttal to an article titled “The Case Against One-Way Streets” to get your attention. I should have named this article “The Case for Streets Where Vehicles Can’t Sneak Up Behind You From Directions You’re Not Looking” but that name does not sound as catchy.

Let’s call the travel lanes of a street the “danger zone” because that is what they ultimately are to a person on foot. We try to minimize the amount of time in the danger zone because it feels unsafe for pedestrians. When all of our streets are divided by danger zones, there will come times when we inevitably have to cross them to reach the other side.

I find that there are two qualities which make crossing a street feel safe;

  1. When traffic can only come from a single direction and we only have to keep our eyes fixated in that one direction.

  2. When the danger zone is as narrow as possible, so we can get back to safety as quickly as possible on the other side.

Narrow one-way streets typically fit this criteria.

People jaywalking a street in Melbourne.

People jaywalking a street in Chinatown in Manhattan.

Not all one-way streets are great. They are not great when the travel lanes are wide, because that encourages cars to go fast.

A busy multi-lane avenue in Manhattan that I would not dare to jaywalk.

Flat, wide open surfaces are typically bad because they encourage cars to drive faster. The wider the travel lanes are, the more comfortable drivers feel, so the faster they drive. The faster the car, the more you are likely to die from a collision. This is true regardless of if a street is one-way or two-way.

There are some things we can do to control speeding. We can introduce obstacles around the travel lanes to force the drivers to be more alert:

Most streets in Hoboken narrow the travel lane using a strip of on-street parking either side. This is enough to slow the cars down so that it is safe enough to cross at any point.

On-street parking is one type of obstacle, but there are other options. For example, you could claim that extra space for walking:

A sidewalk extended out in Manhattan using tables, chairs, and planters.

We should also try to narrow the danger zone that we have to cross - ideally to a width only big enough for a vehicle to pass through. These are usually called curb extensions, although they sometimes go under other names. They do not have to be very expensive:

The ‘danger zone’ being narrowed with plastic poles in Hoboken.

I was told by an engineer that curbs are expensive to move, because usually they are tied in with the drainage system that also requires moving. But, you can make it look as if the curb is bumped out without actually moving it;

A curb extension in Hoboken without actually moving the curb.

Curbs are not the only way to distinguish the pedestrian and motor realms. Some towns draw the lines with bollards. Moving a bollard is probably cheaper than moving a curb, since it is not tied to drainage.

A curbless street in Victor Habor. I like curbless streets.

What can we do with two-way streets to minimize the chance of a vehicle sneaking up behind you?

Perhaps we could divide a wide two-way street by putting a refuge in the middle, allowing people to cross while watching for traffic coming in one direction, then let them turn their head before crossing the traffic coming in the other direction.

A street in Adelaide with people waiting on a pitiful island in the middle.

But, I think most pedestrian refuges fail. Pedestrian refuges are often used on streets where both sides have fast wide lanes of traffic, and many pedestrian refuges often make people feel too exposed and close to the traffic, which is just uncomfortable.

A street mostly blocked off to be worked on in Hoboken.

I think this is a good example showing how much room we actually need to accommodate cars. If only I could talk the city into keeping it configured like this. Anyway, I have not seen anybody wait for the signal to turn white to cross it - everybody just jaywalks. It is safe and comfortable to do so, because you can see how narrow each of the ‘danger zones’ are, and you only have to look in one direction to cross.

What would it look like if we had two narrow travel lanes (one to accommodate each direction of travel on a two-way street), and a huge ‘middle walk’ (analogous to a sidewalk for the middle of the street) in between?

A non-conventional two-way street in Hoboken.

The same street from a different angle.

I love this layout. The travel lanes are narrow enough to make vehicles drive slowly and cautiously. There is great visibility, both for spotting oncoming traffic and people. I think there is so much potential to do something interesting with the middle of the street here than simply waste it on cars.

A two story restaurant in the middle of a pedestrian mall in Brisbane

There’s actually a word for doing this stuff. It is called median infill.

Ultimately, the safest street is one where we can eliminate the danger zone all together.

People jaywalking all over the place in this street in Mexico City. Why? Because it does not feel dangerous to walk in the middle of the street when everybody else is doing it.

Jaywalking in Puebla. Nobody cares. Maybe there is some secret here I am missing?

Another street in Puebla.

If there is no need for a danger zone, then there is no need for a sidewalk to keep you safe from it. Eventually we come back to designing unbiased streets, a topic I'm passionate about. In case the title fooled you, I'm not here to argue that one-way streets are superior, rather, that I see their value, because most of the one-way streets that I encounter feel much safer than typical two-way streets.