Home > Engineering Design, Guest Writer > One-way & Two-way Streets Reflect a Community’s Priorities

One-way & Two-way Streets Reflect a Community’s Priorities

Editor’s Intro: Introducing MyWHaT’s newest guest contributor, Peter Spaulding. Peter lives and works in Traverse City where he is a freelance urban designer and planning consultant. He is co-founder of Placework DG and a graduate of the Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Michigan. This is part 1 of a 3 part series on one-way and two-way streets. Currently, Traverse City has 4 major one-way streets: Front St., State St., 7th Street and 8th Street.


One-way Streets to Move Cars

Guest Contributor: Peter Spaulding, part 1 of 3

One-way street networks in Traverse City need evaluating to see if they truly carry out resident goals, as a conversion back to two-way operation could yield real benefits for multiple user groups. While drawbacks exist for each orientation, the solution that is most appropriate is dependent upon the goals of neighborhoods and the city. One-way streets were ideal when we as a nation were trying to clear out of towns and cities in order to fill up suburbia, but they make considerably less sense today. Justifications for conversion in the downtown core and in the central neighborhoods rely on the same fundamental justifications, but several special considerations can and need to be made in each case.

Are one-way streets stuck in the past?

Pros and Cons

One-way streets are designed to move the greatest number of people possible (in cars), as quickly as possible. Removing opposing traffic and the moderating influence of possible head on collisions allows motorists to concentrate less while operating closer together at higher speeds. One-way streets can also cut the incidence and severity of traffic congestion, delay, and time required to enter or exit the city.

One-way streets eliminate some direct routes and force road users to make extra turns and travel greater distances to reach destinations. In this way, one-way orientations create more traffic and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and can confuse non-local motorists. In extreme instances, motorists might lap blocks multiple times or give up and go home or to the mall. One-way streets reduce the viability of downtown businesses in other ways too. Streets crossing one-ways always have one street facade invisible from automobiles, the western facing facades of Union, Cass and Park Streets are invisible from Front St., making storefronts and successful businesses more difficult there than on east facing Façades.

One-way streets serve the motorist first-and-foremost and deal only with pedestrians and other stakeholders as an afterthought, they are great when a city serves primarily as an office center and moving office workers into and out of the center quickly is very important. When retail businesses and pedestrians are valued, the drawbacks of one-way streets are harder to overlook.

Two-way Streets as Compromise

In a balanced city where residents and other transportation system users are important, two-way systems are an improvement. Two-way streets aren’t optimized for anything, they represent a compromise that attempts to accommodate everyone. In a downtown context, two-way streets offer improved accessibility and direct routing, give all shops improved exposure and make wayfinding easier. Two-way streets reduce turning movements, speeds, volumes[1], and miles traveled, all of which improve downtown livability and safety, and help to make a downtown a pleasant place to be.

Lower speeds and volumes make pedestrians and bicyclists feel more comfortable, they make outdoor café seating enjoyable and help to create the sense of a place to be, not just a place to pass through. On one-way streets you can get the sense that everyone is leaving; on two-way streets, if one lane of traffic is leaving town, then the other must necessarily be coming to town.[2] Even as a psychological trick, the sense of place created by two-way streets is more welcoming.

Two- way conversions might make access to downtown by car take a bit longer during the peak season, but would be more intuitive and offer better business visibility year round. Two-way street conversions would realize benefits in livability, walkability, and downtown vibrancy, and need to be considered as a way to further improve and support a constantly improving urban experience for Traverse City.

[1] While downtown volume is ostensibly good, volume as a result of increased speed is bad.

[2] Presumably to have tons of fun and hang out with you!

  1. Henry Morgenstein
    August 26, 2010 at 9:19 am

    In 1975, at the Traverse City Community Forumns, I stood up and asked a question about the proposal, back then, to one way Cass & Union. The answer I was receiving was garbled, impenetrable. I stopped the man & said I am an English teacher who happens to like simple answers, easy to understand words.

    I asked
    1) Does making a street “one way” Increase Or Decrease the number of cars? Answer: Increase.
    2) Does making a street “one way” Increase or Decrease the speed of traffic? Answer: Increase.
    3) Does making a street “one way” Increase or Decrease the number of accidents? Answer:Increase.

    I thanked the man & sat down.

  2. Jennifer S
    September 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    A two way Front Street would be a nightmare for pedestrians and drivers alike. Making a right turn when pedestrians are crossing already backs up traffic. Now imagine every other car trying to turn right or left at Cass from Front Street during Cherry Fest (I know- serves them right for driving downtown during the fest). It would be bottleneck to the Peninsula with one car making it through the intersection at a time. Not to mention the risks to the pedestrians with drivers and bicyclists trying to squeeze through groups of them. This is a terrible idea.

  3. pjspaulding
    September 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    While a two-way front street isn’t a specific recommendation I made in this post, I think I should provide some further explanation of how two-way streets can improve the situation for pedestrians, even on a busy street, while not creating bedlam of an entire street network.

    One-way streets are designed to maximize vehicle traffic and capacity, how they accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists has no bearing on this criteria, and I believe is the wrong metric for how to design a street for a downtown which we want to see thrive. While it may indeed “serve them right” for driving downtown during Cherry Festival, they have limited choices. Having a complete network of two-way streets can provide additional routes, allowing motorists to choose the best route for them, which may indeed not be via Front Street, reducing pressure on it. More direct routes leads to less circling and fewer total turns, which is nice for pedestrians. Again, two-way streets do reduce road capacity, but it has been shown there is basically elastic demand for roadways, whether you expand or reduce capacity, congestion will adjust and remain about the same.

    Pedestrians benefit from two-way orientations because of the reduced capacity and slower speeds, additionally turning movements encountered at two-way intersections are symmetric, meaning they are the same at all intersections and thus more familiar to negotiate. Ultimately we want our downtown streets to provide access to businesses, not serve as thoroughfares. We want cyclists and pedestrians to feel comfortable, and we want motorists to leave their cars, walk our streets, and spend more time and money downtown enjoying our city.

    I believe we should be thinking constructively and creatively about how we can move beyond the status quo to improve our city. It shouldn’t solely serve the automobile, and it should no longer subscribe to 60’s road engineering and anti-urban design ideology. I think two-way streets would be a good option to consider.

  4. September 2, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Thank you for the additional perspective, Peter & Jennifer. Change always generates a lot of opposition…humans just don’t like it. Peter’s correct that it makes sense for the community to explore the possibility to move away from one-ways. Jennifer, your opposition, though you claim to be arguing for walkers, was written from the perspective of someone behind the wheel of a car. It’s the perspective that has driven street design for 40-50 years, but it doesn’t make for a great place. Streets are for everyone, not just motor vehicles. Hence, the compromises of two-way streets and other street designs.

    Personally, I have no issue with a Front St. one-way and that’s why I requested that the city convert State St. & Pine St., without mentioning Front St. Actually, if had my dream, I’d make Front St. a one-lane one-way, with a wide counter-flow bike-lane and a super sidewalk on the north side (for sunshine). You’d drive downtown to either find a short, expensive parking spot, get to a parking deck, or perhaps cruise at a slow speed to people watch. Otherwise, you’d use the two-lane State St. or US-31.

    Also, I heard back from the city manager regarding street improvements in conjunction with the West Front Parking Deck. As noted before, there is city staff support for the idea of a two-way State St., but for some reason they don’t feel that they can make ‘professional’ suggestions as to what would make for a more vibrant and safe complete street network. I need to discuss it further with them, but they envision a battle that they want to avoid…so again, the anti-planners get to run amok in the city.

    Perhaps those of us with some informed, dedicated ideas for change need to be more vocal in our opposition to the “build it all without a plan model” that the city is embraces. His response missed the substance of the letter, which asked how they plan to combat the increased motorized traffic to and through downtown.

    More to come. Send your letters.

  5. jules
    December 25, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    was front street ever a two way street?

  6. JohnRobertWilliams
    January 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Thank YOU for asking! YES! Front street used to be US-31…all highway traffic between Mackinaw City and Chicago passed both ways on Front Street, Union, 14th, Veterans, McRae Hill and south…..Front Street is a failed 1960’s traffic experiment, designed to move cars as fast as possible (think I-75)…but for shopping and circulation, it goes against human nature to freely circulate….you don’t really live in a free country with one-way streets! Happy New Year!

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