Thursday, September 11, 2008

One way, not necessarily the right way

A welcome comment on my most recent post asked why I consider one-way street grids problematic, and whether I consider them bad for cyclists only or for all road users. I'll try to give one-way streets their due, and then explain why, on balance, I think that Louisville and Seattle downtowns would work better with most or all streets 2-way.

For confident, street-savvy bicyclists in places with narrow traffic lanes, multi-lane one-way streets provide a fairly attractive option. We can ride in the middle of the right lane, knowing that motorists can safely pass us in the lanes to our left. This is why I find it more comfortable riding on Chestnut Street downtown (one way, 2 travel lanes + on-street parking) than riding on Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill (2-way, one travel lane in each direction + on-street parking). On Frankfort Avenue, using the full right lane means forcing motorists into the oncoming traffic lane to pass me. (That still beats riding in the door zone of parked cars.) Two-way streets need one of three things in order to make it safe for cars to pass bicyclists: three or more travel lanes; striped bike lanes; or wide curb lanes.

One-way streets also make it easier to synchronize traffic signals so that people driving at a set speed (say, 3 mph below the speed limit) can proceed uninterrupted through several green lights in a row. Until much of downtown Louisville became a semi-permanent construction zone, traffic signals on the one-way streets going east and west were set up to operate in this way.

In a relatively congested downtown area, though, one-way streets cause numerous problems. 
  1. For bicyclists and motorists, they frequently require extra driving. A few blocks may not sound like much until you multiply it by thousands of vehicles per day on already-crowded streets.
  2. They encourage wrong-way bicycling by local bicyclists wanting to save those few extra blocks.
  3. They confuse people not familiar with the area. If I want to travel from the east to, say, 605 S 6th Street, I might logically head west on Broadway to 6th Street, at which point I realize that 6th Street goes the wrong way to get to my destination. If I'm not paying close attention, I might turn north onto 6th Street before realizing that it's one-way southbound... ouch.
  4. In places such as downtown Louisville with a mixture of one- and two-way streets, the confusion is multiplied. Quick - in which direction do the following consecutive streets in downtown Louisville go: Hancock, Jackson, Preston, Floyd, Brook?
  5. They prevent the use of pedestrian refuge islands to make long crossings safer, because vehicular traffic needs the freedom to move across all of the lanes.
I believe that our downtown would be safer and more convenient for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians if we switched to a two-way street grid.

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