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One Way? Wrong Way

Two-Way Streets A Better Direction For Downtown

Tom Condon

December 27, 2009

When Toronto planner Ken Greenberg and his team of top professionals came to Hartford in 1998, they found downtown uninviting for pedestrians and confusing for drivers. One of the problems was the one-way streets.

In the first of two "Greenberg plans," the group recommended that the city eliminate all of the downtown one-ways. This caused a bit of a dust-up because it violated the then-orthodox view that downtown streets existed to move as many daytime workers to and from the suburbs as quickly as possible. In the end the city turned a few one-ways into two-ways, doing no harm.

Now the city is again studying downtown traffic circulation, to improve accessibility. The work will be part of the city's new plan of conservation and development. Will it be time to remove some or all of the one-ways?

That seems to be the trend across the country. Major cities such as Minneapolis, Louisville and Oklahoma City have, or have plans to, convert traffic flow on major streets from one-way to two-way, according to an analysis in the December issue of Governing Magazine by the estimable Alan Ehrenhalt.

He notes that before World War II, one-way commercial streets were pretty rare in the U.S. People got off buses or trolleys and went into stores on both sides of the street. But after the war, civil defense planners worried that in case of nuclear attack, residents trying to flee would create gridlock on the crowded two-way streets.

Also, as the postwar march to suburbia got under way, city leaders worried that downtown congestion was a reason people were shopping at the malls. But by the 1970s, there were new interstates on which to run from the Russkies, and people were shopping at malls regardless of downtown traffic configurations.

"Many downtown one-way streets became miniature speedways that served largely to frighten anyone who had the eccentric idea of strolling down the sidewalk," Ehrenhalt observed.

But as America slowly reconstructed its memory of how cities work, leaders came to realize that two-way streets, though occasionally frustrating, had real advantages. They slow traffic and encourage pedestrian life. Ehrenhalt asks how many sidewalk cafes prosper on one-way streets with traffic zooming by at 50 mph, and supposes not many.

So in the past decade, dozens of cities have reconfigured streets from one-way to two-way, usually as a result of a community-business partnership. There's usually been opposition. Some traffic engineers still follow the postwar credo that streets are to move as many cars as quickly as possible. Some think two-way streets are more dangerous than one-ways (Erenhalt questions the research) or that two-ways could slow fire engines (again, hard to say).

We've all had the experience of trying to get to a hotel or conference center in an unfamiliar downtown where we can actually see the building, but can't seem to get to it because of one-way streets. I've had people tell me this about Hartford, notably the Goodwin Hotel, on one-way Asylum Street. The Goodwin is now closed. It's been hard to rent the retail space in Hartford 21 across the street. One wonders if there is any connection.

Of the dozen or so one-way streets in downtown Hartford, Asylum would seem to be a leading candidate for a two-way makeover. Each has to be judged on its own merits. Some, such as Lewis Street, are probably too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic. Some might require changes to highway ramps to become bi-directional.

Ehrenhalt concludes with a point that Hartford planners should follow: Make two-way the default position. Force those who think the old speedway theory still works to make their case.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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