Ask Strong Towns, Question #9


We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Russell M. asks:

I live in a large Midwest city where the downtown is dominated by one-way arterials (usually 3-4 lane). A city planner explained to me that one-way streets get cars out of the denser areas faster, which helps reduce urban air pollution. Leaving aside any other arguments for two-way streets, such as walkability, is she right that one-way streets are most efficient in managing high volumes of vehicles? Or can we take care of new downtown residents who walk/bike and still get the suburban commuters home in time for dinner? 

Back up for a second….You live in a large, Midwest city where the downtown is dominated by one-way arterials? That unfortunately provides us few clues as to exactly where you live since that description fits pretty much all large, Midwest cities (you listening, K.C.). I want to break your question down into three parts.

Part 1: One-way streets get cars out of the denser areas faster, which helps reduce urban air pollution.

This touches a particular raw nerve for me because I continuously hear planners, engineers and other make-things-right types (as John Adams calls them in Risk, the “bureaucrats”) say this. Overlooking the physical process of how fuel is burned in a combustion engine, the underlying premise of this assertion is that, if the commute out of the city were slower, the same amount of people would choose to make that commute and they would all simply sit in traffic longer, burning fuel and creating urban air pollution. Better to just move them along quickly and save us all the smog.

This is, of course, an absurd underlying assumption. If there was more congestion within the city, there would be more demand for urban properties, more demand for walking/biking and more demand for transit. We’re not going to solve air quality issues – in fact, we can only make them worse – by making traffic flow more smoothly. All of the federal air quality programs designed to funnel more money to building highways under this guise are a simple fraud. I reject the entire premise.

Part 2: One way streets are more efficient in managing high volumes of traffic.

Again, I’m going to challenge the assumptions here. Efficient for whom? It may be efficient for the person in their car who wants to leave your downtown at 45+ mph. It is not going to be efficient for the person that wants to cross the street to patronize the restaurant who has to wait for the extra long signal to cycle. It is not going to be efficient for the person on a bike who has to dodge highway-speed vehicles. Efficiency is a one dimensional measurement, but cities are complex and multi-dimensional places. When we create efficiencies for one person, we often do it at the expense of another.

I would also challenge whether or not efficiency is the ultimate value we should be striving for? I’ve written that it is not, that we are mistaking order for efficiency, that there is nothing efficient about a system designed for the two hours per day of peak activity that then is dramatically underutilized the remaining twenty two hours. That is an orderly exodus, but it isn’t an efficient use of resources.

Now, if the city’s goal is to clear the downtown of automobiles as quickly as possible every day, I would ask why? Do we not want commerce and activity after 5PM?

If the city’s goal is to cater to the suburban and exurban commuter, again, I ask why? Is there a belief that the financial cost inflicted on the city by building highways through neighborhoods, devaluing its property and turning the streets hazardous are somehow made up by the money suburban commuters bring to the city? Where is the proof of that? They need you more than you need them, especially if you stop fighting congestion and instead use it to bring about a natural market response to high demand (greater investment, maturing neighborhoods and growth).

If the city persists, however, and says we want to get people out of town as quickly as possible, one way streets would not be the most efficient. Removing the traffic signals would be. Traffic signals are the number one cause – perhaps the only real cause – of urban traffic congestion. Remove the signals (which would require lowering speeds) and traffic will flow more smoothly with a corresponding reduction in travel time.

For more, listen to my podcast with Ben Hamilton-Baillie or watch his speech from CNU 22.

Part 3: Or can we take care of new downtown residents who walk/bike and still get the suburban commuters home in time for dinner? 

If I were a resident and a voter in this city, I would ask my city council members: why are you obsessing over the happiness of people who are so eager to leave your city and not equally obsessing over my happiness to stay?

For our cities to be successful, especially our large Midwestern cities that have been so devastated by the Suburban Experiment, we need them to add population. We need neighborhoods to mature and the private sector to want to invest in additional growth. If the city is going to do the math, worrying about whether or not suburban commuters get home in time for dinner is a low-returning endeavor. Worrying whether or not your residents enjoy a really high quality of life is a high-returning endeavor.

The question here is whether or not we can have both a high quality of life for city residents and speedy commutes for suburban commuters? Maybe, if we are bold enough to embrace shared space, slower speeds and a city without traffic signals, but we probably aren’t. In that case, a city wanting to be financially strong is going to prioritize the high-returning investments and focus less on how quickly people can get out of town and more on how many people in town no longer feel compelled to drive for their daily needs. That’s the competitive advantage a city has to offer.

In conclusion, I’d push back on each one of these underlying assumptions. The natural reaction of the bureaucrat is to not make a lot of waves, to smooth things over and, where change is needed, to make it happen incrementally over time. That’s not good enough. Help them see that their worldview is clouded by a lot of bad assumptions and that, if they truly care about things like air pollution and people’s happiness, they will end their obsession with moving automobiles as quickly as possible.