I live on a small residential street just north of downtown Milwaukee. I love my neighborhood. I’m within walking distance of Lake Michigan and several friends’ homes. I’m also just a couple blocks away from a vibrant commercial street, Brady—the best street in Wisconsin, in my opinion. Sometimes for fun, I like to catalogue the incredible variety of businesses on that street, almost all of which, I have visited at one point or another during my two years living here: dry cleaners, drugstores, restaurants, barber shops, a pet food store, a bakery, an amazing Italian grocery store, a church, a school…the list goes on. That’s all just a few blocks from my home and I love it.
But what I don’t love about where I live is the one-way streets. My small residential street is sandwiched between two fast-moving one-way streets: Prospect and Farwell. Any time I want to get to the bus stop, head to Brady, or literally do anything outside my house, I am forced to risk my life to cross these one-ways.
One street in this couplet is called Prospect and it’s a northbound one-way. It is the closest residential street to Lake Michigan, so it has lots of pricy condos and apartments lining its blocks, with beautiful views of the lake. It’s dotted with entrances to lake paths that are busy with bikers and pedestrians. Prospect Avenue should be a lovely, fairly quiet residential street...
Instead, it is a fast-moving highway-esque street that cars use to get quickly from the downtown to the northern edges of the city. While families are trying to cross Prospect to get to the lake with children on bikes and in strollers, cars are whipping past. While seniors are using walkers and wheelchairs to visit the drugstore or get to the bus from one of the three senior apartment complexes on Prospect, cars refuse to stop at even designated crosswalks to let them pass. Prospect should be a peaceful residential, pedestrian-centered street. Instead, because it is a one-way street, it becomes a thruway for cars.
The southbound street in this one-way couplet is called Farwell, and it’s a mix of commercial and residential, similar to Brady but with more residences in between businesses. I’ve counted at least 12 different countries of origin represented in the restaurants on just 9 blocks of Farwell, including Laotian, East African, Korean, Pakistani and more. In addition to this wealth of food options, Farwell has a variety of other businesses including law offices, a brewery, a wig shop and a gym, to name a few. Many of these buildings are mixed-use.
Farwell could be like Brady, or better yet, it could serve as a commercial connector between Brady and North Avenue, which runs semi-parallel to Brady, 7 blocks north, and intersects with Farwell and Prospect. Farwell could be a continuous strip of commercial activity, day and night, connecting these two already popular locations... Instead, Farwell is a strip of fast-moving car activity, with commercial as an afterthought.
I'm going to outline three main reasons that Farwell and Prospect should be converted to two-way streets.
1. One Way Streets Are MOre Dangerous
Because of their one-way design, Farwell and Prospect are very dangerous streets where cars consistently speed. I can’t tell you the number of times I have almost been hit by a car while trying to cross this street. The one-way is not only dangerous because of how fast cars move but also because it means anyone turning onto that street thinks he/she only needs to look one way for traffic, instead of looking both ways in case of pedestrians crossing on either side of the street. It is downright frightening.
I would love to continue living in this neighborhood for many years. It is a neighborhood that can honestly answer, Yes, to the Strong Towns Strength Test question: “Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?” because, as I mentioned, there are several senior apartments, numerous more affordable apartments for young people, and many condos where I know families reside. But in spite of this abundance of choice and activity nearby, I frankly can’t imagine raising children here and confidently pushing a stroller or walking with a young child across Farwell or Prospect. I have had to run out of the way of a car many times crossing these streets, and with a child, I’m not confident I could safely do that.
Case in point: I once saw a man waiting to cross Farwell with his toddler son who was probably two or three years old. What should’ve been a good learning experience of “Look both ways before crossing the street” and good practice for little legs that were just learning to walk became a harrowing moment where the father began walking across the street, only to suddenly have a car speed past him, feet away. He picked his son up in the middle of the street and ran across it.
In fact, Farwell and Prospect are not just dangerous for pedestrians or bikes. They’re also dangerous for people in cars. Since moving into my apartment last December, I have witnessed at least four different car crashes from my window, and I have no doubt that there have been many others nearby. Thankfully none have resulted in death since I've lived here (although there have been fatal crashes on this street before I moved here). The speed with which drivers travel along Farwell and Prospect makes it very challenging and dangerous to safely turn onto one of these thoroughfares from a side street. Drivers feel as if they’re on a mini-highway because of the lane width and one-way nature of these streets. They forget to look carefully for entering traffic at each intersection, much less pedestrians or bikes. Not only that, but they tend to speed up as they approach and enter the one-way, in order to match the flow of traffic. This means that a car passing close by or a pedestrian attempting to cross is not only in danger of being hit but being hit at a high speed. Frankly, I'm surprised there haven't been more fatal crashes on these streets. I feel lucky to be alive after few close calls.
2. One-Way Streets Are Worse for Business
Two-way streets offer more exposure for local businesses because cars driving in both directions pass by their storefronts. Two-way streets also slow the cars, meaning drivers and passengers have more time to notice local businesses out the window. Two-ways also encourage more foot traffic because they feel safer for pedestrians.
John Edwards, a planner and consultant, writes in an essay on one-way to two-way conversions for Main Street America:
Any successful main street district will have considerable pedestrian traffic, and where pedestrians are present, operating speeds should be low -- 15 to 20 miles per hour. One-way streets, especially one-way road pairs of 10 to 15 blocks in length, tend to encourage higher operating speeds, usually in the range of 35 to 40 mph.
Farwell currently has several vacant storefronts and empty lots that could become viable business spaces if additional foot traffic and car traffic was encouraged by slowing cars. This isn’t to say that the businesses along Farwell are not successful; many are. A new brewery just opened on the north end of this street in June. But if Farwell was turned into a two-way street, I’m confident that it would become safer and provide more opportunities for thriving small businesses. It has happened in Denver, CO, Des Moines, IA, St. Petersburg, FL and many more cities.
As Vikash Gayah and Carlos Daganzo write in their research brief, “Two-Way Street Networks: More Efficient than Previously Thought?”
The current literature on urban street network design stresses that two-way streets create higher levels of economic activity and improve the livability of downtown areas. For example, two-way streets are better for local businesses that depend heavily on pass-by traffic. Additionally, traffic signal timing on two-way streets forces vehicles to stop more frequently than on one-way streets, giving drivers more exposure to local businesses.
I want more businesses in my neighborhood to thrive and I want more opportunities for new businesses to enter the area. They would be much more viable with a conversion to two-way streets.
3. One-Ways Make Navigation Needlessly Challenging
Another way that conversion to two-way streets improves business opportunities (and decreases headaches) is by making navigation simpler for drivers, as well as cyclists and transit user. If you’re trying to reach a business on Farwell and you’re approaching it from the south, you’ll be forced to drive up Prospect or nearby Oakland (which is blessedly not a one-way), cut through a narrow residential street and hope you calculated correctly to arrive in front of the business. If you overshot, guess what? You get to drive all the way around the block again. The same navigation issues, of course, apply to cyclists.
Here’s an example: There’s a CVS pharmacy on the corner of Farwell and Brady. Suppose you were driving home to the north side of the city from the downtown and you wanted to stop at the pharmacy on the way home. If this was feasible, heck, you might even grab a pizza up the block while you’re there, or visit the music store across the street. But as it currently stands, in order to stop at the pharmacy coming from the south, you’d need wait at a stoplight to turn left from Prospect onto Brady (see maps to the right). Then you’d need to wait at another light to make another, more challenging left turn, then you’d have to turn left yet again into the CVS parking lot (note that all of these turns mean dangerous interactions with pedestrians and wheelchair users crossing the street).
After picking up your prescription (or pizza or music, etc.), you’d then depart the parking lot heading south, turn left again at the next opportunity (which is closer to two blocks away because this is a long block), then turn left yet again to finally be back on Prospect heading north. That should’ve been a 3 minute stop. Because of one-way streets, it is closer to a 15 minute stop.
One-way streets also make wayfinding difficult for transit users. If you’re unfamiliar with the neighborhood and visiting for the first time, you may not realize that riding a bus here means that on the way back from wherever you came, you have to walk an extra block east or west to get to the stop going in the opposite direction.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Farwell and Prospect are not the only one-ways in my neighborhood. In fact, most of the small residential streets that intersect with Farwell & Prospect are also one ways. This means that in order to reach some residences and businesses, you often must literally drive around three sides of a block.
In short, one-way streets are a pain for everyone to deal with, on top of already being dangerous and bad for business.
A Washington Post article published last year catalogues one-way/two-way street research conducted by the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. Here’s one example from Louisville, KY about the positive effects of converting one-ways to two-ways:
In 2011, Louisville converted two one-way streets near downtown, each a little more than a mile long, back to two-way traffic. In data that they gathered over the following three years, Gilderbloom and William Riggs found that traffic collisions dropped steeply — by 36 percent on one street and 60 percent on the other — after the conversion, even as the number of cars traveling these roads increased. Crime dropped too, by about a quarter, as crime in the rest of the city was rising. Property values rose, as did business revenue and pedestrian traffic, relative to before the change and to a pair of nearby comparison streets. The city, as a result, now stands to collect higher property tax revenues along these streets, and to spend less sending first-responders to accidents there.
So let’s recap. Here are the three main reasons I want the streets around my house to become two-way:
1. It’s safer for pedestrians, bikers and cars. One-way streets encourage speeding because they mimic highway design, but these one-way streets are in a very busy neighborhood with a constant flow of traffic across and between intersections. That combination is dangerous for everyone present. Changing Farwell and Prospect into two-ways would improve safety for people walking, biking and driving.
2. It’s better for business. Slower cars means more time for drivers to notice local businesses and it means more pedestrians out walking because they feel safer. All of this equates to increased economic activity.
3. It’s less confusing to navigate. Anyone who has driven on a one-way street has probably felt the frustration that accompanies navigating them. Driving becomes confusing, as well as transit use. Two-ways are simpler and easier to navigating.
I’ve spoken with my alderman (our version of city councilor) about this issue and he’s on board with the idea, although he has informed me that there are “traffic studies underway to examine the feasibility.” In other words, it might not happen for years, if at all. Still, I’m hopeful that the progress made in other cities on this issue could happen here.
It’s been said by many Strong Towns writers before but I’ll say it again: My neighborhood is a place to go to, not a place to drive through. The city owes it to me, my neighbors (this is the most densely populated zip code in Milwaukee, so I have a lot of them) and the hundreds of thousands of people who come to this neighborhood every year to enjoy all that it has to offer, to make this a safer, more productive and easier to navigate area. All it would take to turn these streets into two-ways is repositioning signage, painting new lines and perhaps some minor adjustments to traffic flow at a few intersections.
This is a home and a destination, not a place to pass through quickly on your way to somewhere else. The streets should be designed to reflect that.
(All images from Google Maps)