Big Fast One Way Streets Kill, in Cities Large and Small

new york city

In big cities...

One way streets are great for moving traffic fast; that’s why New York and other cities have so many of them. According to John Massengale, writing in City Limits, that’s because the Departments of Transportation rule the roads, and their job is to keep the cars moving as fast as possible and to get everything else out of the way.

Anything that impeded traffic flow was a problem to be identified and eliminated. Trees became known as Fixed Hazardous Objects (FHOs), because they damage cars that hit them. Standard practice in traffic engineering is therefore to confine trees to a Vegetative Containment Zone kept away from the vehicles. People are called MHOs—Moving Hazardous Objects. They also slow down and damage cars that hit them, and so they’re kept away from the cars too.

Massengale notes that if we want to reduce the number of people killed by cars and get to Vision Zero, where zero people are killed, the key move is to slow them down.

When I was a kid, Manhattan’s avenues were two-way, which makes cars go more slowly. DOTs told us one-way streets were safer, but they meant “safer for the cars to go faster.” In fact, making cars go faster is always worse for pedestrians, for three reasons: 1) a pedestrian hit by a car going 30 miles per hour is eight times as likely to die as a pedestrian hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, and a pedestrian hit by a car going 40 miles per hour is 17 times as likely to die; 2) a driver going 20 miles per hour sees three times as much as a driver going 40 miles per hour; and 3) a driver going 20 miles per hour has more time to react and can stop in approximately one-third the distance of a driver going 40 miles per hour.

All good reasons to slow traffic down and get rid of one way streets. But it rarely happens, because of course, you have to keep those cars moving. As a Swedish transportation expert noted, a few pedestrian deaths are the ““price that we have to pay for our mobility.”

and in small....

Hamilton Street

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Some readers are probably thinking OK, New York is a special case where 80 percent of Manhattanites don’t even own cars or get to to work in them, but it’s an issue in cities of all sizes. Just west of Toronto is Hamilton, a city of half a million people and a network of multi-lane one way streets. According to Ryan McGreal of Raise the Hammer, it also has a pedestrian injury rate 42 percent higher than the provincial average and a cycling injury rate 81 percent higher. In an article marking yet another death of a woman crossing the street, he comes to the same conclusions as Massengale, even though it is a city 1/20th the size:

A human body can only survive so much external damage from a collision, and it only makes sense that we should design our streets in order to control the speed and movement of the dangerous, heavy vehicles that are causing that violence.
The Ontario Coroner recommends that cities adopt a “complete streets” policy to design streets to be safe, accessible and inclusive for everyone, with lower legal speed limits supported by speed reduction road design strategies that force drivers to slow down. Police enforcement by itself is a band-aid, not a solution. The street design itself must deter and discourage dangerous speeding.

McGreal also makes a very important point about the vulnerability of older people, a growing demographic:

People are living longer and age brings particular challenges: loss of eyesight and hearing, slower reaction speed, declining agility and balance, increased susceptibility to injury in a fall or collision and so on. In addition, as more older residents lose the ability to drive, access to safe, pedestrian-friendly streets becomes increasingly essential to manage day-to-day activities - including basic human contact.

Massengale and McGreal show that the problem, and the solutions, are universal, common to cities big and small. If roads are designed for cars to drive fast, they will. It’s time to redesign them.