One-Way Streets Are Killers and We Should Get Rid of Them

A crash in Toronto shows what can go wrong when drivers speed through a city.

View of Fifth Avenue in New York
All that space on 5th Avenue and it's all given to cars.

Artem Vorobiev/Getty Images

On Monday, December 27, 2021, city planner Mark R. Brown wrote a post on his website titled "The Problems With One-Way Streets" in which he wrote: "In projects I’ve worked on in Baltimore, Dallas and other communities in Florida, I’ve noticed one-ways often had higher speeds, more crashes, and a far less qualitative sense of safety for vulnerable road users."

The day before, on Sunday, December 26, 2021, the driver of a car traveling along Toronto's Richmond Street, cut in front of another driver in a Kia SUV that was also traveling west. The KIA rolled onto its side and onto the sidewalk, where it hit seven pedestrians, including two children. On Sunday, January 2, 2022, an 18-year-old died from his injuries.

A courier parked on Adelaide Street in Toronto.

Lloyd Alter

There have been calls to do something about Richmond Street and its parallel one-way street running eastbound, Adelaide Street, for years. I remember arguing with a city councilor over a decade ago about how dangerous it was, how quickly people drove on it, and how it should be a two-way street. He said they were working to fix it and said if they made them two ways then there wouldn't be room for bike lanes, which have been installed on both streets—very convenient for the couriers but didn't slow the traffic significantly.

Hamilton Ontario King Street
King Street, Hamilton, Ontario.

Lloyd Alter

Brown points to a study—titled "Are child pedestrians at increased risk of injury on one-way compared to two-way streets?"—done in Hamilton, Ontario, a small city close to Toronto that is dominated by one-way streets that are scary speedways. The study found the injury rate was 2.5 times higher on one-way streets: "One-way streets have higher rates of child pedestrian injuries than two-way streets in this community."

But they love them in Hamilton because drivers can race through town to get home to the suburbs more quickly. As Brown explains:

"The fact that one-way streets essentially speed up traffic is often masked with terms like, “reducing delay”, “improving efficiency” and “increase capacity”. Even the claimed benefits of increased capacity with one-ways is questionable, with some studies showing that two-ways actually have more capacity. And unfortunately, enabling higher traffic speeds in any circumstance imperils roadway users and leads to more roadway injuries and deaths. The fundamental reason many urban one-way streets exist is because some traffic engineers and planners think surface streets should operate like highways – with as little interference in traffic flow as possible. This idea is partially responsible for making U.S. roadways the most dangerous of any developed nation."

Of course, you don't have to be going very fast to flip over if you are driving an SUV—they are not very stable. I pointed out that the Land Rover in this video was not going very fast at all when it flipped, but it did not go flying through the air like a missile.

There are many contributing factors here. There is the road design that encourages speeding, even though one of the busiest shopping areas in the city on Boxing Day—the biggest shopping day of the year. There is the lousy top-heavy vehicle design that comes with crossover designs where you take a car and pump it ever higher. In Toronto, there is also the police department's complete abandonment of their responsibilities for traffic control, even admitting in a report that they gave up on enforcement, that “the Service does not currently have a complement of officers that are solely dedicated to enforcement duties on a daily basis." Instead, as Shawn Micallef wrote in The Star, "On Twitter, as deaths and grievous, life-changing injuries continued to add up for months, individual police officers would routinely lecture pedestrians and cyclists about their behaviour when asked about lack of enforcement."

True to form, when asked about this event where the Kia flipped onto the sidewalk, a police spokesperson said, "pedestrians, unfortunately, have to keep their eyes open," and I suppose, be ready to jump out of the way of flying cars.

We have known for years that two-way streets are better for business: The one street in Hamilton, Ontario that they converted back is now the liveliest street in town. They are safer because the cars cannot go as fast. Yet counterintuitively, some studies even show that two-way streets actually have higher trip-serving capacity.

In reaction to the Richmond Street massacre, The Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti had some suggestions for fixing the streets of Toronto.

"I’m not expecting downtown Toronto to go car-free anytime soon (although if a genie appeared and gave me a few wishes, that would be one of them). But the city’s streets can be re-engineered to prevent speeding, and speed limits reduced across the board. We could ban right turns on red lights, install more bike lanes, raise the price of parking. We could increase penalties for dangerous and distracted driving."

I would add to this: Get rid of one-way streets.

Postcard vintage. Black white postcard of 5th Street in New York from 1938, which was sent to Germany
Black white postcard of 5th Street in New York from 1938.

Olgagillmeister / / CC BY-SA 4.0

This is not just a Toronto thing. New York City was a lot nicer for pedestrians when the sidewalks were wider and the streets were two-way. As noted in an earlier post, it would probably be better for everyone.

View Article Sources
  1. Wazana, Ashley, et al. "Are Child Pedestrians at Increased Risk of Injury on One-Way Compared to Two-Way Streets?Canadian Journal of Public Health, vol. 91, no. 3, 2000, pp. 201-206., doi:10.1007/bf03404272

  2. "Analytical Capacity Comparison of One-Way and Two-Way Signalized Street Networks." Transportation Research Board.