Two-Way Streets Profitable for City Merchants


So says Vancouver, Washington, at least.

Governing’s Alan Ehrenhalt has an interesting piece about how the city has used two-way streets to revitalize its downtown area. While many cities, including Indianapolis, have long taken the one-way street approach, he explains how two-ways may be more lucrative for downtown merchants:

Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver, Washington, has spent millions of dollars trying to revitalize its downtown, and especially the area around Main Street that used to be the primary commercial center. Just how much the city has spent isn’t easy to determine. But it’s been an ambitious program. Vancouver has totally refurbished a downtown park, subsidized condos and apartment buildings overlooking it and built a new downtown Hilton hotel.

Some of these investments have been successful, but they did next to nothing for Main Street itself. Through most of this decade, the street remained about as dreary as ever. Then, a year ago, the city council tried a new strategy. Rather than wait for the $14 million more in state and federal money it was planning to spend on projects on and around Main Street, it opted for something much simpler. It painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights. In other words, it took a one-way street and opened it up to two-way traffic.

The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.

Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. “We have twice as many people going by as they did before,” one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. “It’s like, wow,” he exclaimed, “why did it take us so long to figure this out?”

A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. “One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas,” says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. “We’ve proven that.”

The debate over one-way versus two-way streets has been going on for more than half a century now in American cities, and it is far from resolved even yet. But the evidence seems to suggest that the two-way side is winning. A growing number of cities, including big ones such as Minneapolis, Louisville and Oklahoma City, have converted the traffic flow of major streets to two-way or laid out plans to do so. There has been virtually no movement in the other direction.

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