Is Downtown Safer With One-Way Or Two-Way Streets? Which One Better Protects Drivers And Pedestrians From Injury?

Wrong Way Drivers Cause InjuriesI recently saw a law firm “blog” titled, What Every Driver Should Know About Wrong-Way Crashes. The title sounded interesting. I’d like to know!

So, I clicked on the link hoping for some good information. Unfortunately, the article provided almost no new information and definitely no new commentary. The law firm’s “blog” simply reported about 3% of all car accidents involve wrong-way crashes. Then, the “blog” linked to several recent news articles reporting wrong-way crashes in Alabama. It ended with a general listing of injuries possible in any serious car accident. I’m not sure why this listing of generic injuries common to all accidents was relevant to the topic except to provide keywords for google search. Clickbait and keywords but no new information.

While that blog post really did not tell me much. I did start thinking about a specific wrong-way danger. One-way versus two-way roads! On several occasions, I’ve seen drivers accidentally turn the wrong way on one of downtown Huntsville’s one-way streets. Those accidental turns usually provide some scary moments for travelers.

Downtown areas in many cities have dedicated one-way streets. Both Huntsville and Birmingham certainly have numerous one-way streets in their downtown business districts.

In recent years, I’ve watched from my office as the City of Huntsville converted both Holmes Avenue and Clinton Avenue from one-way back to two-way streets.

Naturally, this leads to questions! Why (or when) are one-way streets preferred instead of normal two-way roads? Why would cities convert roadways from one form to the other? From my perspective, how do these alternatives compare when it comes to safety and needless accidents?

Do One-Way Streets In Downtown Areas Offer Any Benefits?

Let’s start with this question. Why would a city modify its streets to make them one-way? Is there a benefit? Yes, one-way streets do provide some benefits.

First, one-way streets simplify pedestrian crossings. With one-way streets, pedestrians must look for traffic in only one general direction. That’s certainly safer for pedestrians than busy streets or intersections with cars approaching from multiple directions.

Second, one-way streets can provide better traffic signal timing. Since all traffic is moving in the same direction, signals don’t need to consider the timing or approach of vehicles from multiple places.

Third, one-way streets can route rush hour office traffic from downtown areas quicker. If you work downtown, it’s easy to get on a one-way street and travel away from the central business district quickly.

Do One-Way Streets In Downtown Areas Create Any Problems?

Again, the answer is yes. One-way streets do present several traffic issues for city planners. I see numerous troubling issues.

One-way streets often have higher speeds. The speed limit on these streets is not higher. Rather, the drivers simply go faster. On one-way streets, many drivers do not slow for crossing streets. They travel faster because of the limited slowing and stopping.

One-way streets increase travel distances. Have you ever driven in seeming circles around several city blocks just to get to your destination? I don’t have that problem in Huntsville or Birmingham because I’m familiar with the city blocks. When I travel to other big cities, it is an issue for me. I’ve experienced this problem — I’ve driven around multiple city blocks in other cities simply to get to a parking garage entrance! If you drive in big cities, you’ve probably experienced the circular drive necessary due to multiple one-way streets.

One-way streets can create driver confusion. This is especially true for non-local drivers. That confusion is what causes drivers to turn the wrong way exposing others to head-on collisions.

One-way streets may require a parallel street in the opposite direction. One-way streets function best in pairs. One street goes north while the next one goes south! Or one goes east while the next one goes west.

Why Would Downtowns Convert One-Way Streets Back To Two-Way Streets?

In years past, many downtowns across the United States coordinated traffic using one-way streets. But, that is now changing. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), some downtown areas are converting their downtown roads back to normal two-way streets. The FHWA provides some interesting information on the issues:

Conversions can go the other way as well: some places are returning one-way streets back to two-way to allow better local access and to slow traffic.

If you’ve lived or worked around downtown Huntsville, you may be familiar with the conversion of Clinton Avenue and Holmes Avenue back to two-way traffic in recent years. When the conversion back to two-way traffic was being planned, Huntsville city leaders provided some interesting observations:

Our news partners The Huntsville Times and report city planners believe the change will actually make portions of downtown more accessible, whereas the one-way streets were originally intended to move traffic out of town quicker. With new retail and residential developments coming in, Mayor Battle says the goal is to draw people into the downtown area and keep them here to shop and enjoy what Huntsville has to offer.

In Huntsville, the downtown conversion back to two-way streets is part of the City’s long-term plan to bring people into downtown. Two-way streets will slow traffic, a definite safety improvement. Two-way streets will lessen confusion among drivers trying to find a local shop or restaurant. That’s another definite safety improvement. Two-way streets will make it easier for drivers to get to their desired destination. You can read HERE a news article from several years ago where city leaders were discussing the planned changes.

Personally, I believe two-way streets are safer overall. I understand one-way streets make pedestrian crossings a little easier. But, that safety benefit is outweighed by the numerous risks of injury from driver confusion on one-way streets. And, traffic engineers can easily design other safety improvements into crossings that negate the “benefit” of one-way traffic to pedestrians. Normal two-way traffic reduces the risk of serious personal injury due to car crashes caused by driver confusion, driver wrong-way travel, and driver speed through congested areas.


From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm handles serious accident and injury cases statewide. Our cases include serious car accident and commercial truck accident cases. If you have personal injury questions, we are happy to discuss solutions. Our consultations are always free and confidential.