Look Both Ways: Restoring Two-Way Traffic to Main Street


Many factors combine to make Main Street economically successful. One important aspect is the traffic pattern. One-way streets are efficient but they are not customer friendly or easy to navigate – especially for tourists and infrequent customers. Circulation becomes more complicated as motorists often have to drive a few blocks before they can turn around and get back to where they wanted to go.

A major concern of organizations working to improve traditional commercial districts is to boost retail sales, and, more specifically, to increase the visibility and accessibility of their offerings. In this regard, making traffic circulation more “customer friendly” is a prerequisite to increasing the retail segment of the business district and appealing to investors and business owners who are interested in your Main Street district.

Retailers aren’t the only businesses dependent on easy-to-understand traffic operations, however. Service operations and professional offices also rely on a circulation system that is easy to understand and to navigate.

Another perception that affects the success of your commercial district is “Does it feel exciting? Are there lots of people?” That indicates a certain degree of congestion. One-way circulation is so efficient at moving traffic that the streets may feel empty! A commercial district needs to have a certain level of traffic congestion so that it appears busy.

How fast cars travel through your district is another issue. Any successful Main Street district will have considerable pedestrian traffic, and where pedestrians are present, speed limits should be low—15 to 30 miles per hour. One-way streets, especially one-way road pairs of 10 to 15 blocks in length, tend to encourage higher speeds, usually 35 to 40 mph.

Why Convert to Two-way Streets?

When should a community consider converting a street or network of streets from one-way to two-way traffic? The most important consideration is whether it will help the commercial district revitalization effort. If the area affected by the conversion is a retail district that is experiencing a comeback, then a conversion may be warranted. If, however, the area adjacent to the one-way street is primarily office, warehousing, or industrial, with high peak-hour traffic, then a conversion may not be worth it.

Perhaps the most important reason for changing the traffic flow is to improve the economic well-being of the commercial district. West Palm Beach, Florida, for example, saw $300 million in private investment after city hall invested $10 million in converting to two-way streets and improving the streetscape.

Lafayette, Indiana, instigated the change as a result of major transportation infrastructure projects. The plan for converting the one-way streets was not without concerns about loss of parking spaces and the cost of installing new traffic signal lights and signs. When the city did an actual traffic count, however, it found that the downtown didn't need so many traffic lights or stacking lanes.

After the conversion, downtown was "easier to get around," said Director of Development Sherry McLauchlan. "Because it is our historic downtown and we are trying to build our tourism market, it is easier for out-of-towners to find their way around."

SOTW_11-30-11_OregonCityLogoDowntown Oregon City is in the process of converting its Main Street back to a two-way street. Based upon two years of work that included a range of downtown revitalization efforts, federal and Oregon Department of Transportation grant funding, as well as recommendations by numerous consultants, the city will stripe a new center line down Main Street in order to return the street to its original circulation flow.

A two-way Main Street will simplify the circulation system downtown and provide more efficient access to on-street parking and side streets in the downtown core. Click here to view a video animation produced by Funnelbox Production Studios in downtown Oregon City that guides visitors through this new circulation pattern.

“A two-way Main Street works in downtown Oregon City because we’re welcoming visitors off of 99E and making driving downtown a simpler and more intuitive process,” said Lloyd Purdy, director of Main Street Oregon City.  “Downtown Oregon City is evolving into a retail and restaurant friendly marketplace, not just a center for creative professionals. A two-way Main Street becomes a unifying characteristic of our downtown marketplace. It’s a physical connection that benefits all downtown.”

Should Your District Convert to a Two-way Main Street?

What information do you need to decide on a street conversion? The types and level of analysis depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • Street jurisdiction—Is the street under federal, state, or local jurisdiction?
  • Street widths—Two-way operation requires a minimum width of 24 feet; if there’s parallel parking on both sides of the street, it should be at least 36 feet wide.
  • Daily and peak-hour traffic—For streets carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day, make sure most of the traffic consists of local shoppers.
  • Adjacent building use—Streets lined primarily with retail stores are usually the prime candidates for conversion.
  • SOTW_11-30-11_PedestriansPedestrian activity—If pedestrian traffic volume is less than 200 to 300 people an hour, a street conversion will probably produce minimal benefits.
  • Level of congestion—In commercial districts, an average wait of 60 seconds at intersections is acceptable, while vehicular speeds should be no more than 25 mph on retail streets to ensure the safety of pedestrians.
  • How the facilities relate to the local and regional transportation network—Proposed street conversions may depend on the way they fit within the regional roadway network.
  • Possible economic impacts— Street conversions to two-way traffic should be based upon real and anticipated economic benefits, such as reduced vacancy rates, increased retail sales and employment, increased pedestrian activity, and/or increased property tax assessments.

Check out Revitalizing Main Street: A practitioner’s guide to comprehensive commercial district revitalization for more information about managing traffic on Main Street.