Philadelphia: The Curse of the One-Way Street

By Dom Nozzi

In January 2012, I accept an invitation to serve as keynote speaker for a forum entitled “Walkability: Philadelphia Strides Into the Future.” I give the presentation on a Thursday night at the Academy of Natural Sciences on Logan Square.

My message, in part, is that while the city is already one of the best in the nation for walkable quality (largely due to its high density and proximity of destinations), the city needs to engage in transformative tactics to get to the next level. That the greatest cities share a common trait: they are all world-class places for enjoyable walking.

“It is not about providing more space for pedestrians (such as building new or wider sidewalks),” I point out. “It is about taking away space from cars (via road diets, removal of off-street surface parking, and so on), so that cars are assigned more of their fair share of space, rather than be allocated an excessive amount of space.”

“It is about increasing the cost of driving, so that motorists are paying their fair share of the costs they impose on society.”

“It is about increasing the inconvenience of traveling by car, so that cars do not unfairly inconvenience other users of streets.”

I also note that the pedestrian must be the design imperative. That everything else – cars, transit, the handicapped, even bicycling – come second. When buildings and streets are designed, in other words, the first and primary objective is that the design improves conditions for walking. Only then do we look at providing for other forms of travel, and then only in such a way as to not impede or reduce pedestrian quality. Maximizing pedestrian quality effectively ensures that the community has maximized its quality of life, its economic health, its civic pride, and its sustainability.

I walk for several miles throughout the Philadelphia city center to get a better sense of the walking conditions. Immediately, I notice that the City has converted nearly every downtown street into a one-way street. So thorough, jarring and unpleasant is this conversion that it hits me over the head like a two by four. It is instantly clear to me: for Philadelphia to dramatically improve its walking quality, it must follow the lead of the large and growing number of cities throughout the nation that are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation.

Philadelphia had made this unfortunate change to one-way streets back in the 1920s.

Why are one-way streets ruinous? Because they inevitably increase car speeds, motorist anger and impatience, and motorist inattentiveness. Streets quickly become a raging, peddle-to-the-metal racetrack of hurried, high-speed cars. Retail shops and residences start fleeing from the newly hostile street. Bicyclists are increasingly pushed onto sidewalks because of the immensely uncomfortable, incompatible danger of trying to share the street with the hurtling cars (bicyclists, in response to one-way streets, also find themselves increasingly riding the wrong way on one-way streets, as do some motorists). Those shops, homes and offices that remain on what are now a form of downtown highways start setting themselves back from the hostility of the street, or turn their backs by boarding up windows, pulling entrances to the side or back, and creating the immense, unfriendly blank walls that are now found on so many of downtown Philadelphia’s streets – thereby killing the energy, vibrancy and interest that a street needs for pedestrian quality.

The incompatibility of bicycling and one-way streets in Philadelphia is evident in at least a few ways. Not only the frequent bicycling on sidewalks I observe, but also the fact that the City has decided to remove on-street parking on many downtown streets in order to install in-street bicycle lanes. Healthy downtown streets have on-street parking on both sides, which slows cars and obligates more attentiveness by motorists. On a well-designed downtown street, car speeds tend to be slow enough that most bicyclists are comfortable sharing the street with car traffic, and on-street bicycle lanes (which detract from creating a human-scaled street environment, and probably increase car speeds) tend to be unnecessary and inappropriate. But when Philadelphia converted to one-way streets, this bicyclist comfort was lost, thereby obligating the need to degrade the pedestrian (and retail) quality of many streets by removing much on-street parking.

Worst of all, the experience for the pedestrian becomes awful with one-way streets. The ambience is quite loud (high-speed cars are the leading source of noise pollution in cites), and seemingly unsafe (high-speed cars seem very dangerous to the pedestrian, and often ARE dangerous due to the tiny reaction times high speeds create). Impatient, inattentive, hurried motorists conditioned to be that way on one-ways also do not tend to be in the mood or have the patience to offer the needed courtesy to pedestrians trying to cross or otherwise navigate on streets.

I acknowledge that many one-way streets in Philadelphia will be very difficult to revert back to two-way, as most streets are quite narrow. Probably only those streets that are three- or more lanes in size can be converted back to two-way, or two-lane streets that have low traffic volumes.

On the positive side, my hat is off to the city of Philadelphia on siren use reduction by police and fire trucks. In my two and a half days in downtown Philly, I hardly heard a single siren. This siren reduction is an enormous boost to the quality of life, the sense of calm and serenity, and the overall well-being of the city. The siren reduction in Philadelphia is in striking contrast to most American cities, where emergency vehicle sirens are nearly constant, 24/7 attacks on eardrums that powerfully create the impression that the city is under siege, or in an active war zone.

While the siren reduction is highly admirable, an essential task remains.

Philadelphia must convert many of its one-way streets back to two-way operation if it expects to get to the next level of quality walkability.

Doing so will enable Philadelphia to attain world-class greatness as a city.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

8 responses to “Philadelphia: The Curse of the One-Way Street

  1. yason

    Not strictly related to one-way streets but someone has either read you or made the same conclusions:

  2. Thanks for posting this, Yason. I agree that the views in the cited blog sound rather similar to my own.

  3. I lived in Philly when in college, and recall the one way streets well. I did a lot of biking to get around. And, yes, one did at times ride the sidewalks to avoid getting killed; you did ride the wrong way on your bike on one way streets because you could more easily see bad things happening too; and, you would run the red light so you were ahead of the car clog, otheriwise you would ride behind the car clog, but never with the car clog. And here is the best part, these survival tips were provided to us by some police, to improve our chances of survival.

  4. ambiguator

    Do you have data to back up your claim about motorist speeds on one-way versus two-way streets?

  5. Thanks for the question. I do not have data, but am confident that studies would (or already do) show that due to the reduction in friction, one-ways induce higher speeds than two-ways.

  6. ambiguator

    When I think of a one-way in Philadelphia, I think of a single-lane, narrow street with parking on both sides, and stop signs at every block.
    e.g. most streets south of South.

    When I think of a two-way in Philadelphia, I think of a necessarily wider street, with the potential for faster and more dangerous travel. e.g. Market, Broad, Washington, Columbus.

    Maybe we’re thinking of different types of one-ways? I could see your logic as it applies to JFK or even Lombard St.

  7. Yes, it is possible (but, in my experience, not common) for a one-way to be designed to slow average car speeds. A narrow, single-lane one-way can (but not always) have enough friction (due to narrow width and on-street parking, for example) to slow cars. The big reason that — all things being equal — two-way is slower than one-way is that a driver on a two-way must be very careful about on-coming traffic going in the opposite direction. One-way streets don’t have opposing/on-coming traffic, which means the motorist does not need to drive as slowly or attentively. My favorite street (and a street that induces the safest, most attentive driving) is a give-way (or yield) street. A give-way is a two-way street that is so narrow that opposite direction cars are not able to cross each other because the street is two narrow for that to happen. One car must “yield” for the other. It seems to me that a great many one-lane one-way streets would be much better, much safer, much slower, and more hospitable to residential land uses if they were converted to two-way give-way streets.

  8. David Edens

    Does anyone remember when broad St Philadelphia was one way in the morning going south,and one way going north in the evening.

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