For one- or two-way streets?

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Westminster Street in downtown Providence. (Digital Artworks Limited)

On a recent sojourn in (and above) Manhattan, Steve Mouzon sparked a Facebook conversation about the merits and demerits of one- and two-way streets. It unfolded at such a high level of thoughtfulness about streets (of either ilk) from so many places – not just the Big Apple – that Mouzon decided to put the whole discussion on his blog, known as “The Original Green,” after his pathbreaking book of the same name (purchase it via his website). In light of street changes in Providence, I hereby link from my blog to the conversation on his blog (“New Urbanists on One-Way Streets“).

Mouzon got the ball rolling with this question: “To all my #NewUrbanist colleagues who feel that one-way streets are terrible, why is Manhattan not a wretched, dysfunctional place?”

(The number of those who would insist that Manhattan is indeed a wretched, dysfunctional place may not be legion, but it is also not inconsiderable. I hasten to add that I do not count myself among them.)

Providence’s historic downtown is, I think, still the only entire metropolitan downtown in America on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1990, it has had the benefit of planning charrettes from New Urbanist guru Andrés Duany, and Liz Plater-Zyberk, his wife, partner and co-winner of the Driehaus Prize. One of their recommendations arose from the city’s mania for one-way streets during the urban-renewal era of the 1950s and 1960s. A one-way street was said to facilitate traffic speeding through our increasingly destitute downtowns. Duany urged Providence to turn some of those one-ways into two-ways. That has been done on major stretches of Washington, Weybosset, Empire, a brief stretch of lengthy Dorrance and the brief extent of Exchange Terrace. It ought to be done as well on Fountain and Sabin, which are both unnecessarily wide.

Providence’s main commercial thoroughfare, Westminster, is still one-way because it is not wide enough to be any other thing. Duany once stated that Westminster reflects the perfect ratio of street width to building height. It creates a maximum sense of enclosure and hence comfort for pedestrians. That is one reason it is among the most beautiful city streets in America and maybe the world, although I would stress the importance of lining a street with traditional architecture, which almost all downtown Providence streets have in abundance. A street with a perfect width-to-height ratio lined with modernist buildings would not be impressive but oppressive. (I wonder whether Duany would still agree with this.)

Ian Manire, an architect with Union Studios in downtown Providence, joined the Mouzonian conversation:

Lived in downtown Portland for years and because of the small blocks and pedestrian-speed traffic, it was immensely walkable and human-oriented. I now live between two one-way “thoroughfares” on the East Side of Providence, R.I., and it’s also lovely – because the streets are one-lane narrow road bed with naturally slowed automobile traffic. All about street scale and tighter grid-weave.

I am guessing that Manire lives between Angell and Waterman, which cross College Hill between downtown and the Seekonk River. For “thoroughfares,” Angell and Waterman are narrow, though not as narrow as most streets on deeply historic and profoundly beautiful College Hill.

More two-way streets have made it easier to get around downtown Providence by car, and without degrading the pedestrian experience. Its street grid is not as systematic as that of Manhattan, where most crosstown streets are one way and so are most north-south avenues. Not that making it easier for cars to get around is near the top of most New Urbanists’ agendas, but it ought to be a goal if it can be done without unprivileging pedestrians. After all, whether you happen to be in Manhattan or Providence, all drivers become pedestrians when they emerge from behind the wheel, and all cities are dependent on those drivers.

In our understandable urge to help pedestrians get out from under the dystopias created by city planners in the urban-renewal era, we sometimes went too far. (“We”? What you mean “we,” Kemosabe?) In cities whose streetscapes are “historic,” the question of one- or two-way streets is moot, because beauty heals most wounds arising from mere traffic patterns. Needless to say, planning offices almost entirely neglect the importance of beauty to the well-being of both pedestrians and drivers in cities.

More dangerous to Manhattan’s walkability than traffic patterns is the ubiquity of scaffolding on buildings along streets almost everywhere. (See “The streets of New York” from last May.) Some may think the hazard is to the heads of pedestrians but it is really to the eyes of pedestrians and drivers alike. I believe downtown Providence has only one building marred by scaffolding, but it is the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building of 1928. That’s the distant tall building with setbacks in the photo atop this post. It has been vacant since 2013. An occupant must be found, yes, but maybe removing the sidewalk scaffolding would help. It makes little difference that Westminster and Fulton streets are one-way on either side of the building.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to For one- or two-way streets?

  1. The issue is pretty settled with empirical data to back up the argument that two ways streets mean: less accidents, greater walkability, reduced pollution, higher home values, less crime and foreclosures, more trees! Greater livability! Also, the preponderance of one way streets is much greater in black and brown neighborhoods leading many to charge environmental racism. You can read my scholarly published work by writing to me at


    • John – Whether one-way or two-way streets are preferable depends on the situation. In general, I’d say narrower streets are preferable to wider streets for walkability, etc., even if that often precludes two-way streets. Either way, it makes far less difference than whether the street, one or two ways, is lined with beautiful buildings. I don’t need “empirical data” to reach that conclusion, which is obvious and even tautological; but anyway such data are all around us.


  2. conservadox says:

    I am of two minds about scaffolding. On the one hand, I agree that it is not beautiful. On the other hand, it does provide a little extra shelter against rain and sun.


  3. Steve says:

    “The city and state should say not a dime till those lights go back on.” I could not agree more!!

    In fact, I need to write the Mayor and R.I. Commerce. We all do.


  4. Isn’t it the case that wide one-way streets are bad (hard to cross for pedestrians; tend to make fast traffic; make longer motorised trips) and narrow one-way streets are good (easy to cross, traffic is naturally slowed, etc). Essentially, as long as pedestrians and cycles can go both ways everywhere, and motorised traffic is discouraged, it’s good.
    Incidentally former British transport minister Norman Baker said last night at an event that his proudest ‘small’ achievement was the introduction of a ‘no entry except cyclists’ sign that allowed people on bikes to go both ways in most small ‘one-way’ streets in London.


  5. Steve says:

    Great article…

    FYI- The “…the sidewalk scaffolding…” will be removed once the repairs to the building siding is completed.

    I am sadly pessimistic regarding a tenant…just so expensive to make it viable for business or residential use.


    • Thank you, Steve. I am pessimistic as well, but there are many examples of things happening that they said could not be done. Remember, for example, the Masonic Temple redevelopment as a hotel required a glass box atop the Temple. No, don’t do it, I warned, you’ll lose historic tax credits; they approved it anyway (the Journal, PPS, everybody but me), and as a result the feds declined the tax credits and the governor said tear it down, whereupon Sage Hospitality proposed a renovation with no glass box, it was approved and built and, so far as I know, has thrived for a decade and a half.

      Also, for years the owner of the old Journal Building refused to sell it to Buff Chace though he offered sky-high price, but then he died and his estate sold it to a Washington developer proposing a hotel. However, I have seen no work thus far. Still, I think the ITBB will sell eventually for a price low enough to encourage development and redevelopment will come – or at worst the building will remain an icon on the skyline, though without its amber exterior lighting. The city and state should say not a dime till those lights go back on.


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