One-way signs in the financial district in New York City
One-way signs in the financial district in New York City Mark Lennihan/AP

There’s more than one way for neighborhoods to respond to two-way street conversions, new research suggests.

Urbanists and city planners have been on a crusade against one-way streets for years. Around the country, cities have been converting one-way streets into two-way streets in light of evidence that they make traffic safer by reducing collisions for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians; reduce crime by decreasing auto theft and robberies; and bolster neighborhood commercial districts by raising property values and increasing visibility for businesses.

But do two-way streets really affect the conditions of surrounding areas? Do they spur more jobs and better economic health?

A new study by William Riggs of the University of San Francisco, and Bruce Appleyard of San Diego State University examines the economic impacts of two-way street conversions between 2004 and 2011 in six cities: Austin; Des Moines; Louisville; Minneapolis; Charleston, South Carolina; and Vancouver, Washington. The study tracks the effects of street conversions on jobs and incomes within the immediate surrounding areas compared to the city as a whole, using employment data from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program, as well as more qualitative data on sales taxes and other metrics.

The main takeaway from the report: Converting streets from one-way to two-way has a mixed effect on jobs, and tends to coincide with increased incomes and lead to more housing construction.

The chart below details the impacts of two-way street conversions on jobs in each of the six study areas. Street conversions led to an increase in jobs in just two of the six. The area in Minneapolis saw the biggest increase, nearly 20 percent, but the one in Austin saw a decrease of more than 60 percent. Vancouver, Washington’s area also saw a considerable decline of 40 percent.

When comparing the job change within the conversion area to the change in the city as a whole, the researchers saw that Minneapolis and Des Moines came out ahead. But the difference in the four remaining cities fell into negative territory, especially in Austin and Vancouver.

City Location % Change in Jobs in City as a Whole % Change in Jobs in Conversion Area % Difference Between Conversion Area and City
Vancouver, WA Broadway, Main, and C Streets 13.86% -39.64% -53.50%
Minneapolis, MN Hennepin Avenue and 1st Street 14.09% 19.94% 5.86%
Louisville, KY Brook and First Streets 7.65% -3.26% -10.91%
Des Moines, IA Court and Walnut Avenues, and Locust Street -1.95% 0.13% 2.08%
Austin, TX Cesar Chavez Street 12.03% -61.80% -73.83%
Charleston, SC Wentworth, Beaufain, and Ashley Streets, and Rutledge Blvd 10.84% -6.45% -17.29%

However, the report notes that the two-way street conversions did not necessarily cause those decreases. In some places, neighborhoods surrounding street conversions may have been hit by larger economic events, like the Great Recession.

To look further into the economic effects of converting streets, the study used “location quotients,” or LQs, to compare the relative performance of specific industry sectors in the neighborhoods surrounding converted streets to the city as a whole. (An LQ of 1 means the number of jobs within a certain conversion area is on par with the city’s as a whole; an LQ higher than 1 means that an industry is more concentrated, while an LQ of less than one means it is less concentrated.)

Converting streets from one-way to two-away appears to have a bigger effect on certain industries, especially ones that are typically implicated in urban revitalization. The industries that did well in the areas around new two-way streets include arts and entertainment, recreation, accommodation, food, and professional services.

In Austin, for example, food, professional services, and arts and entertainment grew substantially in the conversion area, with an LQ of 3.58 in 2012. Meanwhile, jobs in the education sector dropped  down to an LQ of 0.19 by 2012. In Minneapolis’ conversion area, food services and professional services shot up to an LQ of 1.18, while healthcare and social assistance were negatively impacted (0.08).

Just as street conversions cannot be blamed for overall economic decline, neither can they take all the credit for these flourishing sectors. Two-way street conversions often coincide with urban redevelopment booms like Austin’s, which tend to invite downtown-oriented jobs and businesses, but they do not inspire them on their own.

The pattern for income was different, and generally more positive. Five of the six areas with two-way street conversions saw their incomes increase. And in all but Charleston, incomes grew faster in the areas surrounding street conversions than in the city as a whole. This pattern suggests that street conversions lead to higher-income people moving into the areas, which may in turn implicate street conversions as part and parcel of neighborhood upgrading or gentrification.

William Riggs & Bruce Appleyard (Journal of Urbanism)

Converting streets also leads to more housing, which may further signal a connection to the area’s overall gentrification. Four of the six areas added housing after street conversion, the exceptions being Charleston and Louisville. In all six areas, the rate of housing growth was higher in the conversion area than it was in the city as a whole. In Vancouver, Des Moines, and Austin, two-way street conversions happened in conjunction with broader strategies for increased downtown housing construction and development, such as Austin’s Great Streets Program, and these were likely a contributing factor.

William Riggs & Bruce Appleyard (Journal of Urbanism)

The study suggests that cities and urbanists need to be more pragmatic and intentional about converting streets. While such conversions do not drive urban economic development on their own, they can and do lead to more walkable and livable mixed used neighborhoods that are safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and residents. Furthermore, the study points out that one-way streets remain efficient in some places. Portland, Oregon, for example, has managed to build a lively downtown district of one-way streets strategically through the use of smart design features—such as regular stoplights that moderate traffic speeds to 20 miles per hour (the speed of a comfortable bicycle ride)—to help the area thrive.

Ultimately, what it boils down to is this: Two-way streets are not an economic panacea and should not be sold as such. They sometimes stimulate jobs and economic development, and sometimes they coincide with the opposite. The jobs and businesses they tend to spur are in typical downtown-oriented industries, like arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, food, and professional services.

Oftentimes, converting one-way to two-way streets goes hand in hand with downtown economic strategies that inspire broader housing construction, and can lead to higher-income people moving in. In most places, two-way streets appear to make neighborhoods safer and more livable. But, in doing so, they also appear to go hand in hand with the broader process of neighborhood upgrading and gentrification. In any case, appropriate policy—or as the authors put it, context—is important to avoiding harmful outcomes and helping conversion areas thrive.

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