John Gilderbloom: Two-way streets good, one-way bad.
John Gilderbloom: Two-way streets good, one-way bad.

How can you make Louisville’s streets safer for pedestrians, more prosperous, and less prone to vehicle theft? There are all kinds of sophisticated answers touted by urban planners, but the most effective might just be among the easiest: convert one-way streets into two-way streets.

In fact, this has already happened in Louisville, according to a recent report by University of Louisville professor John Gilderbloom, who directs U of L’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. Gilderbloom co-authored the report–titled “Two-Way Street Conversion: Evidence of Increased Livability in Louisville”–with William Riggs, of the California Polytechnic State University.

Gilderbloom presented the paper at the International Livability Conference in Portland, Ore., on June 9.

Gilderbloom and his team produced a rigorous multi-year study of two downtown Louisville streets — Brook and First — that were converted to two-way streets in 2011. (They also used two unconverted streets next to the test streets, Second and Third, as control streets.) While many cities have made similar conversions, few of these conversions had their results scanned for real impact.

The roots of the idea that two-way streets are better for cities are not new, dating back to livability ideas first pioneered by proto-urban planner Jane Jacobs back in the 1960s. Yet, until now, no studies had specifically looked at the quantitative implications of multi-lane, one-way street conversions.

The conversion mattered because the one-way streets were effectively multi-lane freeways, which were converted back to slower, saner neighborhood streets that proved a boon to residents in all kinds of ways, according to the report.

Brook Street | Photo by Brad
The two-way stretch of East Breckenridge| Photo by Brad Cronin of U of L

“The results were stunning,” Gilderbloom wrote about the study on Planetizen, a public-interest information exchange for urban planners. Crime and collisions plummeted, while business revenues, taxes and bike and pedestrian traffic soared, he wrote. All this happened in a downtown neighborhood that is 80 percent renters, with an even racial mix of blacks and whites, and low to moderate household income.

Even as Louisville experienced rising crime from 2011 through 2013, crime dropped 23 percent on the converted streets, according to the study. Crime also dropped 16 percent on nearby Third Street, but increased by 16 percent on Second Street in that time.

The authors believe it’s possible crime shifted from the two-way streets to Second. “The likeliest explanation that can be drawn from these trends is that a shift in crime from Brook and First streets to Second Street occurred as a result of reduced speeds making a ‘getaway’ more difficult,” they wrote.

Auto theft alone dropped by close to a third on the two-ways streets, but climbed 36 percent on the nearby one-way streets. Robberies dropped 42 percent on the converted streets, the report stated.

Brook Street saw its property values rise 39 percent after conversion, even as the one-way streets saw values fall.

The report also concluded that traffic accidents dropped due to the conversions: First Street had been the most dangerous street of all the ones studied, but since conversion accidents dropped by 60 percent. Brook Street accidents are down 36 percent. Third Street saw a 7 percent increase in accidents, and Second Street saw a 23 percent increase. The study quoted neighborhood activist and lawyer Ken Plotnik: “Before the conversion we had several horrific car crashes that caused needless loss of life–several of whom were children.”

One of the most surprising aspects of the conversion is that accidents fell on Brook and First, even as total traffic increased. Originally, the researchers expected traffic to shift from these two streets to Second and Third, but found the opposite. “There was a 13 percent increase in traffic on Brook Street and a 40 percent increase on First Street.” In fact, vehicle traffic dropped on Second Street by 13 percent, and 11 percent on Third.

Why were the two-way streets safer, despite greater traffic? The authors believe slower moving local traffic likely shifted to Brook and First, as it required less block-circling in order to get to a specific destination.

Property taxes also take a hit on one-way streets relative to two-way streets, due to all the factors above. The study estimates if all multi-lane one-ways in Louisville were converted, the city would add an additional $1 million to its tax base.

In short, converting one-ways to two-ways gives residents more of what they want out of city life. “As a response of calmer residential streets, neighborhoods become more livable, more prosperous, and safer,” Gilderbloom wrote on Planetizen.

David Serchuk

David Serchuk

David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.