1-Way Streets May Start Running Both Ways

Fifty years ago, New Haven created one-way streets downtown so that people could zip home to the suburbs after work. Times have changed, said city traffic tsar Jim Travers—so it’s time to change the signs.

Travers (pictured) is looking for New Haveners to take a crack at updating the downtown traffic grid, to consider converting one-way streets to two-way streets. He’s inviting any and all interested parties to a four-day public “design charrette” next week, a massive brainstorming session for people to consider new ways for cars to maneuver through downtown.

Click here for the full charrette schedule, which starts Monday evening and runs to Thursday evening, at the New Haven Free Public Library.

The event will look at the possibility of one-way to two-way conversions, a shift that Travers said could have a number of advantages, including less congestion, less pollution, easier navigation, more exposure for businesses, and increased safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

The conversion would also follow a national trend. As more people move to cities and move away from using cars, cities no longer need to be designed for suburban commuters to rush in at 9 a.m. and zoom out at 5 p.m., Travers said. Cities are moving to traffic patterns that facilitate slower speeds and multiple routes through town.

A New Era

That wasn’t the thinking 50 years ago, when the city set up all the one-way streets downtown. “The thought was: Get ‘em in. Get ‘em out,” said Travers. Downtown was a place to which people commuted from the suburbs or from other parts of New Haven, to work. They didn’t live there. The city filled up in the morning and emptied out at quitting time. (Click here to see the existing downtown traffic system.)

That’s no longer the case, Travers said. The residential population downtown has boomed. The Taft Hotel is now apartments. Residential tower 360 State is no longer a parking lot. And 900 Chapel went from a mall to an apartment and office tower. Downtown New Haven is no longer a 9 to 5 city for commuters; it’s home to thousands of people. It’s also a destination for people looking for evening and weekend entertainment, people who want to explore the city, not just get to their office quickly.

Given those conditions, a largely one-way downtown traffic grid presents a number of problems, Travers said.

Travers, city traffic engineer Neetu Singh, and consultant Sarah Lewis (at right in photo above) laid out the problems in a transportation department conference room on Thursday:

For starters, it’s hard for drivers to get around a grid of one-way streets, especially if you’re not already familiar with the layout. “You see a business you want to go to and you can’t,” Travers said. A shop might catch a driver’s eye as he passes, but getting back to it isn’t just a matter of circling the block. It might mean circling four blocks or more, given the way one-way streets channel cars.

“To make it user-friendly, you want mobility options,” Travers said. A lack of those options leads to another problem: Drivers can’t escape gridlock. On a grid of two-way streets, if one route is clogged with traffic, cars can just try the next block. With one-way streets, your pathways through town are limited; everyone is forced onto the same few streets. Of course, those throughways are wider as one-ways than as two-ways, but the funneling action of the one-way grid still causes cars to pile up.

That leads to a third cluster of problems: more engine idling, more circling multiple blocks to get where you want to go, more pollution, more wasted fuel, more frustration.

Two-way streets, on the other hand, offer a number of advantages. These include more and better options for bus routes, so that people don’t have to walk blocks to transfer between buses. Cyclists and pedestrians are safer because car traffic is slowed down on two-way streets. (That’s not because the speed limit would change, but because drivers reflexively slow down on two-ways.) And businesses have it better because they’re more visible and easier to access.

Meetings with downtown neighbors, leaders and organizations have so far failed to turn up anyone who’s in favor of keeping the one-way grid, said Singh.

Conversion of all one-ways to two-ways is not necessarily the answer, however. In a preliminary plan for one possible short-term conversion scenario, the city would keep Elm and Temple streets as one-way, along with a number of sections of other downtown streets.

Conversions would present various levels of complexity, from simple re-striping to new traffic signals and new parking plans.

Retail “Eclipsed”

To demonstrate the potential for conversions, Travers and Singh climbed into Travers’ SUV and headed to Howe Street. To get there from the transportation department on Orange Street, they were forced to head east on one-way Elm Street, the direction opposited the one they wanted.

Travers ran into traffic on State Street. “If I wasn’t forced to go down Elm, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

He turned west on Chapel Street. He stopped at the light at York Street, which is one-way, headed north. “This is a great example,” he said. “If we wanted to go to the hospital we would take a left here.” As it is people rushing to Yale New Haven Hospital have to drive another block out of their way.

Singh later pointed out that the hospital is currently surrounded by one-way streets. It might be more accessible if they were two-ways.

Travers pulled up at the corner of Chapel and Howe and pointed out a sign on the Tandoor Indian restaurant: “Patron Parking In The Rear.” Parking is a nice amenity for a restaurant, but getting to the rear of the building is not simply a matter of turning the corner. Since Howe Street is one-way, drivers on Chapel have to drive another block, then take a three lefts to get to the parking lot.

Travers walked behind Tandoor and found only two cars in the lot.

Travers and Singh walked a little way north on Howe, to the parking garage there lined with empty storefronts. If the street were two-way, those might be occupied, Travers said. That’s because it’s easier for drivers to see buildings across the street, to their left while driving, than to see those on the right, said Singh. The phenomenon is called a “retail eclipse.” The parking garage storefronts are invisible to drivers on Howe Street because the cars only come from the south, putting the storefronts on their right.

“The opportunity exists here,” Travers said.

Next week’s charrette is meant to seize that opportunity. Travers said he’d like to have as much input as possible, and maybe more. “I want more people to attend than we can possibly handle,” he said.

“As much public input as we can get, the better it makes the solution,” said Lewis.


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posted by: ILivehere on October 18, 2013  4:48pm

Please take this opportunity to turn center street around. Its not possible to see around the busses and people always J-walk at this intersection. It’s very dangerous.

posted by: anonymous on October 18, 2013  5:01pm

Why won’t the speed limit change? Virtually every other city in the USA and around the world is aggressively reducing speed limits in areas with many children, walkers, seniors, cyclists and bus riders like our downtown.

Converting to a two-way street and hoping people slow down is wishful thinking. A better way is to set the speed limit low and then fix the street so people actually drive that fast.

Can we please get some traffic engineers who are in touch with current needs, not the design manuals of the 1950s? New Haven will keep falling behind if it doesn’t keep up with the times.

This isn’t just a city issue. If they care about the State economy, Governor Malloy & DECD need to push harder for us to bring in the best practices, considering that New Haven is one of just two or three economically viable towns in the entire state.

posted by: TheMadcap on October 18, 2013  5:18pm

I really hope whoever wins in November keeps Travers on, he really is fantastic.

posted by: William Kurtz on October 18, 2013  5:51pm


Yeah, Travers is great when he’s not spilling the beans about the super-secret parking lot for Tandoor customers.

But the possibility of converting some streets to two ways just about makes up for that. I’m glad to see this idea finally taking some concrete steps forward.

posted by: havenite33 on October 18, 2013  8:33pm

1 - great that he is thinking about this -he is right. 
2 - It is nice that there are many references to zipping to the suburbs but this is simply not what happens because lights are out of sync. Anyone who I have met who comes to New Haven from out of the area complains about this. first the city needs to sync its lights.  they are not only out of sync, they seem to be totally anti-sync.  Takes forever to get anywhere
3 - cars and pedestrians should flow in parallel like NYC.  When cars are headed one way, pedestrians should have the same green and there do not need to be these long pedestrian only

posted by: robn on October 18, 2013  9:47pm

Keeping Elm and Temple one way = Obstinate mistake

Elm especially…If you can’t resolve how to make a six lane street two way, please hand in your traffic planning degree before you exit the room.

posted by: Mark Oppenheimer on October 18, 2013  10:30pm

Yes, this is really terrific. All the best studies show that you want two-way streets. It’s more environmentally friendly, since people don’t have to circle around on one-way streets to get where they want to go; that means it’s better for poor communities and communities with high rates of asthma. It’s also, as this smart article points out, better for businesses. And because it slows down traffic a bit, it’s better for bikers and pedestrians too. It’s totally win-win-win (and win). Elm and Edgewood could also be two-way for their entire lengths; I hope that’s next!

posted by: citoyen on October 19, 2013  5:20pm

I’m pretty sure that within my memory there has been one such change, and it was a big success.  College Street used to be one-way between Chapel and Elm (except I can’t remember which direction! I think south), but now with it being two-way, navigating around the Green is easier, and traffic is indeed slower.  (Church and Elm remain problems—torrential rivers of traffic flow, especially Elm.)

I applaud Jim Travers, once again.

(But why is he always traffic *czar/tsar*?  Why not department head, or supervisor, or, indeed, what seems to be his official title—director?)

posted by: darnell on October 20, 2013  9:28am

Come on Paul, tel us how much this “study” is costing us. I guess after informing us that the “bike corral” cost over $4000, more than 10 times what we should have sent, Travers is being mum on this one. Why do we need to pay an outsider to conduct a study on something so common sense? Don’t our traffic czar and his highly paid staff have the expertise? What certifications, training and degrees does Travers have to make him the head traffic guy anyhow? What about this “expert” doing this traffic love fest? Where did he work before New Haven? This spending spree in traffic and parking has got to stop!

posted by: robn on October 20, 2013  10:02am


Agreed. College IS the best example of the success of 2-way.

posted by: TheMadcap on October 20, 2013  11:29am


The bike corral’s cost is entirely reasonable. There’s 96 of them in Portland and they cost around $3,000 each according to the city

Bike corrals you find on the internet for $350 aren’t ones the city can put up.

posted by: robn on October 20, 2013  12:43pm


Most of if is common sense but York Sq, KofC Museum and Trumbull/Whitney triangles are very complex and will need computer simulation to determine signage and signaling.

posted by: Bradley on October 20, 2013  7:52pm

@ anonymous

“Virtually ever other city in the U.S. ... Is aggressively reducing speed limits….”.

According to the Census Bureau, there are over 300 metropolitan areas in the U.S., each with its central city. Can you identify 250 that have reduced their speed limits? 200? 100? You get my point. Reducing speed limits does make sense for specific streets and I suspect we would agree on the best candidates. But your consistent use of hyperbole does not help your argument or our shared interest in safer streets.

As Jim Travers can attest, there is good empirical evidence that moving from one-way to two-way streets does slow traffic (a good thing, we would agree). While his proposal is not a panacea, and he does not represent it as one, it is an important step in the right direction.

posted by: NH06515 on October 20, 2013  10:36pm

Opening College Street southbound between Elm and Chapel made sense so you didnt have to circle around to High Street (narrow, full of Yalies) to get back on to Elm to try and find a parking space around the Green or near the Courthouse or library or on the Temple to College block of Chapel. What made that opening of a street to two-way traffic work was the it created NO NEW LEFT TURNS from a single lane street.

If you turn other streets into two ways, you will have worse congestion because drivers will now have opportunities to turn left, crossing oncoming traffic. Bad for drivers. Bad for pedestrians. Deadly for bicyclists.

Many of our multi-lane streets (Elm, Chapel, Temple,etc.) routinely have at least one lane blocked by delivery vehicles or absent minded motorists idling.

Serious thought needs to go into any decision.

Concur that the direction of Center Street should be reversed.

posted by: Ozzie on October 21, 2013  8:07am

Converting some of these streets from one way to two way is madness emergency vehicles can just about get down some of these streets now and when trucks are making deliveries and Ct transit blocks traffic its a mess !

posted by: Dwightblock on October 21, 2013  10:23am

Ozzie has a point…what about emergency vehicles?

This might work if they eliminated on-street parking on these roads and turned it into bike lanes, which cars could then pull into to let an ambulance or fire engine or police cruiser pass them.

posted by: Dwightblock on October 21, 2013  10:25am

Actually that makes a good point.

There’s no transportation solution without a new parking solution.

Get rid of all but 15-minute parking downtown, open up garages on the fringe with shuttle buses that drive people into the city proper to select destinations.  Move the city bus stops out to the fringe too and put those people on shuttles.  There could be a select set of shuttle stops instead of 500 bus stops.

posted by: PH on October 21, 2013  11:20am

George Street should be two way. 

Howe Street should be two way.

York south of Chapel (and perhaps all the way up to Elm) should be two way.

Temple between Grove and George should be two way.

Grove Street at least between Church and College, if not all the way from York to Church.

posted by: Aaron on October 25, 2013  4:28pm

A focus should be put on timing the lights so that people driving the speed limit could make it through without getting stopped at EVERY light.