One relatively small change could bring more customers to Bethesda’s small businesses, make it safer to walk or bike around, and even reduce traffic congestion. What is it? Turning downtown streets from one-way to two-way.
Earlier this summer, the Western Montgomery Citizens Advisory Board considered a proposal for making several one-way streets two-way, including Woodmont Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, East-West Highway, and Montgomery Avenue. Board members, which include both residents and business people, say they’d like the county’s Bethesda Downtown Plan to explore the possibility.
Like Bethesda, cities all over the country installed one-way streets during the 20th century as a way to compete with then-new suburbs, which were a lot easier to access by car than older downtowns. But many communities found that designing streets to speed people in and out of town meant they weren’t sticking around. In Cincinnati, 40 percent of the businesses closed after a street was converted from two-way to one-way.
Why is that? One-way streets mean that businesses can only receive passing customers from one direction. They also tend to be faster than two-way streets, which makes them more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. One-way streets also force people into long, circuitous trips to go short distances, creating traffic for traffic’s sake. That requires drivers to take more turns, which can cause significant backups.
Today, as more people seek out downtown living and alternatives to driving, one-way streets don’t seem so practical anymore, and many cities are putting their two-way streets back with positive results. It may seem counterintuitive, but two-way streets can actually carry more traffic even at lower speeds, according to a new paper from the Transportation Research Board.
Slower traffic can bring out more pedestrians and cyclists, who actually spend more at local businesses than drivers do. It’s no wonder that turning one street back to two-way in West Palm Beach, Florida resulted in $500 million in new investment over 10 years.
People walking down the sidewalk along two-way Bethesda Avenue (file photo)But don’t take my word for it. Think about the busiest, most active spaces in downtown Bethesda, like Bethesda Avenue between Woodmont Avenue and Arlington Road. They’re all two-way streets. Traffic may be slow, but it gives drivers time to see all of the different shops and restaurants. It’s also more comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists.
These are the streets that make Bethesda a regional destination.
Compare that to Bethesda Metro Center, surrounded by a moat of one-way streets. It’s a dead zone, difficult to reach by foot and even by car due to the confusing, circuitous path drivers must take to reach it. Create a place that’s designed to speed people somewhere else and they’ll take the message.

Given, creating two-way streets may not be easy. Traffic signals and intersections would need to be reconfigured. And the cost of converting streets to two-way tends to vary a lot.
The US Department of Transportation estimates that it could cost as little as $20,000 to redo one mile of road, but one project in Tampa cost more than $800,000, which included new pavement, signals, stripes, arrows and parking meters.
Downtown Bethesda's one-way street network, via Google MapsMeanwhile, both the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, which is responsible for Woodmont Avenue, and the Maryland Department of Transportation, which controls state roads like East-West Highway, will be reluctant to make changes that could be perceived as slowing cars down.
And there are some one-way streets that work really well, like Clarendon and Wilson Boulevards in Arlington.
These streets can carry a lot of traffic, but they’re also safe, enjoyable places to walk or bike, with wide sidewalks and bike lanes with buffers. It helps that they’re narrow, which slows traffic down, and that there are lots of other, two-way streets that give travelers an alternative. However, they might be the exception, not the rule. Arlington’s still converting some one-way streets to two-way in Crystal City.
Ultimately, one-way streets are about whether Bethesda should be a place for coming to or a place for going through. People don’t come here because it’s easy to get to. They come because whatever hassles they may go through to get here make it worth the trip.
Flickr pool photo by AmyMarieMoore, Map via Google Maps
Dan Reed is an urban planner who grew up in Montgomery County and remembers eating Gifford’s ice cream before it was on Bethesda Row. He sits on the board of Action Committee for Transit, an organization dedicated to sustainable transportation in Montgomery County. He also writes at Just Up The Pike, a blog about Silver Spring, and Greater Greater Washington, a regional blog about planning. 

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