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What's Up With That: Downtown's One Way Streets

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Another episode of What's Up With That, our attempt to answer a pressing, but random urban query. Got a question? Email us. Last week, we witnessed a driver turn on to Main Street, a one way street, and start heading right into traffic. One might guess this happens all the time. So what's up with the seemingly random assignations of one-way streets in Los Angeles? Why are some streets designated one way and others aren't? This week, our guest blogger, Eric Richardson from blogdowntown, explains why the streets are what they are: "Where L.A. has made life so difficult is that our one-way system fails to follow the every-other approach used elsewhere. Instead of an understandable pattern (such as North, South, North, South), we have Figueroa going north and Flower south, but then Grand south and Olive north. But first, some history: The city first took a look at one-way operation in 1922, when the Greater Los Angeles Traffic Commission appointed a committee to study the idea, already in long-time use back east."
The concept was in use for good reason: two one-way streets move many more cars than do two two-way streets (approximately 40% more volume, according to some city statistics). Despite the matter coming back up again in 1937 and 1942, it wasn't until October 6th, 1947, that L.A. got its first one-way operation with the conversion of 5th and 6th streets.

Eventually four pairs of east-west streets were converted to one-way operation, with 8th and 9th going in 1953, 3rd and 4th in 1956 and much later 11th and 12th in 1971. The first three were done as part of an agreement signed by the city, county and state for the construction of the Harbor Freeway, while the 11th/12th switch was to provide extra volume for the opening of the Convention Center that same year.

Spring and Main were the first north-south conversion, going one-way in 1970. In the mid-1980s construction for what became the Red Line was the impetus for switches that sent Figueroa, Flower, Grand, Olive and Hill into one-way operation. Only Hill has since returned to two-way traffic. Given the congestion and freeway access difficulties that any change would entail, it's unlikely to see any of the others make a similar two-way move.

One-way streets can create a perfectly simple system, and are widely accepted in other cities, but ours seem to cause so much confusion. Bottom-line: the problem's not one way streets, it's a system that can't be easily understood."