HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — To say Andrew Campbell was skeptical of plans to make convert a two-mile stretch of 2nd Street in Harrisburg into a two-way street would be an understatement.
“I was one of the harshest critics of this plan,” said Campbell, who lives near the intersection of 2nd and Verbeke streets — once controlled by a traffic signal, now by a roundabout.
One year has passed since 2nd Street — for decades a one-way, three-lane bypass north from downtown — became a two-way, two-lane street between Division Street to the north and Forster Street to the south.
His thoughts before the conversion?
“This is going to be a nightmare with the traffic,” he recalled.
But now? He’s reserving final judgment until more government workers return to their offices full-time, but “it hasn’t turned out to be as evil as I thought it was going to be,” Campbell said. “The parking is okay. It is a lot safer to cross the street” thanks partly to raised crosswalks; Campbell walked his dog Dino across one of them.
Surprising to Campell, maybe, but not to Jeff Speck, a globally-known city planner and author of the bestselling “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”
“That’s quite similar to what we’ve found in a number of places that we’ve studied,” said Speck, who wasn’t involved in the Harrisburg project. “What’s important, of course, is not just crashes, but specifically injury crashes and severe-injury crashes.”
In fact, that’s exactly one realm in which safety has improved along 2nd Street during year one of two-way traffic, according to data provided by the city.
Overall crashes — everything from fender-benders to more serious accidents — actually increased from 61 to 82 between the last full equivalent non-construction year before the conversion took place (Oct. 13, 2020, through Oct. 12, 2021) and the first year after the conversion (Oct. 13, 2022, through Oct. 12, 2023).
But “reportable crashes” — generally those with serious injuries — declined from 13 to 11 during the same period.
City spokesman Matt Maisel predicted the less serious crashes would decline too during 2nd Street’s second year, now that drivers are accustomed to the new traffic pattern and the roundabouts, which are common in some parts of the world but are still largely a novelty here.
Perhaps more surprisingly — also perhaps not, according to both Speck and Maisel — 2nd Street has also become safer in a way not directly connected to the number and direction of lanes: Total annual reported crimes along the corridor declined from 114 to 85, driven mostly by a decline in theft, vandalism and other property crimes.
Speck said that brought to mind a conversion of two key one-way streets in Louisville, Kentucky — Brook and 1st — into two-way streets, in that case without any other complex improvements.
“Serious-injury crashes dropped by 48%, and crime actually dropped by 23%. And it’s just fascinating how neighborhoods come to come back to life” after a conversion on any street that has more than one travel lane, Speck said. (One-way streets with just one travel lane are fine, he said.)
The reason for the increased traffic safety? Two-way streets with relatively narrow lanes — which cause people to drive with care — are what actually cause city drivers to slow down, he said.
“We found in city after city, enforcement does not change driver behavior,” Speck said. “Speed limits certainly do not determine driver behavior. What determines the speed of a driver in a city is the environment.”
He said the key to scaling up safety is to make 2nd Street less of an exception. An extreme example of what can happen when an entire country makes similar changes to as many of its streets as possible? Child traffic deaths in The Netherlands declined from more than 400 in 1971 before the country began converting roads everywhere, to just 14 by 2010, according to data cited by Speck.
The question, he said, isn’t whether what the city did to 2nd Street makes sense.
“The bigger question is, Why aren’t we doing this to more of our streets?” Speck said.
Maisel said the only negative comments he has heard since the conversion are from suburban residents, whose commute home now feels a bit longer.
“It’s really been popular for the residents along 2nd Street because it feels like they have a neighborhood, not a speedway,” said Maisel, who said that — in turn — helps explain the drop in crime rates.
“When people take pride in their neighborhood, crime decreases,” Maisel said. “This is one of the tried-and-true methods of any type of city planning. You give people pride of where they live, and they’re going to take care of it.”
Andrew Campbell now has the zeal of a convert.
“If only we could do something on Front Street, that would be a lot more welcome,” Campbell said.
Front Street between Division and Forster streets is a one-way, two-lane street.