York’s one-way street pattern put in place to combat post-World War II traffic congestion
York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News photographer Paul Kuehnel captures fellow photographer Bill Schintz as he assesses the prospect of two-way traffic outside his East Market Street photo studio. Background posts: East Market Street’s New York Wire factory whistle concert: ‘We’d stand out on our driveway to hear it’ and Camp Security memories tucked inside memoir and Web site filled with nostalgic Lincoln Highway photos, postcards.
Heavy traffic in post-World War II downtown York prompted the pattern of one-way streets in effect today.
That’s the one-way pattern, specifically on East Market Street, that soon will be studied to see if another plan might work.
It was another day when the current traffic patterns were put in place in 1950.
The city’s population was at its zenith – about 60,000 people… .
This photo, from York County Heritage Trust files, shows westbound traffic entering York, Pa.’s, Continental Square from the east. This is a traffic pattern not seen today. To help you place this scene, the building with the conical tower is the old Colonial Hotel, standing today without the cone, on the southwest corner of Continental Square.
Caterpillar and the York County Shopping Center were not yet in Springettsbury Township. This pairing were early catalysts for suburbanization and decline of the downtown as a shopping hub.
At the same time, cars and buses competed with pedestrians in York’s Continental Square area.
A 1996 York Daily Record story (9/11/09), excerpted here, brings together many of these themes:
On the morning of Jan. 31, 1950, The Gazette and Daily front page included stories about mail theft, the hydrogen bomb and a strike by about 100,000 coal miners. The dominant story, however, accompanied by the page’s only photograph, carried this headline: “One- Way Traffic Set To Start.”
Effective the next day, a 90-day trial would begin on Philadelphia, Market and King streets. Seven months later, as “Fancy Pants,” starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, played at the Capitol in York, several north-south streets were added to the experiment. George Street was one of them.
Fast-forward 46 years, and George Street’s direction is again at issue. Today, a task force appointed by Mayor Charlie Robertson will receive a final presentation from its traffic consultant, Transportation Resource Group Inc. of York.
The subject: How a two-way George Street would play out. (Other streets could be affected as a result.) Robertson and city council members should have the report in their hands by late September, said Eric Menzer, the city’s economic development director. Menzer, a member of the task force, said public forums will follow.
There is no organized opposition to making George two-way, nor is there an endorsement from the community at-large. Businesses were surveyed as part of the study: 24 percent wanted George two-way; 25 percent wanted it one-way. The rest of the 145 companies had no opinion.
Proponents, Robertson among them, argue that George Street in its present form discourages visitors from coming downtown. Northbound traffic has to go east or west at Jackson Street and take a circuitous route to the city’s heart. This was not such a big deal just several years ago when South George was home to dilapidated homes and a thriving drug trade.
There’s more at stake now that homes have been reclaimed and enterprise, namely the Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center, has a foothold. Crispus Attucks Community Development Corp. considers a two-way George vital to the success of its project at Boundary Avenue, two blocks north of Jackson. The project might include offices, retail stores, eateries and a movie theater.
Back in 1950, then-Mayor Felix Bentzel and city council could not have imagined the societal changes that would confront their successors in the mid-1990s. York was still the center of commerce for York County, not just the professional hub it is now. The Bon-Ton, Wiest’s and Bear’s, all department stores, stood along West Market.
York-area manufacturers, whose York Plan became a model for cooperation during World War II, readjusted to a peacetime economy. Caterpillar Inc. hadn’t yet turned a Springettsbury Township corn field into a factory; it wouldn’t until 1953. The York County Shopping Center, the area’s first suburban mall, wouldn’t open until 1956.
Yet the automobile, which would lead the rush of residents and shoppers into the suburbs in coming years, already caused the city fits. As early as 1946, The Gazette and Daily (the Daily Record’s predecessor) called the convergence of buses, automobiles and pedestrians at Continental Square “the city’s No. 1 traffic problem.”
Perhaps as well as anybody, Robert P. Turner Jr. knew the facts. Turner, then a local manufacturing executive, also served on the city’s planning commission. Now retired to Santa Fe, N.M., Turner recently spoke with the Daily Record for this story.
He also provided documents, including the text of a talk he gave in February 1948 to city council. In his talk, he cited traffic surveys conducted in 1936 and 1947 and a 50 percent increase on downtown streets between those years. Other estimates predicted 5 percent growth annually through 1957.
“The problem is, therefore: How can this ever increasing traffic volume be handled expeditiously and safely on the streets of York?” Turner asked. Center city, Turner said, “cannot be allowed to deteriorate” as might happen if businesses fled to the outskirts to escape traffic congestion.”
Such a movement would impair the tax base of the City and, thus, could start a chain reaction of dire economic consequence to the City.” He outlined three options for dealing with the problem: widen streets, ban on-street parking, or adopt a system of one- way streets. Turner’s argument was that the latter could accommodate more traffic than two- way streets and was safer.
The reasons: -“Reduce complications at intersections, fewer turns are made and most of these can be made without crossing in front of traffic.” -“Double parked vehicles and other obstructions can be by-passed.” -“Slower moving traffic can be put into a lane of its own and by-passed by faster moving traffic, thus, the slowest vehicle no longer sets the pace.” -“Head-on collisions and side swiping type of accidents are eliminated.” -“Crossing at intersections is made less hazardous for pedestrians.” -“It is possible to get full efficiency from a progressive signal light system.”
Turner said that one-way streets would not be “a panacea for all of York’s traffic ills.” However, he and the planning commission asked that Mayor Bentzel and city council agree to a 90-day trial. Merchants generally opposed the idea, as did the chamber of commerce, Turner said in a recent interview. “The thing was, I was a manufacturer, so, therefore, I didn’t have to take any flak about it,” he said.
Meanwhile, by 1950, Pennsylvania’s chief engineer was declaring that an expressway between York and Harrisburg would make planning for one- way traffic necessary, the Gazette and Daily reported. Expressway traffic would have to pass through York on existing streets, engineer Edward L. Schmidt said. A north-south bypass of the city wouldn’t be built “for a good many years hence.”
Of course, it would be built, and the expressway would become Interstate 83. But not until the late 1950s. The experiment with one-way streets became permanent as the city roiled through decades of change: The 1950s, and the coming of suburbia.
The 1960s, and racial riots. The 1970s, and skin flicks at the Strand and Capitol theaters. The 1980s, and the closing of The Bon-Ton, the city’s last department store. But the 1990s have brought new hope to the city.
A mural district and the York County Heritage Rail/Trail hold the promise of a solid tourism base. The Industrial Plaza of York serves as a statewide model for reusing old industrial sites. And George Street itself has made a remarkable comeback, so much so that Crispus Attucks wants to put its multi-million dollar project there.
At L. Morgan Jewelers, 17 S. George St., co-owner Marta Van Zandt understands the merit of having a direct route to downtown. At the same time, she worries that a two-way will create congestion and eliminate valuable on-street parking spaces. “There’s not enough parking as it is,” she said.
Several city streets have been changed from one-way to two-way traffic in recent years. According to the York Daily Record/Sunday News, they include:
1998: The city allowed two-way traffic on George Street, except for the blocks around Continental Square. Half of Beaver Street become two-way.
1999: The rest of Beaver Street was made two-way.
2000: All of George Street became two-way.
2001: West Market Street, from Pershing Avenue to Carlisle Avenue, was made two-way.