Today, we have a better understanding of what ingredients can contribute to a vibrant and prosperous city, and it is not limited to traffic flow.
By Sarah V. Wayland
Published May 24, 2012
The recent debate in Hamilton around one-way streets has focused on different aspects of the issue, including pedestrian safety, livable neighbourhoods, and the "usefulness" of one-ways. This article focuses specifically on small retail businesses, building on the insightful essay by Aaron Newman to show some of the research findings in this area.
Considerable research on the business case has been cited in a relevant Master's thesis1 that forms the basis of this article.
Among the many variables for assessing one-way and two-way streets in a commercial corridor are business visibility and storefront exposure. Business visibility refers to the ability of a driver to see and identify a storefront or sign. Storefront exposure is the ability of a driver to see a specific storefront based on the store's location within the block and within the street network.
There is some evidence that one-way streets are good for business, but only certain kinds of businesses. For supermarkets and other kinds of high-volume, low-margin stores or destination stores with their own parking lots, one-way couplets (such as we have on King and Main) can provide quick access.2
However, in the case of smaller stores that are situated along an urban city block, sell unique items, and are often locally-owned, two-way streets provide better business visibility and storefront exposure.
Even critics of two-ways agree on this point: "Specialty stores that rely on impulse sales and depend on high margins per sale do better on two-way streets, since only half their potential customers would see them on a one-way couplet."3
Indeed, even national book and coffee chains choose locations on two-way streets to maximize exposure and visibility.4
Storefront visibility: Storefront visibility is an essential prerequisite for "impulse" purchases and stops at smaller stores, even if the motorist plans to return later on foot to shop. Storefront visibility is optimized when drivers go at speeds of 30 to 40 km/hour.
In excess of about 48 km/hour, it becomes difficult for a motorist to observe what retail outlets are located along the street.5 When traffic moves above the posted speed limit, as often happens on one-way thoroughfares, storefronts and signs are even less visible.
Direction of travel: Storefronts lose valuable exposure to drivers on one-way streets. As drivers approach an intersection, they can see storefronts on the far side of the cross street. However, the closer side of the cross street is completely eclipsed from view, thereby decreasing precious storefront exposure. Even the stores on the far side are not so noticeable if the driver doesn't have to come to stop at the intersection.
Consumer comfort: Slower-paced two-way streets offer a better shopping and dining experience for consumers than do one-way multi-lane roads through commercial areas. Public gathering places can form along streets that where traffic is calmed.
In the United States, there is actually a strategy that involves making streets more "consumer friendly" by attracting pedestrians, increasing congestion and making downtown street networks more easily navigated.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street program seeks to preserve and revitalize downtown areas. Developed in the 1970s to prevent the continued decline of traditional commercial streets in American cities, the Main Street approach has supported the use of one way to two-way conversions.6 To date, it has been applied in more than 1,200 cities, towns, and neighborhoods, with very positive results.
One of the few if only comprehensive surveys of one-way to two-way conversions in downtowns was completed for the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District (HMSBID) in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2000.7
The HMSBID commissioned this study when it was considering converting a downtown street (Main Street) to two-way traffic but was dissatisfied with previous conversion case studies that focused on traffic flow only. The HMSBID study focused on business development and downtown livability.
Of the 22 cities identified as having converted their main downtown streets from one-way to two-way, the majority reported positive results in terms of business development.
One community reported mixed results but no municipality reported a negative impact. (It should be noted that many of the conversions were part of a greater revitalization program that included various streetscape improvements, so improvements may have resulted from a variety of changes beyond the elimination of one-way streets.)
Communities reported improved business, increased investment in the downtown, more choices for travel in downtown, increased pedestrian friendliness, and a general feeling of improved "livability", "quaintness", and "sense of community."
In the past, traffic engineers were mainly concerned with avoiding congestion. Other factors such as business vitality, pedestrian safety and the historic character of commercial streets were largely overlooked.
Today, we have a better understanding of what ingredients can contribute to a vibrant and prosperous city, and it is not limited to traffic flow. The business case for "shoppable," driveable, walkable and livable streets has been made. It is now time for our own city planners to take heed.
Meagan Elizabeth Baco, One-way to Two-way Street Conversions as a Preservation and Downtown Revitalization Tool: The Case Study of Upper King Street, Charleston, South Carolina (M.Sc. Thesis, Historic Preservation, Graduate School of Clemson University and the Graduate School of the College of Charleston, May 2009).
G. Wade Walker, Walter M. Kulash, and Brian T. McHugh, Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves on One-Way Networks? TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium (1999), 5. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec019/Ec019_f2.pdf
Thoreau Institute, Should Cities Convert One-Way Streets to Two Way?, The Vanishing Automobile 30, 29 October 2008. http://www.ti.org/vaupdate30.html
Walker, Kulash, and McHugh, Downtown Streets, 5. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec019/Ec019_f2.pdf
John D. Edwards, Traffic Issues for Smaller Communities, Journal of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (1998), 32.
John D. Edwards, Converting One-Way Streets to Two-Way: Managing Traffic on Main Street (Washington, D.C.: The National Trust's Main Street Center, 2002). http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/main-street-news/2002/06/converting-one-way-to-two-way.html
Ted Brovitz, Converting Downtown Streets from One-Way to Two-Way Yields Positive Results, The Urban Transportation Monitor (2000).