If your goal is to move as many cars through the city as quickly as possible, one-way streets are excellent. The devastating trade-off is that they destroy the livelihood of the neighbourhoods they pass through.
By Terry Cooke
Published June 10, 2012
My family and I used to live in a charming house at the corner of Herkimer and Bay, an intersection known mainly for the proliferation of nearby halfway houses. Six years ago, we made the decision to leave after yet another scary incident convinced us we couldn't risk staying any longer.
No, it had nothing to do with the halfway houses or their residents, although their over-concentration downtown does remain a challenge for the neighborhood. Rather, the last straw was a car flying through the intersection at top speed and slamming into a parked car next to our house so hard that it rode up the back and ended up almost vertical.
I was at home in our driveway not 10 metres away when I heard the awful collision, and I helped an off-duty paramedic to respond to the driver. Sadly, he was already dead of the heart attack that had caused him to lose control of his vehicle.
My wife and I took stock of the situation. The crash scene was right where walked our children across the street to Durand Park or downtown to the Farmers' Market. It was right where we loaded our children into our own car.
This was not the first crash we had witnessed, either. As the intersection of two multi-lane, one-way thoroughfares, Herkimer and Bay turned out to be a case study in the incompatibility of fast arterial traffic flows and residential street life.
So we sold the place and got out even though we loved the house and the neighbourhood.
Since then my thoughts have turned increasingly to the ongoing role that Hamilton's one-way streets play in holding us back as a city from fully realizing the urban revival sweeping other North American cities.
From 2007 through 2009 I had the privilege of writing a bi-weekly column for the Hamilton Spectator and I seized the opportunity several times to make some noise about our city's legendary foot-dragging on two-way conversion.
We converted James and John North to two-way back in September 2002, to a great outcry. None of the dire predictions came true: instead, James has undergone a remarkable transformation into a vibrant neighbourhood centre. Even John is seeing new investment, despite a painful legacy of demolished buildings, vacant lots and surface parking.
Yet it took another three years before the City converted James and John South to two-way. Of course, the papers were once again filled with dire warnings of gridlock and disaster, and once again no such thing happened. Lots of drivers still use James and John South, and business has improved.
Even so, the traffic engineers couldn't resist preserving the one-way traffic flows by maintaining three lanes in one direction and one lane in the other in the area around St. Joseph's Hospital.
The same thing happened last year when the city finally converted York Boulevard/Wilson Street to two-way. York has three lanes for eastbound traffic and just one lane westbound, with severe turn restrictions for anyone on a cross street hoping to turn west.
Otherwise, the city has done precious little two-way conversion in the decade since James and John North: just a couple of residential side streets like Hess and Caroline South, and no important thoroughfares.
Contrast the alacrity with which Hamilton converted its streets wholesale to one-way traffic back in 1956.
Swayed by the sweet promises of Wilbur Smith, the pioneering traffic engineer from South Carolina who was busy promoting one-way conversions all across North America, Hamilton's aldermen went all-in and switched the lower city streets to one-way literally overnight.
Business owners immediately cried foul. At a transportation committee meeting only seven months after the conversion, shop owners from King, James and York spent two hours describing the negative impacts to their businesses.
One owner lamented, "Once upon a time, my part of King Street was a leading shopping district. Business has taken quite a drop. Many of my old customers are no longer to be seen - they telephone me and say they are sorry, they will not come any more, because the traffic is too heavy and there is nowhere to park."
Another owner accused Wilbur Smith of having a "vested interested" in the success of the one-way conversion. "This man, this expert from somewhere in Connecticut, stands to lose face throughout this continent if our one-way system is abandoned because it doesn't work well."
By the way, Smith died in 1990 but the company he founded is still going strong. Called CDM Smith today, the global public infrastructure consultancy specializes in things like light rail transit, high-speed rail, road tolls and congestion pricing, in-situ soil remediation and other big capital projects.
Their website modestly states, "Times change, and we change with them." Might be something for our traffic department in Hamilton to adopt.
In the immediate postwar era, America invented traffic engineering. Then traffic engineers invented one-way streets. The great strength of a one-way street system, in which parallel streets are paired as the two sides of a de facto expressway, is that it efficiently funnels large volumes of traffic through street grids that predate mass motoring.
No one disputes this: if your goal is to move as many cars through the city as quickly as possible, one-way streets are excellent.
The devastating trade-off is that those de facto expressways have the side effect of destroying the livelihood of the neighbourhoods through which they pass.
That, at least, is the conclusion [PDF] of Florida's Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. "Traffic moves swifter down one-way streets than two-way streets. Faster moving traffic causes pedestrians to have a decreased sense of safety and causes many businesses along the street to be overlooked by would-be customers, thus reducing the location's sales potential."
Let's break it down: in Hamilton, a child on a one-way street is two and a half times more likely to be killed by a car than a child on a two-way street. That's the conclusion of a public health study conducted in the 1990s using Hamilton traffic collision data and published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Is that acceptable in a city that aims to be "the best place to raise a child"? I don't think so, yet I continue to hear some leaders defend our one-way urban thoroughfares on the grounds that drivers can get where they're going a few minutes faster.
I can't put it more bluntly than this: if you still support one-way streets today, it's because you believe the convenience of motorists passing through a neighbourhood is more important than the safety and vitality of its residents.
In recent years, cities across North America have decided to convert their streets back to two-way traffic, including: Berkeley CA, Calgary AB, Cedar Rapids IA, Columbus OH, Crystal City VA, Danville IL, Denver CO, Fort Collins CO, Greensboro NC, Iowa City IA, Jacksonville FL, Louisville KY, Milwaukee WI, Minneapolis MN, Oklahoma City OK, Oregon City OR, Rochester NY, Sacramento CA, San Francisco CA, St. Catherines ON, St. Petersberg FL, Texarkana AR, Vancouver WA, Wichita KA, and Wyandotte MI.
Several more are actively studying proposals to convert their streets, including: Charleston SC, Delray Beach FL, Fargo ND, Greensboro NC, Hillsboro OR, Janesville WI, Lexington KY, Madison WI, Mitchell SD, Oakland CA, Ottawa ON, Philadelphia PA, Richmond VA, and Grand Haven MI.
Among cities that decide to convert their streets back to two-way, we hear the same arguments from planners, the same pleas from residents and business owners, and the same success stories after conversion is complete.
San Francisco planner Tom Radulovich lays out the shift in priorities. "Converting one-way streets to two-way is a proven way to slow traffic and help neighbourhood businesses thrive. It is also good to see San Francisco finally prioritizing the safety and liveability of this mostly car-free neighbourhood, where four out of five households are non-car-owning."
Columbus OH Mayor Michael Coleman explains what an increasing number of mayors and politicians have realized: "The conversion to two-way traffic makes these streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and everyone who lives, works or visits downtown."
In Denver, Councillor Jeanne Robb expresses the same sentiment. "A two-way street feels much less like a cut-through neighbourhood. People are really living here, and business is taking place here."
That Jacksonville Economic Development Commission I quoted earlier continues: "Two-way conversions will help slow Downtown traffic and will make Downtown driving less intimidating to visitors. Visitors have cited their confusion with navigating the urban core as a primary reason for not patronizing Downtown businesses or venues."
Louisville Councillor David James also gets it: "More two-way streets are an important part of our strategy to renew historic neighbourhoods near downtown. ... Slowing this traffic down not only means safer streets for families, but also additional economic development in the neighbourhood. Storefront exposures go through the roof when traffic is slowed, as opposed to cars simply driving right by only paying attention to the cars around them and how fast they are going."
And it's not just politicians who are figuring this out. In most of the cities that have embraced two-way conversion, their business associations have either led the charge or supported it. As Danville IL business owner Marie Pribble argues, "The slower people go, the more likely they are to pay attention to your business or your storefront, and the more likely they are to stop in."
St. Catharines mayor Brian McMullan gushes about his city's two-way conversions in a recent National Post article. "It was somewhat controversial at first, but I would say now that, without exaggeration, people are 90% in favour. A prominent local businessman came up to me the other day and said, 'I didn't support it from the start, but this is the best thing you've ever done.'"
The Urban Land Institute has a list of ten principles for rebuilding neighbourhood retail [PDF], including: "Recognize that street patterns also affect the pedestrian experience. In most cases, one-way streets should be converted to two-way streets to eliminate the raceway effect of one-way arterials and give the streets more of a neighbourhood character."
Recognizing this, some retail corporations even have policies not to locate stores on one-way streets.
Perhaps Lee Coulthard, chair of the Vancouver WA Downtown Association, put it best: "It's like, wow, why did it take us so long to figure this out?"
In Hamilton, business is coming around to the understanding that our one-way streets do more harm than good. Susan Braithwaite, executive director of the International Village BIA, understands the struggle for retail operators to survive on our one-way network. "I think our biggest hurdle is the fact that we're on Main, we're on King, and so we're kind of on a highway with the one-ways. It's unfortunate."
This is not a newfound realization. Previous executive director Mary Pocius said, "No single action could do more to improve the lives of downtown citizens and businesses than the elimination of one-way streets."
The Downtown Hamilton BIA doesn't have an official position on converting Main, King and Cannon to two-way, but executive director Kathy Drewitt notes that the BIA surveyed business owners on James and John after the 2002 conversion and received a positive response.
"Many of them told me they experienced an increase in sales, they hired more staff, and that's a positive," says Drewitt. "We see the conversion of James and John as a positive where people slow down and the traffic can help to support the businesses located there."
Even the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce now seems to be coming around. The Chamber recently commissioned a study that found creative businesses cluster on walkable streets. It concluded, "walkable environments should be viewed as economic infrastructure that attract employment and should be invested in accordingly."
They haven't updated their position on two-way conversion since 2008, when then-CEO John Dolbec said a lack of consensus led the Chamber to adopt a position of "benign neutrality". Now would be a perfect time for the Chamber to take a stand and advocate forcefully for the transformation we keep hearing in its annual Economic Summit keynotes from people like Richard Florida, Glen Murray, Storm Cunningham, and Christopher Leinberger.
They could do a lot worse than listen to business actually trying to make a go of it on our one-way expressways - people like Aaron Newman, my favourite tailor. His shop, Newman's Menswear, has been open on King Street just east of Sanford ever since Aaron's grandfather launched it in 1927.
Back then, Newman writes, "It was a flourishing area, complete with two banks, two pharmacies, a movie theatre, restaurant, two car dealerships and a bowling alley." The one-way conversion in 1956 isn't solely to blame for the neighbourhood's declining fortunes, but was an important contributing factor.
"I believe that the one way system was just another piece of that complex shift in our downtown. It made it easy to live outside the city and get in and out much faster and easier. I would say that one way streets in our city helped hollow out the core, and still do to this day."
Today, multiple lanes of one-way traffic bomb past his shop in an unending stream that scares away pedestrians and reduces the store's overall visibility, since only westbound drivers can see it. On one-way streets, Newman argues, "You only see our great city from one angle, one perspective."
He goes on: "Drive down any of the recently converted streets, especially the new direction and you will see what I mean. It's fantastic! Your mind and your eyes have never seen the cityscape like this. Multiply that by everybody in and around Hamilton, not to mention those coming into Hamilton for the first time and suddenly your image and thoughts about our city change, and in a positive way."
When cities push through all the fear-based objections and convert back to two-way, even drivers can appreciate the benefits of a street system that actually lets you drive directly to where you're going.
A traffic engineering study in Rochester NY on two-way conversion concluded, "This conversion would cause no noticeable detriment to traffic operations and would greatly improve driver way-finding and business access within the study area."
Tiffaney Hawkins, a Texarkana AR driver, is quoted in her local paper saying, "Two ways are better than one way because that gives you the choice. I think it will be great because it's more easier to get through here, to the places that I need to go."
Iowa City planners similarly determined that two-way conversion would make their downtown streets easier for drivers to understand and navigate, while at the same time improving pedestrian safety and bicycle accessibility.
The U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation explains, "One-way streets are efficient but they are not customer friendly or easy to navigate - especially for tourists and infrequent customers. Circulation becomes more complicated as motorists often have to drive a few blocks before they can turn around and get back to where they wanted to go."
Imagine, in Hamilton, driving east on King Street and stopping when you reach your destination, instead of having to drive east on Main, hope you went far enough to pass your destination, and then looping back, only to discover you've overshot by five blocks - or undershot by one.
In too many cases, Hamilton drivers just don't bother trying to get to downtown destinations at all - and it's even worse for tourists other visitors and new residents. Everyone I know who moved to Hamilton as an adult shares similar anecdotes of being lost and bewildered by our one-way network for the first several months of living here.
At a stroke - overnight, if we have as much nerve as our forebears had in 1956 - we could take a surprisingly cheap and effective step in releasing our beleaguered downtown streets from the punishment of fast, one-way traffic flows.
We could improve the safety of our most vulnerable children. We could encourage more pedestrians and cyclists to get healthier while experiencing our streets differently. We could give our downtown businesses a fighting chance. We could heed the advice of every economic development expert, transportation planner and architect who has spoken to us in the past several years. We could signal to the rest of the world that we're no longer stuck in a 1950s time warp.
All we need is courage - and lots of yellow paint.
This essay was first published in the June, 2012 issue of Urbanicity.