I wrote yesterday about the complex and often counterintuitive properties of networks, and the role that simplistic "common sense" thinking can play in leading people to false conclusions about how to make networks work more effectively.
I'd like to take a different tack today and look at the one-way / two-way debate in terms of the workings of downtown as a complex system.
I think part of the reason many people can't see how two-way conversion will be beneficial is that they persist in thinking about the issue in terms of simplistic, single variable reductionism.
Think of a very simple science experiment: you manipulate one variable (the independent variable) and watch to see what happens to another variable (the dependent variable). If you're careful, you'll make sure that you're not accidentally changing anything else at the same time.
Some opponents of two-way conversion seem to think this is how a city works: that if we were to change one variable (one-way to two-way), only one thing would change (traffic speed).
If you assume, like Councillor Tom Jackson seems to assume, that the way to make downtown "more customer-friendly" is to make it easier to drive there, then it seems logical to leave the streets one-way, since converting them to two-way would make driving slower.
Again, if no other variables changed, it would make sense to conclude that converting the streets to two-way would make downtown less "customer-friendly".
However, a city is a dynamic system of organized complexity, with multiple independent variables that all affect each other, not to mention positive and negative feedback mechanisms - and this is where the facile, reductionist analysis breaks down.
When you convert streets to two-way (and especially if you combine conversion with sidewalk widening, tree planting, and so on), lots of other variables start to change at the same time.
When traffic moves more slowly, more people are willing to ride bicycles because. At the same time, the Downs-Thomson Paradox takes effect and more people start taking transit.
When the sidewalks become more pleasant, more people are willing to walk on them. With more people on the sidewalks, investors and entrepreneurs open more businesses to reach those pedestrians, and simultaneously open more apartments and condominiums so people don't have to find their way in.
That higher concentration of business draws still more pedestrians and move-ins in a positive feedback loop which is soon augmented by high-value employers moving back into the urban space or launching new business ventures to locate closer to a creative, risk-taking workforce (city initiatives to promote the arts and entrepreneurship can help here as well).
All that new activity and increasing population density increases traffic congestion further, which makes walking, cycling transit and proximity that much more viable and valuable as alternatives to driving, feeding still further into the growth / intensification dynamic.
Another major factor is the larger demographic movement in which Hamilton's local dynamics take place. We're in the early stages of two major demographic shifts that are going to have a huge impact on future growth patterns:
Baby boomers whose children have moved out are starting to sell their big suburban houses and move back downtown so they a) don't have to drive as much, b) are closer to social amenities, and c) are closer to medical facilities.
Young people today are far more likely to move into an urban neighbourhood than young people even ten years ago. The cultural mystique of the suburban house largely run its course.
Those two cohorts are going to want to move into cities at the same time. Will Hamilton be able to accommodate them? If not, the wealthiest and most creative segments of our population are going to find accommodations and opportunities elsewhere, taking their wealth and creativity with them.
The final big factor, of course, is the changing framework of price signals for energy use. Single-use suburban automobile-dependent land use and transportation patterns are only viable for a large segment of the population when energy is cheap and abundant.
Those are the people who want fast arterial one-way streets to rush across town in their cars.
With global oil production going into permanent decline, the cost of that living arrangement is going to keep on rising, leaving fewer and fewer people in a position where they can afford to maintain it.
People respond to price signals, and rising energy prices will result in more people choosing living arrangements that limit their exposure to those prices. That means more people will seek to live downtown, even aside from the two demographic shifts I mentioned above.
At some point, Hamilton's decision makers are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the past fifty years will no longer be a useful guide to future development. Designing land use around the car has never been good for neighbourhoods in and of themselves, but it will no longer be viable economically.
I'm not just talking about council, either. The school boards need to stop trailing demographic trends by ten or twenty years and start thinking about future needs. That means keeping urban schools open so that families with young children can move back into urban neighbourhoods.
Again, if they can't find the amenities they need in Hamilton, they will go elsewhere to settle down. We will lose out on their contributions to the economy, to culture, to neighbourhood life - and some other city with better foresight will gain.
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