In Defence of Two-Way Streets

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 04, 2009

Alan Ehernhalt, editor of Governing Magazine, has written a column in which he describes the efforts of Vancouver, Washington, to revitalize its downtown core. After big investments in the downtown park, subsidized condos and apartments, and a new hotel, the city still hadn't turned around the fortunes of Main Street.

The street, he notes, "remained about as dreary as ever" during the past decade. So instead of waiting for another $14 million in federal and state funds to sink into more revitalization projects, the city "painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights."

How could so small and inconsequential a change as turning a one-way street back into a two-way street make a significant difference? Yet that's exactly what happened:

The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.

Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. "We have twice as many people going by as they did before," one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. "It's like, wow," he exclaimed, "why did it take us so long to figure this out?"

A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. "One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas," says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "We've proven that."

It's a longish article that sketches the history of one-way street conversion back in mid-century and then surveys the landscape of two-way conversions across the US over the past decade.

It's worth reading in part for the author's treatment of the standard objections to two-way conversion - objections which materialize everywhere two-way conversion is proposed, and which turn out to be so much empty fear in those places where conversions are actually undertaken.

He concludes:

When it comes to designing or retrofitting streets, the burden of proof shouldn't fall on those who want to use them the old-fashioned way. It should be on those who think the speedway ideology of the 1950s serves much of a purpose half a century later.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted December 04, 2009 at 14:52:05

Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. "It's like, wow," he exclaimed, "why did it take us so long to figure this out?"

Great question my friend. Great question.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2009 at 16:56:20

I believe that converting King and Main to two way is is one of the main tasks required to help bring downtown back to life.

Two way streets have more "life" to them. Just look at what has been happening to James north. Going down main st at night is just a dark, scary, unappealing experience.

Unfortunately the full conversion of King and Main to two way is not in the cards with our city council of idiots running things.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted December 04, 2009 at 19:13:19

One of the most effective changes, if done... that also costs the least amount of money.

While I'm glad it's supposed to be in the cards, hopefully our leaders will have the guts to do what needs to be done for the good of the city.

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By Ell Arr Tee (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2009 at 20:06:13

Until they carve windows into the side of Jacko Square and Fairclough some parts will still be retarded.

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By Diogen (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2009 at 23:12:23

I don't believe it's the solution. I spent some time in Ottawa, which has many one way streets, and has a vibrant downtown. Cars will not go away; transit will not take off until a wholesale attitudinal change occurs across our continent. People don't linger in the downtown not because they 'zip through it', but because they have little reason to. Hamilton had a vibrant downtown once, with one way streets.... what it didn't have in the mix was urban sprawl, big box complexes, Limeridge, Mapleview, and Meadowlands.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 05, 2009 at 00:13:29

but, like I said earlier, that vibrancy was slowly eroding due to the effects of car-centric planning and one-way streets, even though it still felt 'vibrant' in the 60's and 70's.

Shop owners will tell you it was going downhill at that time, but it takes many years to hit rock bottom, just like it will take many years to become vibrant again.

People have little reason to linger because business owners have little reason to open up shop in an area that isn't enjoyable or conducive to having people linger.

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By Roland (registered) | Posted December 06, 2009 at 02:39:07

Limeridge Mall sucked the life out of downtown Hamilton. People can argue the semantics of various factors which may or may not have had some contributing factors but this fact is irrefutable not too many people had any reason to make their way to Limeridge and Upper Wentworth before the mall was built... and tonight it was tough to get a parking spot there.

The core, Jackson Square etc. needs to reinvent itself so people have a reason to visit. Mass retail shopping is not going to accomplish a revitalized core.

Downtown has to offer a unique experience with a value proposition giving people a reason to attend. The value could be in food, culture, entertainment, employment, education, sports, music, art, theatre, history, living, transportation etc... It will not be any one of these mentioned areas of interest but a combination of all of them and more that will fast forward the gentrification of downtown.

It is the city council's responsibility to encourage, foster, support and take action to allow for revitalization to happen at a reasonable pace and waiting almost 20+ years and counting is not acceptable.

Downtown Hamilton at some point in time in the distant future, will be vibrant again but not because of anything the "City Of Hamilton" has done but in spite of the "City Of Hamilton's" impotence. The reality is, as Toronto and surrounding areas become financially impossible for people to live and work, they will come here to live and set up business.

Why do we have to wait when we have the opportunity now! Hamilton's irony is for all the time politicians and special interest groups take to make "good" decisions, they have not made the city any better. Would the City be any worse if the politicians and special interest groups had not taken part in any decisions... I am not sure but the results couldn't be much worse?

Put a 2 term limit on city councillors so they can concentrate on leaving Hamilton in a better situation than when they started, instead of councillors worrying about getting re-elected because they never plan on leaving council therefore not having to concentrate on making the city a better place than before they first got elected!

I am not sure if the last paragraph makes sense but it’s late and I am starting to rant... I hope you get my point anyways.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 06, 2009 at 09:49:15

I would LOVE term limits. One of the best things we could ever do.

Roland, you're right about the uniqe things that will make downtown a destination. I noticed this yesterday without even paying attention. There were huge crowds in the Farmers Market, Denningers, Gore Park kids events (which I notice only stay until the 24th AGAIN this year, despite the fact that many people have time off the following week), the Market on James North, Locke St with it's horse/buggy rides etc.....

I then, needed to run to a store on Upper James and it felt like anytime of the year. Lots of cars and trucks, but no people. The store I was at had a host from KLite FM and the lady behind the counter kept telling me about how exciting it was to have a radio host there. Me and the other 7 people in the store didn't see all that excited about it. I got out of there and came back downtown and the hustle and bustle of James North was even more appreciated have just been on it's 'upper' counterpart.

Fast forward 10 years if we've got 2 light rail lines crossing the city and downtown has become even more vibrant....the difference is already there, but will become even more noticeable to the most negative residents in the not-too-distant future, assuming we make proper choices when it comes to new waterfront development, urban stadium location and light rail/streetscaping projects.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 06, 2009 at 11:36:42

I think term limits would be a good idea, as we would get new faces into the mix.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 06, 2009 at 17:58:15

it's not so much about getting new faces as it is getting rid of old faces.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 06, 2009 at 18:07:17

Jason: I agree with that statement.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted December 07, 2009 at 12:52:23

Logic Doesn't Exist in Hamilton, ESPECIALLY with our joke group of City Councilors!

They're all so closed-minded it's sad, really. They can't even put their head around an idea if it doesn't meet their ideology. Prime example is Lloyd Ferguson who was all "Never; No Way, No How!" about Light Rail UNTIL he was able to see/ride one for himself!

I wouldn't doubt if most Hamilton City Councilors have never even left this City and can't imagine anything outside of a One-Way Express Utopia of Parking.

This is why we need... NEED to promote change in 2010. This is an Election Year, and Council needs to know that just sitting around promoting status-quo, using neo-conservative tactics to scare the less-informed voters away from real progress is just not going to fly anymore!

Get your brooms out, Hamilton! It's High-Time for a clean-sweep at our Cement Hall.. Er, City Mall.. errrr, I mean City Hall!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 07, 2009 at 17:32:08

Really? wrote:

They're all so closed-minded it's sad, really. They can't even put their head around an idea if it doesn't meet their ideology. Prime example is Lloyd Ferguson who was all "Never; No Way, No How!" about Light Rail UNTIL he was able to see/ride one for himself!

Er, actually in this instance, it would seem that Lloyd is an example of someone who can change his mind when presented with the evidence. Plenty of other reasons not to vote for him though, such as his unforgiveable ignorance of the economic value of heritage architecture, and his general 'can't do' attitude.

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By everywhere (anonymous) | Posted December 10, 2009 at 19:24:34

re: 2 way streets....

Some say it's a bad change like "from the frying pan into the fire" so to speak.

One way is looking only one way before crossing IF you're a pedestrian...but, 2 way U look both ways...walk/cycle nudge , then back again. Cars suddenly turning a corner either left/right or both it's almost impossible to cross.
And lot more drivers! I want top see cross walks like they do in TO should/would solve this problem. U point & walk across. I lived in TO before they introduced this idea.

And if we suggest to people who "MUST" drive, then most don't want to pay parking. They don't want to walk. I used to drive (TO, stopped)but used to carry bike on rack on car but strange thing I got many weird looks as was a rare thing back then. I'd park (or try to) then use bike. I suppose I used common sense in two ways because I was always active and hated being in car too long. Or park and walk though on many occassions forgot where I parked whatever vehicle I drove.....or was towed away(?)...

And guess what! I noticed more places to shop and I spent $$ more then than now though I do more walking, running but mostly cycling...

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2009 at 23:54:31

If one way streets are such a problem to the health of the core how did the core thrive and prosper for so many years with one way streets? If your argument were to hold water the one way streets should have killed the core decades ago.

When the core gives the populace a reason to go there instead of being a place to avoid it will once again prosper. There is no reason to go there. It is pretty obvious that most of the citizens are very happy shopping at Limeridge, Walmart and the big box stores. Just because you do not like it does not make it wrong.

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