Giambrone on One-Way Streets

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 17, 2012

Former Toronto Councillor and TTC Chair Adam Giambrone has written an essay for Now Magazine on the proposal by Councillor and Public Works committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong to turn Yonge Street and Bay Street into paired one-way thoroughfares.

While dozens of cities across North America are in the process of reverting their one-way expressways back to two-way traffic after decades of stagnation and decline, Minnan-Wong wants to take Toronto - one of the few North American cities whose downtown avoided a catastrophic postwar decline - in the opposite direction.

Giambrone writes:

There's tons of evidence that two-directional streets are not only safer, but better for local businesses and neighbourhoods. The best example of a twinned one-way network is Richmond and Adelaide, both of which have little commercial activity, acting as funnels for traffic. Compare them to College, Dundas, King or Queen and you can easily see the difference.

Over 50 cities in the U.S. are currently considering changing one-way streets to two-ways. One-ways are good for one thing, increasing traffic speed - nice on highways but not on urban streets. Speed is a critical determinant of whether those on foot or bikes - or in cars, for that matter - survive accidents. Speed is also presumably one reason why one-ways aren't good for local commerce: drivers barely notice stores as they whip by.

Instead of sacrificing the vitality of Yonge to accommodate fast through traffic, Giambrone argues that Toronto should follow the successful examples of Montreal, New York City and Bordeaux that have embraced a complete streets approach, "which takes into consideration all those who use the road, and not just their mode of transport."

Giambrone recognizes that there's a delicate balance to a successful complete streets deployment, and that all those new restaurants, cafes and retail establishments need a workable goods delivery system.

Finally, he reminds us of the central paradox of transportation infrastructure: demand expands to fill the available supply.

Solving Toronto's downtown congestion may be impossible. In an economically dynamic city like ours, traffic will expand to fill capacity as people make more discretionary trips. But we can make things move a lot better through smart planning - and respecting everyone on our streets.

Instead of squandering scarce public dollars on the endless, destructive treadmill of induced demand for vehicle capacity, Toronto Council would do much better to keep in mind that "traffic" means people going from one place to another, not people in automobiles.

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 May 17, 2012 at 08:58:44

What is happening in Toronto these days?? Who in their right mind would even dream of proposing this for Yonge and Bay?? Adam is right - a point I always make, Richmond and Adelaide are one-way, wide streets and are dead zones in the MIDDLE of downtown TO. Around the corners from these streets are bustling, jam-packed streets with business and people. And we wonder why the effects of one-way highways have been huge in Hamilton...even in the middle of the country's biggest city, they can't attract business or people.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 09:45:34

I'd love to hear our Councilors say what Councillor Giambrone says, "There's tons of evidence that two-directional streets are not only safer, but better for local businesses and neighbourhoods."

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:15:35

I was in Toronto the other day and made a point of walking down Adelaide (east of Jarvis to Parliament or so) because a host on CBC Radio the other week (discussing this proposal) discussed the street's desolation as if it were common knowledge.

Adelaide's not bad at all, and in that area you can see businesses like Edible Arrangements and Korean restaurants (not sure why those examples stuck in my mind). Unlike on Main, I saw a fair few pedestrians (this was during morning rush-hour, though).

Minnan-Wong makes a good point that one-way streets are suitable when done properly in certain areas (like New York, which Toronto isn't, but Hamilton is even further from being). It's not necessary to say that "Adelaide and Richmond are horrible," which is not true, when opposing the idea of one-way streets in most places.

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By JPTO (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 12:13:19

Richmond and Adelaide in Toronto are retail dead zones not because they are one way streets, but beacause they have little to no leasable retail spaces. These are streets that have until very recently been lined with office buildings, parking lots and old warehouses that take up entire blocks and have no ground level leasable space at all. Converting these streets to one way did not cause this problem and coverting them back to two ways will not solve it. Some of those parking lots have recently been developed into condos and some, but not all, of those have leasable space. Unfortunately it usually ends up as a dry cleaners or a bank adding very little to street life. Further development is the best solution.

Further, Richmond and Adelaide experience the one way expressway phenomenon because that's pretty much what they are by design. They begin/end as ramps to the DVP and there is no parking. Until last year, a long stretch of Richmond did not even have sidewalks! There was just a Jersey Barrier between the curb lane and the building.

Claims about "tons of evidence" that one way traffic kills street life seem to be simply calims that no one has ever researched. There are other arguments for converting King and Main that stand on their own. Don't fall into this rhetorical trap to weaken them. The width of the road, width of sidewalks, presence on-street parking, access to public transit and most importantly, built form of the buildings on the street each impact street life far greater than one-way traffic.

For a look at one-way done right, try Sainte-Catharine and de Maisonneuve in Montreal.

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By By Design (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 14:28:26 in reply to Comment 77080

And why do you think more street facing investments haven't tried to move into those parking lots and warehouses faster? It's because the streets are one way highways instead of pedestrian friendly and investers know it's not a good spot to develop. And your right it is by design, the design is the problem that needs to be fixed!

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 14:29:47

I think that most busy dt require some north-south and east-west one-way streets.

Let's not go to the other extreme and suggest that NO one-way streets are necessary.

While I feel that Hamilton has too many one-way streets, a couple of them should still remain. For Toronto, I feel that the dt would benefit from limited north-south one-way streets. I don't think that Bay and Yonge is the answer however, perhaps Jarvis and University or something.

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By JPTO (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2012 at 18:45:01

The parking lots have been bought up for development at the same rate as the rest of downtown. There are still many left because there were a lot of parking lots by the end of the 80's. (see here:

Condo developers often skip street facing retail as it is less profitable than more residential space.

The warehouses can't really be re-purposed for street retail. First I should have said factories, not warehouses. These are 60-100 year old buildings where the first level is 7 feet above the street. These have almost all been converted into offices or clubs. They don't work as retail spaces.

To summarize, all I'm saying is to not fall into the trap that Giambrone did of laying blanket statements that urban decay is caused entirely by one-way streets. There are often far greater factors when you investigate. There are legitimate reasons to have one-way streets and Richmond and Adelaide are one of those. The reasons these streets fail is not because they are one-way. There are successful and enjoyable one-way street all over the world.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted May 18, 2012 at 15:52:35

Please. I grew up in Toronto. I misspent a fair portion of my youth downtown. When I think of Richmond and Adelaide, which I don't often, I think of dark, desolate, empty. When I think of College, Queen, and Dundas, I think of busy, happening, and crowded. And who doesn't?

Minnan-Wong and his allies in council are stuck in the 1970s. They believe that past growth fueled by selling cars and homes, and then restoring, renovating, and maintaining them, and spreading cities out instead of up, can be resurrected if they continue with the stupid, resource wasteful ways of a bygone era.

The 70s are over. The party is over. It was only ever possible due to debt, public and private, anyway. Minnan-Wong and Ford are ideologues who believe that socialism for the wasteful is the best way to achieve economic growth. But it only ever achieves growth in the same way that heroin achieves nirvana: briefly and destructively and with the same slavish devotion.

It is 2012. We are no longer teenagers without any idea of the impact of fossil fueled foolishness on our health and communities. We can no longer build economies around gas stations and fast food restaurants. If we want to live in cities, and every indicator is we do, then we can build cities for future generations or we can build them to fail as soon as energy prices surpass the tipping point.

The current council in Toronto is a council of vandals elected because the Liberal Party decided to punish David Miller and then fronted the only candidate in all of Ontario who could make a Rob Ford appear something other than entirely cartoonish.

And Minnan-Wong? What sort of intelligent, self-respecting human being carries water for an oaf such as Ford? Minnan-Wong. Draw your own conclusions.

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By Brian C (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2012 at 20:40:07

Thank you JPTO and Capitalist for bringing some common sense to these discussions. There is nothing innately superior about either one or two way traffic. The main thing is to control the speed of traffic and to create a buffer between cars and pedestrians. The best ways to do this are by allowing plentiful curbside parking and timing the stoplights to allow for slower speeds. A recent article on this site suggested timing them at 20 kph, the normal speed of cyclists. Both of these are much better ideas than a blind ideological move to two way just for the sake of it. I work downtown and walk throughout the core daily. As a pedestrian, I much prefer one way streets. I can control when and where I cross streets much better. The number of variables at intersections is greatly reduced for me and for drivers. Anything that reduces distractions for drivers makes a safer walking environment for walkers. There are a great number of reasons why one way is better of walking. but the key is not the direction but the speed and buffer. Just imagine Cannon St with curbside parking and slow synchronized traffic lights. Compare that concept to the new two way expressway they have created on Wilson St. They removed the curbside parking!! The International Village between Wellington and Mary is an example of a one way street with slow speeds and good buffer for pedestrians. Sadly, the city planning dept. is hesitant to allow permits for developers to create loft residences above stores there. I know of a family with many millions of dollars who saw the potential of the International Village area and wanted to buy and develop buildings and the upper floors into apartments and or condos. They met with city planners and quickly decided to invest in Oakville. Another business person has been waiting over two years for a permit to upgrade the empty units above his store. Lead by the efforts and passion of Bryce,at YouMe, Dave at Mixed Media and Graham at H+H, an other entrepreneurs, James St. North would have improved whether it was one or two way. More than one business owner on James N has told me they would love Cityhall to "just leave us alone".

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted May 22, 2012 at 00:39:58 in reply to Comment 77120

"I know of a family with many millions of dollars who saw the potential of the International Village area and wanted to buy and develop buildings and the upper floors into apartments and or condos. They met with city planners and quickly decided to invest in Oakville." ~ Brian C

International Village is an oft misunderstood part of the downtown core.

Having been involved with redevelopment in the International Village since 2002, the above observations belies reality which I experienced over the last decade.

The fact is well before 2007/08 - which is when the arts marketing via James Street North started gaining momentum, there were numerous live/work lofts and creative street-front businesses already established in many parts of our downtown.

On street-front creative businesses, to name a few: one of the best commercial art galleries in Hamilton is on Ottawa street, one of the best cake shops, and meats & sandwich store is on Barton, one of the best used book store is on James South; and one of the best places to shop for foods from across the world, one of the most stylish used clothes store, and one of the most active theatres in Hamilton is in the International Village.

Here are just a few 'live+work lofts' in the International Village, created between 2004-07. There are many more lofts developed before and since then, in the International Village area including other parts of downtown outside of the more recent axis-of-art on James North.

For those who follow the growth of arts in Hamilton, this may come as a surprise. International Village missed a very interesting opportunity with its destiny back in 2004. If there was critical mass back then... who knows maybe today, Hamilton's arts district may have been in the International Village!

Contrary to perception, a large portion of Hamilton's creative community which is fueling its regrowth, continues to be located outside of James Street North.

As soon as our media catches up to this reality, I am hopeful that it will begin to paint a far more equitable and distributed picture of the creative sector in Hamilton. In doing so, the problems that our core presently faces may become far more clear, and the search for contextual solutions more focused.

One possibly solution if palatable, could be to rebrand the JSN Art Crawl into a 'Hamilton Downtown Art Crawl' with the same monthly public event - only now, on a rotating basis across Hamilton's various lower city BIA's. The goodwill and brand loyalty enjoyed by efforts on James North if proactively spread across the lower city, could help accelarate the economic and cultural growth equitably across the lower city, and become truly reflective of Hamilton's Creative City goals.

Mahesh P. Butani

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted May 21, 2012 at 10:44:28 in reply to Comment 77120

As a cyclist I hate the one way streets for two reasons:

  1. Inability to get where I need to be. Try riding from the Farmer's Market to, say, Hess Village (legally). There is no way to do it without doing a huge unnecessary circle around a major block. These extra loops are bad enough when you are driving, but on a bike it is soul sucking.

  2. Turning vehicles. One way grids cause drivers to completely ignore two directions of travel, making speedy turns from one street to another on red lights without stopping first or looking both ways - I routinely witness drivers careening around corners while looking over their opposite shoulder. We have been trained to never expect bike or pedestrian traffic, and it shows in our habits.

As a driver, I hate them for the same reasons, and I only like them for one reason: getting to Stoney Creek really fast.

Maybe that should be ourr new city motto: Hamilton: You won't believe how fast you can get to Stoney Creek from here!

Comment edited by seancb on 2012-05-21 10:45:14

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted May 19, 2012 at 17:07:56 in reply to Comment 77120

Usually when someone implies others are blinded by ideology they are grinding an ideological axe of their own. Perhaps people just want liveable cities.

Your reply also implies a premise: that the role of roads is to move cars from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, period.

But in fact, if we look at roads as not only transportation corridors but also places of commerce and social interaction, where people meet, where business takes place, then suddenly the purpose of roads within cities can be very different.

If we look at downtowns as obstacles standing between the suburbs, then yes, moving vehicles efficiently through the downtown should be the primary objective of roads. But if we view the downtown as an engine of creativity, economic activity, and a place where people live, then roads, again, can and ought to have a different purpose.

A biologist once said that efficiency is the enemy of nature. It may also be true that transportation efficiency is the enemy of successful city cores.

Comment edited by ViennaCafe on 2012-05-19 17:08:35

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 19, 2012 at 09:21:15

Both of these are much better ideas than a blind ideological move to two way just for the sake of it.

I'm not aware of anyone suggesting this just 'for the sake of it'. Every expert who has come to Hamilton in the past 20 years has said the same thing. Our city simply doesn't need them. We did when we were trying to get tens of thousands of workers to the north end, but those days are long gone. It would be foolish for anyone to suggest changing our transportation pattern 'just for the sake of it'. The benefits of two-way streets have clearly been identified, especially in a mid-size city like ours. We aren't Montreal, NY or Toronto. Drivers should be clamouring more than anyone for two-way they can go either way on every street the way they do in their own neighbourhoods, and in every other city they visit. No more looping through quiet residential streets between King and Main, which is a HUGE problem. Check out the speeds that people drive while cutting through Strathcona between King and Main, or Pearl, or Balsaam etc.... those residents shouldn't have to put up with hundreds of short-cutting speeders everyday who need to go the opposite direction. Drivers should be excited to go left or right on King and Main, and save time on their trip avoiding side streets and turn-arounds. Along with the above mentioned measures of curb side parking, trees, wider sidewalks etc... Hamilton's lower city would benefit tremendously from these changes with easier traffic flow and a safer pedestrian environment.

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By Depanneur (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2012 at 10:09:42

AFAIK, the two-way sections of King and Main represent the majority of those streets. The benefits of two-way have not really expressed themselves in increased residential densification, commercial activity or walkability, even in the presence of populations such as McMaster.

Nor is two-way capable of dictating the quality of development when it has occurred.

I am an advocate of two-way but we might want to soft-pedal the "miraculous power to unleash latent urban potential with the flick of a switch" tact (an over-simplification of a simplification, but indulge me).

The conversion of James, for example, was coincident with a number of other synergistic investments within a decade of conversion.

Pre-2002, there was the residential rebirth of the Pigott Building (1996), the restoration of the TH&B Station (1996) and the restoration of LIUNA Station (2000). 2002 seems to have been a high water mark for downtown development.

The Hamilton Downtown Residential Loan Program that launched in 2002 culminated in a 2005 RFP that drew 14 proposals for the construction of ~700 units (est. value $120 million), leading to post-conversion residential developments at Annex Lofts and Chateau Royale.

Then there's the high-profile retrofit of the Bank of Montreal for Gowlings (2004), along with substantial civic investment in the Farmers' Market and Central Library, and of course the platinum level "game changer" of the Lister Block , all of which involved some level of public money.

All in, downtown residential builds in 2002 exceeded those of 2003 and 2004 combined, while non-residential builds in 2002 were roughly equal to 2003-2005 combined.

But then the latent potential of an area might not express itself for decades, just as Aaron Newman suggests that the atrophy ascribed to one-way (and not any of a host of other factors one might summon up) have taken decades to be felt. In converting to two-way, we are allowing an additional degree of freedom, but it is folly to think that we know where that freedom will lead, or that we can do a back-of-napkin tally to show the resultant value.

It might just be that the calculus is a little more complex than adding a yellow line to a ribbon of black.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted May 24, 2012 at 01:13:40

Here's a simple question: Why have one-way streets - what's the benefit?

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