It is possible to make a one-way street like Main pedestrian-friendly, but it would involve huge cost and a major decrease in traffic capacity - and it wouldn't address the harm done to local businesses.
By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published June 22, 2012
In the past, opposition to one-way conversion of Hamilton's streets was based on a straightforward defence of the status quo: streets are for moving motor vehicles as quickly as possible through the city and we should avoid anything that might slow traffic down.
Other concerns, such as pedestrian safety and convenience or the viability of downtown commerce, didn't register.
More recently, however, I've noticed people claiming that one-way streets are fine for pedestrians and shops because cities like New York and Paris have them. It's true that one-way streets in these cities are much more comfortable for pedestrians, and seem less detrimental to commerce, than Main Street in Hamilton.
So let's see what it would take to keep Main Street one-way, but make it attractive for pedestrians and commerce. I'll compare Main Street to Boulevard de Sébastopol in Paris, since these are two examples I know well.
Here's the Google Maps Street View of Boulevard de Sébastopol looking North, just past rue de Rivoli in Paris:
And here's the Google Maps Street View of Main Street West looking West near Queen Street in Hamilton:
Comparing Main Street West and Boulevard de Sébastopol, we see that in Paris:
The sidewalks about five times wider than on Main (about 7.5m). Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the French civic planner who extensively rebuilt Paris in the mid-1800s, designed the boulevards so the sidewalks are half the total width of the Boulevard.
There are street trees and some parking as buffers.
Arterial streets have a physically separated bike/bus lane. These have been introduced in the past ten years.
Higher traffic volume throughout the day lowers speeds (the photo must have been taken very early in the morning!).
There are crosswalks at every intersection, while on Main Street many intersections have no crosswalk.
There is a continuous street wall of buildings with few parking or garage entrances cutting the sidewalk.
Despite all these advantages, I would still avoid walking along Sébastopol if I didn't need to! Now, if we wanted Main Street to be like this pedestrian-friendly boulevard, we would:
Remove (at least) one lane to widen sidewalks, add parking and plant trees. (How many lanes would need to be removed so the sidewalks occupy half the total road allowance?)
Remove another lane for a physically separated bus/cycle lane.
Ensure every intersection has a pedestrian crosswalk.
I agree that if we did this, Main would be attractive and safe for pedestrians (and still one-way), although it still wouldn't address the navigation problems for motorists trying to reach destinations downtown.
I also highly doubt that reducing the number of vehicle lanes from 5 to 3 or 2 would be popular with motorists!
I really don't understand those who claim that keeping one-way travel, but re-designing the roads to make them pedestrian-friendly, is some sort of compromise. It sounds more like "concern trolling" to me. Two-way conversion is the compromise, because it retains driving lanes but slows traffic and makes local destinations easier for motorists to reach.
In any case, even Paris is doing two-way conversion of some arterial roads in conjunction with the major renovations of Place de la Republique.
Here's Place de la Republique today. Currently, the surrounding streets are one-way and the place is cut into two by a large road around the middle of the central statue. To access the two 'island' squares, pedestrians must cross busy one-way streets, and it is uncomfortable to get from one island to the other.
The renovations involve closing the north side to traffic (apart from buses, taxis and bikes), converting the other side to two-way traffic and linking the two islands by pedestrianizing the area around the central statue.
The official justifications for the two-way conversion are similar to the arguments being made in Hamilton: to improve access to the centre of Paris (i.e. favour local destination rather than through traffic), improve the safety of pedestrians, and allow cyclists to travel in both directions.
Here is the site describing the renovations (in French, but with lots of pictures): http://www.placedelarepublique.paris.fr/.
Rendering of two-way conversion at Place de la Republique (Image Credit: Trévelo et Viger-Kohler Architects)
Ground level at Place la Republique, looking a bit like Gore Park (Image Credit: Trévelo et Viger-Kohler Architects)
Place de la Republique, 'Toward a better sharing of public space' (Image Credit: Trévelo et Viger-Kohler Architects)
A newspaper article in Metro also justified the two-way conversions as a way to help local merchants, just as we've seen in the USA:
Pour les commerçants, le nouveau schéma de déplacement est censé doper l'activité économique, mis à mal par la circulation en sens unique. (For local businesses, the new road layout is supposed to stimulate business, which has been harmed by the one-way street design.)
In summary, although it is possible to make a one-way street like Main pedestrian-friendly, it would involve huge cost and a major decrease in traffic capacity - and it wouldn't address the harm done to local businesses.
Editor's note: This essay is part of a series on the future role and design of our downtown streets. We encourage Hamiltonians to submit well-written, thoughtful and evidence-based essays that move the discussion forward. Please send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.