Special Report: Walkable Streets

One-Way Streets and Two-Way Conversion in Paris

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:

  1. 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.

  2. There are street trees and some parking as buffers.

  3. Arterial streets have a physically separated bike/bus lane. These have been introduced in the past ten years.

  4. Higher traffic volume throughout the day lowers speeds (the photo must have been taken very early in the morning!).

  5. There are crosswalks at every intersection, while on Main Street many intersections have no crosswalk.

  6. 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:

  1. 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?)

  2. Remove another lane for a physically separated bus/cycle lane.

  3. 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.

Two-Way Conversion in Paris

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)
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)
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)
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 editor@raisethehammer.org.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By Virgule (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 07:29:26

Paris has also tended to deprioritize areas typically poor or immigrant-rich, it seems to me. Am I mistaken?

As well, Hamilton's pre-eminent pseudo-Hausmann experiment was York Boulevard, non? Ca fait mal.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 07:38:26 in reply to Comment 78798

If by "Paris" you mean the city of Paris (central Paris with a population of 2.2 million), I don't think that is true.

If by Paris you mean Ile de France (the greater Paris region, with a population of 12 million), then it is true that there are many suburban areas that are disadvantaged.

It is also true that rising real estate prices have pushed the poor out to the cheaper suburbs (as is happening in Toronto).

One mitigating factor is that a French law of 2000 mandated that all municipalities must ensure that 20% of all accommodation is geared to income social housing by 2020.

I think York Blvd was really an outgrowth of the City Beautiful movement popular in North America and the UK rather than the high density urban form favoured by Haussmann.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-06-22 07:40:17

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By Virgule (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 12:48:19 in reply to Comment 78800

Thanks for the clarity. I got thrown off by the architectural clearcut, but you're right, Hausmann did it with far more panache.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 12:29:30

Nicholas (not Ryan), my only complaint about this argument is that rehabilitate-but-keep is "concern trolling" - I often suggest it simply because I'm trying to find a compromise, a goal that we could get both sides to meet upon. I want two-way streets, but I'd take lose-a-lane-or-two as an improvement if I could get it.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2012-06-22 13:06:11

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 12:47:53 in reply to Comment 78818

(Sidenote: Nicholas Kevlahan wrote this article, not me.)

It's concern trolling because the only legitimate reason to oppose two-way conversion is to continue prioritizing automobile flow-through over livability, and the kind of changes that would make a one-way street livable would also curtail automobile flow-through.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2012-06-22 12:49:56

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 21:15:06 in reply to Comment 78823

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:08:44 in reply to Comment 78823

Wanting to get the die-hard supporters of one-way streets onboard with fixing up Main and King isn't a legitimate reason? Why let the best be the enemy of the good?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:34:48 in reply to Comment 78829

Die hard opponents are simply not going to support the transformation of Main and King from high-volume automobile thoroughfares into functional complete streets, regardless of whether the plan is to convert them to two-way or leave them as one-way.

What will change the minds of the skeptical is to experience successful street conversions firsthand. I've heard from a number of people who opposed the two-way conversions of James and John, but have since changed their minds as they've seen what followed.

The last thing we can afford on Main and King is a bad compromise that fails to meet anyone's needs. If we try to simultaneously make those streets livable and maintain one way through traffic flows, we'll end up with abominations like the fiasco of York Blvd.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 25, 2012 at 19:44:24 in reply to Comment 78834

Show me 1 good thing that has come from the conversion on John South. I'm still waiting to see it first-hand, living directly off of John South.

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By Escuela (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 22:55:38 in reply to Comment 78834

James and John involved no sacrificed lanes. Implementation took several years for the conversion of maybe 30 blocks total. And the TWINO turning restrictions at York/Wilson have already earned scorn here. Imagine that scenario played out with more concessions to the status quo, and that's the odds-on favourite for what will happen. Happen whenever it appears as a capital priority in a city budget. But then it's important to shed the selfish thinking that dominates city politics and work for changes we may not live to see ourselves.

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By Soft Shoulder (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 17:12:41 in reply to Comment 78834

For all of its considerable shortcomings, York Boulevard was far more high-production than anything the City has attempted since. The conversions we've seen in the last 10 years have been budget jobs, mostly high-concept concrete stamping that doesn't expand sidewalk width much if at all. (Can't recall if there there are bike lanes on James or John?)

And that's what I think many fear will come to pass: New streets, new sidewalks, new road paint, extra stoplights... and nothing significantly different except the reversal of half the traffic flow. The precedent for two-way on Main and King is pretty no-frills as it stands. It's not hard to imagine that being the yardstick for successful implementation throughout the one-way stretch as well.

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:17:54 in reply to Comment 78829

Glad to see that at least some people understand how change can be sold to those that would often oppose it

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:10:42

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:47:23 in reply to Comment 78830

Your concern trolling is brutally obvious.

You claim to want a more balanced solution that meets everyone's needs, then attack a strawman by claiming that two-way supporters "have no consideration for vehicular traffic at all".

A street that had "no consideration for vehicular traffic" would by definition be a pedestrian- and transit-only street. No one here is proposing eliminating automobiles from our one-way thoroughfares, and your suggestion to the contrary is both disingenuous and in bad faith.

A street that has two lanes of vehicular traffic and two lanes of curbside parking is a street that gives overwhelming consideration to vehicular traffic, and it puts through traffic and local traffic on an even footing.

All we're asking for is safer sidewalks, some dedicated bike lanes, and the ability for automobile traffic to flow in both directions - like nearly every single street on the planet.

A two-way street is a compromise - the best compromise, given that it demonstrably provides the most usability and flexibility to the broadest set of users.

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:59:37 in reply to Comment 78835

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2012 at 14:17:46 in reply to Comment 78838

This will be my last reply, after which I will follow my own advice and refrain from debating trolls. You've made it abundantly clear that you are not interested in honest discussion.

This suggests that you believe cars should not exist at all in the equation but you will compromise by putting them on the bottom of the priority list.

Main street right now is five lanes, with the two sidewalks adding up to a little less than the width of a lane. That gives us roughly six lanes' width of road space.

You're suggesting that a plan that allocates 4 lanes out of 6 to automobiles puts them "on the bottom of the priority list".

That is straightforward nonsense.

You are constantly talking about creating congestion as a means to an end rather than and end result of something else.

This is another strawman, which you have already attacked and to which I have already replied.

Hamilton has far too much automobile lane capacity, as evidenced by the lack of congestion from closing multiple lanes on Main and King. I have specifically and repeatedly argued from evidence that rebalancing our streets to support two-way traffic, walking and cycling will not cause gridlock.

Now please stop trolling. If you want to debate, do so honestly and in good faith, and be prepared to follow the evidence.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2012-06-22 14:19:18

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:16:21 in reply to Comment 78830

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 13:21:48

"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)"

This would be acceptable to most motorists. To say it wouldn't is pure conjecture and defeatist. Nobody has every asked. Whats the harm in floating this idea? Are you afraid it might be accepted? Show a compromise that doesn't cripple movement but rather slows it and you have a chance

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By HopefulHamiltonian (registered) | Posted June 24, 2012 at 13:40:52 in reply to Comment 78833

"Ensure every intersection has a pedestrian crosswalk."

I make extensive use of King and Main. This is something I can definitely live with. Having lights stopping traffic for the sake of stopping traffic in the hopes that it will make things safer isn't all that sensible to me. If lights go red because someone wants to walk across, that's an entirely different story and very reasonable.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 14:29:57

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Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-04-23 17:43:24

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 14:32:15

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Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-04-23 17:43:11

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By Bottlerocket (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 19:00:06 in reply to Comment 78842

I think his problem is that your comments are silly and add no value to the conversation, and he wishes you would just stop. Just guessing though.

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By disagree (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 21:12:15 in reply to Comment 78849

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted June 22, 2012 at 23:10:43

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 25, 2012 at 20:37:19 in reply to Comment 78859

Amen.

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By LOL (registered) | Posted June 27, 2012 at 06:44:49 in reply to Comment 78900

Amen Amen

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 26, 2012 at 07:01:09 in reply to Comment 78900

I've searched my comment history, and in no comment have I accused you of trolling. Instead, I have always directly responded to your comments without personal attacks.

I believe you give too much analytical weight to personal anecdote over academic research and focus your attention excessively on the potential downside of two-way conversion rather than the potential upside. However, you certainly seem sincere in your concern about two-way streets, and your comments are generally polite.

On the other hand, we have a commenter who alternately posts as 'reality', 'no contiuous [sic] ring', 'democracy', 'ward 3 resident', 'Not Catholic but', 'cyclist', 'rear ended', 'native Hamiltonian' and 'disagree' (all the same person), and whose comments are the very epitome of concern trolling.

SpaceMonkey has had a tendency to post short, rude, abrasive comments that throw around accusations of lying and having suspect motives, among other personal attacks. I don't think s/he is a troll per se, but some comments feel like trolling.


As much as possible, RTH has tried to frame the argument over street design in terms of what objectives we should prioritize as a city (traffic flow vs. livability) and what the evidence tells us about how various land use and transportation designs work in practice.

We've tried to document what transportation engineers, planning experts and architects have said about Hamilton's setup, noting that the overwhelming, consistent message we hear is that we should be designing our streets to be two-way, walkable, and bicycle- and transit-friendly rather than continue to serve as multi-lane one-way thoroughfares.

We've tried to look at what some specific places have done and why, and how it turned out. We've studied bigger cities like London, Paris, Dublin, New York and Vancouver, as well as smaller cities like K-W, St. Catharine's, Vancouver WA, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, and Galway.

We've tried to document examples right here in Hamilton in which making streets more walkable has translated into renewed vibrancy, despite fear-based predictions to the contrary.

In the interest of fairness, we've also tried to make space for thoughtful, well-written counter-arguments when we receive them.

A big part of what we're trying to do is encourage Hamilton to stop making timid, risk-averse, status quo affirming decisions based on fear. I think most of us can agree that the city is doing a lot of stuff wrong, and fear-based reasoning all but ensures we'll continue doing what we've done in the past, which clearly hasn't worked well.

We could do a lot worse than look at other cities that have tried different things and achieved different results - the kind of results we say we'd like to achieve here. You've written about having to drive to Mississauga to find work in your field. What if it were possible to find work right here in Hamilton, a pleasant walk or bike ride from your home? Would you still be upset about streets that are no longer designed for fast through traffic? Yet that's how we should be thinking about this: not tweaking the margins of the status quo, but transforming this city into a more complete, more functional economy and a more lively, more fulfilling community.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 26, 2012 at 07:59:32 in reply to Comment 78911

Can you please provide me with empirical proof that the John South conversion has had a net positive result? At best it's been no change.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 26, 2012 at 08:36:32 in reply to Comment 78914

First of all, if we're going to assess the success of two-way conversions, we need to look at the complete picture, not cherry-pick one street. Nevertheless, let's take a look at John South.

The street has challenges that two-way conversion on its own can't solve, in particular a much less coherent and intact street wall south of Augusta: a strip plaza set far back from the street at Forest; the blank, impermeable wall of an '80s-style apartment building across the street; another strip plaza at Young; and a service shop/parking lot kitty corner from the strip plaza.

Starting around Augusta, the street wall is more intact and we see several new restaurants opened in the past several years: London Tap House, Incognito, Affinity, Jia Hot Pot House, U Shao, and several new pubs on Augusta to either side of John.

Another problem with John is that it's still generally two traffic lanes in each direction. Curbside parking on both sides, especially north of Augusta, would further tame traffic and make the sidewalk more pleasant and comfortable for pedestrians than the current narrow slivers of sidewalk right next to fast automobile traffic.

James and John South both suffer from incompatible design goals: converting to two-way without sacrificing the essentially one-way traffic flows up and down the Jolley Cut. As a result, they have been less successful than, say James North at kick-starting urban retail and neighbourhood revival.

John North, in turn, is saddled with a devastated street wall north of King William - whole blocks of surface parking where buildings once stood. In the bootstrapping process of urban revitalization, you need to start with cheap existing building stock, which James North has in abundance and John North mostly lacks.

Nevertheless, in the short intact block between King and King William, we have seen the opening of a number of new businesses since conversion in 2002, including My-Thai, Pane Del Sol, and Downtown Bike Hounds. On the east side, Jeff Feswick is in the process of restoring Treble Hall.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 28, 2012 at 22:05:47 in reply to Comment 78915

First of all, if we're going to assess the success of two-way conversions, we need to look at the complete picture, not cherry-pick one street. Nevertheless, let's take a look at John South.

Why not cherry-pick? Detractors of one-ways always choose a segment of one street to champion 2-way conversions. I'm asking for someone (not necessarily you) to do it with another block that was converted to 2-way but doesn't have a net benefit in my opinion.

The street has challenges that two-way conversion on its own can't solve, in particular a much less coherent and intact street wall south of Augusta: a strip plaza set far back from the street at Forest; the blank, impermeable wall of an '80s-style apartment building across the street; another strip plaza at Young; and a service shop/parking lot kitty corner from the strip plaza.

I would disagree. You can compare the strip mall between Forest and Young as similar to the strip mall at the corner of Wilson/York and James North. The apartment building, built into the incline, needs that large stretch of concrete to provide on-site parking and a foundation for the building. The same could be said of Leon Furs, the old Shoppers or any of the parking lots on James North. There's no parking lot on Young, though. I think you're confusing part of the garage or maybe the small gravel lot that Horizon Utilities use for parking (but that is on John, not Young). Perhaps you could come visit this stretch sometime rather than rely on Google Maps.

Starting around Augusta, the street wall is more intact and we see several new restaurants opened in the past several years: London Tap House, Incognito, Affinity, Jia Hot Pot House, U Shao, and several new pubs on Augusta to either side of John. I'm not sure what direction you are moving in here (I assume moving North?) but there's not too many new restaurants: 2 come to mind, Incognito and U Shao. The others have been there for years (perhaps 10+) so I would not include them as being new.

Another problem with John is that it's still generally two traffic lanes in each direction. Curbside parking on both sides, especially north of Augusta, would further tame traffic and make the sidewalk more pleasant and comfortable for pedestrians than the current narrow slivers of sidewalk right next to fast automobile traffic.

There's street parking on John north of Augusta, it's on the west side. It's usually got cars parked in it. But you did bring up an intersting point - the traffic moves fast along here. Usually faster than the posted limit. Especially later in the evening/early in the morning and weekends. Why is that? I thought a byproduct of 2-ways was slower traffic.

James and John South both suffer from incompatible design goals: converting to two-way without sacrificing the essentially one-way traffic flows up and down the Jolley Cut. As a result, they have been less successful than, say James North at kick-starting urban retail and neighbourhood revival.

I need you to clarify something here. You're saying that one-way traffic is flowing 2 ways? Really? It's 2 lanes both directions going up and down the Jolley Cut. Also, how would there be urban retail along the Cut? There's no buildings aside from apartments!

John North, in turn, is saddled with a devastated street wall north of King William - whole blocks of surface parking where buildings once stood. In the bootstrapping process of urban revitalization, you need to start with cheap existing building stock, which James North has in abundance and John North mostly lacks.

Please keep the discussion to John South, since that's what I was asking about. However, John North shares a lot of the same features as James North (2 noteable parking lots aside).

So, I ask again,

Can you please provide me with empirical proof that the John South conversion has had a net positive result? At best it's been no change.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 23, 2012 at 00:35:35

I noticed Caroline St is about to go two-way for a whopping 2 blocks from King to Main. I'm sure it'll take 7 more studies and 9 years to complete the conversion all the way to York....but, no surprise, instead of converting Caroline to 1-lane each way with street parking on the west side it looks as though they are making it 2 lanes south and 1 lane northbound. At least for the first block from King to George.
Hopefully this is just temporary during the Staybridges construction, but somehow I doubt it.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 25, 2012 at 20:42:13 in reply to Comment 78864

Feel free to run for elected office, I'm sure you could convert all of Hamilton's streets to 2-way in a matter of days of taking your seat!

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By Central Services (anonymous) | Posted June 24, 2012 at 07:01:32

Isn't the 3:1 conversion expressed on central portions of John and James as well? This seems like another way the city could enact two-way without having it be an equitable flow scenario. It might prove to be the most politically viable outcome given all we know about council attitudes. As always, a matter of "careful what you wish for/demand post-haste".

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By lol (registered) | Posted June 25, 2012 at 20:36:00

Hilarious! Hamilton has just as much in common with Paris as it does with the moon. If you really want to model Hamilton after Paris then the first thing you need to do is make it one of the biggest most important cities in the world. After that all the little things will fall into place. As soon as Hamilton has a density like Paris then transit will make sense, and money to boot. Sidewalks taking up half the roadway would make sense too especially if you were to design them in an era when nobody drove an automobile. Mind you most of the people living in Hamilton would not be able to afford their current digs, Paris is one expensive city. A very small bachelor apartment costs more than a 3 bedroom apartment in Hamilton. Be careful what you wish for.

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