My submission to The Hamiltonian's Perspectives Virtual Panel on two-way street conversion in Hamilton.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 22, 2012
The entries are all worth reading, but here's my submission.
I am in favour of converting our one-way streets into complete, walkable two-way streets. Hamilton's one-way thoroughfares do one thing extremely well: they funnel large volumes of automobile traffic through the city at high speed. Unfortunately, the cost of that narrow efficiency includes higher risk of injury, lower levels of personal interactions, lower levels of retail business and overall lower quality of life.
Two-way streets are safer for pedestrians and particularly for children.
This conclusion may seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence supports it. One-way streets encourage faster driving by reducing obstacles and visual distractions. This increases the risk to pedestrians in two ways.
First, the kinetic energy of a car is related to the square of its velocity. That means a car going twice as fast has four times the energy. At 32 km/h, a collision with a pedestrian has a 5 percent chance of death, but that increases to 50 percent at 48 km/h and 85 percent at 64 km/h.
Second, a vehicle’s stopping distance also increases geometrically with speed. A car going 30 km/h on a dry road can come to a dead stop in about 20 m (65 feet), but a car going twice as fast at 60 km/h needs 70 m (230 feet) to stop.
The most effective way to reduce both the incidence and severity of vehicle/pedestrian collisions it to reduce vehicle speeds, but one-way streets optimize for fast driving – that’s their raison d'être.
One-way streets also increase the number of turns drivers need to make to reach a destination, since each destination can only be approached from one direction. This increases the number of potential collisions between turning motorists and pedestrians, and this is borne out by the evidence from several recent studies finding that pedestrians are at greater risk on one-way streets.
A 1999 transportation engineering study found, “there are 30-40 percent more vehicle conflicts within a one-way street network than in a comparable two-way system.” Similarly, a 2004 report published in the Journal of the Institute of Engineers found that pedestrians have more points of conflict with motorists crossing one-way streets than crossing two-way streets, due mainly to the increased number of turns drivers have to make.
Using Hamilton collision data, a peer reviewed public health study published in 2000 determined that children are 2.5 times more likely to be injured on a one-way street than on a two-way street.
And if you are wondering whether you should personally care about pedestrian safety, bear in mind that everyone, including every motorist, is a pedestrian at some point, even if it means a short walk from your parked car to your destination.
Two-way streets are better for retail business.
On a two-way street, motorists can approach a destination from either direction, making it more accessible. Two-way streets are also more comfortable and pleasant for pedestrians, since traffic moves more slowly and it feels safer to be on the sidewalk.
Just months after Hamilton's streets were converted to one-way in 1956, business owners on King Street were already begging the transportation and traffic committee to revert the changes, saying things like, "Business has taken quite a drop," and "Our windows are no good nowadays, people have no time to stop and look. Nobody comes from the west end of the city any more. We would like to see King Street two-way once more."
Nobody comes from the west end of the city any more.
-- King Street business owner, 1957
More recently, Aaron Newman, the owner of Newman's Menswear on King Street East, wrote, "Try telling someone to find our store from the west end. It's a complex set of directions, wastes both time and gas, creates more travel and really thwarts our accessibility to customers. For a retailer, making it hard for a customer is never a good thing!"
Numerous studies from cities all across North America have demonstrated that converting one-way downtown streets back to two-way results in a significant boost to business revenues, investment and property values. Converting Hamilton's one-way streets to two-way would allow downtown properties to increase in value and contribute more to the tax base, benefiting every municipal ratepayer.
Complete two-way streets will not result in "gridlock".
Hamilton's one-way thoroughfares have significant excess lane capacity. Over the past year, extended multiple lane closures on Main Street, King Street and Cannon Street have resulted in only modest slowdowns during rush hour and free-flowing traffic at all other hours.
We can easily use some of that surplus lane capacity for bike lanes, curbside parking and wider sidewalks, all of which improve the pedestrian experience and help local business.
Beyond that, traffic volumes are not static. Much of the traffic on Hamilton streets is "induced traffic" - trips that people take by automobile only because it is so easy to drive.
The evidence unambiguously demonstrates that when lane capacity is reduced, some of the traffic simply "disappears" due to a combination of route choice, time-shifting and modal shift (from driving to walking/cycling/transit). This is called "reduced demand" and it reflects the economic principle that demand for a good goes up when the cost goes down, and goes down when the cost goes up.
Note also that when Hamilton converts its streets to two-way, it will be possible for drivers to take any of several routes to a given destination. If eastbound traffic on Main Street is slow, you will be able to drive east on King. If westbound traffic on Cannon is slow, you will be able to drive west on Wilson/York.
That will make the transportation network more flexible and more usable for drivers as well as for pedestrians and cyclists.
Hamilton is not exceptional.
Literally dozens of cities across North America have already converted one-way downtown thoroughfares to two-way, and the consensus is that the change is good for business, good for local neighbourhoods, good for safety and good for urban revitalization. All of the arguments brought to bear against conversion in Hamilton were also brought forward in those cities - and they were wrong.
We heard the same arguments when James and John North went two-way, and the predictions of traffic chaos and failure were proven wrong. We heard them again when James and John South were converted to two-way, and once again the sky did not fall as predicted.
Instead, both streets have improved significantly in the past decade with new businesses, new investments and increased foot traffic. The Downtown BIA surveyed its members after James and John North were converted and learned that most businesses saw their sales increase.
Since 2002, we have converted sections of James North, John North, James South, John South, Charlton, Herkimer, Hess, Caroline, York, Wilson, and Park, and not one of those conversions has resulted in "gridlock" or any other scary adjective. How many more examples do we need that the sky does not fall when cars are allowed to drive in either direction on a city street?
Council approved a program of two-way conversions in 2001 and reaffirmed its support in 2008, but the pace of conversions has been extremely slow. Lower city Hamilton still has more than 100 one-way streets, and we need to get serious about converting them into complete, liveable two-way streets in a timely fashion.