By Ryan McGreal
Published January 09, 2012
A recent article in the National Post chronicles the municipal trend of converting urban one-way streets to two-way, starting with the recent conversion of St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharine's.
According to planners, it would slow cars down, make the downtown more pedestrian friendly and spur retail development.
People, especially businesspeople, didn't like it. And then they did.
Lured by the new two-way, the Wine Council of Ontario included St. Paul Street in its redrafted Ontario Wine Route. Crews are currently at work on a new St. Paul Street performing arts centre. Slower-moving drivers have reported discovering stores and restaurants they never noticed before.
"It was somewhat controversial at first, but I would say now that, without exaggeration, people are 90% in favour," said Brian McMullan, the city's ebullient young mayor.
"A prominent local businessman came up to me the other day and said, 'I didn't support it from the start, but this is the best thing you've ever done.'"
Every time a city government decides to convert one-way streets back to two-way, two phenomena occur. The first phenomenon is that the local businesses scream bloody murder and insist that it will ruin the street and bankrupt them.
The second phenomenon arrives six months to a year later: the sky doesn't fall, the opposition evaporates and everyone comes to sing the praises of the courageous planners and politicians who made the change.
The Post articles pulls few punches in its condemnation of the mid-20th century enthusiasm for one-way conversions:
The effects on urban cores were immediate. In small towns, the conversion of Main Street to one-way was usually the first harbinger of urban blight. A much-quoted statistic holds that 40% of the businesses on Cincinnati's Vine Street closed after it became a one-way. By the 1980s, one-ways had become potent symbols of urban racial divides. In dozens of U.S. metropolises, poor black neighbourhoods were severed by loud, dangerous one-ways jammed with mainly white drivers speeding to the suburbs.
It perhaps cheekily reports on a Scottish town that just bucked the trend and converted its main street to one-way.
"The traffic is faster, there's no doubt about that," said Alastair Cameron, the leader of a community movement against the one-way conversion. The road is riskier for pedestrians, sales have plummeted - and locals have reported a problem with confused drivers flying down the street going the wrong way. In a recent survey, 90% of Castle Street businesses opposed the new street.
This, incidentally, is also what happened in Hamilton in 1957, the year after its major downtown streets were converted en masse to one-way. Local businesses complained that sales had fallen, business had dropped and customers were staying away, repelled by the fast, heavy traffic.
The Post article cites the May-June 2000 public health study finding that one-way streets are 2.5 times more dangerous for children than two way-streets.
It does close by arguing that it is an oversimplification to conclude that one-way streets are always bad and have no place in a modern urban environment. It quotes New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe, of all people, arguing that one-way traffic flows can make high-density urban streets more functional. (Think Manhattan, San Francisco, Portland and Montreal.)
The main problem with Hamilton's one-way streets is that they encourage fast, high-volume crosstown automobile traffic, and that is incompatible with lively, livable streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users, as well as local automobile traffic to micro-destinations.
As the article notes, two-way conversion is a cheap, easy, effective way to transform urban thoroughfares back into pedestrian- and local-destination friendly streets. For a medium-density downtown like Hamilton's, that should be a no-brainer.
(h/t to the half-dozen RTH readers who sent me links to the National Post article)
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