Special Report: Walkable Streets

A Business Case for Conversion from One-Way to Two-Way Streets

Today, we have a better understanding of what ingredients can contribute to a vibrant and prosperous city, and it is not limited to traffic flow.

By Sarah V. Wayland
Published May 24, 2012

The recent debate in Hamilton around one-way streets has focused on different aspects of the issue, including pedestrian safety, livable neighbourhoods, and the "usefulness" of one-ways. This article focuses specifically on small retail businesses, building on the insightful essay by Aaron Newman to show some of the research findings in this area.

Considerable research on the business case has been cited in a relevant Master's thesis1 that forms the basis of this article.

Among the many variables for assessing one-way and two-way streets in a commercial corridor are business visibility and storefront exposure. Business visibility refers to the ability of a driver to see and identify a storefront or sign. Storefront exposure is the ability of a driver to see a specific storefront based on the store's location within the block and within the street network.

There is some evidence that one-way streets are good for business, but only certain kinds of businesses. For supermarkets and other kinds of high-volume, low-margin stores or destination stores with their own parking lots, one-way couplets (such as we have on King and Main) can provide quick access.2

However, in the case of smaller stores that are situated along an urban city block, sell unique items, and are often locally-owned, two-way streets provide better business visibility and storefront exposure.

Even critics of two-ways agree on this point: "Specialty stores that rely on impulse sales and depend on high margins per sale do better on two-way streets, since only half their potential customers would see them on a one-way couplet."3

Indeed, even national book and coffee chains choose locations on two-way streets to maximize exposure and visibility.4

Why two-way streets are better for business

Storefront visibility: Storefront visibility is an essential prerequisite for "impulse" purchases and stops at smaller stores, even if the motorist plans to return later on foot to shop. Storefront visibility is optimized when drivers go at speeds of 30 to 40 km/hour.

In excess of about 48 km/hour, it becomes difficult for a motorist to observe what retail outlets are located along the street.5 When traffic moves above the posted speed limit, as often happens on one-way thoroughfares, storefronts and signs are even less visible.

Direction of travel: Storefronts lose valuable exposure to drivers on one-way streets. As drivers approach an intersection, they can see storefronts on the far side of the cross street. However, the closer side of the cross street is completely eclipsed from view, thereby decreasing precious storefront exposure. Even the stores on the far side are not so noticeable if the driver doesn't have to come to stop at the intersection.

Consumer comfort: Slower-paced two-way streets offer a better shopping and dining experience for consumers than do one-way multi-lane roads through commercial areas. Public gathering places can form along streets that where traffic is calmed.

In the United States, there is actually a strategy that involves making streets more "consumer friendly" by attracting pedestrians, increasing congestion and making downtown street networks more easily navigated.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street program seeks to preserve and revitalize downtown areas. Developed in the 1970s to prevent the continued decline of traditional commercial streets in American cities, the Main Street approach has supported the use of one way to two-way conversions.6 To date, it has been applied in more than 1,200 cities, towns, and neighborhoods, with very positive results.

Conversion to Two-Way worked in US Cities

One of the few if only comprehensive surveys of one-way to two-way conversions in downtowns was completed for the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District (HMSBID) in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2000.7

The HMSBID commissioned this study when it was considering converting a downtown street (Main Street) to two-way traffic but was dissatisfied with previous conversion case studies that focused on traffic flow only. The HMSBID study focused on business development and downtown livability.

Of the 22 cities identified as having converted their main downtown streets from one-way to two-way, the majority reported positive results in terms of business development.

One community reported mixed results but no municipality reported a negative impact. (It should be noted that many of the conversions were part of a greater revitalization program that included various streetscape improvements, so improvements may have resulted from a variety of changes beyond the elimination of one-way streets.)

Communities reported improved business, increased investment in the downtown, more choices for travel in downtown, increased pedestrian friendliness, and a general feeling of improved "livability", "quaintness", and "sense of community."


In the past, traffic engineers were mainly concerned with avoiding congestion. Other factors such as business vitality, pedestrian safety and the historic character of commercial streets were largely overlooked.

Today, we have a better understanding of what ingredients can contribute to a vibrant and prosperous city, and it is not limited to traffic flow. The business case for "shoppable," driveable, walkable and livable streets has been made. It is now time for our own city planners to take heed.


Meagan Elizabeth Baco, One-way to Two-way Street Conversions as a Preservation and Downtown Revitalization Tool: The Case Study of Upper King Street, Charleston, South Carolina (M.Sc. Thesis, Historic Preservation, Graduate School of Clemson University and the Graduate School of the College of Charleston, May 2009).

G. Wade Walker, Walter M. Kulash, and Brian T. McHugh, Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves on One-Way Networks? TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium (1999), 5. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec019/Ec019_f2.pdf

Thoreau Institute, Should Cities Convert One-Way Streets to Two Way?, The Vanishing Automobile 30, 29 October 2008. http://www.ti.org/vaupdate30.html

Walker, Kulash, and McHugh, Downtown Streets, 5. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec019/Ec019_f2.pdf

John D. Edwards, Traffic Issues for Smaller Communities, Journal of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (1998), 32.

John D. Edwards, Converting One-Way Streets to Two-Way: Managing Traffic on Main Street (Washington, D.C.: The National Trust's Main Street Center, 2002). http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/main-street-news/2002/06/converting-one-way-to-two-way.html

Ted Brovitz, Converting Downtown Streets from One-Way to Two-Way Yields Positive Results, The Urban Transportation Monitor (2000).

Sarah Wayland is a Hamiltonian, mother, and part-time civil servant. She moved to Canada to marry her husband John, whom she met at the University of Maryland while pursuing a PhD in political science.


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By CouldWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 07:50:12

What a great contribution to the discussion. Looking forward to hearing more, Sarah.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 08:44:09

Great read!!! Your conclusion is right on the money - I just think its the traffic engineers, not the city planners who need to take heed. City planners already know and preach what you just wrote (I know because I am one). The issue is that the message is lost between the planner and the engineer, who implement road improvement projects to "their standards" with the simple goal of avoiding congestion as you note.

York Boulevard is a perfect example (and huge disappointment). Planners prepared a great plan, with public consultation and great visual presentations to the public. But none of what you saw in those presentations was implemented beyond an enhanced curb, sidewalk, and decorative streetlighting project - which the engineers tend to see as "good enough". And of course, the "two-way in name only" design - which is anything but "good enough".

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By rednic (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 09:51:43 in reply to Comment 77237

since you work with them JM, can give a rough estimate of the percentage of traffic planners that live in the lower city ? I think its safe to say that ones that don't simply see the lower city as a way to get to work.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 10:15:22 in reply to Comment 77238

sorry i should have been more clear... i am a planner, but not a Hamilton planner. sadly, i have to commute out of the city for work....

BUT, in response to your comment i can confidently put money on the idea that little to no traffic engineers actually live in the lower city!

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By rednic (registered) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 00:32:32 in reply to Comment 77239

Well I for one am sorry you have to commute ... hopefully you will find a position closer to home soon.

Thanks for your reply it unfortunately it only confirmed what i had assumed.

Comment edited by rednic on 2012-05-25 00:33:39

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By Help! (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 11:29:28

I just commented in another article, what can we do to make this happen? It's pretty obvious what we need to do so how do we get the foot dragging councillors and transportation engineers on board??

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 11:38:49 in reply to Comment 77242

"I just commented in another article, what can we do to make this happen?"

Not that anyone here wants to hear this, because it's not something that requires a hero (Richard Florida, Jane Jacobs) or a foundation or some saviour to come along...but it comes down to finally putting into play the one element of governance (whereas the developers and 'captains of industry' learned this many, many generations ago at their chair at the table) that has unquestionably not been sufficiently put into play or utilized to anywhere near its potential: residents.

Until this factor has reached the tipping point, attained critical mass, expect more heartbreak.

'Think outside the blog.'

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By Help! (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 12:08:08 in reply to Comment 77243

Easy to say but what does that mean? Do I write my councillor, stand in front of city hall with a sign, lie down in the middle of main street - what I'm asking is, WHAT CAN I DO to get involved? Telling me I need to get involved doesn't really answer that.

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By CouldaShouldaWoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 20:48:00 in reply to Comment 77244

With apologies to the author of this thread...

First off, I never said 'You need to get involved.' Although addressing those Hamiltonians beyond you, that's pretty much what I believe in.

So, from my perspective, what *I* believe in is that what you can do is see that neighbourhoods are energized, organized and mobilized.

Instead of taking up space here, I'm going to provide links. Sorry if that seems déclassé...


And this one deals with what I'm talking about from a fictional, future sense: http://townhallshamilton.blogspot.com/2012/03/regarding-federation-of-hamilton.html

Or, if you'd prefer the notions as framed by the editor of this site, Ryan McGreal:

"I'm inclined to think elections are overrated. If you vote for a candidate
once every four years but don't get involved in the meantime, it doesn't
really matter much *who* you vote for. Once politicians get inside the
Bubble, it's impossible to keep any kind of perspective without ongoing,
substantive interaction with 'regular voters' for grounding.

As for what makes a good politician, I think it comes down more to
temperament and broad intellectual framework than to a specific set of
political beliefs.

A smart, patient, well-educated, open-minded, intellectually humble
councillor will generally follow a sensible process of getting informed
and land on a sensible policy that does a good job of leveraging the facts
of an issue and bridging the hopes, fears and contradictions of the
electorate and the various interest parties.

Here are some of the pitfalls that render councillors incompetent:

* Ambition - voting to maximize upward political mobility
* Megalomania - refusing to listen to others
* Anger - voting to punish enemies
* Fear - voting to avoid risks
* Partisanship - voting along party lines
* Dogmatism - voting along ideological lines
* Laziness - phoning in votes instead of engaging the issues
* Stubbornness - refusing to cooperate with others or compromise

Left isolated from the outside world, just about anyone will fall prey to
one or more of these pitfalls, which is why it's so important for citizens
to: a) elect councillors who will allow themselves to be engaged, and b)
keep up their end of that engagement between elections."

The most organic, most sensible way to get people organized, energized and mobilized in their own governance, making it far more likely that theyr'e going to get their councillor's work at City Hall reflecting their own needs and intents, is by way of neighbourhood associations.

Does the neighbourhood in which you live have an NA?
Is it active?
Are you a member?
If there's an active NA in place, join. Contribute. Help make great changes happen amongst your neighbours, then help collaborate with your councillor to ensure these changes are put into action.
If there's no NA, consider starting one.

The world has changed a ton in the past sixteen years, since 1996 when the Hamilton and Burlington Society of Architects conducted their charrette concentrating on the downtown crisis. In fact, it's changed markedly since facebook and Twitter came on the scene in the past decade. Social media isn't the lone way forward to make possible what I'm talking about, but it's changed mindsets about engaging and networking, provided incredible tools to empower.

We need to begin acknowledging and embracing the fact that *we* are the way foeward, not some Wonder candidate or the notion of 'throwing the bastards out'.

And again, apologies to Ms Wayland for hijacking this thread.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 13:17:55 in reply to Comment 77265

"A smart, patient, well-educated, open-minded, intellectually humble councillor will generally follow a sensible process of getting informed and land on a sensible policy that does a good job of leveraging the facts of an issue and bridging the hopes, fears and contradictions of the electorate and the various interest parties. "

...and I don't believe any of the current council members possess these qualities (with the exception of maybe a few)

all they really care about are votes - and act in the fear of losing them

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By democracy (anonymous) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 13:37:49 in reply to Comment 77297

"all they really care about are votes - and act in the fear of losing them"

Thats what democracy is about, doing what your constituency demands or be defeated in an election. Until the voting community demands the changes you seek don't blame the politician for giving us what the voting community demands

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 12:15:22 in reply to Comment 77244

simple.... vote out the entire current council!!! (and vote in a forward thinking one)

further to my above response, i should also note that as much as planners can provide great ideas, they do not (cannot) make decisions.........

only recommendations - which are presented to council

until council makes the right decisions, and provides direction to the engineers/public works nothing will change

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 20:28:20 in reply to Comment 77246

"simple.... vote out the entire current council!!! (and vote in a forward thinking one)"

1) Congrats, you sound like Scott Thompson

2) Are voters REALLY that well equipped to discern between 'forward thinking' and 'not-forward thinking'? Considering that in general, almost two-thirds of voters cast ballots according to 'name recognition'?

3) http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/article/729636--what-if-there-were-no-re-elections

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By George (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 18:23:39 in reply to Comment 77246

Better yet, re-establish the Board of Control whose main concern is the city as a whole, rather than rely on councilors who tend to have more parochial duties and responsibilities. Having councilors do both creates a conflicting dynamic that I think has hindered the city's progress which results in frustrated citizens parroting the adage about lack of vision and incompetence.

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 20:25:30 in reply to Comment 77258

Boards of Control don't exist anywhere anymore in Canada for good reasons. Neither do, in general, 'at large' councillors. (Though where I am visiting right now, Norfolk, VA, have 5 wards and 2 'super-wards'; the councillors for the latter two are 'at-large' for half of the city.)

If councillors are doing their jobs correctly, then you shouldn't have to have 'at large' councillors. The problem ain't with having a ward system.

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By Ergot (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 15:24:07 in reply to Comment 77246

Simple math:

2010 Election had 353,317 registered voters, of which 141,174 bothered to vote.

Assuming that those trends play out more or less the same in 2014, and that there is a less fragmented ballot, basically a two-way race in every case, all we need to do is get 70,000 or so Hamiltonians to agree on something, and change will follow.

Then it's just down to carving out any systemic rot that is present outside of Council.

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By Help! (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 12:22:34 in reply to Comment 77246

But that's not until 2014 (anyway my councilor Jason Farr seems to be in favor of complete streets). What do we do in the meantime??

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 13:34:21 in reply to Comment 77247

just had a thought about your "lie down in the middle of main street" comment...

i good idea might be to organize a protest that marches "the wrong way" down main street (and of course, halts traffic)

could we get enough people? would that get councils attention???

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 13:47:47 in reply to Comment 77249

@ JM Sounds good to me im in :)

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By alhambra (anonymous) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 21:42:24

what can we do - good question. Needs a plan. What about attacking the green wave? I think the green wave is at the heart of the one-way madness. As long as the incentive is so clearly there I and everyone else will drive these things. If the green wave could be cut to a reasonable speed, or even below, that would be a start. The purpose should not be that you can speed up to catch it, but that you will always get cut off after a few lights. Right now the system creates a huge incentive for those in the back to go way too fast and those in the middle to go too fast. This would be achievable because it could be an easy incremental change. I also don't think there can be any basis for creating an incentive to drive too fast.

Another angle is to frame the issue around liability. Where the green wave is especially dangerous is at busy intersections. Try timing the lights at Queen or Dundurn - once the flashing hand starts you need to bust a move to get across. This is added to the fact that drivers get a huge head start if there are no cars stopped in front of them. So where on a normal intersection you can count on getting 3-5 seconds of flashing hand before you need to worry, PLUS a second or two of solid hand, at these intersections if you're not across exactly by the time the hand stops, then you're in massive danger - because people are flying in. What needs to happen then is empirical evidence to be amassed of this phenomenon - standards of street crossing, how long people take normally, how long it takes on Queen v Dundurn v James v Wellington - and this to be presented to the city as a sort of business case for the danger they are knowingly putting people in. This will at least make a personal injury lawyer happy but it could also raise the issue to one of greater importance.

Another option might be to demand that the areas around schools be reduced to 30 or 40. This might also be achievable since the issue becomes children's safety and not just these more amorphous concerns raised here.

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By Pedro (anonymous) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 09:20:38 in reply to Comment 77266

Inherent to the green wave is the "safety" created by the fact that people are too intimidated by the traffic to bother trying to cross at many of these intersections. Short of putting up signs telling people not to cross we couldn't be doing a better job of discouraging what should be a normal, everyday pedestrian activity.

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By truth (anonymous) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 21:36:28

Try reading http://www.i2i.org/articles/2-2005.pdf
They disagree with a lot of what you say. One way streets have repeatedly been shown to be safer than 2 way.

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted May 26, 2012 at 17:19:14 in reply to Comment 77330

As I wrote in another thread a few days ago:

I would definitely not call the "No Two Ways about It" article (but link down as I write this) an "objective study". If memory serves me right, it was released by the Independence Institute, formerly called (I am not joking) the Center for the American Dream of Mobility and Home Ownership. It doesn't seem to be accessible today, maybe due to all the hits from RTH readers!

I believe that paper actually cites an article by Andrew Dreschel against conversion of James and John to two-way, and I think he has since changed his mind on that one.

Here is a link to a blurb about the paper: http://transportation.i2i.org/2005/02/10...

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 25, 2012 at 22:08:16 in reply to Comment 77330

Try reading something other than a thoroughly debunked Libertarian loon.

Comment edited by highwater on 2012-05-25 23:58:13

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By truth (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 17:24:29 in reply to Comment 77331

You may not like Mr. O'Toole. You may certainly not agree with him as is your right. But you can not debunk what he, and many others have to say. You readily and greedily agree with all the experts that agree with your particular point of view. That does not make it right or the only point of view. This province is drowning in debt and you want to spend a $1,000,000,000 on LRT in the city. You want to change our roads which are doing a good job of doing exactly what they are supposed to do, move vehicles to where they need to go. What for? Another John N? Another York? Silly Silly Silly

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 17:39:15 in reply to Comment 77416

But you can not debunk what he, and many others have to say.

I don't need to. He's already been debunked by people far more knowledgeable than myself, and him for that matter.

And what others, BTW? Randal O'Toole is the only one I've ever seen trotted out by one-way defenders. If there are any legitimate urban geographers out there supporting one-ways, I'd be interested to see their work.

Comment edited by highwater on 2012-05-28 17:44:41

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By Wobbly (anonymous) | Posted May 31, 2012 at 16:43:09

I agree with this but the Meadowlands is hell on earth.

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