Special Report: Walkable Streets

One-Way Streets Make Wayfinding More Difficult

One-way streets help create distorted cognitive maps of a city that present it as inaccessible, with incredible friction of mobility.

By Dwayne Ali
Published September 05, 2012

There are many reasons put forth to support the conversion of Hamilton's major roads to one-way streets. I'd like to focus here on the cognitive maps created by people using Hamilton's streets, and the role of one-way streets on a city's "legibility".

As major cities around the world make efforts to increase their legibility to residents and visitors, Hamilton should not be moving in the other direction.


Many other cities and regions have realized the importance of wayfinding - the mental process of navigation between origin and destination.

A person's ability to understand a city plays a major role in how they use a city. A city that is easier to use has several economic benefits.

A simple benefit might be from an increase in the pedestrian-driven sales at small businesses not easily accessible to vehicles along current routes.

Another benefit is having citizens increase their likelihood of interaction - vital in any city aiming to increase its appeal to creative industries.

Wayfinding in Other Cities

London made a major effort in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics with their 'Legible London' initiative. Toronto began a major wayfinding initiative late last year. Also last year, New York city began a major wayfinding initiative aimed at reducing information clutter and creating a more legible city.

Vancouver undertook major wayfinding efforts before the 2010 Games. Los Angeles has made major wayfinding efforts recently to make the city more usable to pedestrians and cylists.

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism released a report in 2009 [PDF] stating the importance of wayfinding efforts in helping users navigate and create cognitive maps of a city.

One-Way Streets

One-Way streets are problematic in that they conflict with the cognitive maps created of a city. Cognitive maps are the mental representations created by users of any space - they are not direct maps of a space, but are created and modified by each person's understanding and experience of the space.

With a network of one-way streets, users cannot take direct paths to destinations, and routes vary widely amongst transportation methods.

The path for a pedestrian is very different from that of a driver. This leads to a user having to learn their city multiple times in order to confidently navigate it, forever balancing a load of several conflicting cognitive maps.

It is a deterrent to a city's users when they cannot accurately judge the distance and time associated with a city destination.

Distorted Maps

One way streets artificially create distance between aspects of our city. They distort the cognitive maps of both our citizens and visitors - and not in a positive manner. They help create cognitive maps of a city that present it as inaccessible, with incredible friction of mobility.

Where transit maps might be intentionally distorted to enhance our perceptions of city space (and show users the accessibility of existing destinations), one-way streets have the opposite effect: they reinforce a destination's perceived inaccessibility.

As other cities realize the importance of wayfinding and navigation of their streets, Hamilton should aim to make the changes necessary to increase its usability by reducing the friction of mobility for all its users.

In an effort to get people to the city rather than through, let's move in one direction and lead the way.

Dwayne Ali recently completed an MA at McMaster University in Communication and New Media with a focus on the convergence of online and real space through "urban interface design".

twitter: @interestica


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted September 05, 2012 at 12:46:58

Im getting so tierd of this WAY-WAY thing for this city ... get it over City Council ... if yous like the one ways so much convert all the streets to one ways alll of it west end and the muntain

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2012 at 13:31:59

We have a particular problem here if you want to go Southbound.

Let's say you are on King. (To go South, you are looking for a left hand turn).

Because of the one ways, this may be necessary if you want to use Main to backtrack to a destination you are looking for. Or maybe you simply need to get to a destination such as St Joes which is in the South end.

Starting at the entrance to downtown, we have:

  • Wellington: Southbound allowed, but only as far as Young (or up the mountain)
  • Spring: one way the wrong way
  • Ferguson: Closed to cars.
  • Walnut: Two way to Charlton
  • Catharine: Access to charlton
  • John: No left turns
  • Hughson: one way the wrong way
  • James: No left turns
  • MacNab: Left turns allowed - BUT you have to turn left again on main, you can't go straight. If you are well versed in Hamilton tricks, you can then zip across and turn right on James. If you are a visitor however - GOOD LUCK!
  • Summers Lane: one way the wrong way
  • Bay: one way the wrong way
  • Caroline: full 2 way access southbound
  • Hess: wrong way
  • Queen: full access southbound

So of the 14 cross streets, only 5 give full access southbound from King. We couldn't even get the one-way grid right which ideally would have alternating streets one after another. We see them doubling up - two sequential streets going in the same direction. Ask any visitor to Hamilton how they feel about getting around. It is a nightmare for them.

Going South if you are starting from Cannon is even worse - with Jackson Square being totally in your way. It's just a horrible place to navigate unless you've spent years perfecting your craft. We need to become more attractive immediately - we can't afford to ask newcomers to spend years "getting used to it". Our economic future depends on it.

Comment edited by seancb on 2012-09-05 13:32:29

Permalink | Context

By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2012 at 13:42:21 in reply to Comment 80472

your absolutely right about trying to turn south off King downtown. Before the idiots turned James into a two way street it was just too easy to turn left onto James and a few simple blocks of one way traffic and presto the hospital. But the powers that be in the city could not leave perfect alone they had to mess with it and look at the mess we have now. The one way grid downtown worked like a charm. Easy and quick to get around but somebody just had to mess with perfection. If it ain't broke don't fix it.

Permalink | Context

By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 06, 2012 at 07:22:10 in reply to Comment 80472

I guess the 2-way conversions of John and James have really helped with getting up the escarpment then?

Also, Wellington: Southbound allowed, but only as far as Young (or up the mountain)is a bit misleading as the street ends at Young. So you jog onto Young, then onto any of the streets along there to get to Charlton, then go up the escarpment there.

Permalink | Context

By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2012 at 13:43:48 in reply to Comment 80575

That would require somebody use 14 braincells and figure it out. That is just to difficult for the new generation to figure out.

Permalink | Context

By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2012 at 08:41:34 in reply to Comment 80575

It's not at all misleading. It either goes up the mountain or ends at young where you need to detour. And I counted it as a proper southbound access accordingly. Are you arguing that the one-ways and turn restrictions don't hamper one's ability to reach a specific destination?

Permalink | Context

By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2012 at 13:48:57 in reply to Comment 80585

You simply conveniently forgot to mention WHY we have the problems that we do. James used to be one way and easy. But some idiot decided to turn it into two way and remove left turns there.

And yet despite all those horrific obstacles that you document thousands of people manage to find their way to St. Joes and all the other offices in the area. It's a bloody wonder the area isn't a ghost town being so difficult to get there.

Permalink | Context

By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted September 05, 2012 at 14:46:25 in reply to Comment 80472

Thats why its soo confusing get it all 2 ways and we will never have that problem BACK TRACKING .and econimic future ... do we have one ... all the economic is in 2 ways .. juste look at the exprees way the RED HILL

Permalink | Context

By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2012 at 09:48:47 in reply to Comment 80494

If you find the one way streets that confusing then you have a much bigger problem than one way streets.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2012 at 14:05:53

Here's scale for you... Main Street (one way) versus the 403 up the escarpment (1 way). The pavement is the same width and Main has 1.6 times the lane capacity

Main vs 403

Permalink | Context

By Pearl STree (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2012 at 22:19:16 in reply to Comment 80483

I am for a two-way traffic conversion, particuarely on Main and King Streets, as I live between them both on Pearl Street near Locke. My argument is the exisiting one-way traffic causes high-speed hopping between Main and King (scary). I presume as drivers, in an effort to quickly spin around and head back to where they missed yet another confusing Hamilton street... The areas are all purely residential and stretch all the way along the city. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way.

'Seancb' that Hwy comparison image says it all.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 05, 2012 at 21:59:16

I have twice headed out east bound on Main to find a business on King and turned too soon without bothering to try again. I just gave up and went elsewhere. I wonder how much business is lost on Main and King because getting to them is just too damned hard.

Permalink | Context

By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2012 at 13:53:32 in reply to Comment 80534

So you did without? or simply changed where you made your purchase? Businesses have thrived on one way streets here and other cities too. I find it hard to believe that so many drivers are too stupid to figure out where they need to turn especially with google maps and GPS units or GPS enabled smart phones costing little or nothing.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By A NorthEaster (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2012 at 14:08:20

One way or two way it doesn't matter look at Barton and Kenilworth and Barton and Ottawa St. All are 2 way and when you go north or south on them there is no left turn so you have to go in circles to go east or west. Same as Barton and Ottawa St. you can not make a left turn onto Ottawa. I could see it when there was 25,000 employed in the steel mills but not now, or at least have no left turn hours of the day. As it is now, the city would rather the traffic go through residential streets where children play.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Mark (registered) | Posted September 06, 2012 at 19:37:39

Virtually every car/driver on the road now has GPS, and if you're too cognitively impaired to find your way around, one-way streets or not, you probably shouldn't be driving anyway. I find this argument entirely specious.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Northeaster (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2012 at 23:39:07

Come on if you think making main street 2way is going make it a commerce success your WRONG look at Main street between the Delta and the circle do you see any great benefit? I see closed store fronts derelict buildings I see main street down town as being better. Lets see Main street 2way no parking during the day. Yea that's going to bring in business.

What is with the parking on main street near Kenilworth 2 hour parking from 10PM to 2AM how does this help business I did not know we had stores open until 2AM

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools