Special Report: Walkable Streets

Streets are for People

A city whose streets are designed for people in cars, but not all the other ways people use to get around - like walking, cycling and public transit - is dysfunctional by design.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 19, 2013

I'm prepared to accept the claim, made by Ron Johnson last Wednesday in a Spectator op-ed, that "streets are for traffic" - with one important caveat: "Traffic" means people, not just people in cars.

A city whose streets are designed for people in cars, but not all the other ways people use to get around - like walking, cycling and public transit - is dysfunctional by design.

A good city street connects people to destinations, and to each other, in safe and productive ways. It achieves a balance in which people on foot, on bicycles and in cars can coexist peacefully.

Cities with more walkable streets have higher real estate values and stronger economies. They foster more innovation, create more jobs and generate more wealth. More walkable cities enjoy a "walkability dividend" in which money saved on cars fuels the local economy instead.

This is increasingly true as our culture shifts away from the car-dominated postwar era. Across North America, people are moving from suburbs and exurbs back into cities.

Among young adults, the rate of driving and even driver's licences has been falling steadily since the 1990s, and surveys of young people increasingly find they would rather live in the city than pay for a car. (General Motors actually hired an MTV executive to try to woo young customers.)

Part of it is structural: one-way radio broadcast networks support driving, but two-way social networks interfere with it. Many youths would rather spend their discretionary money on a high-end smartphone than a car.

More generally, urban economists are converging on the conclusion that cities are most successful when they focus on cultivating high-quality neighbourhoods to attract people, instead of trying to lure people with jobs.

Healthy urban environments bring people into contact and create the conditions under which new ideas and new businesses emerge. Young, high-growth companies are net job creators while large, mature companies are busy shedding jobs.

Cities that are better at attracting people are also better at creating jobs for them - and cities with more walkable neighbourhoods do a better job of attracting people.

But balanced streets are also safer for all users, including drivers. For example, adding bike lanes to a city street reduces the number and severity of collisions while increasing the number of cyclists.

More walkable neighbourhoods also reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease by getting more people walking and cycling. Even switching from car to transit drops five pounds on average.

Cities that make it easier to walk, cycle or take transit also have lower overall air pollution. More than half of Hamilton's nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound emissions come from tailpipes rather than smokestacks, so getting more people to choose active transportation means fewer hospital visits and fewer premature deaths.

One-way streets may be compatible with street life in midtown Manhattan, where most people don't drive, sidewalks are very wide and automobile traffic moves slowly. But that's not how Hamilton's one-ways operate.

It's not even how streets operate elsewhere in New York. A 2007 plan to convert several Brooklyn streets to one-way met strong community opposition, and other Brooklyn streets have been converted to two-way in the past few years.

In downtown Hamilton, our multi-lane thoroughfares are antithetical to walkability, which is why every urban planning expert who comes to Hamilton exhorts us to tame them.

In any case, the idea that two-way streets can't support the city's automobile traffic is just wrong. The city's daily traffic-volume measurements from 2009-10 may surprise opponents of two-way conversion, as some of the highest traffic volumes are on two-way streets.

Concession near Upper Gage is one lane each way with curbside parking, but carries 9,400 cars per day. That's slightly more than Cannon west of Sherman - a four-lane, one-way arterial.

Upper James at Mohawk carries a whopping 32,800 cars a day on two lanes each way. Compare King at Bay, which carries 24,900 cars on four one-way lanes.

Golf Links at Stonechurch carries 26,600 cars on two lanes each way, while Main at Bay carries 28,400 cars on five one-way lanes.

Garth north of Fennell carries 19,700 cars on two lanes each way reducing to one lane each way at Beckett Drive, while Main at Wellington carries 21,100 cars on five one-way lanes.

Not only can we convert our streets to two-way, but we can widen sidewalks and add dedicated bike lanes without even denting their current traffic load.

First published in the Hamilton Spectator.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted March 19, 2013 at 13:23:41

Very good post Ryan , but some naysayers whould not see it that way there in there own little world and never seen other citys around Canada and see how it works !

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By JM (registered) | Posted March 19, 2013 at 17:51:02

i get excited everytime i see a new article on this topic in the spec.... from both sides! i'm glad to hear serious discussion is taking place bout it :)

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By positive1 (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2013 at 01:37:10

Clearly Mr. Johnson's main priority is to drive through the city. He shows little to no concern for numerous other stakeholders - pedestrians, cyclists, residents, shop owners, school children etc. This myopic 'Me First' attitude could benefit from an unblinkered, less insular view of the world - a world you could more easily see and take in on two way streets - and more the better on a bike or foot. If you simply want to travel from one end of the city to the other, quickly, I suggest the Linc or other peripheral roads.
One the other hand, if you want to drive into the city - say to do business, dine, shop, work, browse, explore then two way streets are far superior.

Case in point. Please see the article 'The Case Against One-way Streets' by Eric Jaffe rom Atlantic Cities Magazine.


Mr. Jaffe's main points:

- Livability: vehicles stop less on one-way streets, which is hard for bikers and pedestrians.
- Navigation: one-way street networks are confusing for drivers, which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
- Safety: speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there's no conflicting traffic flow.
- Economics: local businesses believe that two-way streets increase visibility.

He also reveals a graph that shows, for short trips, two way streets perform about the same or better than one way streets. Over longer distances, one way streets start to perform better but never up to the capacity of two way streets with banned left turns.

To those who adamantly refuse to ride an LRT - I'll be willing to bet you have never been on one or you would not honestly make such an uninformed statement (without firsthand knowledge). I have taken a ride on several and believe me, it is the future like it or not. Don't be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Embrace it and you won't be sorry.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:27:57

Oh and one thing GPS are not made for oneway streets .. that should say something

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted March 20, 2013 at 20:53:28

I was curious about the work cited in Ron Johnson's article:

Robert M. Fogelson’s book Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, tracks deterioration from congestion, high tax rates, expensive real estate prices, overbuilding, pricey parking, and the lure of the suburbs

Here's the book: http://books.google.ca/books/about/Downt...

I like to read as much as I can get my hands on about urban studies, and while there are differing and equally valid opinions out there, I have never once read a serious urban theorist propose that congestion and high parking costs were at the root of urban decay. That idea seems to contradict supply and demand.

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