Two-Way Streets Part of a Conceptual Shift

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 24, 2006

Since our latest issue was published to the web yesterday, some vigorous discussions have sprung up on the article and letter dedicated to two-way street conversion.

Part of the conflict between those who support conversion and those who oppose it seems to stem from a conceptual disconnect over how streets work rather than merely a logistical disagreement.

The difference between an urban expressway and a livable street is the difference between a street designed to move people across distances rapidly and a street designed to let people interact more or less in place.

A livable city in this sense is a city in which people do not have to travel far to get where they're going. Rather than making it easier to travel, a livable city brings destinations together so less travelling is required.

Transportation Modes Compared

The preferred modes of a livable city - walking, cycling, and transit - are characterized by:

  1. Minimal terminal costs - no costs associated with managing your vehicle when you arrive at your destination;
  2. Minimal energy consumption - the first two are entirely human-powered;
  3. Planned redundancy - several possible routes from any origin to any destination;
  4. Compact use of space - walking, cycling, and a full bus have a small 'footprint' on the street, allowing more efficient overall use of space; and
  5. Optimum effectiveness over short distances - these modes work best when destinations are nearby; e.g. 1/2 km for walking, 5 km for cycling, 10 km for transit.

Contrast the preferred mode of an auto-centric city, which is characterized by:

  1. Significant terminal costs - you have to park the car somewhere - in offices and stores, parking requirements mean the parking lot has more square footage than the actual building;
  2. High energy consumption - cars are gas or diesel powered and extremely energy intensive compared to walking, cycling, or transit;
  3. 'Brittle' engineering - hierarchial design with few possible routes and potential bottlenecks;
  4. Expansive use of space - cars take up much of the road and encourage more and wider lanes at the expense of sidewalks; and
  5. Optimum effectiveness over longer distances - this mode works best when travelling to a distant destination; e.g. a 60 km commute to work.

In an auto-centric city, destinations do not have to be close together. Zoning encourages the strict separation of destinations: houses, stores, offices, and factories are all sorted into different zones, and a car is necessary to get from one zone to another.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

Today, Hamilton is a zoned city stuck in a self-reinforcing cycle of car ownership. The separation of uses requires universal car ownership; universal car ownership requires streets to function as expressways; expressways destroy street life and relegate homes, offices, and stores to specially-designed zones; and we are back where we started.

Changing from a city of zones to a city of neighbourhoods will not happen overnight in any case, but it will never happen until the vicious cycle of car ownership cum expressways cum macro destinations is broken.

The best way to start breaking the cycle is to stop making it as easy as possible to drive everywhere, and simultaneously start making it easier to walk, cycle, or take transit.

People respond to incentives, and today all the incentives encourage people to go on driving. The following changes will shift the incentives away from driving:

Again, this isn't just logistics. It's a conceptual shift away from a transportation system designed to move people long distances from one macro location (a single-use zone) to another, and toward a transportation system designed to optimize density, diversity, proximity, and short-distance modes.

Further Reading:

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.


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By jason (registered) | Posted November 24, 2006 at 12:02:03

everyone. I mean EVERYONE needs to get and read the Jane Jacobs book - The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I picked up my first copy recently and am only through chapter one. It is astounding. Written in 1962 she could have been standing at Main and Caroline when she discusses sidewalks and streets that work and don't work. Anyone with interest in this topic, and especially anyone who fancies themselves an urban planner etc....should read her work. She even gives scientific data and hard numbers to back up her points about traffic dispersal and crime rates in areas with people on the streets vs. areas without people on the streets. I look forward to reading the rest of this book, and encourage everyone else to as well.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 24, 2006 at 13:30:38

This is such a no-brainer! Don't you dare suggest making things harder for a driver, that's a sacred cow. Never mind Peak Oil or Climate Change or dead cities or killed pedestrians, I need to get across town 1.3 minutes faster! Enough other cities have gotten the message and changed their priorities, we don't need to guess any more. They turn highways into rail lines, make streets two ways, put in bike lanes, follow Smart Growth planning - and somehow the sky doesn't fall in! Meanwhile, Hamilton is hanging on for dear life to the anchor of one way streets thinking it's a life preserver. We're drowning, folks - and we need to let go of the anchor.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 24, 2006 at 14:59:01

drowning?? have you not been for a walk along King and Sanford anytime recently? It's flourishing. A wonderful place to spend an afternoon sipping coffee and watching the world go by....or was that a speeding truck? I couldn't tell, it was going to fast.

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