A movement away from one-way streets

Even as one-way streets are found in thriving downtowns in cities like New York City, Toronto, and San Francisco, there is a movement away from one-way streets:

St. Catharines was only following the example of hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada that have been shutting down their one-way streets since the 1990s. In Ottawa last week, planners announced they are considering the two-way conversion of several streets in the shadow of Parliament Hill. Two-way roads would help to “‘normalize’ the streets, by slowing traffic, creating a greater choice of routes, improving wayfinding, creating a more inviting address for residential and commercial investment and improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists,” according to a plan drafted by consulting firm Urban Strategies Inc. In 2005, even Hamilton, Ont., began to end its addiction to fast-flowing urban streets by cutting the ribbon on two-way traffic on some of its most prominent thoroughfares…

“The one-way is designed to maximize efficiency for the car; that’s its purpose,” said Larry Frank, the UBC-based J. Armand Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Urban Transportation Systems. As car culture bloomed beginning in the 1930s, and city dwellers ditched their apartments and townhomes for suburban ranch houses, one-way streets became the “mini-freeways” that could speed them to and from work. According to U.S. urban development advocate John Norquist, one-ways were also particularly attractive to Cold War-era planners because they allowed speedy evacuation in the event of a nuclear attack.

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’s environmental racism,” said Mr. Gilderbloom.

Since they encourage higher speeds, one-ways have consistently been found to be hot spots for pedestrian fatalities. In a 2000 paper examining pedestrian safety on one-ways, researchers analyzed traffic statistics in Hamilton from 1978 to 1994 and concluded that a child was 2.5 times more likely to be hit by a car on a one-way street.

It is hard to argue with safety today. But the larger argument seems to be this: planning cities in a way that privileges automobiles is now considered more problematic than in the past. With the blooming of movements like New Urbanism, more places and planners are now thinking about others who use the streets including pedestrians, bicyclists, and businesses and residences along the street. While one-way streets may be efficient, they don’t necessarily serve all interested parties well.

There is some history here: with the rise of the popularity of the automobile in the 1920s plus the beginnings of highway construction around the same time (Federally-funded interstates came later), city planners started building cities (and suburbs) around the car. The goal was to move as many drivers in and out of the city with the intention that the ease of travel would actually bring more people into the cities. While the ease of automobile traffic may have improved, it had negative side effects: people moved out of the city and sidewalk traffic decreased. Cities tried to adapt by doing things like making certain streets pedestrian malls (Chicago’s State Street was a notorious example) but these generally proved unsuccessful.

The claim about one-way streets being examples of “environmental racism” is not one I have heard before. While I have heard of highways being used in this manner, it would be interesting to see data on where exactly most one-way streets are located.

One thought on “A movement away from one-way streets

  1. In Hamilton the majority of one way streets in the city run through the poorest neighborhoods. If you look at a map of Hamilton these streets overlap with the areas identified in the Hamilton Spectator Series Code Red. These neighborhoods were found to have high levels of poverty as well as significantly lower life expectancies. These areas also have higher levels of pollution that have been found to not come from industry but vehicular traffic. This in spite of the fact that fewer residents own cars.


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