City engineers have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
A few weeks back I prepared a cross section of the cbd that revealed an interesting land value gap that seemed to correspond to the disurban environment caused by the mini-motorways of Hobson and Nelson Street. In an upcoming post I will look more closely at these streets, in particular their potential for redevelopment, but for now I wanted to compile some background material on the history of one-ways.
Understanding one-ways first starts with the design paradigm that required them. One of the few studies on the subject, “Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves On One-way Networks?”, by Walker, Kulash and MacHugh, sets the stage:
For many years, traffic engineers were mandated to “move as much traffic as possible, quickly as possible,” often resulting in degradation of movement for other modes of travel. The unequivocal movement of the motor vehicle through a downtown network was of paramount concern; all other modes of travel took a back seat. Effectiveness of the network was measured by the amount of delay a motorist would encounter on a given street segment or intersection during either the morning or afternoon peak hours.
The authors document the typical transition of American downtowns beginning with the ‘pre-Freeway era’, where streets served a multitude of users and modes and most of the city’s cultural, social and civic activities took place in the historic centre. During this time most of the workers lived within a short distance to work as well (think Auckland streetcar suburbs).
The ‘Freeway Proliferation Era’ encouraged city workers to move farther from their work. ”As downtown workers began to seek out less expensive housing in the suburbs, the mode balance on downtown roadways that had existed for years began to move toward facilitating the speedy entrance and exodus of commuters. Downtown streets began to be converted to one-way travel to facilitate this expedient movement into the city in the morning and out in the afternoon.” Below is an example of the technique used to accommodate traffic into and sometimes through a cbd/downtown.
The Post-Freeway Era reached its peak in the 1980s, when corporate offices chose to locate in suburban edge settings. In addition to the one-ways, increasing traffic also gobbled up surface and ground floor real estate in the form of parking which contributed to “blighted, empty streets and boarded-up storefronts, devoid of life after 6 pm.”
Finally, the Reemerging Era is where we are today with an increase interest in both residential and business activities locating in traditional city centres. This urban renaissance has lead to a proliferation of one-way re-conversions beginning in earnest in 1990 according to student researcher Meagan Baco.
As urban observer Alan Ehrenhalt notes, in the Return of the Two way Street, cities across America are coming to the conclusion that one-ways should go as documented in this story from Vancouver, Washington:
In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight. Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. “We have twice as many people going by as they did before,” one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. “It’s like, wow,” he exclaimed, “why did it take us so long to figure this out?” A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. “One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas,” says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. “We’ve proven that.”
In addition to Vancouver, Washington, ‘hundreds’ of North American cities have already made one-way conversions, including: Baton Rouge, Berkeley, Dallas, Green Bay, Portland, Sacremento, San Francisco, San Jose and Miami. The success of these efforts are increasingly being documented, like this story from Canada:
“It was somewhat controversial at first, but I would say now that, without exaggeration, people are 90% in favour,” said Brian McMullan, the city’s ebullient young mayor. A prominent local businessman came up to me the other day and said, ‘I didn’t support it from the start, but this is the best thing you’ve ever done.’ ”
This brief post does not address the traffic and street design dynamics of one-ways that make them so dangerous for pedestrians and repulsive to urban life. Instead, I thought it would be best to document how common the practice of retrofitting has become and where it sits in a historical context. Taking a different look at street design, mobility and accessibility (Link v Place) questions the entire premise of our modern transportation planning (What’s the point). It is increasingly becoming evident that designing our city, streets and neighbourhoods for people (as opposed to cars) provides significant value and resiliency.
From the first report mentioned above I recreated an interesting diagram that depicted the premise that there is a “livability” dividend that can be realised if we are prepared to sacrifice a few seconds of time from a vehicular trip. Turning one-ways back to two, like shared spaces, signal priority for pedestrians, and providing for transit and cycling is increasingly being seen as a “no-brainer” for cities intent on remaining relevant in the 21st century.