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This article was published 28/3/2016 (512 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Building a prosperous downtown is a two-way street — literally.
Later this year, downtown Winnipeg will celebrate its 60th anniversary of becoming a one-way city. Our transition away from urban two-way streets began some 30 years earlier, however, as car ownership grew, and for the first time traffic flows started to become a public concern. This means, of course, we in Winnipeg are also approaching our 90th anniversary of complaining about traffic.
To improve vehicular circulation in the growing city centre, new bylaws were introduced in 1931 that included the elimination of diagonal parking, the allowance of right turns on red lights and the creation of a handful of one-way streets.
In 1955 it was decided even more changes were needed. The boulevard trees that once lined downtown streets were cut down, and roads were widened, streetcars were removed to provide more room for vehicles, and by fall 1956 the majority of remaining streets in the downtown were converted to one-way traffic.
This scenario and its timelines played out in almost perfect synchronization in cities across North America. Today, many of these cities are considering turning back the clock and reintroducing two-way traffic as an important component of urban renewal and economic growth.
Pedestrian experience is critical
It is widely understood a permanent residential population is a key driver of street life and commerce in the city centre. In Winnipeg, we have spent millions of public dollars over the last decade providing subsidies to encourage downtown residential development. If we hope to build a real estate market that can support itself without these subsidies, creating the conditions that improve the pedestrian experience and make urban living attractive is a critical initiative.
A growing number of cities is recognizing two-way streets can be an effective part of a strategy for realizing this goal, for the simple reason — it slows cars down.
Slowing traffic can improve the quality of urban life in many ways, but primarily it achieves this by making streets safer for everyone; pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike. Reduced speeds result in shorter stopping distances, fewer accidents, less severe injuries when accidents do occur, reduced noise and a more comfortable overall physical environment.
With fewer visual distractions from oncoming traffic, it is felt motorists on one-way streets are not only encouraged to drive faster, but their concentration can be reduced, becoming less aware of their surroundings. This can impact pedestrian and cyclist safety, particularly at intersections.
In Hamilton, Ont., a city that has been attempting to convert its streets for several years, a public-health study published in 2000 found children are 2.5 times more likely to be injured on a one-way street than on a two-way. Further to this, a study from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, from 2011 revealed a two-way conversion of central Louisville streets reduced automobile collisions by 36 per cent in the first two years.
Navigating the labyrinth
One-way streets were first implemented at a time when funnelling vehicles through the downtown was the only design priority for traffic engineers. Two-way streets however, have been found to more effectively connect points within the downtown.
This can make urban living more attractive by allowing residents to more easily access amenities and services throughout the downtown. Anyone in Winnipeg who has ever tried to drive or cycle between two central destinations, the Exchange District and the convention centre as an example, understands finding a circuitous route through the labyrinth of one-way streets can require a significant amount of foresight and planning.
A private urban-design firm in Orlando, Fla., found because of less direct travel routes, drivers on one-way street systems turn more than twice as often and travel up to 50 per cent greater distances to reach their destination. This results in a higher number of vehicle-pedestrian interactions (typically 40 per cent more), again reducing pedestrian safety. In fact, despite one-way streets typically having 10 to 20 per cent higher vehicle capacity, many current studies indicate this longer trip length may mean the slower traffic of two-way streets does not actually reduce travel times and increase congestion as conventional wisdom suggests.
Perhaps the most politically attractive advantage of two-way streets is they are good for business. Their slower pace creates a more comfortable physical environment that attracts pedestrians. Pedestrians are shoppers. Shoppers support retail business. In most cities, it is rare to find a one-way street that has successfully created a comfortable enough pedestrian experience to support a successful shopping strip or collection of sidewalk cafés.
Increased storefront visibility
The advantages of an attractive physical environment are supplemented by more convenient access for drivers because of the neighbourhood connectivity and easier navigation two-way streets offer.
Fewer barriers to access encourage the stop-and-go shopping that is so essential to support ground-floor retail. Accessibility also grows the market footprint, by making people who live across a greater geographic area consider a shop or restaurant to be part of their local neighbourhood network.
Increased storefront visibility is a third reason two-way streets have been found to promote retail growth. Slower speeds make signage and storefronts more visible to motorists, increasing the likelihood of impulse purchases. The direction of travel becomes important as motorists on one-way streets see only half of the ground-floor retail spaces when stopped at intersections, the time when drivers are most likely to notice a retailer. Visual access in general is reduced when everyone is experiencing the street from the same perspective. Many planners believe the introduction of one-way streets in the 1950s signalled the beginning of the slow decline of downtown retail in cities across North America.
The benefits of reintroducing two-way streets are not simply academic theories. So many cities have been implementing this change over the past 20 years, we are able to study the real-world impacts.
Almost every experience has realized positive economic growth, and in some instances, cities have seen dramatically reduced vacancy rates, increased property values and a significant leveraging of private investment.
Returning two-way traffic to downtown Winnipeg areas such as the Exchange District and Broadway-Assiniboine, with growing populations and burgeoning sidewalk retail networks, might realize similar impacts on neighbourhood character and economic growth.
One-way streets have been part of Winnipeg’s DNA for so long, it seems impossible to consider reintroducing two-way traffic even in a small way. Many cities are proving our urban streets can make a greater contribution to the city than simply moving cars as quickly as possible. With some creativity, they can also be part of strategies for stimulating the economy and improving the quality of life in urban neighbourhoods.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.