Over the years, many people in St. John's have proposed converting our downtown business district streets (Water and Duckworth) into one-way lanes. While the idea might sound great at first, it would actually do more harm than good.
I'd like to start with a confession: I used to wave the flag of one-way downtown streets. With parked cars on both sides, rush hour drop-offs and pick-ups, and pedestrians crossing the street willy-nilly, you've got yourself a real obstacle course!
The solution to this "problem" seems so obvious. Restrict the two streets to one way each and all of a sudden traffic will flow effortlessly and more quickly. Angle the parking on one side and you've probably increased the number of available spaces. Sure, maybe you can even widen the sidewalks to boot!
The thing is, that obstacle course I talked about is actually a good thing. Such commotion among those narrow lanes forces drivers to move slowly and stay alert to their surroundings. Shoot, there's even an award-winning tourism ad that uses the ease-of-pedestrian crossing to appeal to visitors.
St. John’s has looked into the one-way streets in the past. Most recently, in 2009, the City hired a consultant to do a comprehensive Parking Study for the downtown. In section 7.1 on maximizing on-street parking supply, the report soundly rejects the one-way 'couplet' idea.
The report states: "The main issue in Downtown St. John's that makes one-way street[s] unfeasible is their impact on road capacity and operations." It goes on to note that we’d be reducing the number of lanes in each direction from two to one (one direction on each street), and this would actually lead to more congestion.
"...we'd better know what we're trying to achieve. Because it's possible we're already using the best option available."
Fact is, cities throughout North America are currently converting business area streets from one-way back to two-way. See Hamilton, Oregon City, Rochester, and Denver, just to name a few. If you really want to dig into why they're doing this, check out this in-depth study called "Are We Strangling Ourselves on One-Way Networks?" [PDF]
Now, could this shift to two-way streets be an urban planning fad? Perhaps. But consider this: car use has been dropping since 2004. Maybe cars are the fad. And more importantly, should accommodating auto traffic with increased speeds and parking spaces be our top priority?
The Atlantic Cities website has an article called "The Case Against One-Way Streets" and they list some of the primary reasons other cities are actually converting back to two-way streets:
- 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.
City Hall is spending millions to calm traffic throughout the city, but downtown already has that problem solved, free of charge. So to spend money on converting the streets to one-way (and then educating residents and visitors on how to use them) may very well be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Here's the bottom line. If we're looking to solve traffic, parking, or "vibrancy" issues downtown, we'd better know what we're trying to achieve. Because it's possible we're already using the best option available.