One-way fracas revives a debate about what urban thoroughfares are for
May 10, 2009 04:30 AM
Christopher Hume Urban Affairs Columnist - Toronto Star
The question may seem straightforward, but not the answer.
Are streets an ends or a means, a way to get from A to B, or destinations in themselves?
In most cases they are both.
But as the debate over councillor Adam Vaughan's proposal to turn portions of Adelaide and Richmond from one-way to two-way streets makes clear, that doesn't make the decision any easier in a city where the car is king. A similar idea has also surfaced in Oshawa where city councillor Louise Parkes has raised the idea of turning some downtown streets back to two-way. They were made one-way long ago to accommodate shift changes at General Motors.
The one-way/two-way argument boils down to a car-versus-pedestrian struggle. The prevailing view is that one-way streets are better for vehicular flow than two-way. With fewer turns and no oncoming traffic, they tend to be faster.
On the other hand, one-way streets also force drivers to make more than the usual number of U-turns.
By contrast, two-way streets slow traffic, which is thought to make things safer for pedestrians – and drivers, for that matter.
"It means there's a fast way to get across downtown," was how one cab driver explained his preference for Adelaide and Richmond. "I think they should be left one-way."
From the other side, Nancy Smith-Lea of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, told the Star last week that "One-way streets tend to be more dangerous for both cyclists and pedestrians. Traffic moves much faster."
Because both Adelaide and Richmond are four-lane roads, conversion from one-way to two would be possible.
Right now neither street sustains the kind of vitality as King, Queen or College Streets. The one-ways are largely back streets west of Yonge, and expressways to the east.
The Bay doesn't bother to dress the Richmond St. windows of its Queen St. flagship store.
In another part of town, a similar, but different, controversy is brewing over a proposal to close the reversible middle lane of Jarvis St. That would mean widening sidewalks and adding bicycle lanes.
Well-heeled north-enders have proclaimed their opposition. On the other hand, if the goal is a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly city, closing the lane is the right thing to do. But that doesn't mean it will be done.
In addition to the power wielded by the burghers of Rosedale and Moore Park, the city itself remains ambivalent about the car. Yes, we want to encourage pedestrians and cyclists, and enhance street life, but not if that interferes with traffic.
The city might take cues from New York transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Under her leadership, that city has moved aggressively to make its streets more attractive to pedestrians. That hasn't included changing roads from one-way to two, and in Manhattan, one-way streets abound. But given New York's fierce congestion, that doesn't seem to matter. Blocks are generally short and traffic slow.
Sadik-Khan's strategy involves reclaiming chunks of streets, especially intersections, for pedestrians. Some former corners are now furnished with chairs and tables.
"It's important to look at streets holistically," she says. "When you see the city through the windshield of a car you see one thing, when you see it from a pedestrian point of view, you see it in different ways. Then it becomes clear our cities aren't working."
In Toronto, councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong is talking about a "deliberate campaign against drivers."
"Our job is to provide solutions to the congestion and gridlock that the city has," he said last week. "Instead, we are becoming more part of the problem. This arrangement is another thing we're going to do to make congestion worse."
In this city, the prevailing hope is that pedestrians and cyclists can be accommodated without getting in traffic's way. It's hard to make happen. In urban conditions, planners play a zero-sum game. Jarvis is a good example; adding bike lanes and widening sidewalks requires space, space that can only be gained by closing the fifth lane.
Richmond (one-way westbound) and Adelaide (one-way eastbound) have evolved into urban highways. They're not the Gardiner but, once past Parliament St. in the east become no-go zones for pedestrians and cyclists; then Richmond and Adelaide merge into an overpass that make it clear that this was the intention.
That was then, this is now. Fifty years ago, cities everywhere were building highways. Now many are tearing them down. Think of Boston, Seoul, San Francisco, Oslo...
Others – London and Stockholm – have introduced congestion fees, road tolls by another name. Despite enormous initial resistance, the fees reduced traffic up to 20 per cent.
The intention was to cut the number of car trips and find a better balance of users.
But many Torontonians – voters all – remain attached, limpet-like, to their wheels. Road tolls are too hot to handle and if taking down the Gardiner Expressway, in part or in whole, remains an option, those with the power aren't in a rush.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that congestion is one thing all great cities share. In New York, Rome, London, Paris or Istanbul the traffic is awful. Even cities planned around the car – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – are as gripped by gridlock.
Sadik-Khan has discovered the urban street grid can be put to better use than just traffic. That doesn't mean removing all cars from the street, but finding a better mix of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. For half a century, the car was given preference by default, but that's coming to an end.
Torontonians are waking up to the possibilities of the public realm, but still waiting to see results.
The Richmond/Adelaide debate is one whose time has come. The questions it will raise will be about who gets access to what. Is Toronto a place for cars or kids, vehicles or people?
If the city belongs to all the above, the roads are a good place to begin the conversation. If it doesn't, they are a good place to end it.
"The latest fad among urban planners is to convert one-way streets to two-way. The goal, they say, is to slow down traffic and make streets more pedestrian friendly ...
By almost any measurable criteria – safety, pollution, congestion, and effects on most local businesses – one-way streets are superior to two-way. The idea that two-way streets are superior because they are more pedestrian-friendly is just a planner's fantasy that disguises their real intent: to create an auto-hostile environment."– From Vanishing Automobile update #30 (ti.org/vaupdate30.html)
"One-way streets waste gas, time and lives. To get to my place at Marlowe and Sherbrooke with a carload of kids involves driving down Northcliffe or Vendome, diddling around the lights ... and shooting back up Marlowe to Sherbrooke – only to discover the parking space I spotted earlier is taken ... by the wise guy who raced in reverse down Marlowe from Sherbrooke ... The quiet two-way street of yesterday is now a rocket range."
– From The Monitor, Montreal, cited in The Gazette