Hamilton, Ontario is a city with an intricate (albeit confusing) network of one-way streets. These multi-lane expressways are very efficient in their purpose: to get people through the city core very quickly. They are not, however, conducive to building a vibrant and healthy city.
As more and more people are moving downtown in cities across North America, more people are questioning how to revitalize downtowns after decades of flight into the suburbs. In Hamilton, a growing number of voices are pointing to the conversion of one-way streets to two-way as an important next step in this process.
One-way streets were a logical solution when they were first converted in 1956. With so many people driving their cars into work from the suburbs and back again, congestion was an issue. The one-way streets moved cars quickly. These successes, however, come at the expense of many other considerations, including local business vitality, pedestrian safety, and livability (Walker, Kulash, and McHugh offer a succinct analysis of these costs). A study of traffic statistics in Hamilton from 1978-1994 concluded a child was 2.5 times more likely to be hit by a car on a one-way street. As a growing number of professionals and families choose to live downtown, more people are speaking up against the loss of these other important aspects of city life.
There are interesting parallels between Hamilton’s one-way networks and North American public life and dialogue.
At times our society resembles a one-way street more than a two-way street. Conversation can be quick to bypass certain opinions and ideas, especially when it comes to religion or morality, as we’ve seen recently, for example, with the Ontario government pushing the “gay-straight alliance” clubs in all schools, while ignoring the Catholic schools concerns and objections. Disregarding opinions that disagree with one’s own is an effective way to move conversation in the desired direction, but it doesn’t lead to a healthy public square. There needs to be room for two-way discussion and debate in decision-making.
The name Cardus comes from the root word cardo, an old Latin word referring to the main street in Roman cities. The cardo connected the vital parts of city life: the shops, government buildings, temples, and public spaces. Cardus seeks to be a cardo in Canadian public life: connecting, strengthening, and renewing our social architecture in order to promote vitality and livability for all. We do this through research and publications that promote dialogue and encourage the exchange of ideas that work towards the common good. Cardus is always battling, including with ourselves, to keep the road open and the dialogue two-way between institutions, leaders, and citizens.
The one-way street experiment has run its course in Hamilton and in many cities across North America. The cost of these downtown expressways greatly outweighs the benefits. Drivers can move quickly, but the surrounding city suffers for it. In our public life, devaluing and ignoring the voices and opinions of fellow citizens may move conversation in a certain way, but the divisiveness in its wake is damaging to the country as a whole.