Commentary

A Narrow Focus Leads to Wide Streets

If we are to move forward in Hamilton and make real change, we must be willing to address our specific concerns in the broader context of a liveable city.

By George Sweetman
Published July 27, 2015

Today's cities are challenged with addressing a wide range of complicated and interconnected issues. The scope and complexity of issues such as infrastructure renewal, affordable housing, traffic congestion, and air quality can seem overwhelming.

Main Street West, five lanes wide
Main Street West, five lanes wide

Traditionally, the response has been for each city department (planning, public works, transit, parks, heritage, health, community services, etc.) to develop its own standards and policies to address these challenges. While at a departmental level these policies and standards make sense, cumulatively they can lead to unintended consequences.

By way of example, Jeff Speck, in his book Walkable City, designs a main street on the basis of the demands from each stakeholder:

First, we would need at least four travel lanes and a centre turn lane, to keep the transportation engineers happy. These would need to be eleven feet wide - no, wait, make that twelve feet, because the fire chief might want to pass a bus without slowing down. To satisfy the business owners, we would need angle parking on both sides (another forty feet), and eight-foot separated bike paths against each curb for you-know-who. Then we would add two ten-foot continuous tree trenches to satisfy the urban forester, and two twenty-foot-minimum sidewalks for the pedestrian advocates. ... We now have a main street over 175 feet wide, this is more than twice the normal width and about as efficacious an urban environment as a large-jet runway - and just as conducive to shopping. (Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time, p. 207)

From the perspective of each department, the input is appropriate but the cumulative result is not. Simply aggregating each demand results in a design that completely misses the goal, which in this case was to establish a vibrant main street. A more appropriate response might be to move away from merely aggregating standards and demands from special interest groups.

Here in Hamilton, we cannot address our current challenges through strict adherence to a narrow area of concern. A narrow focus can cause divisions and draw lines between people, such as those who live on the mountain and those who live downtown, between motorists and cyclists, between long-time residents and new residents.

If we are to move forward in Hamilton and make real change, we can no longer ignore criteria beyond our area of concern. We must be willing to address our specific concerns in the context of a liveable city and that may mean widening our field of view and focusing on outcomes, not inputs.

George Sweetman has been a civil engineer for 30 years working in land development and renewable energy, as well as teaching university students. He volunteers at various organizations focused on food security and affordable housing.

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By mdrejhon (registered) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:13:34

Wide streets and narrow sidewalks. Very pedestrian unfriendly.

And very bike unfriendly -- biking on Main/King is downright scary, whether done on the speedy road or on the narrow sidewalk.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2015-07-27 12:15:38

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By Dalaine (registered) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:56:51

This article makes an excellent point. Specialization seems to be a symptom of capitalism and the drive for 'efficiency'. Not only is city planning and design ruled by narrow specialization now, our health care system is ruled by specialists to the extent that they forget about the whole body and just focus on an organ. Our industrial agriculture system also focuses on maximizing 'efficiency' with huge fields of mono-crops to the detriment of the soil. These are just a couple of examples of narrow thinking that result from a lack of holistic vision and leadership.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 13:30:04

Another unintended consequence of generalized very wide streets (for emergency services) is that resulting the lower density means that emergency vehicles need to travel further on average negating the advantages of higher speed.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2015 at 13:31:30 in reply to Comment 113098

It also means higher vehicle speeds, leading to more crashes and more serious crashes, which result in more EMS dispatches.

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By mdrejhon (registered) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 15:12:49

Let's observe that car speeds on Lower City's Cannon street hasn't slowed down despite surrendering one lane to bikes. Even if tumbleweeds sometimes roll down the bike lane soemtimes before (albiet not as much now, with more bikes).

With the SoBi surprise success, the Cannon bike lanes definitely look more busy this year than last, with both SoBi and non-SoBi bikes. Not as busy as a Toronto bike lane, and may have been installed somewhat half-heartedly, but suffice to say -- the Cannon bike has proven itself and is now here to stay.

Now if we can inch a little more progress, we might even -- heaven forbid -- put bike lanes on Main/King within our lifetimes. Maybe. Maybe not. Perish the thought.

Car owner in me: Blasphemy! Ridiculolus thought! I love the sync'd green lights!!

People-friendly street in me: Go for it! Protected bike lanes on Main/King by 2035 on one side, bumpout parking on the other side, complete with lovely brick-patterned sidewalks!

Okay, I stop dreaming. Let's revisit this when we begin installing LRT lanes and we're dong Main/King detours (e.g. temporary 2-way Main experiment during LRT construction).

For now, small realistic steps -- let's extend Cannon bike lanes contiguously to Gage Park, and put bike lane stripes on Delaware/Stinson (there's some already, but let's extend full bike lane protection from Downtown GO all the way to Sherman, connecting to SHerman bike lanes that connects to Cannon. And extend Cannon bike lane to Gage. And put bike lanes on Gage going southwards from Cannon to Gage Park. Finally we'd have a safe protected commute from Gage Park to Downtown GO. We're already 80% of the way there with Cannon/Stinson/Hunter, we need to fill the gaps, with Sherman/Gage/Delaware. Just look at the SoBi heat map, Delaware is well used by SoBi bikes according to GPS records.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2015-07-27 15:28:29

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By Frank Bee (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 16:44:39

The city does have standard cross sections that were generated using input from all departments. The issue is that they haven't been changed in forever.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 28, 2015 at 00:34:02

I hope this comes to pass.

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