Special Report: Walkable Streets

Will City Commit Fully to Livable Downtown Streets?

If we don't go all-in with our rapid transit plan, we're at serious risk of ending up with an underwhelming rapid transit system with minimal impact.

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 16, 2010

The 2009 consultant report on the east-west LRT line recommended converting Main Street and King Street to two-way traffic flows and putting LRT on King.

This past June, the City of Hamilton had a display on the Rapid Transit plan at an alternative transportation event held in Gore Park. RTH was concerned to discover that it looked as though the two-way conversion of Main Street had been dropped from the east-west LRT plan.

When my associate and I asked about it, the city representative told us the city wants to take a more "incremental" approach to the transition plan and that Main Street and Cannon Street are seen as "paired" contra-flow streets for through traffic.

This really concerned me. The whole point of building LRT is to foster a transformational change, and all the evidence I've seen is that to be successful, LRT needs to be coupled with comprehensive supporting changes to the related infrastructure and policies.

In particular, the street infrastructure within the transit corridor should be transit- and pedestrian-enabling, including two-way traffic flows, curbside parking, street trees, wide sidewalks, and so on.

Once again, it looked as though the city was preparing to compromise the goal of creating a dense, vibrant, transit-oriented downtown for the purpose of maximizing automotive traffic flows.

I contacted the city's rapid transit office looking for clarification, and Lisa Zinkewich provided a detailed response. She noted that the city has hired a new consultant, Steer Davies Gleave (SDG), to conduct the next phase of planning, design and engineering, which is still underway.

Zinkewich confirmed that SDG is taking a "complete streets approach" to the design, looking at traffic, transit, deliveries, parking, cycling, walking, right-of-way impacts, and urban design.

She confirmed that no decisions have yet been made. "At this stage," Zinkewich wrote, "everything is still on the table." She did caution, however, that "as you get into the detail design (the devil is in the details), other considerations become evident" that might impact what the city hopes to accomplish in the design.

She acknowledged that "there are benefits to two-way traffic on both Main and King Streets" but noted that staff have not yet presented options to Council. She also suggested, "there will also be phasing plans for implementation."

The issue of Main and Cannon as "paired" streets, identified as such in the Downtown Transportation Master Plan, still needs to be incorporated into the LRT plan, given the impacts on "overall movement throughout the city".

It was reassuring to learn that all options are still on the table, but my worry is that this city has a long history of compromising livability where it impacts traffic flow. Even the selection of King Street as the preferred LRT route reflects the city's studies showing less overall impact on traffic if the LRT goes on King.

A balanced transportation system does not prioritize automobile traffic over other modes. Progressive cities like Vancouver actually prioritize traffic modes in reverse: walking first, followed by cycling, followed by transit, and finally followed by driving.

In Hamilton, notwithstanding the excellent work the rapid transit team has been doing with respect to LRT, the prevailing mentality is still that driving is the normal mode and that other modes are "alternative".

If we don't go all-in with our rapid transit plan and commit fully to transit-oriented development on complete, two-way downtown streets, we're at serious risk of ending up with an underwhelming rapid transit system that has minimal impact on investment and land use flows around it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2010 at 09:46:18

I still dissent and think that, while 90% of the other roads should be converted to 2-way, the city needs an east-west 1-way corridor. After all, the city is very horizontally stretched and both sides of our "ring road" are partially (or in the case of the 403, completely) cut-off from the city proper. I like taking the bus... and I prefer it when that bus moves swiftly instead of being snarled in traffic.

That said, the 60-70kph Green Wave is friggin' absurd. Drivers shouldn't be encouraged to speed. We really do need to calm the traffic down... but not at the cost of making it stop constantly. Add button-controlled traffic-light crossings in between the existing lights, like where that poor guy on a rascal scooter was hit.

So I have to say I like the plan the city has so far - keep a single 1-way paired corridor, but make King 2-way to give us a proper downtown, and add LRT. Sounds perfect to me. Of course, I live in Westdale, so for me downtown is where I go to shop.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2010-07-16 08:52:13

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 09:52:01

Main Street is our .... Main street. And there isn't a healthy business along it's one way dead zone. If you want to get across town quickly, jump on the damn LRT, it's going to be on dedicated lanes so no excuses. As for the "stretched" city you have to look at densities, downtown is dense and people need public spaces where they can walk around safely. Also if it weren't so easy to drive all the way across town in 10 minutes maybe we wouldn't have so many big box stores out on the edge.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 10:15:29

@Pxtl:

Of course, I live in Westdale, so for me downtown is where I go to shop.

I live downtown and go to Westdale from time to time to shop as well. So why don't we continue the one-way synchronized loop through Westdale? If we expropriated land from McMaster, we could extend King Street through campus to Cootes Drive and make it the westbound route all the way to Dundas. Main Street (and Osler) would be the eastbound route.

Has it ever occurred to you that Westdale is a nice place to live precisely because it has livable streets? Do downtown residents not have a similar right to people-friendly neighbourhoods?

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2010 at 10:27:59

If you think Main Street in Westdale is any safer than the 1-way streets in downtown, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you.

The main reason the 1-way streets don't continue through Westdale is because King and Main are the only long east-west roads in the area, and King ends at McMaster. If they continued the 1-way streets further, then drivers would be forced to do a Dundurn-style drag through a cramped residential area to make the connection where the 1-way ends/begins, and we all know what a great idea that is. At most you could extend it to Longwood instead of doing the endpoint at Paradise... not a big difference.

If there was another main-like street running through Westdale, I'd be all for keeping the 1-way traffic going through. Then maybe you could turn left somewhere. And you wouldn't need to make the road a hundred lanes wide.

Notice: the proposed plan (two major arterial roads are 1-way, everything else is 2-way) is analogous to what we have in Westdale, with the gigantic urban highway of Main Street and then we have the commerce-friendly area of King Street.

We're talking about putting the same thing in downtown. And it works for Westdale.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:55:58

I would like to see them study what would work best if, in conjunction with the LRT, we were to completely close King between say Wellington and James St to all vehicle traffic. I may be "dreaming in technicolor" but I think that would be a really beneficial thing for our downtown.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 13:00:05

The main reason the 1-way streets don't continue through Westdale is because King and Main are the only long east-west roads in the area, and King ends at McMaster. If they continued the 1-way streets further, then drivers would be forced to do a Dundurn-style drag through a cramped residential area to make the connection where the 1-way ends/begins, and we all know what a great idea that is. At most you could extend it to Longwood instead of doing the endpoint at Paradise... not a big difference.

Not true. You could easily extend it to Forsyth Ave (right against McMaster campus.)

I agree that Main St. in Westdale (and all the way through west Hamilton) is a blight on the landscape. I used to live in Westdale, and I certainly avoided Main St. as much as possible. But it was nevertheless more pleasant to walk along than either Wilson or Cannon. I will give you that it is a very difficult street to cross, but that's mainly because it's so ridiculously wide.

I'd be very happy to see road narrowing and traffic calming measures on Main St. in Westdale. Creating a dedicated right of way for LRT would be one way to achieve that.

Notice: the proposed plan (two major arterial roads are 1-way, everything else is 2-way) is analogous to what we have in Westdale, with the gigantic urban highway of Main Street and then we have the commerce-friendly area of King Street.

A better analogy would be turning the downtown part of Main St. into a two way street optimized for bidirectional traffic flow and turning all three of the other large east-west streets (Wilson, King, and Cannon) into two-way streets with continuous street parking, unsynchronized lights, and pedestrian islands.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2010 at 13:06:34

If nothing else Ryan, this article by you on this site, is all the reason we need to continue with the two way street vision.

A flower memorial still exists on that street pole at King and Gage. That article by Susan Clairmont at The Spec, drove deep into my heart. Every single day I can hear the cars racing down Cannon and Main/King. It's scary.

"His body ripped in two, his friend left to pick up the pieces and carry his dead friend across the street." I can't find the article right now to find the exact words Susan used, but the graphic nature in which this story portrayed, should have stirred up a lot more than some laws.

We need to slow these streets down and make it safer for people walking and riding bikes, etc. My kids are going to be out on these streets soon on their own, and I will be damed if I am going to sit back and do nothing while these maniacs in their lawn mower sounding Civics, fly up and down these city streets.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2010-07-16 12:08:50

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 13:43:08

My kids are going to be out on these streets soon on their own,- lawrence

My daughter too lawrence. I live right by Gage between King and Cannon and I have been telling my daughter since she was two (i.e., since we moved there) how dangerous those streets are and how careful she needs to be.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2010 at 13:57:20

My daughter too lawrence. I live right by Gage between King and Cannon and I have been telling my daughter since she was two (i.e., since we moved there) how dangerous those streets are and how careful she needs to be.

I just don't know why we have all that police presence downtown, but we can't dedicate a patrol car to this area where every single day, I hear the sounds of a speedway?

That small stretch between the Delta and Gage is the worst, although the tragic death of Matthew Powers was just beyond those Gage lights.

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By steve (registered) | Posted July 16, 2010 at 15:05:54

Make every street two-way and be done with it. If the one way system is so great, lets turn the west, east and mountain city streets into one way!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2010 at 16:23:55

How successful we'll be at making these streets liveable has a lot to do with creativity, too.

Bike racks, for instance. Most of the City's bike racks (notably the ring/post ones) are a joke (especially when they could be taken apart with a wrench). They can barely fit two bikes unless you're going to lock to a friend's frame. The city's wrought-iron garbage cans downtown, however, are a godsend, can hold many more, and have a bar right at perfect level to lock up a road bike's top tube without even having to hunch down, and you still don't impede garbage can access.

So how can we build LRT stops and guard-rails to accomodate lots of bikes without dedicating expensive space and structures to the task? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask.

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By Peter Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2010 at 01:52:10

The two-waying of all the streets should happen.

Have a read over this article if you need more firepower:

http://www.governing.com/hidden/The-Return-of-the.html

Also, I could provide a bunch of reasons to go both ways -- from a biking perspective.

I'd go get all the businesses on those streets on board, and then send their signatures to the city council. Done.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 17, 2010 at 09:00:28

I used to walk along Wilson and Cannon when my daughter was young and in a stroller. Even Barton some times. In ten years I've never had a serious problem with walking those streets. My guess would be it is cars and cyclists (particularly ones on the sidewalk) that are at the greatest risk.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted July 17, 2010 at 19:01:05

To answer your question Ryan -- the title of this piece. No. First we'd have to see evidence of a commitment. Not some half-arsed, token efforts. Real efforts. Until then, the answer is easy. No. This city's management and elected leaders do not care about making it livable.

The proof is.... well the proof.. They know what they need to do, wrt to transit, ped safe streets, streets that accommodate multiple means of use, safety, lighting, cleanliness, forget about the fringe developments, real encouragement of infill, etc. etc.

If a city wants to claim it is doing what is necessary to make it livable.... there is only one thing in Hamilton I need to point to to prove the fail... Royal Connaught.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2010 at 20:00:14

Ryan >> we're at serious risk of ending up with an underwhelming rapid transit system that has minimal impact on investment

Because we all know that money losing, subsidized transit is the way to build prosperous communities. If only the people of Dundas and Ancaster would learn the lesson of Hamilton, pay higher tax rates, spend less at local businesses, then they too could have as many vacant lots and run down buildings as we do.

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By Centrist (registered) | Posted July 18, 2010 at 19:01:49

A Smith, I notice you often like to compare Hamilton to Ancaster and Dundas. Do you understand that this is a little like comparing apples and oranges? Hamilton is not a town like Ancaster and Dundas. It is a mid-sized city with far more complex economic and social systems at work. Next time, try to keep the comparisons on an even keel.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 18, 2010 at 21:00:00

while we're at it, let's not forget who paid the bulk of the money necessary to allow growth in Ancaster and Dundas. It sure wasn't money raised from the Cactusfest or Ancaster Fair.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2010 at 16:45:20

Centrist >> It is a mid-sized city with far more complex economic and social systems at work

Does population of a community dictate tax rates? If it does, how do you explain the fact that Toronto has lower rates than Hamilton? If it doesn't, then what is your point?

Jason >> let's not forget who paid the bulk of the money necessary to allow growth in Ancaster and Dundas.

The city charges development fees, so in this case it would be the new home buyers.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 19, 2010 at 17:27:52

@A Smith

I think our higher tax rate can simply be explained by the fact that we don't have places like Bay Street. There is only one Bay Street. No matter what you build in Hamilton, you won't have Bay Street, because you only really need one or two financial districts like that in a whole nation. And Bay Street pays property tax for that prime real-estate.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2010 at 20:02:54

Pxtl, the rationale for government spending is to make the community livable. If a community is very livable, people will pay a premium to live there. As long as the government spends money wisely, delivering x+ in value for every x dollars spent, tax rates on homes should fall over time.

In Hamilton, we have higher tax rates than our GTA neighbours. This indicates that for each government dollar spent, this city government produces less in value than other communities.

The easiest way for government to reduce waste is to stop spending on things that aren't life or death. That means only water, police, fire and that's it. All other areas should be cut until such time Hamilton's property tax rate mathces that of Burlington. At that point, Hamilton's tax disadvantage will be nearly erased and the demand for our city will match our GTA neighbours. This would also mean property values closer to Halton levels rather than Brantford. levels.

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By anon123 (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2010 at 21:43:20

Don't be absurd A Smith. The value of Toronto's homes gives them more money even though the rate is much lower, add to this the fact that their neighbourhoods are far more dense, and it's clear they are awash in money.

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