Staff need to muster up the vision and ambition to build LRT to its full potential, and not cripple it with compromises to entrenched (and empirically failed) ways of thinking about traffic and transformation.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 02, 2010
Jillian Stephen, the director of the City's Rapid Transit office, has confirmed in an email that the proposed two-way conversion of Main Street and King Street have been dropped from the City's Light Rail Transit plan for the east-west B-Line.
Previously, the City's LRT proposal included the two-way conversion of Main and King, a coupling Metrolinx affirmed in their Benefits Case Analysis, which stated:
The one-way system typically supports longer cross town trips rather than the shorter trips encouraged by the two-way streets. ... Furthermore, the two-way street system is more supportive of the City's objective to create a healthy, more pedestrian-friendly downtown. ...
In addition to the merits of the two-way conversion, the ability of the rapid transit system to compete with the automobile and generate travel time benefits is directly related to the operating speed of the rapid transit system.
Despite this, City staff have decided to abandon two-way traffic conversion, though the LRT itself will still run two-way on King Street through the downtown.
This is a major decision that requires a full explanation from City staff and justification for going against the Metrolinx BCA as well as the overwhelming direction and empirical best practice from city redevelopment efforts across North America.
In an email response to RTH, Ms. Stephen wrote:
The current version of the design includes two-way LRT on the Main West, King, Queenston corridor, but does not include two-way general purpose traffic on streets where traffic is currently one-way. It does include a diversion of through traffic away from King Street, leaving King to serve local traffic only.
As you can imagine, we have heard from many people who love the idea of two-way traffic on King Street, and we have heard from many others who do not want the network changed. We have taken all of the public comments received to date, along with the technical information, the operational requirements (LRT and otherwise), the Benefits Case and the Vision Statement and have analyzed a number of alternatives in order to come up with a workable solution that meets the intent of why we examined the feasibility of LRT in the first place. The narrow right-of-way on parts of King makes providing all of the amenities that people what to see very difficult, and therefore choices have to be made.
There may be a case for leaving King Street one-way to vehicular traffic through a short stretch of the downtown core between Wellington Street and Gore Park, but that should have no bearing on the two-way conversion of Main Street.
If anything, reconfiguring King Street for local traffic only strengthens the case for two-way conversion on Main to accommodate westbound traffic and allow motorists more direct access to whatever destination (including destinations downtown) they're trying to reach.
As the Metrolinx BCA notes, our one way streets function as de facto expressways that funnel traffic across the downtown but are remarkably poor at allowing people to reach micro-destinations in the downtown.
This has been well-understood since the late 1950s, when downtown business owners decried the one-way conversion and then started slowly dying off - as they have in cities all across North America that made the same mistakes we made.
Looking at Hamilton, since the total number of lanes would remain effectively unchanged in a full two-way conversion, the real issue is the rate of traffic flow on one-way streets, i.e. their continued ability to function as de facto expressways.
It is incomprehensible that the perennial obsession of Public Works to maximize traffic flow at all costs continues to dominate the city's planning process at the expense of allowing Main Street to function as a destination in itself and produce a real economic uplift.
We know that two-way streets provide a far superior pedestrian experience that attracts customers to the businesses that would invest downtown if a market existed. Abandoning two-way conversion on Main undermines the potential for LRT to drive investment in the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) corridor.
We also know that people are more likely to walk to an LRT station if their walking environment is pleasant, attractive and feels safe. People won't walk to an LRT on King if they have to navigate a dangerous, hostile pedestrian environment on Main.
We further know that maintaining streets that maximize traffic flow reduces the comparative advantage of LRT as a viable transportation mode and undermines is capacity to attract new riders out of their cars.
How can the narrow, neighbourhood-smashing objective of maximizing traffic flow trump all of the well-understood, abundantly demonstrated livability and economic development benefits that accompany two-way conversion?
This is a huge step backwards that will undercut the benefits of building LRT and weaken support for LRT from those people who already understand its potential.
At every transportation workshop and lecture sponsored by Public Works that I've attended, every expert speaker has repeated the exact same theme: Build LRT, and convert your downtown streets back to two-way traffic.
Ms. Stephen has not yet responded to our follow-up request for a more detailed explanation of how the net benefits of retaining one-way traffic flows will justify the lost potential for urban revitalization.
Raise the Hammer calls on Public Works and the Rapid Transit office to muster up the vision and ambition to build LRT to its full potential, and not cripple it with more compromises to entrenched (and empirically failed) ways of thinking about traffic and transformation.
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