Special Report: Cycling

The Challenge of Crossing Downtown on a Bicycle

While the root of this problem is our unfortunate legacy of megaprojects and one-way streets, there's at least one potential quick fix.

By John Neary
Published April 23, 2012

Can anyone name a single safe westbound bicycle route across the west end of Downtown Hamilton (from James to Queen) in the 1.2 km between Hunter Street West and Barton Street West?

My criteria for a safe route are simple. No riding on sidewalks. No riding across parking lots or private property. No wrong-way travel on one-way streets. No riding along one-way streets that are four or more lanes wide, unless they have dedicated bicycle lanes.

I've used Robert Street - James Street - Mulberry Street - Central Park to take my son to the Ontario Early Years Centre on Queen St. North. However, there's no route from Hess through to Queen without going all the way north to Barton.

Moving south, one reaches the York/Cannon/Queen/Hess interchange. East of that is Sir John A. Macdonald, which cuts off a large part of the street grid. East of Sir John A. is Bay Street, which is one-way northbound. Too bad, because Wilson / York is actually a decent westbound bike route as far as Bay, where York becomes a one-way eastbound street. Following Bay Street to the north brings one to Cannon; north of that we're back at Mulberry.

(My usual westbound route when I'm cycling on my own is York to Bay, then south along the sidewalk or across the Swiss Chalet parking lot to Napier. But that breaks at least one rule.)

South of York is the Jackson Square - City Centre - Library - Farmer's Market - Copps Coliseum megablock. Again, no bike routes. South of that is the King Street wind tunnel. Moving further south, we reach more megablocks, a five-lane eastbound highway, and another megablock in the form of City Hall before finally landing at Hunter Street.

Eastbound travel is marginally better, because Market - Bay - York doesn't go the wrong way on Bay Street.

By comparison, there are at five decent westbound routes in the south end (Hunter, Duke, Charlton, Markland, and Aberdeen Streets) with a painted bicycle lane on Markland.

While the root of this problem is our unfortunate legacy of megaprojects and one-way streets, there's at least one potential quick fix.

Two-way conversion of Bay Street between King and York (or, more likely, between King and Cannon) would allow cyclists to travel York - Bay - Market as far as Ray Street in the middle of Strathcona. (It would also give residents of the North End and Central Neighbourhood a needed southbound route; at present there is none between James and Queen.)

I can't see a good reason why Bay Street should be one-way northbound to Cannon in the first place. Much of the westbound traffic from the east end already gets shunted from King up Victoria to Cannon Street before even reaching the downtown.

There's nothing much on Bay Street South that would generate a lot of northbound traffic other than City Hall, and nowhere much for it to go along Cannon/York except to Burlington ... oh.

John Neary lives in Beasley Neighbourhood and practices general internal medicine at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. He would like Hamilton to develop an urban environment that creates less gainful employment for his profession.

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By Brendan Simons (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:52:07

I take Canon/York across that stretch. I make sure to take up a good portion of the right lane, as the lanes aren't big enough for cars to pass safely in the same lane. It works fairly well, except for the occasional one-finger salute I get from drivers who have to *gasp* make a lane change.

The other option is to go south of your zone and head down Charleton, but that's a big detour.

It is inexcusable that there isn't a reasonable option for cycling across the lower city. This is the primary reason we don't have a cycling culture in Hamilton IMHO.

(Apparently there were bike lanes on Main and King once upon a time - I can only guess why they were removed. We also had a chance for bike lanes when they were going to put LRT down Main, but that plan has been quashed too :(

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By rrrandy (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:02:21

I wondered at why Bay Street wasn't converted to two-way as well. It certainly would be an improvement if it were. It could be a nice connecting gateway to the Bayfront/Harbour from downtown.

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By Brendan Simons (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:06:40 in reply to Comment 76131

... and don't even consider Barton. The city's cycling map calls this a "signed on-street bicycle route", but that's just for appearances. The lanes are too narrow (especially in the Barton village, where the bump-outs extend right to the lane boundary) and the traffic is too congested.

I can't find it right now, but I saw a map of cycling accidents in Hamilton over the past few years. Barton street had a dark streak of red dots :(

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By Vague Memory (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:09:27

I vaguely recall seeing a website once that let users plot recommended cycle routes for others along with comments on spots to watch out for, etc. Sadly didn't bookmark it though. This would be really useful here in Hamilton where even some of the designated routes have choke points and sections that are treacherous.
Good luck finding a sane alternative for your route.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 13:24:56

There's nothing much on Bay Street South that would generate a lot of northbound traffic other than City Hall, and nowhere much for it to go along Cannon/York except to Burlington ... oh.

:)

I would still love know - really and truly - more about the residential demographics of the City of Hamilton roads and planning staff.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 13:33:39

I assume they managed to keep Bay St. off the "2-way conversion" table because of the West Harbour stadium... and since they still are holding out hopes for some kind of West Harbour mega-project, I'd wager it will remain in permanent limbo.

But really, except for concert days (when traffic is terrible everywhere) I never see enough traffic on Bay to justify its 1-way nature. It's just not that busy a street.

I'd take a bike path cutting across Sir John A at Caroline as an alternative to Bay, though. That would nicely hook into Napier, which is one of the better east/west routes for bikes.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 13:39:40

Just by way of a visual aid, here's the area in google maps, with a route shown from the South-East corner to the North-West corner of the area mentioned in the first paragraph of the article.

http://g.co/maps/mtjc7

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By Ian Cooper (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 14:07:43

Why are you against traveling on a 4-lane one-way street? It seems an arbitrary restriction. Or does Canada not allow cyclists to travel in the left hand lane of a one-way street (as is allowed in the US)?

I suggest you stop searching for supposed 'bike routes'. They are usually designed and built by folks who don't ride bikes, so they can be more dangerous than an unmarked road. Instead, look for roads with the following considerations in this order:

1. Preferably the shortest lawful route.
2. Must have signalized intersections for any left turns.
3. Preferably plenty of room to negotiate between lanes when approaching left turns.
4. Preferably low traffic or plenty of traffic lights on approaches to left turns.

And ride in the road as if you own it. Riding in the gutter (if you do that - many do) will cause you more problems than it solves. Don't be afraid to change lanes. Do what motorists do - stop in the middle of your lane if no one to your left is letting you in, signal and wait for someone to stop and let you in. Cars behind you may honk, but they will stop.

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By TerryCooke (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 14:34:04

See below a quick history of the short lived Main/King bike lanes that I captured in one of my Spec columns a few years back.

Section: Opinion Page: WR7 Edition: MET Headline:Bike paths: Heed the younger generation Subhead:
Story Label:
Reporter/Byline: Terry Cooke The Hamilton Spectator Caption:
Dateline:
Body Text: They built the Great Pyramid in ancient Egypt in 20 years. But in Hamilton it's going to take us 40 years to construct a network of bicycle paths. Maybe we should be just a little more ambitious. Or perhaps our city councillors should ask any randomly selected group of younger Hamiltonians what they think about encouraging the use of alternative forms of transportation to the private automobile. Because young people just get it. They have figured out that our political future looks very different than the recent past on a bunch of different issues. Take gay marriage for instance, about which people of my generation remain deeply divided. Yet everybody I've talked to under 30 believes it's a no-brainer -- live and let live. Just as young people know successful urban areas have to move away from planning that focuses exclusively on moving large numbers of vehicles quickly through the heart of our cities. I guarantee that a city council comprised of 25-year-olds would jump at the opportunity to convert a five-lane urban expressway such as Main Street into something that actually nurtures local neighbourhoods and businesses while encouraging people to cycle and walk along it. But in Hamilton, the car remains king and political change never seems to happen easily. I learned that lesson the hard way as a political novice when I initiated the creation of a regionwide system of bicycle paths in the late 1980s. We formed a committee to oversee the process, hired technical experts to design a plan (including both on-street bike lanes and rail trails) and got council to approve a capital budget. So far so good, I thought. But when we actually converted one of the five lanes on Main and King streets to dedicated bicycle paths in 1993, all hell broke loose. Angry drivers who experienced some minor delays due to the changes literally lit up the switchboard at City Hall. The Spectator then piled on with front-page coverage of an accident in which a cyclist was hit on Main Street. Regional council quickly caved to the pressure and abandoned the project. That political debacle remains seared in the memory of veteran councillors, explaining in part their trepidation about moving too aggressively now on bike lanes. It's too bad because had we stayed the course Hamilton today would have a cycling network that would be the envy of mid-sized cities in North America. Meanwhile, places like Portland, Ore., and Montreal have managed to get up to 15 per cent of their commuter traffic out of cars and onto bikes, helping the environment while reducing the demand for new road construction. Thankfully much has changed in Hamilton in the last 15 years. Both our civic attitudes and our infrastructure are better equipped to support a fundamental shift in favour of neighbourhoods, transit, pedestrians and cyclists. Not the least of these changes is the opening of the Linc and Red Hill expressways which provide a better way for drivers interested only in getting across town quickly. There are political champions for change such as downtown Councillor Bob Bratina and Mayor Fred Eisenberger who are pushing for a more aggressive approach to building the cycling network in perhaps five or 10 years rather than 40. Let's hope council considers not only the wisdom of Bratina and Eisenberger on this issue, but also takes the time to listen to our next generation of leaders in trying to figure out the future. Terry Cooke is a director of the Canadian Urban Institute. He is president of Cooke Capital Corp. and former Hamilton-Wentworth chair. tcooke@thespec.com

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 15:26:35 in reply to Comment 76148

The problem with 4-lane 1-way streets is that traffic tends to go ~20kph faster than more conventional roads. He's talking about riding with his kid(s) in tow.

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By lakeside (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 15:35:24 in reply to Comment 76135

I think you may be thinking of MapMyRide at mapmyride.com. It's a utility for marking up Google maps for non-motorized routes.

Google Maps itself favours road-based routes so strongly that it's difficult to map out routes incorporating paths and trails. MapMyRide lets you delineate any route at all and save it for future use, or sharing, while calculating exactly how far you've travelled.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 17:25:38 in reply to Comment 76148

I like your considerations and they are probably very similar to the ones I make when riding. However, for people who are not as eager to ride, this is an awful lot of pre-preparation. It would be one thing if such heavy strategic planning were required for all modes of transportation, but these strategies amount to "go wherever the car are less likely to kill you when having the temerity to turn left" and thus place cars in the favoured position. That is the wrong attitude to have if our goal (and its my goal, perhaps not yours) is to create environments where anyone can feel safe and secure riding through the city.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 17:26:31 in reply to Comment 76148

The other problem with one streets is that the 'fast lane' is not well defined while the highway traffic says the left hand lane. Many motorists will completely ignore that on cannon ( especially). Besides which most motorist i ask 'whats the fast lane on cannon?' respond with 'the one with the least stuff in it'. The idea that fastest lane on a street is next to the sidewalk is nonsensical.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 17:33:44

" My usual westbound route when I'm cycling on my own is York to Bay, then south along the sidewalk or across the Swiss Chalet parking lot to Napier. But that breaks at least one rule."

I have the same problem here when leaving the market/library area on York Blvd.

Sometimes I head south on Bay and take the waterfront trail back to Westdale. Other times, I ride on a few sidewalks to get to Caroline St. so I can get to King St and head west. I was scolded once by a beat cop for this minor transgression. That was frustrating, because I don't normally ride on the sidewalk, but there is no way to go west without making a ridiculous detour.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 17:35:10

edit ^ : north on Bay St.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 21:16:47 in reply to Comment 76135

Unfortunately, the question I posed at the beginning of the article is rhetorical. There is no safe route.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 21:20:18 in reply to Comment 76148

I don't consider four-lane one-way streets safe for cyclists because:

  1. The prevailing speed of automobile traffic is often 60 km/h
  2. The volume of automobile traffic is much greater than on two-way streets
  3. Drivers get used to travelling at a fixed speed (with the synchronized lights) and don't expect to have to slow down
  4. Left turns involve crossing three or more lanes of one-way traffic, which is much more difficult than crossing one lane and waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted April 23, 2012 at 21:22:07 in reply to Comment 76154

Hi Pxtl,

I'm not talking exclusively about cycling with my son. I will go far out of my way to avoid King, Main, and Cannon even when cycling on my own. And I lived in Toronto for five years and was not at all afraid to cycle on its major downtown streets (except for the streetcar tracks).

John

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 08:23:23 in reply to Comment 76172

While this is true, on both Main and King, the majority of traffic stays in the centre lanes. You can pretty safely take the right-most lane for yourself (and the occasional bus).

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:33:17 in reply to Comment 76131

Why are ANY north south streets one way? I don't agree with our one way through streets but I do understand the concept. Even if we kept main/cannon and wentworth/victoria one way and converted everything else back to two we'd have a much more navigable city, and the hardcore through drivers would have little to complain about.

The entire length of Bay is eternally frustrating. Starting with the light at Herkimer where it turns red and three cars trickle through all the way to the one way ridiculousness at york. Bay has to be the most overbuilt street in lower Hamilton.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:53:53

With the parameters given, it's not possible to obey all these rules. Nice thing about bikes is, that doesn't stop you IRL. I'd suggest the City Hall Parking lot, the path along the side of the Federal Building and the roof of Jackson square as friendly additions to present routes, as they're about as safe and public as it gets, and more convenient than going blocks out of your way. Also, the York/Cannon sidewalks are three times the width of normal ones and rarely used, if ya need to get a block.

Single easiest opportunity to change all this? Two way Bay St.

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By martron (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 13:47:30 in reply to Comment 76172

Cannon/King/York/Wilson are all roads that I regularly cycle on. I generally take up the middle of a lane (including the left lane) and seldom get complaints from cars. I'm experienced so the traffic doesn't really phase me, it's a fast way to get across town.

Now, if I were towing a trailer with a child or riding with less experienced folk I would definitely think twice about riding these roads. Unfortunately in this case the OP is right that there really is no safe and legal way to get through downtown from Beasley/North end. I would certainly welcome two-way traffic up Bay street for the purpose of providing better access to lower-volume Westbound through-ways.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2012 at 14:32:38 in reply to Comment 76189

Single easiest opportunity to change all this? Two way Bay St.

Hear, hear.

I'm often on James North and wanting to get to King West to head back to Westdale. The natural route would along York and up Bay. But instead I have to crawl up James or John to King.

And King between John and Bay is busy, slow, bus-filled and very, very rough in the right-hand lane.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-04-24 14:32:47

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By Getting Snarky (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2012 at 11:16:14

Elect more cyclists. Problem solved.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 26, 2012 at 15:34:23 in reply to Comment 76186

Wentworth/Victoria's always the heartbreaker, since you know they'll never change those and it kills me to see those ancient homes ruined by that kind of streetscape, but they're so darned useful as one-way streets.

But yes, I really can't see why the city stubbornly keeps all these side-streets one-way. It just doesn't make any sense.

Main for eastbound, The Cannon->Queen->King corridor for westbound, and Wentworth/Victoria for north/south from Clairmont to Burlington Street. That's it. That's the only "highways" of the city that actually see enough traffic to even begin to justify one-way traffic.

It just makes no sense for the navigational and safety headache of one-way streets on all these secondary roads. Whether or not we like the big urban highways, at least we can understand why they exist as such - they're highways. But Bay isn't a highway... it's just... dumb.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted April 26, 2012 at 20:53:28 in reply to Comment 76260

Exactly!

I personally believe that the highways are inappropriate, BUT I'm conscious of why their supporters support them.

But surely even those who are addicted to near instantaneous through travel have no reason to argue for the smaller one ways...

In my opinion the only valid use of one ways within a city is to impede traffic flow (like they do on the residential streets in downtown Toronto)

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By Death (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2012 at 20:00:42 in reply to Comment 76150

insult spam deleted

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By Waitwhat (anonymous) | Posted June 26, 2012 at 23:54:28

I'm confused by the line at the end: "There's nothing much on Bay Street South that would generate a lot of northbound traffic other than City Hall, ..." First, the traffic is north bound already, and by nothing, do you forget thousands of people live on or just off of Bay Street South in the houses, apartments and condos that now either have to go up Caroline or wait and go up James Street and circle back. Making Bay Street South two-way would really help reduce the traffic on Caroline as it takes the lion's share since there's no southbound access from Main on either Hess or Bay, as well as make things for people who live in central Durand easier to get to and from their place of residence. Once the new condos are opened at Park and Robinson, it will add even more congestion to Caroline which can't be helped any other way, plus it would stop Bay South from being a race track, with all that speeding exactly at Central School.

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