No matter how many times we hear from experts, no matter how many pleas we hear from the people who actually live downtown, and no matter how many cities we observe engaging in successful processes of transformation, we don't change.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published May 07, 2012
Hamilton recently hosted yet another event where we heard about what we ought to be doing.
We're not doing it, and it's not because we don't know what to do.
Back in March, Ryan McGreal wrote a scathing article, 2012 Transportation Summit: More Experts for our Traffic Planners to Ignore, where he pointed out this precise phenomenon: no matter how many times we hear from experts, no matter how many pleas we hear from the people who actually live downtown, and no matter how many cities we observe engaging in successful processes of transformation, we don't change.
Two-way street conversion is a perfect example of this problem. In October 1956, business owners railed against the one-way conversion that had taken place downtown seven months previously. Their complaints are as relevant today as they were 56 years ago.
But 56 years later - more than half a century! - we've only managed to revert James and John back to two-way (York's passive-aggressive conversion has left it a Two-Way In Name Only (TWINO) - it doesn't count).
The conversions of James and John have clearly been successful. In fact, James St. N. has become the poster-child of the long-awaited transformation of downtown, which begs the question: now that we've proven that two-way conversion can indeed work in Hamilton, what are we waiting for? Convert the rest of the streets back to two-way too!
But for whatever reason, two-way street conversion is just not on the agenda right now. It doesn't seem to matter that one-way streets are more dangerous for children. It doesn't seem to matter that cities as geographically separated as St. Catharine's, London, England, and Vancouver, Washington have converted their one-ways to two-ways and enjoyed tremendous benefits as a result.
Just imagine someone saying this about Hamilton:
The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.
Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. "We have twice as many people going by as they did before," one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. "It's like, wow," he exclaimed, "why did it take us so long to figure this out?"
A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. "One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas," says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "We've proven that."
It doesn't even seem to matter that our wide-open thoroughfares encourage drivers to drive at lethal speeds, or that our car-centric, sprawl-driven mode of development is creating lifestyles so inactive and unhealthy they're literally killing us.
This litany of facts is not sinking in where it needs to sink in, namely, in the minds of the people who are making day-to-decisions about how this city is governed and organized and what it prioritizes. Or, if it is sinking in, they just aren't doing much of anything about it for reasons I am currently at a loss to explain.
And it really can't be ignorance, because the message has been broadcast so many times. There are always politicians at the Hamilton Economic Summit, for example, and for two years running the keynote speakers rammed home the same message: walkability is critical, you must convert your one-way streets to two-way, you must encourage density and an active, vibrant street life, unsustainable sprawl cannot be your future.
Of course, there are exceptions, and they're worth noting. Councillor McHattie has been an effective and determined advocate for numerous walkability-related measures in Ward 1. It was thrilling to see Raise the Hammer's first-ever Walkability Win when Public Works agreed to install a pedestrian-activated stoplight on Aberdeen Street at Kent, and McHattie continues to oversee the installation of new bicycle paths throughout his ward.
But considering City Hall's institutional momentum and apparent council ambivalence toward walkability, it's a wonder McHattie is able to get anything done at all. It's clear he needs more allies. It's clear that the legions of people who read Raise the Hammer; who have supported various city-building initiatives like Our City, Our Future and Hamilton Light Rail; and who continue to flock downtown for urban events like Art Crawl also need more allies.
It really is time to move past the "what" and on to the "how" and "when". Past exhortations have failed. We need to do something different this time. But what?