Complete streets, neighbourhood equity and an aging population are important considerations for the proposed two-way streets implementation committee.
By Sara Mayo
Published September 05, 2012
The Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton has an interest in urban design issues because of their impact on equity between neighbourhoods and the health of residents.
Two-way streets are one tool at Council's disposal to improve quality of life in Hamilton's neighbourhoods, and the proposal being debated at the General Issues Committee this week is an opportunity to do so for residents in wards 1 and 2.
The two-way street debate is also a time for the city to explicitly acknowledge a more holistic vision of street design, such as "complete streets", into the city's street planning initiatives.
The traditional model of street design and planning needs to be flipped on its head. Hamilton, as with most cities across North America, has approached street design with cars as the main users.
More recently, the city integrated cycling within the transportation master plan, and adopting a cycling master plan to acknowledge their use of the road and need for safety.
A third set of users, pedestrians, will soon be more explicitly accommodated in street design when Hamilton's pedestrian master plan in completed in the coming months.
This siloed approach to planning does not reflect the reality of how residents use our city's streets. People are at time pedestrians, other times drivers, passengers, transit users, or cyclists; we are not simply each one single category of user.
Our transportation needs and preferred modes change with our age, our life stage and family situation, with the seasons, the day of the week, and even the time of day.
A more integrated approach to street design, one that takes into account all users at all times, is being adopted in other cities and is called "Complete Streets".
Transport Canada explains that complete streets are "designed to be safe, convenient and comfortable for every user, regardless of transportation mode, physical ability or age."
Our neighbour Waterloo was the first city in Ontario to adopt a complete streets policy within its transportation master plan in 2011. Here in Hamilton, a complete streets forum was held this spring with positive support from City of Hamilton staff from many departments.
Some of the complete streets approach is seen in the city's new urban official plan (not yet in force) with principles such as a "balanced transportation networks that offer choice so people can walk, cycle, take transit, or drive".
A complete streets policy is designed to be applied to all projects, including new construction, retrofit and maintenance projects.
One of the key features of a complete streets policy is that there's a clear procedure for exceptions to the policy to ensure accountability for decisions on any roads where a complete street approach is not feasible. A complete streets policy also has a robust implementation component that includes steps to turn the policy into practice.
One important effect of a complete streets approach can be to increase equity between neighbourhoods. So far, many of the Hamilton neighbourhoods that have seen increases in walkability and cycling features have been in more affluent areas of the city such as Durand, Kirkendall, Ancaster and Westdale.
On the other hand, Cannon Street, which crosses many of Hamilton's lowest income neighbourhoods and is one of the top priorities in the city's cycling master plan, has not yet been selected for planning or design work.
Due to simple economics, it is often in Hamilton's lowest income neighbourhoods where more people commute to work by foot, bike or bus. For example, in 2006 males in the McQuesten neighbourhood near the Red Hill Valley cycled to work at three times the average rate for the city (4% vs. 1.8%), not counting all the non-work cycling trips taken by residents in that neighbourhoods.
Residents in Hamilton's lower income neighbourhoods have as much right to safe streets as anyone else, even if residents may not be as vocal about it. The city has a moral obligation to ensure that planning decisions level the playing field between neighbourhoods.
If improvements are made in higher income neighbourhoods before paying attention to the needs of other neighbourhoods, the existing disparities between neighbourhoods are made even worse.
A complete streets approach makes sure streets in all neighbourhoods are examined for improvements, not just where residents are most outspoken.
The Social Planning and Research Council is a member of the Hamilton Age-Friendly Collaborative, which aims to improve the city by taking into account the needs of an aging population.
Street-level improvements for seniors has the added benefit of improving quality of life for residents of all ages. The Hamilton Council on Aging has been taking leadership in conducting walkability studies of Hamilton's neighbourhoods and bringing together transportation planners and seniors to find ways to improve streets and transportation options for older adults.
A complete streets model is entirely compatible with a vision for an age-friendly city.
Explicit support from City Council for the integration of a complete streets approach into the two-way implementation committee's mandate would be very helpful to ensure that the committee's decisions improve neighbourhood equity and help the city adapt to an aging population.
A complete streets approach for this committee would also ensure that the momentum of this initiative is not stalled and gains consensus as one that takes all road users' needs into account.
Such a directive could also be the catalyst to the eventual development of a longer-term and city-wide complete streets policy that would help to improve quality of life in all our neighbourhoods and for all residents of all ages.
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