Downtown Bureau

It Lives!

Slowing down traffic and bringing a balance between pedestrians, cars, buses and bikes is essential to seeing downtown Hamilton become full of life and vibrancy.

By Jason Leach
Published December 14, 2005

Do Hamiltonians really want a revitalized core? Sometimes, I think not.

Perhaps City Hall doesn't do a good enough job at informing city residents of the benefits to be had with slower, two-way streets in our core. Perhaps they will never understand due to the car-dependent nature of their environments.

At any rate, slowing down traffic and bringing a balance between pedestrians, cars, buses and bikes is essential to seeing downtown Hamilton become full of life and vibrancy.

Anyone who doubts the positive effects of two-way streets needs to spend a Saturday on James North in Hamilton.

Five years ago there was talk in the local media about the death of James North. Things were bad. Empty stores, drugs, fights, drunkeness and the like.

But a strange thing happened two years ago. A planned methadone clinic was run out of the neighbourhood by concerned businesses and residents who saw the potential nail in the coffin. Instead of meth, James North got The Print Studio.

You Me Gallery on James just north of Barton opened, and the city switched the fast-moving, highway style street to a slower two-way format.

Only a couple years later, it appears that the rest is history:

If the planned reconstruction of the Lister Block actually becomes a reality, watch out. This will become one of the hottest streets in Hamilton.

Even the most hardcore downtown-hater can't argue with the visible signs of success on James North.

So when James and John South were switched to two-way traffic last month (The Durand Neighbourhood Association has been asking for this two-way conversion since the 1970s), you would have expected folks to recognize the potential impact on these two retail streets.

James South has done a decent job of holding its own over the years. John seems to have been hit a bit harder, but that could also be due to the suburban style plazas that blight the street near Forest and Young.

Having said that, longtime Hamilton favourites like the Cat N' Fiddle and Lionshead Pub have done well on John South over years. And the stretch between Hunter and Main seems to have done fairly good as well.

So far, I have been in the area of these streets several times during rush hour and off-peak times and haven't seen any problems. The chaos and anarchy predicted by local media simply hasn't happened, and won't happen - just like it didn't on James and John North.

I suppose the Hamilton Spectator thinks that Hamiltonians are a pretty stupid bunch. In the 1950s all of Hamilton's current one-way streets were switched from two-way in one night. Folks simply drove accordingly.

Have we really become so ignorant that City Council can only switch a couple streets every five years and the media freaks out because folks might not know how to drive on a two-way streets?

Maybe a few media suits can't figure it out, but thankfully real-life Hamiltonians have adjusted just fine. Remember, boys and girls, stay right of the yellow line and obey those big coloured lights.

This neighbourhood is possibly the most walkable in our entire city. The buildings along Bold, Duke, Robinson, Park, McNab and James South are brilliant.

A world renowned urban historian from New York City was here last year and declared this area to be one of the most intact historic neighbourhoods in North America. That's no small claim.

While I, and many others, are glad to finally see a slightly slower feel to James and John South, I believe there are some simple changes that should be made to improve this conversion even more.

Remember, a successful street (think Queen or King in Toronto) has room for cars, pedestrians, bikes, transit, patios and public spaces.

James and John South are now a little easier to walk along. Transit hasn't really been affected and could actually be improved. Intersections now allow pedestrians to cross on any side instead of being restricted to one side of the road like many Hamilton intersections.

Cyclists actually have a chance to keep up with cars, making cycling safer.

However, I see several unnecessary, suburban style turning lanes and parking restrictions:

Also, I'd like to see westbound traffic coming from St Joseph's Drive be allowed to go straight through John to James instead of being forced to turn right on John. Traffic is light here and wouldn't cause long backups of folks turning left onto John from eastbound St. Joes Drive.

These changes would be simple to make, but would greatly enhance the viability of these streets for business owners.

I would really like to see the city do a small public education campaign telling drivers that the Claremont Access, three lights east on Main is available and completely empty twenty-four hours a day. It's a six-lane divided highway and will satisfy suburbanites' need to step on it when coming into and out of our downtown.

As for James and John, expect to see new shops, cafés and businesses open up, especially if the city improves the parking situation as outlined here.

One only needs to take a look at Hamilton's most successful retail streets to find a common theme - slow traffic and a good pedestrian environment.

Locke, Westdale, Dundas, Ottawa, Concession, James North, King William and Hess are all enjoyable places for people, not just cars.

It's people who spend money, sit on patios, attend art openings, music and theatre events, chat with neighbours and add that friendly, vibrant feel to a street.

It's fine to accommodate their cars, but hopefully these recent street conversions and streetscaping projects along Bay and King William are a sign that City Hall has realized the difference between accomadating and exclusive catering.

The health of our downtown streets depend on that simple difference.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

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