Special Report: Walkable Streets

King Street West in Dundas: Opportunities for Improvement and Lessons for Hamilton

We have compelling examples of how a lively urban street works right in our own city, but we stubbornly refuse to draw the obvious conclusions.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 08, 2014

Yesterday evening I had an occasion to stroll around downtown Dundas. As always, I was struck by how lively and pedestrian-friendly it is on King Street West.

King Street West, Dundas
King Street West, Dundas

It's just one automobile lane in each direction, with curbside parking on both sides. The buildings are mostly two and three stories, mixed-use and built right to the sidewalk.

The sidewalks themselves are reasonably wide and are shaded by street trees and some overhanging canopies.

The street has a convivial mix of food, clothing and specialty shops, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, banks and other services.

Historic facades are for the most part intact and in good repair, especially this three-storey apartment block across from Ogilvie:

Beautiful three-storey facade, King Street West at Ogilvie
Beautiful three-storey facade, King Street West at Ogilvie

Always Room for Improvement

With such beautiful streetwall along most of King West, it's hard to understand why the design of the new Shoppers Drug Mart at Albert Street turned out so muddy and incoherent.

Shoppers Drug Mart, King Street West and Albert Street
Shoppers Drug Mart, King Street West and Albert Street

First, the positive: at least it's two stories tall, with additional medical services on the second floor. It's also mostly built to the sidewalk (about which more below) and there is at least one entrance that opens onto the street.

On the other hand, the design is still frustratingly suburban. The building is set back a few feet from the sidewalk to make room for an utterly useless sliver of token "front lawn".

In addition, a big blank wedge is cut out of the corner at King and Albert to make a "daylight triangle" so drivers don't have to slow down when turning at the corner. How on earth do drivers manage to turn at corners where older buildings are built with right angle, we wonder?

More Crossings Needed

Another issue that becomes increasingly glaring after spending some time walking around King Street is that it's surprisingly difficult to cross the street safely and legally.

Starting with the signalized intersection at York Road, we need to travel 250 metres - a quarter kilometre - to the next intersection at Cross Street. That's a long stretch without a safe crossing on a street designed for lots of pedestrian traffic.

It's a short 66 metres to the intersection at Ogilvie Street, then another 190 metres to the intersection at Sydenham Street.

It's 90 metres to the button-activated crosswalk at Foundry Street (about which more below), and then a sprawling 400 metres - almost half a kilometre! - to the intersection at Market Street. That's an insane stretch without a safe crossing in an urban central business district.

There is a marked but uncontrolled crosswalk at Albert Street by the Shoppers Drug Mart. However, in my anecdotal experience, drivers mostly ignore their responsibility to yield for pedestrians trying to cross there.

Crosswalks Should Work

Now, about that button-activated crosswalk at Foundry Street.

Button-activated crosswalk on King Street West at Foundry Street
Button-activated crosswalk on King Street West at Foundry Street

After pushing the walk button, I waited 56 seconds for the signal to change before I could safely cross.

Then, to be sure that it wasn't just a fluke, I waited a few minutes and pushed the button again. This time, I had to wait a whopping 85 seconds before the light changed!

This is a common issue in Hamilton. Our Traffic Department is notorious for installing button-activated crosswalks that make pedestrians wait an unreasonably long time before stopping automobile traffic.

Residents have had to fight for months to get similar button-activated crosswalks fixed at Aberdeen and Kent and at Herkimer and Caroline.

The evidence indicates that pedestrians are more likely to cross against the light or just not bother walking when crosswalks don't work or take too long to work.

The City's Public Works Department is trying to change its culture to be more pedestrian-aware and -friendly. Presumably this crosswalk was programmed at a time when the traffic engineers were a lot more reluctant to do anything that might interfere with the smooth flow of (some) traffic, but now it's time to send an engineer back out to fix it.

Another issue is that the crosswalk is on an intersection but pedestrians are only allowed to cross on the west side.

Cross Other Side
Cross Other Side

This is another way we make our crosswalks crippled-by-design to save a little money, after determining that the only legitimate new crosswalk design is the most expensive among the alternatives available to our traffic engineers.

Bad Ideas Avoided

But there is one design decision King Street West in Dundas gets absolutely, unequivocally right, and that one decision has a bigger overall impact on the street's essential walkability than all the problems combined.

Heavy automobile traffic
Heavy automobile traffic

The street carries a heavy volume of automobile traffic as the main street in Dundas. It is fed from the west by Highway 8 (in fact, it is part of Highway 8), from the north by Sydenham Road, from the east by Governor's Road and from the south by Main Street - all high-volume arterials.

It is also a major destination in itself, the central business district of a thriving and growing community.

Yet it remains just one lane in each direction with all-day curbside parking.

I don't hear anybody clamouring to "improve" automobile traffic flow by converting the street into a multi-lane one-way thoroughfare as was done in Hamilton's downtown streets in the 1950s and has yet to be reversed.

Why is it that we so obviously recognize the tremendous value of a slow, pedestrian-friendly main street in Dundas, but then toss that comprehension out the window when it comes to the main streets of downtown Hamilton?

Five lanes of traffic on Main Street East in downtown Hamilton
Five lanes of traffic on Main Street East in downtown Hamilton

Likewise, Wilson Street in Ancaster recently got the "complete streets" treatment: lane narrowing, wider sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees, the works. Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson is obviously, visibly proud of downtown Ancaster, yet he steadfastly opposes anything similar in downtown Hamilton.

Why is it that we are so willing to continue sacrificing the urban centre of Hamilton to fast, high-volume automobile traffic after decades of direct evidence that our one-way urban expressways destroy the viability of their surroundings?

We have compelling examples of how a lively urban street works right in our own city, but we stubbornly refuse to draw the obvious conclusions about what we need to do to achieve the same results on our long-abused and much-maligned one-way arterials.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By @kwalma (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 10:44:00

Great article! Great questions. Add to the list of unreasonably long waits for pedestrian activated cross-walk: Hatt @ Creekside and Ogilvie @ Creekside. On another note, stop lights at Governors and Ogilvie and those at King and Market/Sydenham both have advanced pedestrian signal before vehicle green to allow pedestrians to begin crossing Governors and king before vehicles are able to move into the intersection.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 11:21:45

I've lived in Dundas. And worked there, too. Frankly, this comparison (because in the end, that's what's going on, comparing it to our general situation in Hamilton) reminds me of a recent article in urbanicity where a stretch of Queenston Road in Stoney Creek was compared with Locke Street re: walkability. Which was, as I wrote in an email, a decided FAIL.

Comparing King Street in Dundas and Hamilton in general is a suspect exercise. The most important factor towards understanding why this 'high street' is the way it is, is historical. Because of the nearby concentration of residents (now including no small number of them in the retirement apartment buildings and condos), King Street never suffered from the usual calamitous effects of malls. (It's vital to factor in the demographics, here.) What you see on King Street is a 'downtown'. It's not a thoroughfare (yes, I understand that it's a segment of Highway 8 and that there is steady traffic to and fro because of its location as a gateway). It's a 'downtown strip'. Stoney Creek's downtown used to be like this. (Again, I lived there, so I have irrefutable evidence-based memories) When towns are able to sustain their heritages in so vital an aspect of their existences, a good many of the walkability qualities are extant.

Downtown Dundas is the way it is because it had its own 'structural integrity' BEFORE amalgamation. It is a gem, a great place to live or just to visit, but it's very much an anomaly in today's world. So I'd be very hesitant to use it in comparisons without properly understanding its history and its evolution. To do otherwise is to both muddy and diminish this vital conversation.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 16:02:01 in reply to Comment 103814

all of this applies to King St in Hamilton. Just because we butchered in the 1950's doesn't change the fact that it was built as true neighbourhood 'high street' hubs east and west of the core, and as the city's main 'high street' through the Gore. Ditto for Main St and York St.

http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost...

http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost...

Had we ruined downtown Dundas, Stoney Creek or Ancaster in the 50's we could apply the same logic as a means of resisting change back to the proper urban form in those areas.

And before anyone recycles the tired old Lloyd Ferguson line about downtown not belonging to anyone or being anyone's neighbourhood or having Manhattan style traffic, look at Queen St or King St in Toronto past and present.

Queen W:

Queen/Bathurst 1935 - https://losttoronto2.files.wordpress.com...

Queen/Bathurst 1962 - http://transit.toronto.on.ca/photos/imag...

Queen/Bathurst today - http://www.boldts.net/p3/TorQa.4.jpeg

Interesting to see with traffic volume drastically increasing over the years, TO resisted the urge to turn everything into a freeway. Hence, the area still has it's walkable 'high street' charm. The only reason we don't have this walkable charm on King, Main and York is because city hall refuses to allow our city to prosper and be revived.

Comment edited by jason on 2014-08-08 16:02:36

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2014 at 11:41:14 in reply to Comment 103814

Because of the nearby concentration of residents (now including no small number of them in the retirement apartment buildings and condos), King Street never suffered from the usual calamitous effects of malls.

Likewise, downtown Hamilton has always had nearby concentrations of residents.

What you see on King Street is a 'downtown'.

What I see in downtown Hamilton is also a 'downtown'.

It's not a thoroughfare

It's not a thoroughfare because it is not configured as a thoroughfare.

(yes, I understand that it's a segment of Highway 8 and that there is steady traffic to and fro because of its location as a gateway).

Main Street downtown is a segment of Highway 8 and there is steady traffic to and fro because of its location as a gateway.

It's a 'downtown strip'.

Downtown Hamilton is also a 'downtown strip'.

Stoney Creek's downtown used to be like this.

It is no longer like this because the street and the built form were changed.

When towns are able to sustain their heritages in so vital an aspect of their existences, a good many of the walkability qualities are extant.

Well, yes.

Downtown Dundas is the way it is because it had its own 'structural integrity' BEFORE amalgamation.

This has nothing to do with amalgamation. Locke Street is the way it is because it had its own 'structural integrity' before amalgamation. Concession Street is the way it is because it had its own 'structural integrity' before amalgamation. Ottawa Street is the way it is because it had its own 'structural integrity' before amalgamation.

It is a gem, a great place to live or just to visit, but it's very much an anomaly in today's world.

The only anomaly here is that the buildings were not demolished and the street was not converted into a multi-lane expressway during the time when so many other central business districts were demolished and converted. It is by no means unique in this regard - not even in Hamilton, let alone across Ontario, Canada or North America.

Every place that has retained an essentially urban form and essentially walkable streets serving a local population has tended to survive the postwar era. Places that were partially deformed suffered more than places that were not but bounce back when their deformation is reversed. Places that were severely deformed also bounce back when their severe deformation is reversed.

There is nothing spooky or irreproducable about King Street West in Dundas. What we observe is precisely what happens when a neighbourhood centre is allowed to function as such.

Your entire argument amounts to garden-variety exceptionalism, the demonstrably false idea that general principles of urban policy somehow don't apply here because of some arbitrary, hand-wavy, post-hoc excuse.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 11, 2014 at 09:00:10 in reply to Comment 103816

I think what ItJustIs is also not saying is Dundas is full of rich, white folks. That is nonsense, as I can recall Locke Street and James St being thought of as lost causes a decade ago. I think even Dundas wasn't always the thriving area it is being made out to be. Is there any merit to the thought these old townships have been hurt by joining GHA?

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By RB1 (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 11:58:42

Has anyone called the city hotline about the crossing wait?

Won't change if no one/many mention it.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 20:42:48

I was struck by how lively and pedestrian-friendly it is on King Street West.

The photograph illustrating this statement shows a not-so-whopping total of two pedestrians... and 16 cars.

Here are before and after photographs and video of a street in downtown Utrecht that show how a street was redesigned to make it a truly lively and pedestrian-friendly street.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-08-08 20:43:22

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted August 08, 2014 at 23:18:15

It seems to be a city wide "plan". I wanted to cross King at Gledholme (near Parkdale) the other day. I pressed the pedestrian crossing button and gave up waiting. I don't know how long I waited but it seemed like an eternity, and pretty stupid because there wasn't a lot of traffic. I tired of waiting and crossed. Sad state.

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By Plan-A (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2014 at 21:55:57 in reply to Comment 103836

Yeah, it's a shame you had to wait. I mean, the light should just instantly change for a single pedestrian, right?

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By Learn to wait (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2014 at 22:00:44

I loved this comment.

"After pushing the walk button, I waited 56 seconds for the signal to change before I could safely cross.

Then, to be sure that it wasn't just a fluke, I waited a few minutes and pushed the button again. This time, I had to wait a whopping 85 seconds before the light changed!"

Whoa, you had to wait almost a minute to cross the street, then you had to wait almost a minute and a half the 2nd time? Whoa! Something must be outta whack there.

Provide context. Like, when did the light change when you pressed the button? How much traffic was there? What time of day was this? What day of the week was this? Were there other people waiting to cross, or just you? At just about every stretch along there you can see way down both sides of the street and just cross if the need be. Why not do that?

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted August 10, 2014 at 09:04:13

Don't want to get involved in a right or wrong debate right now. What I will share, is that traffic is often stopped for red pedestrian activated lights, long after the person is gone. It goes like this. Pedestrian pushes button at a crossing. Upon a break in cars, person crosses. Just as a new wave of traffic catches up, light turns red. Dozens of cars stop for no reason and wait out the light.

A PXO solves these. Press a button. Lights flash, once the first cars that can stop safely do so, person crosses right away. Drivers don't stop unnecessarily, and only for the duration the person needs to cross. A youth sprints across, cars wait 5 seconds. Elderly person hobbles across, cars wait until she is through safely.

Under conditions of proper etiquette, PXOs are immensely superior. But our planners have decided they can't use them here, because we are so poor in etiquette, that PXOs apparently functionally become a suggestion only, with ambiguity added.

Many people, at pedestrian crossings, do what CoreB does. They cross when it's safe, or when the light changes, whichever comes first. Often tons of cars stop afterward, unnecessarily. I advocate bringing back PXOs.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-08-10 09:05:41

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By Agreed (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2014 at 05:48:43 in reply to Comment 103854

I agree. PXOs are great. I loved using them when I was in London for those exact reasons your describe. I think the issue was that someone in Traffic or Roads said there is a liability issue, since it's not formally a stop? There was concern around who is liable if someone didn't stop and hit someone, if someone crossed but didn't press the button, if you're rear-ended stopping at one, etc.

You also mention that we need to "bring back" these crossings. I don['t recall the city ever having them and I know that they were never in Dundas, at least not for the past 30 years. Dundas used to have crosswalks marked out on the road with no real signage for drivers though.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted August 13, 2014 at 08:01:26 in reply to Comment 103906

You also mention that we need to "bring back"

Ah, the reason for that phrasing was that they were in Toronto when I was young. No I do like 'em and suggest their introduction. However, ironically, one of my childhood memories is witnessing a crossing guard get smoked by an SUV, at a PXO. The driver somehow failed to notice the man with a vest and stop sign, crossing kids including myself, and the blinky lights that had been activated.

That is why risky spots like Charlton+Wentworth still needs bollard or barrier treatment, so that future drunk drivers, who inevitably fail that corner, don't hurt anyone else in the future, what with a trailhead right behind it.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 13, 2014 at 06:25:32 in reply to Comment 103906

Pedestrian cross-overs (PXOs) are explicitly defined in the Highway Traffic Act so there's nothing informal about them. The reason Hamilton's traffic engineers don't like PXOs is that the Toronto Pedestrian Collision Study [PDF] found that PXOs are not as safe as fully signalized intersections:

The driver’s visibility of the traffic control device (PXO), the driver and pedestrian’s understanding or lack thereof of how a PXO operates, and the pedestrian’s false sense of security at PXOs. Both drivers and pedestrians may not be aware of the laws that govern driving and crossing at a PXO.

The study noted that Toronto approved a plan to replace 61 PXOs with signalized crosswalks and upgrade another 269 PXOs to make them more visible and safe.

In December 2012, Hamilton Traffic Engineer Ron Gallo wrote in an email:

I would advise against the use of PXO's regardless of road class due to the confusion they cause. The intent is the same so why not use the safer and better understood option?

He added that the Ontario Government is planning to update its Traffic Manual Book and the new version (Book 15) will include new tools municipalities can use to define crosswalks where traffic signals are not warranted.

By coincidence, this Thursday's Public Works Committee meeting includes item 8.7, Re-Establishment of the Hamilton Strategic Road Safety Program to fund safety initiatives through net revenue from the Red Light Camera reserve. It will include the following program:

New Pedestrian Crossing Program - There is an expectation that new pedestrian crossing legislation will be approved by the Ministry of Transportation later this fall. The program will propose new pedestrian crossing locations and an education program targeted at drivers, cyclists and pedestrians with an emphasis on children.

As part of this, Traffic Engineering has been working on developing a new "courtesy crossing" design for uncontrolled intersections. An early suggestion, unfortunately, was to include a sign warning pedestrians that motorists don't have to stop for them - which is just wrong.

However, staff more recently clarified that the design is not yet finalized and might not include the dangerous and misleading sign. As of this summer, the courtesy crossing still isn't finalized, and it sounds like it won't be until after the Province finalizes its new crossing design.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted August 13, 2014 at 07:51:22 in reply to Comment 103908

I'll google it when I have a sec; curious what Calgary's data is on PXO. They have quite a few, especially along Center Street. They're awesome and drivers respect them.

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