Special Report: Walkable Streets

A Pedestrian's View of Main Street West

As long as Main Street continues to be five lanes of roaring high-speed automobile traffic, none of the elements of a pleasant, human-friendly environment will be possible to achieve.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 07, 2015

My bike is in the shop getting repaired after my rear shifter cable snapped, so I had an occasion to walk along Main Street yesterday afternoon from downtown to Dundurn. It occurred to me that I haven't been on Main much lately - in fact, it's fair to say I tend to avoid it. The walk yesterday was a fresh reminder of why.

Main Street West: the calm before the storm
Main Street West: the calm before the storm

If your primary experience of Main Street is while riding in an automobile, you will have a particular perception of the street that will likely inform your thinking on it.

You probably experience Main as a busy arterial with lots of smooth-flowing automobile traffic all the time. As a driver, you may well enjoy the ability to drive across the city at a steady 50-60 km/h.

But the way drivers experience Main Street is not the way that people walking, cycling or living on Main Street experience it.

The traffic signals on Hamilton's one-way streets are all sequenced to bunch drivers together into large clusters, which traffic engineers call platoons. Those platoons of cars all drive down the street together at the same time, taking advantage of the timed green signals to progress at a steady high speed.

But platooning has a few side-effects that drivers don't experience: if you're a pedestrian walking along the sliver of pavement next to those five lanes, you are bombarded with periodic avalanches of cars and trucks all roaring along at high speed, interspersed with ghostly silences between the platoons.

Main Street looking west from Queen
Main Street looking west from Queen

Neither the rush nor the hush is an enjoyable experience if you have to bear witness to it from the sidewalk. The sheer visceral unpleasantness of the pedestrian experience tells us most of what we need to know about why the "Main West Esplanade" is not a thriving business district.

I saw only two or three other pedestrians along the entire 1.5 kilometre length of my walk along Main. That is seriously depressing for what is literally the city's main street.

The cold weather is no excuse, either: there were lots of people walking around on James Street, on King around Gore Park and on Locke Street.

I could go into a long (some might say long-winded) exploration of what the research says about streets like Main Street, but when it comes down to it, the best way to discover it will come to you directly from trying to walk along Main Street.

If you want to know what makes for a successful urban retail centre, simply ask yourself: what makes for a nice walk?

As long as Main Street continues to be five lanes of roaring high-speed automobile traffic, none of the elements of a pleasant, human-friendly environment will be possible to achieve. It's really that simple.

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 Denial (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 12:58:42

You should learn how to fix your bicycle cables. It's really quite easy and inexpensive.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 07, 2015 at 13:36:12 in reply to Comment 107609

I've tried it myself and definitely decide I'll stick to the tires and the chain.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 07, 2015 at 13:00:45 in reply to Comment 107609

The shifter itself was also broken. In any case, I don't mind spending a bit of money to support a local business and make sure my daily commuting vehicle is maintained by people who really know what they're doing.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 08, 2015 at 11:59:30 in reply to Comment 107610

Elaine will give you some kind hearted abuse. That sounds strange if you don't know her but I'm a big fan.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 08, 2015 at 12:09:21 in reply to Comment 107683

Do you mean Elaine at Pierik's? I've been going there for years and always have a great experience.

In this case I went to Downtown Bike Hounds, because they also do excellent work and it's close to my place of employment.

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By Muggins (registered) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 13:59:15

Excellent points on why Main Street is such an unpleasant street to walk along. I tend to avoid walking along it as much as possible, and will zig zag along smaller streets to get to my destination, despite the fact that adds considerable distance to my walk. When I do have to walk along Main Street, I always feel like I'm walking on the edge of the 401. The scariest section is the Main and Dundurn intersection, where I feel like I am in a extremely vulnerable position, given the speeding cars and red light runners.

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By fuggins (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 23:35:53 in reply to Comment 107618

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 14:39:54 in reply to Comment 107618

I agree Muggins; Main and Dundurn is the worst. I don't just say that because I once got badly hurt when I fell, rushing across the intersection because I was nervous about the traffic. Although that doesn't help how I feel about it. :) And the 401 is the best analogy for Main Street, especially east of Dundurn when the platooning really impacts.

My office is at the corner of Main and Hughson. But when I leave it, 90% of the time (maybe more) I am headed to Gore Park, King Street, or King William and points further north, and almost never to Main Street or points further south. That illustrates the degree to which Main Street is a shell of what it could be!

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 14:52:49

Main West is a perfect example of what happens when you channel all traffic from many corridors down one corridor. You get what you ask for.

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By walter (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 15:35:40

Only poor people walk, screw poor people! Welcome to Hamilton!

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By give it a rest (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 23:36:43 in reply to Comment 107638

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By People (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 16:07:04

I've debated fellow Hamiltonians who want streets to stay one way, their only reason being that it makes for a convenient drive. Its hard telling people to stop being so selfish, but really people need to be more empathetic. "How would you like living on a stretch of highway?" I often ask, and then they get the point.

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By master debater (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 23:37:27 in reply to Comment 107643

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 17:39:38 in reply to Comment 107643

it's especially hard telling people to stop being so selfish when their councillors encourage it, to the detriment of the city's economy, quality of life and success. If "public servants" don't care, why should Joe Blow

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 18:06:35

I agree with you Ryan!

Main street is much much worse at night.

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By Communist (anonymous) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 23:38:00 in reply to Comment 107652

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 07, 2015 at 18:51:56

Take the curb parking on the left side of the image and convert it to a transit-lane. Vioa, this could be Main Street.

http://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/...

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By woreg75 (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2015 at 07:09:41

This is my neighbourhood.. I work at Poulette and Main, I live on George Street.. I really want to see only comfortable livability.. Imagining a time when I can walk to work, to home actually hearing the persons voice without having to read lips.. This Street can be a better grand entrance then York..
Why do our counsellors waste time when change can be now.. Hamilton isn't what yesterday was.. Hamilton is a changing..

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By Paul Richard Niessen - actual real name (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2015 at 17:07:53

The nirvana of main streets has to be Niagara-On-The-Lake and I am sure most would agree. There is no comparison to Hamilton's main street in every way...Hamilton is ying for Niagara's yang. Old time main streets like King st in Dundas has a cozy feel where you can actually see and talk to the people across the street if you wanted. Urban planning has many different purposes and infinite designs for each purpose but one salient point still remains after all the debate and that is...what makes its residents happy to stroll, shop, meet up, discover and just get lost in the scenery.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2015 at 17:32:03 in reply to Comment 107739

well said. And absolutely true.

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By Exile (registered) | Posted January 10, 2015 at 19:39:11

Hey Folks, I live on Main St. @ Locke. I often wonder why does the 403 east drops from three lanes to two at the Main St. E. exit ramp. If you exit at said ramp, your gifted by being able to choose between FIVE lanes on the MAIN STREET HIGHWAY all the way to the delta! At all hours there is traffic traveling at speeds up to 80-90 kph SEVEN FEET FROM MY FRONT STEPS! (I went out and measured.) Sure yeah i'm biased, but for fuck sakes i've traveled around the world and never experienced a gateway to the city like we have here. Okay maybe Edmonton is an exception. When I spend time in front of my home I wear ear plugs because the traffic (platoons, really like the war/military reference) here is deafening. Not to mention the pollution that the platoons carry into the city and deposit it into our lungs and onto our properties. It seems like the city is at war with not only our physical, but mental health as well, with their awful idea of what a Main Street should be. Yes I CHOSE to live here but I'd like to be present for the great change that can and should happen in my lifetime, I would love to see and hear it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 10, 2015 at 22:39:06 in reply to Comment 107769

Ya it's really quite stunning. The Linc is only 2 lanes each way, 403 2 lanes each way through Ancaster. Yet we need a 5 lane highway with skinny sidewalks through residential neighbourhoods??

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