Revitalization

Livable 30 km/h Streets Not 'Impossible' in Great Cities

By Jason Leach
Published January 20, 2009

Since our local newsmedia are too busy giving airtime to suburban councillors who find it "impossible" to drive their cars slowly, I thought I'd provide some info on child safety and overall road safety as it pertains to the proposed traffic calming measures in the North End, and specifically the 30 km/hr speed limit.

RTH has written in the past about creating child-friendly communities, the relationship betweeen street design and accident rates and between severity of injury and vehicle speed.

Safe Kids Canada, an initiative of Sick Kids Hospital, has created a presentation for municipal councils titled, "Child Pedestrian Safety: The Case For Speed Reduction" [PPT link] that reflects the mindset that dominates our city, media and many of the 'power brokers' both on and off council:

Driver research shows that:

  • Drivers believe that roads are for cars
  • Drivers drive faster in good weather.
  • Drivers are unable to accurately assess their own speed while driving.
  • Drivers make few adjustments in the presence of children.

If you live in Hamilton, you don't need me to tell you that all of the above are not only true, but are practically our local mantra. I'm surprised this isn't our slogan instead of 'Together Aspire, Together Achieve'.

Furthermore, despite the money-making potential of headlines that state this has never been done before in Canada, the City of Toronto obtained permission in 1994 to use a 30 km/hr speed limit [PDF link]. They continue to have that option in their arsenal of traffic calming measures in 2009.

(As a side note, does anyone actually do any research any more in our local mainstream media? I mean, Toronto is 40 minutes away and has had this tool at their disposal for 15 years.)

Back on topic, there are many areas in Canada that have residential streets with a posted 30 km/hr speed limit. Toronto, Alberta and Quebec are the most commonly-cited locales that have already taken the plunge to help improve our children's safety.

Various European cities have seen their death rates drop dramatically since lowering speed limits to 30 and 40 km/hr. I'm just baffled at this notion that 'this has only really been done in Europe, therefore it's a crazy idea'.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, our cities would be a lot better off if we started learning from our European friends instead of always following the lead of the US and their depressed, crime-ridden cities.

A select few US cities have slowly climbed out of the hole, usually by incorporating European-style design ideas and urban structure. The city of Portland, Oregon has it stated as their official city mission statement to be 'the most European city in America'.

If I didn't know any better, I'd think that Hamilton has stated it's goal of being 'the most North Tonawanda-like city in Canada'.

Health of Local Businesses, Community

This issue goes much deeper than just child safety, although that's arguably the most important. This also speaks to the health of our local businesses and retail streets.

I realize that certain organizations in the city that are supposed to support a better business environment actually only care about maintaining the status-quo, but you need only travel to any city with a vibrant retail, dining, nightlife and entertainment scene and you'll see that pedestrians walking on streets are who spend money, not cars flying past on their way to somewhere else.

We at RTH have been called a lot of things over the years, but we are proud to assert that we are consistently the most pro-business media organization in this city, hands down. If we had our way, businesses from all over the continent would be fighting each other to fill any available space on our main city streets.

Always remember this - the powers that be have been in charge for decades and are completely happy with streets like Barton, King East, Main East and many others in their less-than vibrant state. Sure, they get lots of free airtime in the media to suggest otherwise, but talk is cheap.

If it was true, something would have changed by now. After all, it's been decades.

I was in Montreal recently and was struck by the fact that we could walk ten blocks faster than a car could drive - and the shops were booming. Who would have known?

Our downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods can look like this:

Ste-Catherine Street, Montreal (image source: Flickr)
Ste-Catherine Street, Montreal (image source: Flickr)

Corner of St-Urbain and de la Gauchetière, Montreal (image source: Flickr)
Corner of St-Urbain and de la Gauchetière, Montreal (image source: Flickr)

Or this:

Main Street, Hamilton (image source: Flickr)
Main Street, Hamilton (image source: Flickr)

Hulk II Movie Set, Main Street, Hamilton (image source: Flickr)
Hulk II Movie Set, Main Street, Hamilton (image source: Flickr)

Your Voice is Needed

Please contact your councillor if you would like to see Hamilton's streets become vibrant people places once again like, they were originally designed to be. If you live in the urban city, your voice needs to be heard.

I've never once told the politicians from the Meadowlands to calm the traffic in that district, and am not interested in their opinion of downtown Hamilton - especially when it involves trying to turn our core into another autobahn like their neighbourhood.

Let's hope the North End will succeed in their attempts to make these changes, which are completely in keeping with Hamilton's stated goal of being 'the best place to raise a child in Canada'. Bravo to all involved. More to come on this, you can be sure.

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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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 11:39:36

Jason, I wholeheartedly agree. One comment, though: Your photos are a little misleading. The Hamilton pictures are aimed at the traffic-laden streets, while the Montreal photos are of the sidewalks.

However, point taken, and I enjoyed the article.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2009 at 11:52:27

That's the point of the photos. We have no streets like those in Montreal because we have designed every street in this city to be traffic laden - so nobody wants to be downtown let alone on the sidewalks brushing up against highway traffic.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 12:46:48

yea, its tough finding exact photos to compare, but I tried to get one of each city looking across a street and one looking straight down. the bus stop and Main/John is a good comparison with the street corner in Montreal. Regardless, if you've been to Montreal, you'll know that you could take thousands of pictures on hundreds of streets and have zero chance of recreating the same scene anywhere in Hamilton, except perhaps, Hess Village.

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By Jond (registered) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 12:54:00

Nice photo illustration. The streets are totally comparable; both are main 'throughfares' through downtown. King might be a better example because there is alot more pedestrian activity, but the same disgusting amount of traffic. Anyway it's also worth pointing out that these are cities with much higher populations and greater need for traffic capacity yet they maintain slower streets. The drivers just deal with it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 13:05:21

Jond, great point. I noticed that last week in Montreal. I didn't see a 5-lane one way street anywhere. While walking down St Laurent Blvd my wife asked 'why can't we do this in Hamilton?'. I said, 'Hamiltonians would never allow it', referring to the pedestrian-friendliness and calm traffic.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 13:30:15

Sorry for nitpicking. I certainly agree with the entirety of the article, and one might well add Vancouver to the discussion, with its vibrant Gastown and Robson districts, among others. One hopes that the future pedestrianization of the Gore (at least the south side) will give city councilors something positive to build on. Now, if only, like Vancouver and Montreal, Hamilton could encourage more people to live downtown on some of its already pedestrian-friendly streets (James N, King E, St. George, etc.). Some of those vacant shop fronts downtown may actually one day be grocery stores!

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 13:31:10

Sorry, I think I meant George St. :)

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2009 at 22:18:36

Jason, another big difference between Montreal (and most other big cities in North America) and the old city of Hamilton are the property tax rates. In Montreal, they are about half what we pay here. I know people will say that's because our assessments are lower, but that is an excuse.

If people in the downtown demanded that the city start lowering the rate at which their properties were taxed, I guarantee you would see greater interest in the area. Over time, this would result in more people with disposable income, more shops, restaurants, condos and more reasons to stay in the area. Thus, instead of being a place to drive through, the downtown would pull people in. This alone would likely slow traffic measurably, even without lower speed limits.

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By Balance (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2009 at 15:22:44

A Smith: property tax rates mean nothing. Property taxes are calculated by multiplying the assessed value by the tax rate, therefore it is not an excuse but fact. You can't look at one side of the coin.

Another note, the City presently gives 5 year tax breaks if you do something with a property in the downtown, it is called the Enterprise Zone program and has been around since 2001.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2009 at 23:56:13

Balance, tax rates do matter. In 1963, the top federal marginal income tax rate in the U.S was 91%, while overall government receipts were 26.71% of GDP. Today, the top rate is 35% and receipts come in at 29%. To be clear, governments have not only got more overall money from individuals, but also a higher percentage then they did before. Therefore, the idea that city government can't lower rates is ridiculous.

By lowering tax rates, you decrease the costs of owning property, thereby increasing the return on investment, which translates into greater demand for property. When demand for land in the city goes up, it pushes up prices, thereby offsetting the lower tax rate that the city charges property owners. Furthermore, even if the property owner ends up paying the same, or even slightly more in taxes due to increased assessment, they will more than make up for it in larger equity.

I have heard about the tax break you are referring to, but it is more of a steadily decreasing subsidy that only applies to new developments, not existing properties. If the city really wants to increase property values long term, it should permanently decrease the costs associated with owning land in the city. By doing this, the city would more than make up any revenues it thinks it would lose by giving property owners a good deal and in fact would become a magnet for investors across the country.

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By through the looking glasss (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2009 at 00:04:13

Ha ha ha ha ha take a look at average growth and investment rates during the high-tax post war period and compare average growth and investment rates since the 1970s when taxes started going down. Oops it's the exact opposite of what you're saying but why let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2009 at 00:25:06

TTLG, government involvement in the economy includes taxes, spending and regulations. In the post war period you mention, tax rates were higher, however, domestic spending was much lower than we see today, as were regulations. The net effect is that the government was much less involved in the economy than we see today. This also explains why Bill Clinton had such a great economic record, even though tax rates were almost as low as today.

If you want to cap city spending to population plus inflation then that would be the equivalent of what happened in the post war years. The net effect would be to decrease the role government plays in the economic affairs of the city.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2009 at 00:30:57

TTLG, how do you explain the fact that the government extracted more money by using lower rates? That is my main point with regard to city taxes. I am not arguing about economic growth in this discussion, simply demand for city property. If you increase demand for property, you increase the amount of people with disposable income, which increases the amount of shops, restaurants and traffic in the area. Please address my point regarding lower tax rates and increased tax revenues if you can.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 22, 2009 at 08:32:30

I think we're going to start a contest here at RTH to see who can write a blog that can't be hijacked into the 8 billionth discussion on libertarianism or government bashing. Even someone like myself who is no fan of politicians or government can only take so much.

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By Balance (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2009 at 10:34:33

A Smith, I was talking about property tax rates.

If I have a building building in Hamilton assessed at 500,000 and a tax rate of 1% my property taxes are $5,000.

The exact same building on a property in a GTA community is worth more and therefore assessed more let's say 1,000,000. The tax rate may be 0.5% but at the end of the day the end result is the exact same. The payment of $5,000 in property tax.

Do you get it? Looking simply at the tax rate makes no sense. You are not comparing apples to apples accross communities where values in property vary significantly.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 23, 2009 at 18:24:41

Balance, I know you were talking about property tax rates and so was I. You believe that tax rates don't matter, only the "total" tax figure that the city charges property owners, I disagree. If the city lowered the tax "rate", it would lower the cost associated with owning property in the city. For example, on a $1,000,000 investment in Hamilton's residential property market, the city takes about $15,500. In Toronto, the city only takes $8,500. Where would you rather invest your money?

The fact is, if Hamilton started lowering the rate at which it taxed property owners, you would see a proportional increase in demand for land. This is easy to understand, because the city would be making it easier for investors to make money. Over time this would drive up assessments and the city would likely have more revenue than before, even thought they charged a lower rate. That was my point regarding lowering income tax rates.

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By Melville (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2009 at 20:49:03

I can agree with 40 km/h... but 30 is just plain unlikely.

But all the more unlikely is enforcement. 40 km/h was recently added to parts of Locke Street, and there are still folks who drive down it at 80 km/h and more. And I'm pretty sure none of those people were ever caught.

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By tin can (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:26:27

Doesn't TO use speed bumps to slow traffic on residential streets? Could do with some of that on my strip.

Strangely enough, when I drive throo Montreal, which is seldom, I don't find it difficult to get around, even on busy streets like St. Laurent, which is one-way, by the way, as is St. Urban. Montreal does have its wide central throughfares and expressways too, like Rene Levesque.

Montreal also has decent public transit. That too is essential to putting pedestrians on pavement. But when you actually want to do something "in" Montreal, it's best to walk or ride. Dragging two tons of metal around is work, not fun.

Parking's part of it. Too much available parking in downtown Hamilton, though you wouldn't know it listening to surburban drive-throos. When they talk about not-enough-parking they mean free parking, like at the mall, and forget the winter walk from the corner of the Limeridge lot. That's about as far as you'd have to walk from an available meter to the line-up outside Schwartz's on St. Laurent. The bus stop's closer, usually.

I have family in Montreal. For a while they lived within a block of St. Laurent. Great lifestyle, close to entertainment, work, outgoing people, but not for everyone. Suburban lifestyle can be good too, but it's not for everyone. Hamilton's biggest problem is that some want it to be all suburban, all the time. Downtown Business Ass. keeps talking about "bringing people down to shop." From the suburbs, they mean, and their intent is to make downtown more like a suburb, to attract people who don't live there and who state frequently they'd never go there. But downtown South Ont. is now Yonge St., Bloor St., Spadina etc. Cities like Hamilton have to focus on liveable communities for nearby residents.

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By here (anonymous) | Posted February 01, 2009 at 16:00:36

50, 40, 30 km/h would be fine if the road is designed for that speed. Before lowering the speed, change the street - narrow the lane, add a meridian, speed bumps etc. Its far more effective to lower speeds by design than by fiat. Cootes Drive is a prime example; designed for 80 km/h but declared 50 km/h. Narrow it to one lane under the Mac bridge and there might be more compliance. But please don't advocate 4 way stops and lights, traffic needs to flow not stop.

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