Revitalization

Elevated Walkways an Admission of Failure

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 04, 2009

Today's Spectator editorial raises some valid concerns about our councillors' recent enthusiasm for a proposed $2 million glass foyer on City Hall, even if it does misattribute the architect (Stanley Roscoe) who designed the building.

But amid the suggestion that the money would be better spent fixing up the space around the building, the editors coughed up this idea:

At some point in the future, it could even by linked by a pedestrian bridge with Commonwealth Square, the south side of the Art Galley of Hamilton and Hamilton Place.

How does this utterly failed idea in urban design still draw breath? When are our civic leaders going to learn the basic principle that city life does not occur in rarefied spaces elevated above the street? It takes place, if at all, on street level?

Elevated walkways: not a solution for unfriendly streets but an admission of failure
Elevated walkways: not a solution for unfriendly streets but an admission of failure (RTH file photo)

Any attempt to make the public space in front of City Hall less appalling needs to start with converting Main Street to two-way traffic. As long as it continues to function as an urban expressway, it will never be pleasant to walk or congregate near it.

Again, the answer is not to escape the street on an elevated walkway, but rather to reclaim the street for human use.

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 jason (registered) | Posted February 04, 2009 at 12:57:47

to quote George Costanza, "I'm speechless. I'm without speech".

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2009 at 10:06:54

I agree! The idea of a pedestrian bridge is a third rate solution at best. Pedestrian bridges belong on railroad crossings, rivers, subway tracks, and other hazards that should not be crossed. We should not feel that way about a street that runs through the middle of our city! If we're going to put up a bridge at city hall, why not another at Main and James, and Main and John? It's obviously not safe enough to cross anywhere!

Better suggestion, as was already pointed out, would be to make main street more pedestrian friendly, and not downtown version of "the Linc."

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2009 at 10:36:57

Ryan, would you have a problem with an elevated walkway if Main St was converted to two way?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2009 at 11:35:16

An elevated walkway is generally pointless in itself. It's only use is as a red flag that a street is pedestrian-unfriendly when people start calling for one - if you feel that you need an elevated walkway to get across an urban street, that means you need to rethink the configuration of the street itself.

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By Urban guy (anonymous) | Posted February 07, 2009 at 14:08:54

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with separating different modes of movement based on a variety of factors. Bicycles should have lanes, pedestrians should have sidewalks, and vehicles should have roads. These movements can be parallel or crossing at some point. The danger comes from intersecting differing types of traffic which have differing movement speeds, momentum, ability to stop and direction. It is for this reason that we have stop lights and stop streets.
The separation of the differing modes having different needs is a logical and intelligent way to avoid confliction between and among them.
So traffic control (lights and signs) are necessary. Traffic separation is also necessary at times and in certain locations. Traffic separation makes itself evident on broad streets with medians, with one-way streets and bus-only and bicycle lanes. Intelligent traffic separation policies can also mean changing the elevations of the differing streams (in this case pedestrian and vehicular) so that they do not mix and meet and cause conflict and danger to one or the other.
It is at this point that economics enters the argument. If it is determined that vertical traffic separation is needed, it is cheaper to build a pedestrian way than a road way. Such a strategy will also open up the potential for using the second storeys of buildings, many of which are little used. This would mean owners have more rental revenues and could afford to improve and maintain their buildings, helping downtown revitalization. People in cars do not buy things downtown. People on their feet do. Any strategy which puts more people on their feet will work to improve economic activity. If people feel safer being apart from vehicular traffic, then they will go downtown. They don't now because they don't!
I enjoy walking in enclosed pedestrian walks in winter when you freeze outside. I enjoy them in summer when it is burning hot, too. I might enjoy a walk from Jackson Square to City Hall while not having to put on an overcoat and rubber boots or walk up a sweat in the summer heat.
Do not think in two dimensions. We live in a three dimension world and we should use it to good advantage both indoors and out.
Think a little more about it please.

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By Hunter (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2009 at 06:11:26

Interesting. I always thought these type of walkways were really cool looking, as well as an efficient way to travel. But I see your point about how they can be construed as a short cut around more serious problems.

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By Old Enough to Remember (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2009 at 12:29:10

This is actually an old idea. The city hall forecourt was originally intended to support a bridge to the AGH and Hamilton Place, which was then bridged to Jackson Square upper deck, which was to have more pedestrian bridges to surrounding streets. It was the heyday of "underground cities" like Toronto and Montreal's systems linking the basements of commercial and public buildings and walkways to underground transit. No more complaints about snow and cold. They survive, but I'm not sure they've been the success envisioned.

Anyway, Hamilton's vision was above-traffic bridges that were never built (excepting 2) because civic leaders balked at the cost, making the Jackson Square rooftop ideal for businesses best conducted out of sight and mind. This was one of the first failures of downtown urban renewal '70s style. Level crossings with calmer traffic would probably still be the cheapest way to make the area pedestrian friendly.

BTW, I'm also old enough to remember that the Red Hill Expressway was supposed to attract all sorts of tax-paying industry to the south-east mountain, not to mention fill waterfront brownfields by linking them to an airfield industrial park, but not to bankrupt the city so that residents could go to and from out-of-town workplaces ten minutes faster each day. I only mention this because we're all supposed to be quiet about this and get along now that the damned thing has been built anyway, but in the Spec I keep reading how it's such a success only ludites could have opposed it.

But I digress.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2009 at 09:32:57

Urban guy wrote:

People in cars do not buy things downtown. People on their feet do. Any strategy which puts more people on their feet will work to improve economic activity. If people feel safer being apart from vehicular traffic, then they will go downtown. They don't now because they don't!

I agree entirely, but I think you're drawing the wrong conclusion about what needs to change.

I've carefully observed many implementations of so-called three-dimensional modal infrastructure, and the only conclusion I can draw is that a strict separation of modes - particularly a vertical separation - is a failed idea in urban design.

The most successful implementation I've seen - the PATH in Toronto - is hard to navigate and has tepid uptake, not to mention consisting mainly of private properties rather than legitimate public space.

The best streets - most successful, most inclusive, most functional and useful - are streets in which uses commingle on same plane, not streets in which they are segregated. (The exception to this seems to be the subway, which successfully enables pedestrian-friendly rapid transportation in very dense urban cores.)

That, of course, requires motorists to slow down so they represent less of a threat to pedestrians and cyclists.

The problem with Main Street is not that pedestrians are too close to the roaring expressway traffic. The problem is the existence of an expressway in an urban centre.

The solution is not to remove the pedestrians (as onto an elevated or depressed walkway) but to remove the expressway.

I've stated it a hundred times if I've stated it once: when you slow vehicles below around 32 km/h, the risk of death in a collision with pedestrians approaches zero. At that speed, it's also much easier for motorists to swerve and/or brake in time, thus avoiding a collision in the first place.

My observation of successful streets indicates another common element: every successful street enjoys traffic congestion, which benefits pedestrians by forcing cars below the speed threshold at which they present a risk to life, safety and comfort.

In a subsequent comment on this thread, Old Enough to Remember has a very succinct assessment of what went wrong in Hamilton's 'elevated city' concept and why.

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By Chris (registered) | Posted February 12, 2009 at 13:24:13

Ryan, I understand from your posts here and in other discussions that you believe by turning the core into a 2 way traffic limited zone it is going to blossom into the kind of place people will actually want to endure traffic limitations for. Park the car stroll around eat, shop, enertainment etc. It seems to me that you are putting the result ahead of the reality. Do this now and you have a traffic pain in the ass and not much more. Upper James, Mohawk, Fennell and all the rest of the Upper Blahs are two way streets where pedestrians need to take care crossing. Why should they too not have the benefit of traffic flow reductions. I am sure many residents of those streets would support that strictly out of self interest. I guess the reason there is not a ground swell of support for such a plan is that all but a very few knew when buying their property it was on a busy roadway. The same can be said for residents in the core. I live in the lower city and for years lived in the core of the city. Only once did I live on a busy street (King)and I moved from there not because of the noise from traffic or anything related to it. It was pedestrians, insane ones; at all hours that propmpted me to move. People I deal with cite personal safety for one and fewer conveniences being the other main reason they do not go downtown much. I don't believe a build it and they will come approach will work with this two way traffic proposal. It will only result in traffic jams initially and then traffic avoidance, neither of which will put people on their feet. They will drive their cars to the malls and power centers (ughhh to both) and be on their feet there until there are powerful draws downtown. Wait until people are fighting to get down here until we start limiting vehicular access or introducing 32 Kph disincentives to even pass through. The ony way we will see a revitilization of the core is as you have said Ryan get people on their feet. A lot of those feet have to be from other areas and to draw these people the core has to compete with other shopping and restaurant and entertainment destinations. That is the really tough part encouraging people to try something new something even less convenient than what they may be used to. Or better yet corner a market. We have 3 decent large entertainment venues, the Art Gallery, these are only available here if you have enough of these "only downtown" destinations and great parking and lots of on the ground security it will again become the kind of place where people want to spend time on their feet.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 12, 2009 at 21:19:22

Chris, you make good points, but I wonder how you expect to get people downtown "on their feet" before introducing "32kph disincentives". Who in their right mind wants to walk on Main St?? They won't come and walk the streets unless its safe and welcoming to. James St has become more welcoming to pedestrians in the past few years and sure enough, new businesses have opened up. Many of the people currently driving 'through' downtown are already going to malls and power centres. I would love to have their cars completely out of the core, using Burlington St, the Linc, 403 or Claremont Access to avoid the core. That would be great for downtown if we could eliminate much of the cut-through traffic. Somehow, people who use downtown as a shortcut have this belief that we'd all miss their fumes if downtown streets were slower, forcing them to go a different route. Yet, that's exactly what we should be trying to do - get them to use a different route. This city is filled with highways, multi-lane Mountain access and high speed roads to the south/east/west of the core. People won't stop using main and king as shortcuts until it's no longer a shortcut. Then, and only then, will pedestrians come back onto the scene, much like they have on James St, Hess, Locke and John.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2009 at 22:41:14

Chris wrote:

Ryan, I understand from your posts here and in other discussions that you believe by turning the core into a 2 way traffic limited zone it is going to blossom into the kind of place people will actually want to endure traffic limitations for.

Not exactly. Converting our urban highways to two-way is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite to urban revitalization. We also need to improve transit (light rail is a proven engine of economic development), improve walking and cycling facilities (wide, tree-lined sidewalks, bike lanes), replace the outdated and labrynthine zoning rules with simple, clear, performance based codes, and so on.

Upper James, Mohawk, Fennell and all the rest of the Upper Blahs are two way streets where pedestrians need to take care crossing. Why should they too not have the benefit of traffic flow reductions.

First of all, none of those streets are even remotely pedestrian-friendly. They're entirely suburban and automobile-based in their configurations and economic models.

Second, they are already congested. Congestion, of course, it a sign of vitality. There's no clearer indicator of economic decline and listlessness than empty streets down which cars can easily race.

It will only result in traffic jams initially and then traffic avoidance, neither of which will put people on their feet.

The people who opposed the two-way conversions of James and John made exactly the same argument. Neither scary outcome has come to pass. In fact, the argument is trotted out always and everywhere whenever any city contemplates converting its urban streets back to two-way, and it never ends up happening. It may be among the most persistent - and pernicious - myths about urban revitalization.

The ony way we will see a revitilization of the core is as you have said Ryan get people on their feet. A lot of those feet have to be from other areas

When Toronto devised its King-Spadina Secondary Plan (which replaced zoning with performance codes, established a new streetcar line, and eliminated parking requirements but specified that parking, if any, must be behind or inside buildings), people complained that it would never work because HOW WILL THE PEOPLE GET THERE?

The answer, of course, is that people MOVED there - and in droves. The resurgence and net influx of investment, residents and businesses over the past decade or so has been nothing short of phenomenal. Even its most eager advocates are surprised at just how successful it has been.

to draw these people the core has to compete with other shopping and restaurant and entertainment destinations.

If you can find me a downtown core - any downtown core anywhere - that has revitalized by competing successfully with the suburbs on the suburban terms of easy motoring and abundant free parking, I'll grant that your argument has merit.

lots of on the ground security

Livable urban streets generate their own security through what Jane Jacobs called "eyes on the street" - fewer crimes happen in areas full of people watching each other.

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