Special Report: Walkable Streets

Who Has a Story to Tell?

The flurry of facts, figures and studies surrounding the benefits of change are no match for a compelling narrative.

By Jason Allen
Published September 11, 2012

Andrew Dreschel wrote a column in The Spectator yesterday that is sure to cause some hand-wringing among the downtown renewal set.

In it, he accuses Councillors Jason Farr and Brian McHattie of recklessness in their motion to create an implementation team for two-way streets in Wards 1 and 2.

To their credit, what McHattie and Farr seem to have done is galvanize a vocal group of downtown renewal enthusiasts and breathe new life into the two-way street debate.

What they seem not to have done particularly well, however, is play the political game.

Dreschel may be right when he says that the recent online surge in support for two-way streets appears to have gotten the better of them, prompting an apparently unexpected motion to be sprung on a council that likes nothing so little as surprises.

This would be unusual from a seasoned politician like McHattie, who has a track record of shepherding difficult motions through council - e.g. the no-truck status and the bike lanes on Dundurn, and a variety of 'car-unfriendly' pedestrian crossings.

My questions are: did McHattie and Farr know what support they would have before they walked into council? Had they done their pre-work inquiring as to their colleagues' views before introducing the motion? Did they know (as a result of these conversations) what the objections would be, and have facts and arguments and compelling narratives lined up to sway Council's view?

If so - and I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt - the process broke down somewhere and we'll probably never quite know where. If not, it raises the question: knowing that there would be tremendous opposition to this from suburban councillors, would the outcome have been different had the political game been played more adroitly?

If Dreschel is correct, and McHattie and Farr did fall sway to the (relatively) small surge of support for two-way streets downtown, they made a mistake that seems to be common on RTH, Twitter, and other online hangouts for downtown renewal enthusiasts: thinking that because our arguments just make so much logical sense, the strength of our rhetoric will sway a largely suburban electorate.

It would appear that the two-way streets issue has been let down by the same process that has failed to make a case for broad action on climate change. The flurry of facts, figures and studies surrounding the benefits of change are no match for a compelling narrative.

In this case, the narrative we are up against is a Lovecraftian tale of "gridlock", late day-care pick-ups and road rage. Story beats statistics, every time.

The reality is that even though this issue affects those of us living downtown in great disproportion to those who voted against it - suburban councillors largely don't care. People who live in the suburbs and exurbs love - love - one-way streets and their ability to move quickly through a downtown core that has no relevance or attraction to them.

Those of us who support two-way streets need to start telling a convincing story about what life will be like once the downtown returns to a liveable, walkable state.

Not necessarily what life will be like for downtown residents - that's obvious - but what it will be like for those living in Dundas and Waterdown, and why it will be better for them too.

It's true that nobody in Ancaster or Flamborough has one way streets, and it's true that one-ways impact downtown residents disproportionately, and that's just not fair.

But unless we tell a compelling story as to why two-ways will benefit those residents to a greater extent than the inconvenience of their lengthened commute, they will vote us down every time. Unless we sell them on the "What's In It For Me", it is simply never going to happen.

This is the realpolitik of the situation, and there is no avoiding it.

So who has a story they would like to tell?

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By TerryCooke (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 08:50:38

Jason, Just an excellent assessment of the approach that will be required to move this process along to success. The narrative must include appealing to the "enlightened self interest" of a much wider constituency than those of us already on board and one that lives well outside of downtown Hamilton. Change never comes easily in Hamilton, but I remain confident that with the kind of thinking articulated here, combined with the compelling strenghth of benefit case of two way streets for the entire Region, success is possible with time, a broader supportive constituency and a comprehensive plan. Cheers.


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By Friendly Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:23:51

Great, great article.
I happen to be one of those people that does not work or travel downtown frequently other than to pass through the core to get somewhere else. In my case, I embrace the logic behind the conversion argument. No need to preach to the choir here. However, if my overtaxed ("our tax money goes to subsidize the lower city!") neighbours where to be convinced that they would receive a financial benefit somehow ...

I believe there is a loud counter-argument. You may never sway these people. I also believe there is a huge, dormant part of the population that doesn't really care one way or the other (pun intended) if we convert to two ways downtown. We may initially view these people as just apathetic, but really they are undecided. We could potentially bring them around with a "Why should you care" argument that would have an impact on them personally. Lower taxes would certainly do the trick I think. "We need to make the downtown more self sufficient..." Something like that. Just throwing it out there.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 11:12:16 in reply to Comment 80819

This is a good point.

The main argument we have to convince those without a strong opinion is the positive impact of two-way conversion on quality of life and economic vitality.

Two-way conversion will make the downtown core more attractive to businesses and raise the tax revenue for the city without a major infrastructure investment. It will also create new jobs, which benefits all resident.

And we don't have to guess about this: we've seen the economic revitalization effect right here in Hamilton on James St S, as well as in cities throughout North America and Europe.

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By Haruspex (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:56:23

On August 13, Councillor McHattie planned to introduce a motion to “make the change from one-way to two-way traffic along the remaining 100-metre stretch of Stuart Street, north of Barton Street East,” then withdrew that motion. In the process, he struck a spark around a longstanding debate (crystallized in RTH’s First Principles but reinvigorated beginning with June’s “A New Vision For Main Street West” post, and subsequent essays about the shortcomings of existing implementation plans) that constitutes the “recent online surge in support for two-way streets,” And it was in the wake of that action that we saw the more ambitious motion, 18 days later.

I will not claim to know who was galvanizing whom. Neither will I claim to have no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes jousting and jockeying that went into this bill. I assume that both politicians went into this with eyes open. But it obviously ran up against the shoals.

IMHO, the most stinging contention that Dreschel puts forward is that there was provisional support for the motion, but that it was the perceived overreach of prioritizing Cannon and Queen that sank the issue. That was, I will assume, why the original Mary Street motion came forward so modestly.

Could two-way advocates have lived with a disciplined implementation commitment that would see 90% of the one-ways across the city converted within, say, two election cycles? What is the low-hanging fruit in this debate?

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By Haruspex (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:58:03 in reply to Comment 80821


"Neither will I claim to have any knowledge of the behind-the-scenes jousting and jockeying that went into this bill."

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 11, 2012 at 11:08:34 in reply to Comment 80822

If you create an account on RTH, you get an edit button.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 11:54:43

Is there really that much noise coming from suburban or exurban residents about two way streets downtown. I always hear about how so many of them never come downtown or very rarely come downtown. So why would they care and hence why would some of these councillors care so much.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 12, 2012 at 08:09:11 in reply to Comment 80825

Because needing to cut through downtown once a month or even once a year is enough to make people timid about "gridlock". I'm starting to think a different proposal for complete streets needs to be considered - one that does not necessarily mean two way traffic (even though two way traffic is the simplest way to achieve it, there is clearly a lot of baggage with that here).

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By JM (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 13:30:05 in reply to Comment 80825

good point...

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:08:07

It seems to me that all the other wards in this city see ward 2 and 3 as the door mat of this city .. juste like the CFL see the Ti-Cats

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:23:57

Couple of thoughts here. First, there may have been method in their madness. Yes, McHattie has a great track record for stick-handling contentious issues, but he has also never shied away from being provocative. As a result of this motion, there are alot of angry, galvanized two-way supporters who are more committed than ever to moving this issue forward sooner rather than later. In addition, because some of their colleagues were caught off-guard, they are now on record as saying some pretty bone-headed things in support of one-ways that they will need to walk back if they want to be taken seriously as the debate moves forward.

It was an inherently risky move. Could it have been handled better? In retrospect, yes. Has it set the cause of two-way reversion back? IMO, no. What we need to do now, is channel the anger and frustration into a new, and hopefully relatively unified, narrative.

My second thought isn't so optimistic. I am at a bit of a loss as to what this new narrative ought to be. In order to convince people that a revitalized downtown will increase tax revenues, you must first convince them that two-way reversion is a key part of this revitalization, a Herculean task given that many one-way proponents stand firm in their belief that the reversions of James and John have been utter failures that have made downtown worse, not better.

Nor do arguments of fairness and equity resonate with many. A new twist on the debate has emerged in the fever swamps of the Spec comment sections. Some pro one-way commenters concede that the quality of life on two-way streets is superior to that of one-ways, but declare that lower city residents have only themselves to blame, and if they don't like it they should move.

The death grip so many people have on one-ways in this city is a mystery to me, but as Jason rightly points out, it is tightly bound with tales of the fearsome 'Gridlock'. I'm having trouble conceiving what form the vorpal sword should take, and if it could ever do more than shake loose a handful of engaged, open-minded citizens.

Comment edited by highwater on 2012-09-11 12:28:04

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:36:48 in reply to Comment 80828

Gridlock ? well i don`t hear any New Yorkers complaning about Manhaten 2 way streats and that City is hafe the population of Our Country Canada juste to name a few Paris is coverting back there main to 2 ways as we speak

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By Jay Robb (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 13:05:07

There are some very good comments here. Two-way supporters seem to putting ahead their swords, taking a deep breath and hitting the reset button on messaging. This is a good thing.

I believe the downtown could & should be the cultural and economic heart of Hamilton. Two-way streets will be one of the ways to elevate the core' heart rate.

We're well on our way on the cultural side (Exhibit A is this weekend's Supercrawl plus the AGH, Hamilton Place and Copps).

On the economic side, downtown Hamilton should aim to have the highest concentration of creative workers of any mid-size city in Canada. The companies that have set up shop in the Tannery District in Kitchener are exactly the businesses Hamilton needs if we are to compete in an economy that rewards creating and innovating.

Downtown Hamilton can be a low-cost, high-reward field of dreams for entrepreneurs who are willing to invest everything to build a business. They'll offer personalized experiences that can't be replicated at power centres and big box stores.

Downtown Hamilton should be top of mind with organizers of health sciences conferences and conventions. This was one of the big ideas that came out of the Hamilton Economic Summit. When conferences are done for the day, delegates could spend their nights in a thriving, vibrant downtown.

And with all-day GO service, downtown Hamilton should be the Plan B for commuting Millennials & young families who've been priced out of the Toronto market. A report out last week shows walkable urban space will be the hot real estate market for the next generation. Downtown Hamilton will be among the city's most valuable real estate.

So those are my four reasons why it's worth investing in two-way streets downtown. If we get it right, fewer of us will be driving through downtown because more of us will be going & staying there to work, live, play and shop.

Onwards and upwards.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 12, 2012 at 08:20:58 in reply to Comment 80832

Those who currently live just far enough from downtown to benefit from one-ways may find themselves moving closer once the streets are livable - and experiencing a much higher quality of life.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 14:50:25 in reply to Comment 80832

Agreed, though I've gotta say that the AGH, Hamilton Place and Copps offer some of the most dismal street-level experiences to be had in the core. And that's after the AGH's reno and the York Blvd conversion.

But yes, Hamilton absolutely needs a high-tech hub like the Tannery (28 high-tech companies of various sizes including star players like Communitech and Google) to electrify its "creative industry" sector.

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By bottlerocket (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 13:20:58

I don't buy it. I suspect you're trolling.

Check your language: "...hand-wringing among the downtown renewal set." Or Andrew Dreschel's: "...the downtown is not their private fiefdom or a sandbox for urban theorists."

As though the people who are advocating for the change are a bunch of elite, disconnected, pie-in-the-sky dilettantes or something, and not, you know, the people who actually live downtown, along with every single experienced urban planning expert who has ever weighed in on how to make Hamilton a better city.

Bottom line: transportation planning in downtown Hamilton is a fiasco, it hurts neighborhoods and retards the city economically, and Council should pull its head out of its ass and do something about it, fast.

That's it.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted September 11, 2012 at 14:48:06

Great story indeed Jason. I like where you are going with this. For starters, I'd like them to imagine having to drive/walk by these roadside memorials every day. To be reminded of the street racing that these 4 lane inner-city highways welcome, and how trying to cross 4 lanes of traffic proved fatal for the young man for whom this memorial carries on for to this day. Cars rushing down King and Main sound as if someone has their windows open and their television on really loud. For real.

Rather than exmplain how this will help you driving fast through my neighbourhood because you are in too much of a rush to enjoy it's true beauty and not the roughness that stands out going 80km's an hour past my house, I want you to imagine this is the place you love and perhaps at the end of the day, is all you can afford.

We all deserve safe streets for our children.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Darken the scene and imagine a best friend carrying two haves of his bud to the other side so they wouldn't be run over further. Imagine a mother still dealing with this horrific loss to this day.

Yeah, it was street racing which I know happens on all streets but had there been two lanes to contend with, I can't help but wonder if there would have been a different end to this horrific tale. Why two lanes you ask? Because in some sections it's not necessarily about going two way as much as I imagine more so parking boulevards like on Barton between Wentworth and Victoria on either side and two lanes of traffic only - one each way even perhaps.

One way's are just a pain and I for one love James and John and Wilson and .... , all reverting back to 2-way systems.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2012-09-11 14:58:43

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 15:00:28

I would think we can bend the ear of suburban residents with the diminishing quality of life these streets promote. Surely an Ancaster resident getting city hall to intervene regarding some noisy central AC units could be sympathetic to 24-7 high speed, noisy traffic mere feet from people's windows and front lawns??

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted September 11, 2012 at 17:21:33 in reply to Comment 80841

Great point Jason. Forgot about that intervention.

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 16:15:41

I am very new to Hamilton and have a lot to learn. I'm trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle entitled "context".

From what I seen so far, some of the puzzle pieces include: the physical (and "mental") separation between the upper and lower city; broadly speaking, the income disparity between upper and lower; the decline in what must have been a vital and healthy downtown core; high streets that are now mini-expressways; lower city neighbourhoods which lack their own greengrocers, small shops, and the like; "upper towners" who don't visit the lower town; old-guard residents vs the young and civicly engaged; entrenched and uninterested elected officials.

So I hope to prepare a convincing story, as I think it's a great idea. I need to understand more and complete the puzzle.

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By Haruspex (anonymous) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 17:03:13 in reply to Comment 80843

There's a longstanding upper-lower divide (and some would argue, east-west), but also a new-old divide. Amalgamation's resentments are frustratingly hardy, even among some who like to think they're above it. I believe that this is why Mr. Cooke describes half the battle as being a compelling strength-of-benefit case of two-way conversion "for the entire Region".

This argument cannot and will not be won from within the walls of Wards 1 and 2. Rapprochement is essential.

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By James (registered) | Posted September 11, 2012 at 23:51:22

Convert Upper James to a one-way southbound, Upper Wellington to a one-way northbound, and make Fennell and Mohawk one-way for their entire length. Set the speed limit to eighty KPH, then sit back and listen to the screaming about how awful these one-way streets are.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted September 12, 2012 at 19:18:54 in reply to Comment 80853

Careful, they might like it! ;-)

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By TDR (registered) - website | Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:42:58

I think that the hand-wringing and doom-and-gloom is on the part of the commuters. Honestly, how much time would it add to their travels if they simply GO AROUND, rather than through downtown? Ryan’s point about being able to drive directly to destinations is well made - so non-downtown residents actually coming TO downtown to work or play will be benefitted in that way. If they’re just passing through, I think it needs to be pointed out that they don’t have to experience the “gridlock” (ie, slightly slower traffic) if they take the real highways that surround the city. I’m fairly confident that you can drive from any suburb to any other suburb or city without needing to go through downtown.

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By ThisIsOurHamilton (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2012 at 07:58:20 in reply to Comment 80903

Honestly, how much time would it add to their travels if they simply GO AROUND, rather than through downtown?

I can tell you that to them, the point is moot; 'Why should we HAVE to 'go around'?!?'

'People want what they want.'

And drivers? Even moreso.

Hamilton is not known for its ability to effect change...nor are its residents known for their abilities to deal with even the prospect of change. I believe the technical term is 'mind-fuque'.

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By Frankenrogers (registered) | Posted September 14, 2012 at 11:14:21 in reply to Comment 80903

We went to our friend's house down by the lake past Centennial a few times this summer and when leaving from Locke it took about the same amount of time going either through the city or taking 403/Linc/Red Hill. Admittedly it was a mental block for me though to think that backtracking and going up the mountain would be faster so I can see where others would think so too. How do we get people past that mental block other than to just force them to do it?

At the end of the day two ways would double your options so I don't know why two ways would slow the trip down that much anyway.

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