Special Report: Walkable Streets

Toward a Complete Streets Policy for Hamilton

An inspiring policy event on complete streets in Hamilton calls on all of us to become advocates for safe, walkable, cyclable, equitable streets that serve everyone.

By Maria Topalovic
Published June 28, 2013

In 2010, I was completing my Master's research [PDF] on complete streets, with a focus on revitalizing the built environment for improved public health. During that time, it seemed like complete streets was an unknown concept in Hamilton. However, in 2012, the Hamilton Transportation Summit explored complete streets as its central theme and since then, the buzz about complete streets has continued to grow in Hamilton.

It's now 2013 and from an implementation perspective, not a whole lot has changed in Hamilton since I started my research in 2010, although supportive policies and programs do exist:

However, in recent months, some of the new support for complete streets in the city is slowly starting to show, including: the Rapid Ready report, which mentions a Complete Streets Strategy for Hamilton; attempts to better connect the cycling network including the two-way bike lane on King Street over Hwy 403 and the link between Chedoke/Aberdeen and Fortinos in the West; a bus only lane on King Street to be trialed; two-way conversions are being studied with the community; and a bike share system is being put to tender this summer! So what has really changed? The community is starting to speak up!

Complete Streets Policy Event

On Wednesday, June 26, the Social Planning Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC) hosted a Complete Streets Policy event at the Freeway Coffee House. Having spent close to a year of my life researching complete streets and what a policy could mean for Hamilton, I had to attend!

Justin Jones speaking at the Complete Streets Policy Event (Image Credit: Sara Mayo)
Justin Jones speaking at the Complete Streets Policy Event (Image Credit: Sara Mayo)

Sara Mayo from the SPRC introduced the evening and explained the concept of complete streets. (For more information, check out: Complete Streets Memphis video; List of Policy Elements from Complete Streets for Canada; Complete Streets Guidelines from North Carolina, Boston, Chicago, and Edmonton.)

Mayo drafted the complete streets policy that was presented and is seeking feedback from the public before it is endorsed and presented to Council, in the hopes that Council will have staff follow up on the recommendations.

Competing Priorities

Steve Molloy, Project Manager - Transportation Master Plan Implementation, was the next presenter for the evening. After the initial excitement of having a draft policy presented to us, Mollow described some of the tensions that exist around the concept of complete streets in the city:

I don't disagree with him, as I think these are realities that any city will continue to face. Although we can't gain support overnight, these tensions shouldn't stall progress.

The point is that complete streets are safe for all users and in many ways help to relieve these tensions through a clear policy and design process applied equally to all street reconstruction projects. Can we as a community really disagree on its importance?

We need streets that provide modal choice - streets that are complete, safe, and equal. We shouldn't expect any less from our community. Come to think of it, we never should have let our streets be built any other way. Molloy presented the current work that is being done to support complete streets, as I described in the introduction, which really is important in itself. We have already made progress and we need to capitalize on the supporting strategies that do exist.

He made it clear that even if we don't see a separate complete streets policy, we will see the review of the TMP focus on complete streets. This follows the lead of other cities, including Calgary and Waterloo.

While this is important work, the City will have to ensure that these new and existing policies and plans actually get implemented. A major criticism of the current TMP is that some recommendations have gone un-implemented; hopefully our new TMP will address implementation issues more formally.

Better Advocacy

Closing out the evening was a very engaging and passionate active transportation advocate - Justin Jones, from Share the Road and Yes We Cannon fame, who focused on how to become a better advocate for complete streets.

Cities have spent years prioritizing streets based on one mode of transit; whereas complete streets provides a vision for a community where everyone can have a choice and can move around safely.

"We built ourselves into this, we can build ourselves out," Justin repeated many times. I completely agree with him.

Justin discussed a variety of myths associated with complete streets and focused on how to respond to those myths...here is a summary of a few of the myths that can help you become a stronger advocate for complete streets!

Myth #1: People won't get out of their cars. As Justin put it, it's the law of induced demand; people choose to drive because it is easy. 50% of trips in Hamilton are less than 5 km and 30% are less than 2km, which means there is a large potential market for active short trips in the City. Give people a choice through complete streets so they can safely walk, cycle, drive, take transit, etc, and they will, because it will be easier and more convenient, just like the car is now.

Myth #2: Complete streets slows traffic. Justin had an interesting point regarding this myth. Think of great cities with vibrant downtowns like Paris and New York. What do they have in common? People visit their downtowns as a destination, not as a place to drive through. Even smaller cities have this in common with these Great Cities - think of Uptown Waterloo, Downtown Kitchener, Port Credit in Mississauga, Downtown Burlington and many more! Do you drive through these places or do you go there as destinations?

I'm also reminded of the Green Light for Midtown Project in New York, which was established to improve mobility and safety problems. Complete street features were implemented throughout many streets, and even sections of Broadway Avenue were closed to car traffic to create pedestrian plazas. These changes improved traffic flow, decreased injuries, and increased pedestrian traffic since people could choose to walk safely.

Myth #3: Complete streets cost more money. Although retrofitting to a complete street has slightly higher costs in some cases, its maintenance costs are lower when compared to incomplete streets. When developing a new street, it costs less to build a complete one. In addition, the walkability of a neighbourhood raises property values, so it is evident that complete streets can provide economic value.

Make Your Voice Heard

The main takeaway I had from Justin's presentation was that we can't stop talking about complete streets and we must make our concerns known. Too often the concerns heard by council seem to be negative complaints (e.g. the "this is going to slow down traffic" complaint).

When you are a supporter, you don't 'complain' enough. So start complaining. Tell your councillor about your concerns over our inequitable streets that are designed for only one mode of transport.

Remember, not everyone has or can afford a personal vehicle, has the ability to drive, or (gasp) may not want to drive - so why do we build our streets to support one mode?

Do you want safe streets that provide multi-modal options to support all users? Do you want streets that can allow all users to follow the rules of the road safely? Do you want to live in a healthier, more liveable and more complete community with higher property values and more successful small businesses? I know I do.

Make your voice heard - become an advocate for complete streets.

Maria Topalovic lives in Hamilton and works as an environmental specialist. She completed a Masters of Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University where she focused her studies on healthy communities and complete streets. She is an avid runner, part-time cyclist and all around nature lover. She is the Chair of the Hamilton Sustainability Professionals Network and a board member with the Hamilton Conservation Authority. Maria is an optimist about what the future of Hamilton holds - she's hoping for more Complete Streets!


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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 11:14:50

Buzz about complete streets has seemingly been waxing and waning for the last 20 years. It has even informed policy and planning documents that have been partially implemented.

Lesson? Policy is nice but just posturing unless it becomes habitual practice.

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By StoneMonkey (registered) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 13:17:52

Maria thanks for the update from Wednesdays meeting. I couldn't agree more with Justin's quotes. I also believe instead of just talking and complaining to Council, we need to start engaging other downtown neighbours. There are still a lot of people out there that believe in the myths and don;t want to make any changes. I've spoken to a few people that hate the James street conversion that happened a few years ago. I was one of them, I commuted to Mississauga and loved being able to fly down Cannon St and out of the city in 5 mins. I wasn't convinced over night. Basically what I think I am trying to say is we (as in complete street supporters) need to stop preaching to the choir. We need to get out there and drum up some new support.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 13:34:05 in reply to Comment 89826

WOW your soo wright on that .. we hear ALOT of singing of complet streets around here but nobody is taking a seriues action

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By Joseph Conrad (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 14:18:53 in reply to Comment 89828

It's "you're", not "your". It's "so", not "soo". It's "right", not "wright". It's "a lot", not "ALOT". It's "complete", not "complet". It's "serious", not "seriues". And what do you think last night's meeting was if not "seriues [sic] action"?

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By Agreed (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 14:23:20 in reply to Comment 89826

I couldn't agree more. The sales pitch needs to be taken to the mountain, the far east and west of the City. Perhaps some would even see that Complete Streets could work on Upper James or Centennial just as well as Cannon. As long as the perception remains that this is only a "downtown" issue, we'll never have the support to get anywhere.

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By Reality (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 19:08:53

A little introduction to the real world. Councillors will listen to you, they will draw up plans and then they will shelve them. Councillors know that if they in any way impede traffic flow they will be unelected the next election. There are not enough of you to matter to council.

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By Gored (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2013 at 19:36:39 in reply to Comment 89837

Your so called 'reality' sounds like regular old squelching to me. It's easy to say nothing will change, it's a lot harder to have a vision and work to make it reality. See, reality is something we influence with our choices. You obviously choose to do nothing and leave things as we are. Are there enough of 'us' to make a difference? Time wil tell.

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By screencarp (registered) | Posted July 01, 2013 at 15:20:29

We've made huge strides in improving our streets in the downtown core over the past 20 years. International village, Hess St, Ferguson St, two way conversions, lots of bike lanes. It certainly has worked (James North, Locke St, International Village). There's still work to be done, but I feel like much of the clamour is wrong headed. I'll say it again, it's important we have ways to move cars and trucks in and out of the city quickly. King St. through the core should be slowed even more, bike lanes and pedestrian "malls", street parking and easy public transit. Focus these things on commercial area's and residential side streets where they will have the most benefit. Stop trying to calm every damn through fare in the core or it will have a negative effect on these code red neighbourhoods that we're trying to help. We WANT people who work in Burlington, Oakville and Toronto to buy and renovate homes in Beasley, Stinson and Landsdown. We NEED to make it easy for them to commute in and out of the city. We MUST make it easy for people to get in and out of downtown if we want them to shop and spend money there. Good traffic flow is more vital to the success of the downtown core than bike lanes!

Stop using excess capacity and the lack of gridlock as justifications to slow traffic. Our traffic system are well designed and over built. This is a good thing for the future growth of Hamilton.

I disagree with Justin's "Myths". People won't/can't abandon their cars. The public transit grid in most of Ontario just isn't that complete and things are far to spread out here. Traffic calming does slow traffic...that's the whole point of it. Lots of streets in Hamilton are in horrific shape and need resurfacing for the cars alone. It will cost a ton of money for curbs, bumpouts, grates and so on. Maintaining the pretty flowers/trees/garbage cans and benches I see the artist renderings aren't free either. I'm not suggesting it's not worth it, but we do need a reality check here. It's not just painting some new lines on the road.

Pedestrian and bike traffic is awesome and should be encouraged, but focus on commercial areas. Leave some routes for cars, and stop trying to break something that's great about Hamilton.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 01, 2013 at 16:20:50

The United States, with its broad expanses and suburban ideals, had long been one of the world’s prime car cultures. It is the birthplace of the Model T; the home of Detroit; the place where Wilson Pickett immortalized “Mustang Sally” and the Beach Boys, “Little Deuce Coupe.”

But America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling. When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company. As of April 2013, the number of miles driven per person was nearly 9 percent below the peak and equal to where the country was in January 1995. Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way. The next few years will be telling.

“What most intrigues me is that rates of car ownership per household and per person started to come down two to three years before the downturn,” said Michael Sivak, who studies the trend and who is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “I think that means something more fundamental is going on.”


A study last year found that driving by young people decreased 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. The millennials don’t value cars and car ownership, they value technology — they care about what kinds of devices you own, Ms. Sheller said. The percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the availability of the Internet, Mr. Sivak’s research has found. Why spend an hour driving to work when you could take the bus or train and be online?

From 2007 to 2011, the age group most likely to buy a car shifted from the 35 to 44 group to the 55 to 64 group, he found.

Whether members of the millennial generation will start buying more cars once they have kids to take to soccer practice and school plays remains an open question. But such projections have important business implications, even if car buyers are merely older or buying fewer cars in a lifetime rather than rejecting car culture outright.

At the Mobile World Congress last year in Barcelona, Spain, Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, laid out a business plan for a world in which personal vehicle ownership is impractical or undesirable. He proposed partnering with the telecommunications industry to create cities in which “pedestrian, bicycle, private cars, commercial and public transportation traffic are woven into a connected network to save time, conserve resources, lower emissions and improve safety.”


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By Mark-AlanWhittle (registered) - website | Posted July 01, 2013 at 18:21:01

Is the author related to Peter Topalovic, Project Manager - Transportation Demand Management at City Of Hamilton?

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 02, 2013 at 10:27:54 in reply to Comment 89850

We MUST make it easy for people to get in and out of downtown if we want them to shop and spend money there. Good traffic flow is more vital to the success of the downtown core than bike lanes!

This would explain why downtown TO, Montreal, NYC, Vancouver are booming and Hamilton's not?? You've got it backwards. Completely backwards. And that's not just an opinion - visit any of the aforementioned cities and watch how long it takes to drive in/out of downtown and find somewhere to park compared to Hamilton. The evidence soundly suggests that making it easy to drive in/out of downtown will help to kill it. We are living proof.

It's important to distinguish fact from CHML or 1960's era politicians sound bites.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted July 02, 2013 at 21:47:00 in reply to Comment 89862

We're on the same side here. We both want safe, complete streets. That includes arterial roads that move traffic, as well as folks who come and go. Perhaps you have a different point of view than I do, but gridlock and slow traffic are awful for the environment and spirit of a community. Idling traffic is bad, steady traffic at 40-60 is good. Two way streets force drivers to make left hand turns against traffic and increase the risk of head on collisions. Once again, I'll point out that residential and commercial centres should be centred around pedestrian/bike. Close King, Hess, Augusta, Locke and James North to cars if you like! 30km speed limits and speed bumps on side streets! Bike lanes everywhere! You need arterial roads even more to take up the slack.

Yes, lots of folks work jobs downtown. Yes, many of them live there and already walk/bike/transit to work. And the other 70,000 folks who move in and out of Hamilton twice every day? We need to maintain capacity for them, as well as what's left of our industry. Burlington Street takes much of the brunt of this, but some trucks still have to move west to the 403. Deliveries into the core still need to happen. The longer they take to happen the more expensive goods get. Oh, and that's not why Hamilton's roads are bad. Fast, heavy traffic is not the reason I have lake sized potholes on my tiny, quiet urban side street. It's also not the reason Beasley and Landsdown have had a tough time. Charlton runs through Durand and Corktown, and it wasn't so long ago the highway free North End was no mans land.

What streets are you willing to sacrifice to accommodate fast through traffic?

Main, Cannon, York, Wentworth, Victoria in the core. I'm not suggesting you should travel from Westdale to Eastgate quickly, these routes should take you west to the 403 and north to Burlington from the Core. Certainly there are lots of opportunities in central Hamilton to slow traffic along King and Barton, but at some point they'll need to be the arteries moving East to the Red Hill. Move people in and out from the highways.

In another life I ran a store downtown. I lobbied for two way streets and traffic calming in the hope it would slow down traffic and bring more business into the store. Change came slowly, and folks found it easier to go to the local mall. Now after moving back downtown after 10 years in the country, I'm amazed and impressed by how much progress we've made.

Comment edited by ScreenCarp on 2013-07-02 21:48:52

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