A Jolley Cut for Everyone

The Jolley is about to be re-paved. Let's make it accessible to everyone in the city, no matter what mode of transport they prefer.

By Sean Burak
Published September 14, 2009

As work is completed on the bottom end of the Jolley Cut, questions come to mind about the destiny of the middle and upper sections. Will we simply pave over the crumbling asphalt, or will we reconfigure the access so that it better serves a greater number of citizens?

Since its inception, Hamilton has made many attempts to bridge the physical and mental division caused by the escarpment. From footpath to road to rail, highway to stairs to trail, we've built and rebuilt dozens of 'mountain accesses'.

The Jolley Cut is one of the most important ones, if not due to traffic volume, then due to symbolic value. It is the central cut. It links the core of the lower city with the heart of the upper.

It is one of the few which allows a direct route up and down - its switchback curve reduces the amount of east-west 'skew' experienced when using our other road accesses.

It also hugs Sam Lawrence Park and offers the easiest access to the park for those living below. It delivers mountain dwellers directly downtown.

Jolley Cut in 1954 (Image Credit: thekingshighway.ca)
Jolley Cut in 1954 (Image Credit: thekingshighway.ca)

But the Cut has a darker side. Because it was originally built as a motorway (part of Highway 6 until the 1970s), it continues to serve motor vehicle traffic above all else. In this sense, it only acts to bridge the two halves of the city from the perspective of motorists.

Bridge for Motorists: Barrier for Everyone Else

To those who do not drive, either by choice or otherwise, the Cut acts as a barrier.

The lower section of the Jolley (below the pedestrian crossing near Kingsway Drive) offers acceptable amenities to pedestrians - standard width sidewalks and a dedicated light. It has no dedicated cycling lanes.

The middle section (from Kingsway to the hairpin curve) has a single sidewalk with a severely reduced width, and no accommodation for cyclists.

The upper section (above the curve) does not allow for any non-motorized traffic. There is, however, a beautiful walking path that bypasses the upper portion of the roadway. Unfortunately, the path has several staircases with no bike-friendly bypass.

The lower section has standard sidewalks
The lower section has standard sidewalks

In its current state, Jolley is nothing short of a nightmare for everyone outside of a car.

The sidewalk along the middle section is too narrow for two people to comfortably pass. Pedestrians are sandwiched between a guardrail that protects them from a sheer drop, and a crumbling curb that protects them from fast-moving, downhill-bound traffic.

Cyclists along this stretch are in even worse shape, with no dedicated space at all. Descending cyclists share a narrow lane with vehicles, while ascending bikes must navigate on-again/off-again gravel shoulders.

The sidewalk narrows above the pedestrian crossing
The sidewalk narrows above the pedestrian crossing

Not enough room for two people to walk
Not enough room for two people to walk

On foot, the dedicated path above the bend offers much appreciated separation from traffic. Cyclists, however, must choose to use the road (sharing lanes with no shoulder on a blind curve) or the path (carrying bikes on the staircase).

Some riders choose to climb the cut by using the traffic lane through the middle section, and crossing near the bend to finish their ascent via the off-street path. These law-abiding bikers are forced to cross at a blind corner with no pedestrian signal.

Avoiding the cut altogether is difficult since the James stairs have no bike-friendly wheel troughs. It's no wonder many cyclists choose to use the sidewalk instead of the street, putting themselves and pedestrians at risk through the very narrow middle section.

Pedestrians who require mobility assistance have no option at all - the sidewalk is too narrow and the stairs near the hairpin are impassable.

Any brave souls who attempt this climb are in for more challenges once they reach the top. By taking the dedicated path, one arrives at Concession near East 13th St. This is convenient if one is travelling east toward the shops on concession.

Anyone using this path to access Sam Lawrence Park, however, is greeted with a 300-metre walk back in the direction they came, just to reach the park entrance.

To make matters worse, the Jolley is officially part of the Bruce Trail. Hikers using the path through Hamilton are spit from a forested trail out into a clearing where rushing traffic challenges them for space along a narrow sidewalk. We should be putting on a much better face for these visitors to demonstrate the natural beauty Hamilton has to offer.

We Can Do Better

Surely we can do better than this. The Concession shops and Sam Lawrence Park are jewels that could be within easy reach of walking or cycling downtowners. Conversely, the downtown offers endless amenities to Upper Hamiltonians. We should do our best to make those accessible by all modes of transportation. Revamping this access would benefit all citizens who are within cycling/walking distance of the cut.

One simple solution to this problem is to give cyclists and pedestrians a little more space, along with a comfortable separation from vehicular traffic.

Since the 1970's, we have been steadily building lanes up and down the escarpment. Claremont is ultra-wide. The 403 has taken all of the highway 6 traffic off of our streets. The Red Hill Expressway has eased congestion in the East.

We have so many lanes breaching the escarpment that we could easily lose one single vehicular lane without causing any trouble to motorists.

By dedicating one of the downbound Jolley lanes to people rather than cars, we can open up this access to a huge percentage of the population that is currently shut out.

Proposal to add a two-way bike lane plus other amenities
Proposal to add a two-way bike lane plus other amenities (Click on the image to view larger in a new window.)

In this scenario, we would retain both upbound lanes, ensuring that nobody gets stuck behind a slow-climbing truck. We would retain both downbound lanes above the hairpin, and both downbound lanes below the pedestrian crossing. Only in the straight middle section would we reduce vehicular traffic to one lane travelling downhill.

From the hairpin to the pedestrian crossing, we could dedicate a full lane's width to two-way bike lanes and a much wider sidewalk. This could be accomplished immediately with a minimal amount of concrete, some paint and signage.

Ideally we would take this idea even further by physically separating the bike lanes from the street. This could be accomplished inexpensively with pylons or concrete barriers, or we could spruce it up with a small planted median.

Taking one more step, we could add accessibility ramps to the staircases along the upper dedicated trail, along with bike-friendly stair bypasses.

By building the cut this way, pedestrians and cyclists can use standard sidewalks and shared traffic lanes below the crossing near Kingsway. At Kingsway, they would cross to use the new sidewalk and bike lanes on the south side of the access up to the curve. At the curve, they would have direct access to the dedicated pathway without having to cross any lanes.

By opening up the Jolley to pedestrians and cyclists, we could open up one more bonus opportunity: easy access to Sam Lawrence Park from below. This would be accomplished by adding an on-demand pedestrian crossing halfway up the Jolley Cut, where a short staircase would be built to link the crossing directly to the lower pathways of the park.

The Jolley is about to be re-paved. Let's take it just a little bit further and make it accessible to everyone in the city, no matter what mode of transport they prefer.

Sean Burak was born in Hamilton but raised elsewhere in Ontario. He returned to his birth town at the turn of the century and has never looked back. Sean is the owner of Downtown Bike Hounds.


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By jason (registered) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 15:25:51

great piece Sean.

If you drive on the Jolley Cut you'll know that the lanes are huge. Considering the speed limit is the standard 50 k, the city could at the very least add bike lanes onto both sides of the roadway simply by trimming the oversized lanes a little. And yea, those sidewalks. YIKES. The view of Hamilton is amazing from the Jolley Cut. I see no problem with slightly slowing it down and adding equal opportunity for cyclists and pedestrians to enjoy it as well.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 16:07:28

The third lane could operate in either direction, with traffic needs, if necessary. I'd even go one step further, knock it back to one lane each way, with vegetation separating car lanes from pedestrians and bikes.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 16:32:58

Great Article!

However, I could see Council OK'ing a strip for the Jolley Cut alone with no top or bottom connector (bike) lanes.

Kinda like how the York Blvd lanes just start and stop, with no connection anywhere.

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By Waterdowner (registered) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 21:11:51

According to Margaret McCarthy bikes have no place on the road. According to her, cyclists are second class citizens.

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 23:58:57

interesting idea...however...

call me a lazy socia1ist but how about instead just make the bus free from the last stop on the bottom of the cut to the first stop at the top and vis versa for pedestrians and cyclists. walking or riding up any access is exhausting and unhealthy due to much higher levels of pollution. going down isn't much more enjoyable, especially in winter.

if free is too drastic how about a severely reduced fare, say 50 cents? designate an area at the front of the bus where people taking the "scarpment shuttle" stand to reduce the risk of fare dodgers.

many cities have a designated free zone around which one can take public transit any time without charge. this wouldn't be that much different.

personally i would love to see a new incline railway built, for utility sake and the coolness factor at the top of james street or some other suitable way. what better vista than ascending above it all by the most direct route possible. it could be part of a new "pier" extending out at the top of the escarpment, a look out of sorts.

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 00:01:44

p.s. i had to throw a 1 in the word "socia1ist" to make it past the spam filter...??? really?!?

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 04:07:45

I think this is a great step to take towards making access to and from the upper and lower city multi-modal. I think it's also worth imagining the Sherman Cut as cyclist accessible as it provides a much lower grade and access to both downtown and the east of town. What with non-motorist access to and from the upper city in the east end being particularly pathetic.

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By Brioski8 (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 10:44:37

I think this is a more than reasonable proposal... which is probly why it will never see the light of day.

Ok maybe that's a little too cynical.

A good example to point to would be the recent York Blvd resurfacing and bike lane additions. For the first week or two there were a few angry angry letters to The Spec decrying the horrible traffic jams and how it was now impossible to drive on York. Blah Blah Blah. I drive through York to get to the Hwy 6 on a regular basis during peak and off peak times. ZERO problems now! Where did the cars go? Who cares? York boulevard is now a beautiful entrance to the City. The Jolley Cut could be a revolutionary multipurpose access to downtown and vise-versa to the mountain.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 10:54:43

I can't wait to see what the city has planned for York, just west of Bay. Once the two-way happens, there will be 2 eastbound lanes. Will there be three left turn lanes onto Bay?? LOL. In a normal city, we'd trim York down to 2-3 lanes east of Queen, but who knows what we'll do here.

Brioski8, no you're not cynical. This plan will NOT see the light of day. Take it to the bank.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 12:40:21

Very nice writeup! The master cycling plan was going to try and at least put an uphill lane on the Jolley cut. That was #15 on the list or something. The most I'm going to realistically hope for is that they do a proper shoulder starting from the bridge all the rest of the way up. So we don't have to ride inside the traffic lane around the blind corner.

I don't expect anything meaningful to be done ... I'm afraid that this repaving will waste the opportunity to increase comfort for all traffic and alleviate riding inside the lane messing with upbound traffic, with buses and nice people passing safely while not nice people buzz by too close at high speed ... who needs skydiving for excitement when you can bike to work ... Plus I'm riding uphill sometimes with 2 or 3 other cyclists in line ... it is heavily enough used that you would think it would be obvious to properly partition it.

Downhill needs a wide high quality bike lane otherwise it is better to use the whole right lane ... much safer because you have space ... you pick up quite a bit of speed on the way down. The pedestrian sidewalk is very narrow and ugly though - forget the downhill bike lane and widen the sidewalk .. perhaps improvements for bikes on the south side and for people on the north side?

What an outstanding idea do it up like York Blvd ... that would beautiful. Very unrealistic in the present climate but I can imagine a possible Jolley Cut done like that and wow that'd be sweet compared to the current traffic sewer.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 13:00:44


A free or heavily discounted escarpment shuttle would be awesome. This thought has occurred to me before as an alternative to reconstruction of the funicular, although it wouldn't have any of the antiquey appeal of a railway (and thus probably wouldn't serve as a tourist draw or anything like that).

An escarpment shuttle makes so much more sense (in my mind anyway) than the cheesy waterfront shuttle.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 13:45:51

No shuttle; Incline Rail!

The City (or at least Bratina) is serious about bringing them back. However, it should be done in ADDITION to Bike Lanes along the Jolley Cut.

They should also implement Bike Lanes along the Claremont Accs once it's re-worked for LRT (A-Line). (QUESTION: Has anyone ever seen the 7-8 lanes along Claremont in full use? I can only ever think of it being almost completely empty. Most over-done Mountain Access in Hamilton, imo).

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By JM (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 14:18:00

This is also a great opportunity to enhance the "streetscape" of the Jolley Cut, since it IS and always WILL be a major Gateway into downtown - with the amazing view that I enjoy every morning on my bus ride down.

The entire stretch of the cut from the Bridge all the way to Concession street seriously needs some maintenance work. From the crumbling curbs, to crumbling concrete poles, and a hodge podge of infrequently replaced / inconsistent light standards its time that this piece got a major overhaul (and update from the 1960's).

Just adding some decorative light standards, whethere "victorian" or "modern" could make a huge difference in the "gateway experience" (and can easily make it blend in with Sam L. Park). Ideally i would like to see it go down like something such as the new City Ctr drive overpass over the 403 in Mississauga (so cool! and it glows!). Of course, the addition of bike lines and wider sidewalks will seal the deal.... but as always, it seems this is too much to ask!

Add this to your proposal!!

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 16:05:00

brodiec - "I think it's also worth imagining the Sherman Cut as cyclist accessible..."

Is the Sherman access permitted to be used by bikes? I am almost certain I recall seeing a 'no bikes' sign at the top of the Sherman cut. However I still see people biking along there. Actually when I go to Central Cycle for parts, the easiest route is the Sherman cut so I've inadvertently disobeyed that already. And space does exist for paved shoulders which are present along most of it already.

Actually many times I've looked around while climbing the Jolley Cut and thought how easy it would be to improve ... but simultaneously fearing that 'no bikes' signs would go up rather than actual improvements. The status quo culture makes it more likely to ban bikes than engineer them into the solution but hopefully that is excessive paranoia and that they'd never be so deliberately evil.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2009 at 19:42:35

Thanks for your comments...

I think the idea of free buses from the last stop below to the first stop above is great - but we still need to better accommodate people who want to traverse the cut by muscle power!

Having an incline railway would be amazing - but I think the cost will outweigh the benefits, even over the long term - it will be a tough sell. A much easier solution, and equally (if not more) functional would be an aerial tram (sky lift, gondola). It would be much cheaper to install, would offer smaller wait times, a faster ride, and a better view than an incline railway. I plan to write up a proposal for such a tram soon!

I'd love to see lots of "dressings" added to this project - lights, plantings etc. Ideally the vehicular traffic would be separated from the people by a planted median.

Another part of the proposal which was left out for brevity is a direct link to Sam Lawrence. About halfway across the "bridge" part of the cut, the lower pathways of the park come very close to the Jolley. If we put a pedestrian crossing there, we could add a staircase to the park. One could then access Sam Lawrence from below without having to go around the entire Jolley bend and onto Concession street )this proposed link is in the google maps image in the article).

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 13:53:12

I think it'd be great to see that inclined railway running again. I'm not sure if it's feasible to make the cars smaller and increase the number though. It fits much better with the type of architecture we have downtown than a sky lift does.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 13:55:23

An inclined railway would be great especially if it were coupled with a decent sized residential/commercial type development up top that could draw people. Once downtown is more of a destination travel would happen both ways.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 17:01:20

I'm starting to warm up to the idea of Gondola'esq transit. The one in Portland is sexy! Imagine a modern gondola go from the old resevoir at James/Aberbeen up to the old Mountainview Hotel site. Make a mock-Mountainview Hotel as a lookout base/tower, add some amenities within (food, drink, patio, washrooms, climate control) and watch the attraction bloom!

Oh Wait... "But this Hamilton! We can't be sexy like Portland/San Francisco/Montreal/Vancouver/Whatever; our Mountain isn't even a MOUNTAIN"

^^ The above was a generalized argument most Hamiltonians make, not my opinion at all (clearly)!

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:21:27

Doesn't one of the LRT plans involve moving all the bus traffic off the jolley cut? Surely if they do that they can justify adding a bike lane, right?

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By Steve (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 10:50:15

Great idea, the Jolley Cut is not bicycle/pedestrian friendly. A couple of years ago I was going down the cut in my car on the outside lane. Another car in the inside lane was going too fast and lost it. He slammed into me sending me over the sidewalk and into the retaining wall. Had there been any pedestrians there at the time they would have been severly injured or killed.I wouldn't walk up there for anything!!We need more bicycle access up the mountain in this area I live below the mountain near the cut and if I want to go up the mountain in a westerly direction there is no way. I would have to go all the way over to the Chedoke stairs to get to a stair with a bike trough!

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By trevorlikesbikes (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2009 at 13:10:24

As an avid cyclist, and one who has rode up the Jolley cut countless times, I would have to disagree with your plan to add a bike lane. It is my firm belief that while bike lanes at the the expense of motor vehicle congestion will bring no good to our city.

Yes, I have been to the Netherlands and witnessed full well how efficiently the separated lanes work there and was truly awed by the country's cycling infrastructure, however, don't believe that model will work here.

The escarpment offers many challenges to accessability. If there is a access that can truly stand to lose a lane it would be claremont.

Sadly, I don't believe that Hamilton's take on bike lanes provides any value. They start and stop entirely at random. They stop 100m before every major intersection and start up again after, taking the onus off the drivers and gives free passage to turn us cyclists into roadkill or speed bumps if we survive. Further to this the bikelanes are full of manhole covers, broken asphalt, sticks, glass and other garbage that is not condusive to getting home with air in the tires.

No need for bike lanes, we all just need to get over our me first mentality and share like they taught us in kindergarten.

Trevor trevorlikesbikes.blogspot.com

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:18:03

I believe that model WILL work here. The problems that you are talking about exist because we are NOT following the proven model.

We are not talking about painting bikes into the shoulder on the jolley. We are talking about a physically separated dedicated "bikeway".

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By Slim Volumes (anonymous) | Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:18:28

The Jolley Cut is an undervalued asset to the city, for the views, for the connections, for the name alone. No other city in the world has the Jolley Cut. Regrettably it and the Claremont are currently examples of short, inner-city auto expressways. They were both built with one objective: to move as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible.

There have been plans going back to McQueston to enhance the trip from the escarpment at Upper Wellington, down to the waterfront. The bridge built on Ferguson Ave. N. is part of a vision of the street as a livable parkway. Earlier plans to enhance Sam Lawrence Park with a bridge to the plateau from Concession Street and steps from the park's descending walkways to the Cut roadbed were scotched by mountain neighbours who viewed the greenery as their local domain. But a pedestrian traffic light on the upper Cut connecting these as-yet-unmade steps to the sidewalk opposite could only improve access to one of this city's finest features, as would wider sidewalks and a bike lane.

If I were to dream, I'd like to see a man-made waterfall (along the lines of the bridge waterfall in Edmonton) from Sam Lawrence Park to Charlton, east of the Claremont auto-spill at Victoria. What an enhancement this would be for the Hamilton's proclaimed waterfall status, and right in the city's centre too. But this could be more than a tourism attraction. The feature might also provide more affordable summer cooling for nearby hospitals. In fact, I suspect there is significant geothermal potential along the escarpment through Hamilton that could be accessed without despoiling this ribbon of natural greenery.

Meantime, I give you this:

The Jolley Cut

there ain't no cut like the Jolley Cut
the Sherman Cut and the Clappison Cut
don't make the cut like the Jolley Cut

it winds from Concession down to St. Joe's
the hip trip everybody knows
if you're going from up town to down
take the Jolley Cut, get rid of your frown

'cause there ain't no cut like the Jolley Cut
a mullet cut and a brisket cut
are nothing like the Jolley Cut

start your trip at the tip of Sam Lawrence Park
where lovers like to meet after dark
a slow curve to your right
and already you're into the bite

there's the garden in its glory
and you're in old Jolley's quarry
limestone, fossils get ready for a j-j-jostle to the left

turning left on the Jolley Cut
not Centennial, not Clappison Cut
I wont stand no ifs ands or buts
there just ain't no cut like the Jolley Cut

and suddenly there's the city looking mighty pretty
you can see Toronto on a clear day
the Beachstrip and the lakers in the bay
Burlington Heights and Paradise, both looking very nice
Dundas, Hamilton and just a peek of Stoney Creek

oh! there ain't no cut
none like the Jolley Cut
even a tax cut is undercut by the Jolley Cut

but you are only down by half
at the bridge over Clairmont's lower path
you gotta glide behind Rock Castle
the rotunda with the tassels
a little pressure on the brake
the final turn's a piece of cake

No there ain't no cut like the Jolley Cut
I don't mean to be indelicut
but the Jolley Cut is one hell of a cut

And this last stretch of the Jolley Cut's run
goes by the name of Arkledun
'cause there ain't no done
like Arkledun

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:19:22

As a cyclist who has used the jolley cut thousands of times, I don't think bike lanes on the way down are a good idea. I take the whole lane, and with my skinny tires I go pretty close to the 50km/h speed limit anyway. Drivers who threaten my life often get a tap on the windshield and a little discussion when we both get stopped at the red light at the bottom.

But maybe that's just me. I realize that riding with such confidence in Hamilton is a privilege for someone who is male, healthy, educated, pretty big. It's important to remember that.

However, as confident as I am, I have never attempted to ride up the jolley cut on the road. Before the racks on buses, I always rode up on the sidewalk. So a lane going up would be a good idea.

On second thought, a shuttle bus (with a 3-bike rack?) AND an incline would be dope. The incline, for my money, needs to go at Wentworth St.

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By UrbanTurban (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 12:04:43

Given the fact that the Claremont services the same area of the mountain as well as east and west access to the linc to travel accross the mountain, the city should be fored to turn the Jolley Cut into a 2 lane (one up, one down) access like the Mount Albion hill was. The turn around for access to Concession Street should also be removed and replaced with a traditional left hand turn lane and Sam Lawrence Park extended right to Upper Wellington. The extra space on the Jolley Cut can then be used for bike lanes, and SAFE sidewalks on both sides on the access. Hamilton won't though. It would make too much sense.

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By Anders (registered) | Posted April 12, 2010 at 09:53:01

I'm a bit late to this party but I'd just like to say that I LOVED your song Slim Volumes. Even a tax cut is undercut by the Jolley cut! Awesome.

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