Death by a Thousand Reports: Council Fails Downtown Streets Yet Again

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 11, 2008

In an utterly incomprehensible move, council voted last night to throw out the downtown master plan, which the city has been developing since 2001 with careful study and extensive public consultation. (Council subsequently reversed their decision and deferred the matter until later.)

At issue is the cost to convert downtown streets to two-way. In 2008, some councillors still can't seem to figure out why it's harmful to have an expressway running through your neighbourhood.

Councillors like Terry Whitehead, who's been at the job long enough to know better, still can't see how the investment in two-way conversion will pay for itself in increased vitality. He says the conversion might look better but won't earn the city any money.

Epic Leadership Fail

The conceptual shift required to see streets as part of the essential public fabric of a community appears to be lost on them - despite the consistent message the city has been receiving from urban planners and architects for at least a decade.

A 1997 downtown ideas charette sponsorred by Architecture Hamilton came out with one unambiguous recommendation: if you do nothing else, convert downtown streets back to two way right away. That report was, of course, ignored.

In 2001, the city started its downtown transportation master plan and began to look at the idea of street conversions. This led ultimately to the hugely successful two-way conversions of James St. N. and John St. N., followed by the conversions of James St. S. and John St. S.

It spurred the city to look more seriously at converting other streets to two-way as well. However, even then the public works department balked at converting Main St. and King St. to two-way.

Instead, the master plan recommends converting York Blvd, Wilson Street, Park St., MacNab St, Hughson St, Hess St, King William St and Rebecca St.

This is Not Rocket Science

Donald Schmitt, the architect designing McMaster Innovation Park, said in a November, 2005 public lecture that the city should convert its streets to two-way "tomorrow".

In a subsequent interview with Raise the Hammer, Schmitt explained:

Two way streets slow cars down. The environment on the sidewalk, particularly if they are widened with parallel parking and street trees becomes more protected from traffic and more conducive to window shopping, outdoor food and sidewalk life.

Pedestrians cross the street more safely and both sides of the street start to work together as a true retail strip.

Councillor Brad Clark said at the meeting that he thinks more research needs to be done to determine whether the James and John conversions have been successful. This is just mindboggling. Does the man ever come downtown?

Such diverse public figures as Chamber of Commerce CEO John Dolbec, who admitted he was wrong to oppose the James and John conversion originally, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who said the conversion has "invigorated the businesses and offered a new view on what downtown looks like."

Former regional chair Terry Cooke laid it on the line in a February, 2008 column in the Spectator:

Hamilton council should summon the political courage to simply eliminate our anachronistic system of one-way streets. No more public-policy baby steps and enough already with pilot projects like the now three-year-old conversions of James and John streets.

It's time to simply abandon an idea of the 1950s that serves only as a deterrent to restoring livable neighbourhoods in the heart of Hamilton.

How Come Everyone Else Gets Two-Way Streets?

Bravo to Councillor Bratina, who cited the obnoxious double standard that sacrifices downtown neighbourhoods on the altar of expedience:

Councillor Bob Bratina argues businesses won't relocate to the street as long as it is a "freeway."

He noted if one-way streets are such a benefit, he'll request they be installed on the Mountain.

"Let's make Upper James one way."

How come everyone else gets two-way streets? Why are downtown neighbourhoods uniquely expendable patches of the city fabric? With high speed motorists mowing down pedestrians on an excruciatingly regular basis, how can there be any question of the right thing to do?

In 2008, why are we even still having this debate? Council simply has no excuse to remain so ignorant of the basis facts of street safety and vitality after all the information they've received over the past decade. For heaven's sake, Jane Jacobs was writing about this close to fifty years ago. This is not groundbreaking stuff.

If council can't get it right on something this basic, is there any hope at all that they can handle the bigger, more controversial issues in a constructive way?


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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 08:54:16

unbelievable. Nothing should shock me anymore with Hamilton city hall, but this is truly stunning. I really don't know what to say. the ignorance displayed by this group is incredible. I've had enough of suburban politicians doing everything possible to stand in the way of downtown moving forward. Can the lower city please secede from the rest of this city and just get it over with so we can go about the business of running a real city, and not have these 1950's relics standing in the way all the time.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 09:26:48

Ryan I think you mean altAr not alter. I'm not entirely surprised either. What kind of input does Councillor Brad Clark get? Why does his input really mean anything anyway. He's Ward where near downtown! Mayor Fred, try the old railroading tactic. You're the boss!

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:45:57

ARRRRGHHH! What a bunch of useless idiots!! How some of these councilors manage to get their pants on the right way in the morning is seriously beyond me. More studies? More reports? Epic fail is right. I don't find myself agreeing with Terry "Red Hill" Cooke very often but he NAILS it here - no more public policy baby steps. Heck baby steps would be a step forward (OK a small one, but still), this council seems stuck in place. Maybe they can't cross the street into the future because there are too many damn cars racing by.

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By LikeHamilton (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:53:53

As someone who has worked on John Street for more that 30 years I was sceptical about the conversion to two-way streets. At certain times of the day it is now absolute gridlock, but I have figured out ways to get around it. I found I did not need to drive on John or James to get to where I wanted to go. But that gridlock at other times of the day has added excitement to the streets. I have noticed more life on the street, more businesses opening up and spreading out to the sidewalk and adding to the neighbourhoods.

I have changed my mind on two-way streets. I have observed and I believe them to be an outright success!

I like what I have seen! I also believe that you cannot paint everything with the same brush or colour, not all streets can or should be converted to one-way. I believe the plan does have some streets still run one-way due to their size. King can go to two-way from the Delta to Wellington Street but stay one-way to the 403, but narrowed in certain sections. Main can go two-way from 403 to the Delta with more lanes eastbound than westbound. I believe this would be a balance between the need to move traffic and slowing traffic down.

This would also allow a better flow of traffic to and from events in the core. I now avoid going to events in Toronto due to the impassable gridlock downtown. It can take more than two hours to get out of Toronto after a show on the weekend. As the driver I do not see anything as my eyes are glued to the road and the stress is almost unbearable. I have not been to any event in Toronto for over 2 years. I have been to events in Hamilton, Kitchener, and Niagara-on-the-Lake and even Buffalo (a show that had played in Toronto and I waited until it played in Buffalo).

I would like to suggest that someone or some group invite the outside blind Councillors for a tour of James Street North and South to see the changes that have come from two-way streets. Maybe they should be invited to an art crawl and see all of the upscale intelligent people that come to James Street North! Maybe this is a job for the BIA’s.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:07:48

"Maybe this is a job for the BIA’s."

Heck, John Dolbec of all people is supportive of two-way. If they won't listen to John Dolbec, who will they listen to?

Well I'm off to write an LTE that won't get published. A girl's gotta have a hobby.

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By Hammerhead (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:12:51

I would suggest that we launch an intensive e-mail campaign to all councillors. This issue is too important to have "deffered until later". In fact I think that the street conversion was the true catalyst to changing things in the core - for the better. I would hate to see this momentum halted because of a few dim-wtted councillors.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 12:07:25

I just emailed Councillors Whitehead and Clark asking why 1 way is a good solution for downtown but not a good solution for the mountain. We could start with the 2 parallel streets West 5th and Upper James and see how things go?
By the way, Councillor Clark is out of the office until July 21st, might be best to phone his receptionist.

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By Puzzled (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 12:18:09

How come more Peak oil studies are ok, but traffic studies are not?

When you don't like the result, study it to death...but when you want the result, terminate studies!! I think that's your philosophy.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 12:56:48

No one's calling for more peak oil studies as far as I know. Just calling for the ones that have already been done not to be ignored, just as we are calling for all the evidence supporting two-way streets not to be ignored. I don't see the contradiction.

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By Freds Not Here (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 14:03:29

This is stone walling 101.

Council is so fractured that they are threatening some very promising ideas.

Mayor Fred needs to step up here and knock some heads.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 14:28:09

And to think I was almost duped into believing that Brad Clark would be a viable option for mayor next term. After this and his stupid handling of the Mayor's recorded conversation I realize how thanful I am that he's spending a term on council for people to really get to know him.

For the record, this plan didn't include King or Main in the next phase. It was York Blvd and a host of smaller streets. King and Main are being deferred until after the rapid transit study.

Also, for the record, nobody is asking for more peak oil studies. We're still waiting back word from the long-stalled first one from 3 years ago.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 15:05:48

First off, I am not a downtowner.

I feel there are too many one-way streets downtown that make the core either look dead (especially at night) or like the Cayuga speedway. Poor decision by council.

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By everywhere (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2008 at 21:49:06

I have friends both against or for 2 way street conversions. Yes, I believe widen sidewalks as streets are for people not traffic.

I'm very dead against freeways such as heavy traffic like Main/King but it just continues really through Cootes in Dundas.

We need bike lanes all way through even major streets. Finally bike logos on york but noticed it stops? York Blvd needs serious road repair.

Oh! some of my friends feel 2 way ridiculous because it slows traffic, waist of $$$ and now we have to look both ways before crossing street.

some of my friends should get off their butt & try walking or cycling and perhaps they'll view things in a different perspective.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2008 at 03:06:17

I was lost with this council when they began to ask if "bad @#$%^&* language" was a source of downtown stagnation. The sidewalk on King Street (Upper James to Bay St.) looks like the floor of a long neglected stockyard. Every time I go there, I want to burn my shoes when I get home.

Yes you can back street your way across town, but if you want to do business with a store on one of the one way streets you had better know Exactly Where it is or you will miss it. As one CBC Radio personality stated, ' One way traffic (in Hamilton) moves too quickly & is too heavy to look for a street address or a business sign.' I think she likened it to 'the running of the bulls'. You just get pushed along at headlong speed. This applys to bus traffic on these routes as well as cars.

Is the idea really to get people Out of There as quickly as possible? That's one heck of a bad way to utilize a City core!

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