That Personal Touch

By Sean Burak
Published December 14, 2012

A few months ago, the City of Hamilton installed a light at the corner of John at Augusta due to requests made through councillor Jason Farr regarding pedestrians having difficulty crossing.

While the installation was greatly appreciated, once it was brought online some problems became apparent. I sent a message to the city to alert them to the issues, which I'll summarize below:

The observed result of these issues is that many people cross against the red, possibly because it is not apparent to that the light is working correctly. It also impacts motorists since the light will often turn green for no one (after the person who triggered it is long gone, having given up on waiting).

Needless to say, this is a dangerous and inconvenient set up, and it represents wasted capital budget on a signal that serves nobody.

After several back and forth emails, with the city taking a hard line and refusing to consider any changes, they passed me up to a supervisor who sent me this gem of a response:

I have inserted this as a screenshot so that you can witness as clearly as I did that it was most certainly a form letter with some minor edits made - edits that were left in a different font and size than the original letter.

In other words, Mr Gallo did not bother to send a personal response. I'm left wondering whether he considered my points at all. Did he even read them?

What's especially disturbing is that his first bullet point, "Maximizing safety for all users," appears to have been added as an afterthought!

Was this added because my letter mentioned the recent pedestrian fatality in Dundas? And if I hadn't mentioned it, would safety even make the list?

I followed up with this response, which I hope you'll enjoy:

This was first published on the Downtown Bike Hounds blog.

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 seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2012 at 14:10:20

By the way... his response to my "form letter"?

One line:

Thanx for your support. It means a lot.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2012 at 14:14:43

Hamilton is Canada's leading producer of unrealized potential and unintentional dark comedy. I look forward to our next election between Sisyphus and Kafka.

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By Dane (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 14:26:08

Oh Sean you rabble rouser!

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 15:15:42

haha!! this is too good.
I really love it when any of these guys talks about 'maintaining reasonable balance' and 'impacts on the environment'.

Yea, Hamilton is a world leader in both. We'd hate to stop the tremendous work we've done at achieving amazing balance on our city streets, or negatively affect our pristine air.

This screams 'balance':

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 15:39:25

Every civil servant should read this article and take a moment to reflect on their own interactions with the tax paying public. While there is something to be said for standardized wording, as a way to stay "on message", there is no substitute for the personal touch that Sean is asking for.

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By 1234 (anonymous) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 16:31:16

Anyone contact Mercer over at CBC, this is great material.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 18:04:32

I was under the impression this light was supposed to have bike sensors as well, but those don't seem to work (if they're there at all), which means I have to go onto the sidewalk to hit the pedestrian crosswalk button if I want to cross John on my bike.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2012 at 18:25:00 in reply to Comment 83950

I raised this issue as well.

Seems like a lot of money to spend on a light that solves zero of the problems it was supposed to.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 19:18:58

In my experience of interacting with the traffic department for the past 10 years or so (six as member of the board of the Durand Neighbourhood Association), this is indeed the standard response:

  1. Delay responding for as long as possible.

  2. When you do finally respond always explain how it would just be impractical/against policy/too expensive to implement the requested change. This is the same tactic no matter how minor or major the change is (e.g. timings for a pedestrian signal).

I do sympathize with the traffic department: people are constantly making requests (especially for stop signs) and it is easier just to say no, than to carefully consider and prioritize them. This is especially true since many of the requested changes (like stop signs) are not actually good solutions.

According the Barry Wellar a professor of Geography at the University of Ottawa who has advised the DNA, this is the way it is supposed to work:

  1. Residents bring problems to the attention of the traffic engineers (e.g. no safe or convenient way to cross a major street). They do not suggest a solution.

  2. The Engineers find a technical solution to the problem. They do not simply ignore, claim there is no possible solution (this isn't unifying gravity and quantum mechanics!), or impose their own priorities, or brush off the concern.

  3. Residents provide feedback to tell the engineers whether the solution worked.

A few years ago the DNA, on the City's request, hosted the "Walk and Bike for Life" workshop with 8-80 Cities (Gil Penalosa's outfit). I was skeptical at the time, but city staff (from public health) assured us the recommendations would be taken very seriously and at least some implemented.

After a year of no response to the resulting report, and constant reminders from our councillor, traffic staff finally met with the DNA to tell us they would not make any changes at all. This was especially galling as Penalosa specifically had us add in "petunias": low cost, simple solutions that could be implemented very quickly and easily.

When I pointed out that I would like my children to be able to walk around their own neighbourhood safely, one of the engineers (I'm pretty sure it was Mr Gallo) said: "I really sympathize with you: I have children and I certainly wouldn't let them walk around by themselves in the Durand ... the traffic is dangerous."

I was rather taken aback, to say the least.

I think part of the problem is that very few (any?) of the traffic department actually live in the urban core of the city (especially the downtown core, and even other parts of wards 1,2,3). I'd be happy to be corrected, but I just don't think they understand why pedestrian safety and convenience is important for these dense, old neighbourhoods bisected by high speed one-way streets. It is always a "nice to have" once fast and smooth motor vehicle traffic is taken care of.

This is why the only way to make progress is to have Councillors direct the traffic engineers to make the necessary changes. This is not a great solution (since the engineers should be suggesting the right solutions), but at least it gets around the blank refusal to address neighbourhood concerns.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-12-14 20:48:02

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 14, 2012 at 23:17:20

I'm still laughing out loud at this hours after first reading it. Too funny.

That form letter is imprinted in each of their heads. It's almost word for word what the traffic guy told us at Locke and York when we asked for an extra 15-20 seconds for people to cross York.

So good Sean...this is gold.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 15, 2012 at 09:57:57 in reply to Comment 83956

It would be funnier if it weren't for the fact that this letter seems to be the single document that gets in the way of every progressive transportation improvement ever proposed in this city.

This should be plastered to the front wall of city hall, because any proposal has to leap this hurdle before it will get any traction here.

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By rrrandy (registered) - website | Posted December 15, 2012 at 22:36:30

Seen and heard the same from Gallo before on the reason the walk signal doesn't come on unless a pedestrian (often goes out of their way) to push a button, which even after pushing the button means waiting for a full cycle of the light to go from green (no walk) to yellow, red, and then finally green (with a walk sign) - people who walk will know what I mean. Also we were told that they couldn't add a countdown timer at a ped crossing at Cootes/McMaster, and so on. It's all about [car] flow...

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By RB (registered) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 16:33:50 in reply to Comment 83953

I've always thought about this... most/many of the decision makers in this town don't even live here.

I wonder if there's some way to look into that... I'd be interested to know what the numbers are.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 29, 2014 at 12:36:35

A year later and it still works the same way. Or should I say, "doesn't work" in the same way.

Last night I walked up Augusta as the hand started flashing facing John. Assuming the light was about to change, I did not hit the button. As I waited, the hand turned back to green and Augusta never got its green.

Customer service at its best.

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