Special Report: Walkable Streets

2012 Hamilton Transportation Summit an Important Step Toward Complete Streets

The annual Transportation Summit helps to fortify the ideas of sustainable transportation in our collective conscious and creates a forum for city staff to report on their progress and stay focused on improvements.

By Maria Topalovic
Published April 10, 2012

Prior to Hamilton's 5th Annual Transportation Summit: Exploring Complete Streets, the editors and some readers of RTH questioned the effectiveness of such a forum.

I was excited to attend the Hamilton Transportation Summit (HTS) for the first time this year, especially since my master's research was centred on Complete Streets in Hamilton, but I also couldn't help but wonder how true the claims in the RTH article really were. I wrote this article to present what I learned and what I think it means for Hamilton.

Keep in mind that I am young, somewhat optimistic and love this great city that is my home. I think it's important for us all to reflect on the question: Is it better to try and fail or to never make an attempt?

The transportation summits are an attempt to expose city staff, community leaders and transportation advocates to new ideas that can improve quality of life and economic development in the city. The summits offer open and frank dialogue and bring together people who are in positions to make change. Have they been successful?

Prior to attending, I read the RTH editor's article about why he didn't want to attend this year's summit and I can understand his frustration. I've lived in Hamilton my whole life and if there is one thing I know, it's that decisions made never seem to be ones that common sense would predict. Plans are shelved because of an unwillingness to compromise automobile traffic flow or lessen overly prescriptive parking requirements.

As a Hamiltonian, I'm constantly frustrated with the city. Case in point - our very own Mayor didn't attend the HTS, whereas the Burlington Mayor, Rick Goldring, managed to find the time. Not to my surprise, Councillor Brian McHattie brought greetings from Council - one of the few Councillors that understand Complete Streets and the potential it has for Hamilton.

However, let's consider the alternative. If we didn't have a transportation summit, how would we learn from other cities, brainstorm ideas to improve our city, and engage city staff to continually renew their objectives (whether they are listening or not)?

An old adage states, "It's better to try and fail, then to not try at all." It may be a long battle with small and slow results (this is Hamilton after all), but progress is progress. Rather than focus on what hasn't happened since the first summit, let's look at what has:

Sure, Hamilton is no New York City, which actually closes sections of Times Square and Herald Square to cars, creating pedestrian plazas while improving traffic on Broadway and decreasing accidents - but we can do it too, right?

We might need some new members of Council and potentially some new traffic engineers, but it provides hope to meet city staff at the HTS who share a vision for Complete Streets and the need to do more. Hope for a better city for future generations and that one day city staff will be presenting Hamilton's Complete Streets projects to other municipalities.

If we are not hopeful, if we don't try, then we are no better than those in our city who won't change.

So if you haven't realized it by now, I enjoyed this year's Transportation Summit and hope to attend in future years. While it may have been a day full of experts that our traffic planners can ignore, someone was listening and I know one day those lessons won't be ignored.

Key Takeaways

If you don't want to read through my recap of what I learned at the summit, I've summarized the key takeaways. If you are intrigued, read on to see who said them, what else they had to say and what lessons can be learned for our city.

A summary of key takeaways:

Expert Speakers

This year's Summit included many experts who provided examples of Complete Streets in other cities and shared strategies on how projects can be implemented. They also shed light on how implementation is not easy and our streets cannot be changed overnight.

Eleanor McMahon, Executive Director, Share the Road

Did you know that Ontario's Bicycle Policy was developed in 1992? Eleanor encouraged attendees to contact Minister of Transportation Bob Chiarelli and share their views on what a new bicycle policy could look like for Ontario.

Eleanor highlighted the success of Quebec's Route Verte, developing over 4,000 km of bikeways in the province. She stressed the importance of gaining insight from other cities (which is really what the HTS is all about) and needing political champions to help the cause (we might have to wait until the next election for that one).

Nancy Smith Lea, TCAT Director

Did you know that one third of all Hamilton commuter trips are under 5 km, and that trips under 5 km are both walkable and bikable? If that is not a reason for Hamilton to focus on Complete Streets, I don't know what is.

Nancy shed light on the fact that over 300 jurisdictions in the United States have Complete Streets policies (so what is Canada waiting for?). I found it interesting that many cities in Canada have some aspect of Complete Streets in their Official Plans, Master Plans, and so on, including: Calgary, Hamilton, London, Mississauga, Moncton, Oakville, St. Catharine's, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto and Winnipeg.

Nancy indicated that in the end, it's all about design.

Keynote

The keynote by Dave Cieslewicz, former Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin was by far the best part of the day. Dave wowed the crowd with his comic wit. He told us that if Sarah Palin was successful in being Vice President, he was prepared to move Madison to Ontario.

He also exclaimed that there is just too much unnecessary lycra when it comes to cycling. His point is that we need cycling to be part of our everyday lives - and that's why as Mayor, he biked in his suit every day. (Can you see Mayor Bratina biking in a suit to City Hall? What a sight that would be!)

Mayor Dave explained that creating a bicycle culture is fundamental. However, we have to face lack of support from traffic engineers and people feeling unsafe biking with current infrastructure.

Dave focused on changing infrastructure - creating bike boulevards on parallel routes to major arterials on quiet residential streets. These streets may already be claimed by cyclists, but defining them as such makes cars feel like guests on these roads, helping with traffic calming in the neighbourhood.

He talked about bike boxes (not like the failed one on Aberdeen), bike parking and bike sharing, and focussed on the need for defined space for all users. He was happy to hear that Hamilton is considering bike sharing but cautioned us that it shouldn't be about profit-making, it should only be an extension of our transportation system.

He left us with a quote I will never forget - "Building a freeway to alleviate traffic is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity."

Panelists

The panelists were Dianne Freeman from the City of Waterloo, Daniel Egan from the City of Toronto, Curt Benson from Niagara Region, and Ken Coit from the City of Hamilton.

Councillor Dianne Freeman wowed everyone with her ability to accomplish a smart campaign promise - something we are not typically privy to in the City of Hamilton. She spoke about the road diet planned for Davenport Road. She stressed the fact that if we don't change our thinking in our design, we cannot change our roads.

The difficulty is that it is not just a mode shift, but a mind shift we need. How do we get people to address this question: "Does your commute require a car?" I challenge Hamiltonians to ask this question.

Daniel Egan from Toronto discussed the need for Complete Streets pilot projects. For example, the Queen's Quay pilot project (transformation to two-way, use of bike boulevards) is now becoming permanent infrastructure. Pilot projects can showcase to those opposed that these projects can work and become realities.

I also enjoyed Daniel's candid words regarding the fact that policies don't always lead to great action. We all saw the demise of Transit City with the changeover of government in Toronto. We too have policies that support Complete Streets in Hamilton (Official Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Pedestrian Master Plan), yet I still haven't found an example of one, aside from a small piece of York Boulevard.

Ken Coit from Hamilton presented the Main King Queenston Corridor Strategy Study, which would be great if Council actually supports it.

Ken explained that we need to have destinations in walking distance. Think about your neighbourhood - do you have destinations that you do or can walk to? A grocery store, gym, park, library, bank. Can you choose to walk, cycle, or take the bus instead of drive?

Successful complete streets need to have appropriate guidelines: developments with usable doors that face the street; no more surface parking lots; focus on intensification and reurbanization; and get people to live on arterial roads.

Lunch Keynote

The lunch keynote was delivered by Peter Lagerway, Senior Planner, Toole Design Group, Seattle. Peter stressed that to have successful Complete Streets, we should never put a parking lot between a building and a street, we need to have performance measurements, and public involvement is the key.

He warned that advocacy groups have to be careful if all they do is complain. We can all complain about what is not right in our city, but the best way to get something done is through a compliment. Let's focus on the good (even if it is as small as some bike lanes on Dundurn) and on sharing ideas for the city we want.

He commended Hamilton on our Pedestrian Master Plan but said don't stop there. We must normalize the terms: cycling, walking, and complete streets in all city plans.

Afternoon Workshop

In the afternoon, delegates split up into a walking tour and a complete streets workshop. I chose the workshop, mainly because I've walked downtown enough times that I don't need someone else to point out the good and bad.

The workshop enabled me to meet people from around the GTA while we worked together to brainstorm what complete streets in Hamilton could look like. We discussed the benefits, structure, communication and projects. (All of which I'm sure will be summarized in action items by summit organizers and reported on at next year's summit.)

I liked what one group came up with: instead of us saying that Complete Streets is important because of x, y and z; we should say we want x, y, and z, which can all be accomplished by Complete Streets.

A Step in the Right Direction

To some the Summit might seem like a waste of time, just another day of ideas that will never be realities. Maybe we can't change anything or anyone in this world, but all I know is that I can't sit by idle. Supporting these types of events is part of what we need.

It is not the be-all and end-all. It isn't going to change the way our city is planned in one day. But it is a step in the right direction - and we need these steps in order for all of us to leap forward. If nothing else, the summit helps to fortify the ideas of sustainable transportation in our collective conscious and creates a forum for city staff to report on their progress over the year and keep them on task.

I encourage everyone to get involved, share your ideas with your City Councillor, and write to your MPP or MP. We can complain all we want through comments on RTH or Hamilton Spectator articles, but that's not changing anything either.

I'd be happy to engage with anyone on what we can do to bring Complete Streets design into common practice. If the HTS was not enough, then let's do more. The summit is only one part of what goes on and there are many groups that support its themes - including Hamilton Carshare, Transportation for Liveable Communities, and Open Streets Hamilton - so let's keep up the momentum. Who's with me?

Maria Topalovic lives in Hamilton and works as an environmental coordinator. 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 volunteers with the Hamilton Conservation Authority, Hamilton CarShare and the Bay Area Restoration Council. She is a first time contributor to RTH and an optimist about what the future of Hamilton holds - she's hoping for more Complete Streets!

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By Locket (anonymous) | Posted April 10, 2012 at 10:47:59

From The Spec's coverage of the second annual Power Conference, Feb 28, 2005:

"[Karl Adamczyk, a graduate of McMaster University's political science program and winner of the Hamilton Youth Contest] wanted to strike a committee of councillors, business leaders and academics to brainstorm ways to make a knowledge-based industry. The 23-year-old also wanted to create 'livable communities' by planting more trees, increasing the number of bike lanes and establishing an annual 'pitch in' day that would encourage the whole community to clean up their neighbourhood."

http://strathcona.hwdsb.on.ca/media/news/details.aspx?id=529&Page=0&year=2005&profiling=5

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By jroberts (anonymous) | Posted April 10, 2012 at 14:33:18

Thanks for a great write up, Maria. I wanted to go but couldn't get the day off. But even not being able to go, this has been uplifting to read, I hope our city engineers get the message!

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By arienc (registered) | Posted April 10, 2012 at 14:51:44

Good to see Mr. Goldring made it to this Summit. Maybe there's more hope for Burlington than first thought.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 14:15:38 in reply to Comment 75833

Burlington is going to face some really difficult decisions in adapting its transportation system to intensification, if it wishes to continue to grow (given that the city is nearly "built out" and has firm plans to keep its urban area within the boundary of the 407).

Even creating "complete streets" along the arterial roads north of the QEW and west into Aldershot, to serve the population and business that exists now, is going to require some inventive thinking.

The city's generally positive attitude toward planning bodes well for that, but the challenges are large.

Hamilton's challenges are similar in some respects, depending on what part of the city one considers. But the culture of planning seems so dichotomous.

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