Special Report: Walkable Streets

'Modified Standard' Sidewalk Curb Cuts Put Pedestrians at Risk

Why replace a design that worked for decades with a design which puts pedestrians at risk, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities?

By Steven Toth
Published March 23, 2015

The International Walking Charter, adopted by the City of Hamilton in 2008, sets out ambitious goals for walkability - development of green space, access to public toilets, tree planting, and more.

A fundamental goal in the Charter is to:

Provide clean, well-lit streets and paths, free from obstruction, wide enough for their busiest use, and with sufficient opportunities to cross roads safely and directly, without changing levels or diversion.

Hamilton achieved part of that goal decades ago: sidewalks with a continuous flat surface wide enough for two people to walk abreast without changing levels along the length of the walk.

Sidewalk driveway cut, older design
Sidewalk driveway cut, older design

Driveway access was provided by ramps extending a short distance onto the street. Safe and comfortable for pedestrians, the design did not interfere with on-street parking.

So why replace that with something called the "modified standard approach"?

Sidewalk driveway cut, modified standard design
Sidewalk driveway cut, modified standard design

The "modified standard" provides driveway access by sloping approximately two-thirds of the sidewalk down to meet the road leaving one third flat for pedestrians. The design is uncomfortable and hazardous for pedestrians.

Last year I wrote to then-Councillor Brian McHattie about this issue and was put in touch with Gary Moore, Director Engineering Services, Public Works.

Mr. Moore has spent a good deal of time answering my emails, and last summer he took the time to walk Herkimer Street between Dundurn and Locke, where this type of sidewalk replaced the old style.

I walk along this street often. I've slipped on these ramps, and a friend who lives there has slipped repeatedly. I've seen children trip and fall on this sidewalk.

The flat portion of the sidewalk is too narrow to accommodate two people walking abreast or people passing each other. Wet leaves, early morning condensation or poorly cleared snow make the ramp slippery for able-bodied walkers and treacherous for those with mobility issues.

The other issue is what Mr. Moore referred to in a February 2015 email as "the roller coaster affect along the length of the sidewalk." The design forces pedestrians to constantly change levels each time they encounter a driveway.

Mr. Moore says this design is both the City and provincial standard. On February 26th he wrote:

It is not a question of the design or the standard it is a question of the ability to implement a feasible alternative that can accepted by all user groups on the street. Those that must park on the street because they have no driveway, those that have a driveway and an expectation that they can use it without damaging the bottom of their car and the provision of separate protected facility (a sidewalk) for the pedestrian.

Here's the reality of the situation. It is not always possible to achieve what you are looking for in a retrofit situation without creating a boulevard. Period. We understand what the pedestrian wants but as I stated before it is a question of the parking needs, the driveway access needs and the available land.

These all must be considered and not just dismissed in favour of the provision of unfettered absolute ultimate pedestrian consideration. That is what you are asking for. I have a dog and walk extensively, I know exactly what you are talking about, but the reality is there are different conditions of sidewalk (new and old) there are different standards and modifications on standards implemented over the 50 or 60 or 70 years of concrete sidewalk and people need to take these into consideration when they walk and where they walk.

I find the final statement particularly troubling. Asking pedestrians to consider "where they walk" is not a compromise design, it is a failure of design.

I've talked to numerous people about this issue - a couple in Dundas who cannot walk abreast because they both have mobility issues, a runner in east Hamilton who runs on the road to avoid the roller coaster, my elderly neighbour who finds the design sets her "off kilter" and a driver in Dundas who damaged her car's air dam on the edge of the approach.

On February 27, Mr. Moore sent the following email: "I suggest that if you need or want to have further discussion that you involve your Councillor and we have field visit, as it is very difficult to understand all of the technical terminology, challenges and necessary considerations without seeing it in the field."

He is correct. It is difficult to understand. Why replace a design that worked for decades with a design which puts pedestrians at risk, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities?

Currently, sidewalk retrofits are "whatever fits the situation" according to Mr. Moore. And while the choice was previously based on staff recommendation, it is now supposed to be made in consultation with the area councillor.

The standard in Hamilton needs to be better. The modified standard design is a failure for pedestrians. We need to stop using it.

Steven Toth lives in Hamilton.

43 Comments

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 08:29:27

Last spring I spent a few weeks on crutches. Those slopes definitely added strain and effort to keeping upright. I wonder how many winter claims against the city for sidewalk falls are triggered by these slopes. Doesn't affect me in my usual healthy state, but I did experience the challenges of what you're writing about. Yet another "people last" paradigm in urban building today.

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By tedhorton (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2015 at 08:48:14

Do the AODA standards not prescribe certain minimum widths for level paths and visible and tactile sections for sections of the path where the grade changes? I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with the standards to know, but I would certainly be curious to know if this design is compliant.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 09:01:44

sounds about the response I'd expect from Hamilton city hall.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2015 at 09:45:20

City staff should be issued a baby-stroller full of wine-glasses and an excited puppy on a leash and then be forced to walk around downtown Hamilton. If you break any wine-glasses or lose the puppy, both you and the city itself fails the test.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 12:19:35 in reply to Comment 110412

It's a City and Provincial standard. Your test would be better suited to be conducted by the politicians not some engineer.

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 09:47:22

I emphatically agree - I have long thought this design to be treacherous in the winter. I wondered why the grade to make driveway entry as pleasant as possible for automobiles to overcome a few inches of vertical change had to come at such a cost to the horizontal inconvenience for pedestrians, particularly the elderly around my neighbourhood.

Like the author here has done, getting right to the heart of the matter by identifying relevant public employees to be held accountable is the next step to getting many of the changes proposed by authors on this site to go from good-intentioned nuisance to implementation. Like 2-way street conversions mentioned last week - who are these 'city staff' for whom it takes so much effort to not default to auto-centric design? Perhaps it is time for some new staff.

Mayor Tory in Toronto has been pretty progressive in trying to change culture in that city, see recent TTC firings for example (maybe they will all continue to end up here running our vision-less transit system!).

Comment edited by higgicd on 2015-03-23 09:49:10

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By KD (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 09:56:12

I moved to Hamilton from an Eastern Ontario town 5 years ago. Back there public transit didnt exist so walking was something I did a lot of. When I first moved to Hamilton I knew something was different but I honestly chalked it up to my getting older. I guess it turns out the difference was these "modified" cuts.

I'd love to hear what an orthopedic doctor thinks about walking on sidewalks that constantly shift height and angle so much. Must be hell for someone older or with hip/leg injuries?

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By pinerider (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 10:03:03

My street was reconstructed 10 years ago to the old standard, no problems whatsoever! My son in Ottawa has the "new standard" sidewalk and I have found the "new standard" redirects the following to the roadway:

Kids on bikes with training wheels when they are crossing driveways

Kids being pulled in wagons when crossing driveways

Green bins and recycling bins when tossed on the sidewalk in driveways.

The "new standard" is definitely a safety issue!!

The only "advantage" I can see to the "new standard" is that snow plows can push the snow directly against the curb and block more of the sidewalk with the snow from the road.

I'm not impressed with the staff response, I will be calling my councillor!

Comment edited by pinerider on 2015-03-23 10:08:57

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By Steve (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 16:56:50 in reply to Comment 110415

My Mother-in-law has Parkinsons and she is also redirected onto the roadway.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2015 at 11:00:27

I'd assumed these "new" ones were exclusively for double-wide sidewalks, or grassy boulevards. Using them in normal narrow residential sidewalks that directly abut the road is lunacy.

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By Muggins (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 13:05:52

I stepped on black ice on a sidewalk with this design, slid and fractured my ankle. I was off work and in a cast and on crutches for two months, followed by several months of physiotherapy. My ankle will never be the same, and I have pain and discomfort regularly. This sidewalk design is treacherous.

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By Rick (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 13:49:15

This is a real issue. Trying to change the culture at city hall is like trying to steer the Exxon Valdez with a 10 horse power outboard motor. I applaud the author's efforts to make a change...Don't give up!

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 13:49:46

It isn't just the modified driveways that are the problem. The wheelchair ones at corners are also very dangerous. A drunken man was run over by a truck on Wellington and Barton when he slid down the corner on ice. The only solution is you have to these sloping walkways is to keep them completely bare of ice - which is far more costly than the savings in making them in the first place.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 15:18:51

I'm able-bodied and relatively youthful, and even I find them a nuisance, particularly while out for a run. I feel like it can't possibly be good for my hip to alter elevations on one side only with every other stride.

Comment edited by Dylan on 2015-03-23 15:19:48

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 15:47:21

I fully agree with you. The roller-coaster effect is a perfect analogy. As my mother is in a wheelchair I am acutely aware of the hazards this poses - coupled with the haphazardly placed city signs, parking meters, etc. it is treacherous. Forget waking two abreast.

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By jonathan (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 17:34:49

I'm curious what dictates which standard gets implemented. My street was redone this past fall, complete with new sidewalks. The prior sidewalks were what the author calls the 'modified standard' version, which the author seems to infer are the new standard. The new sidewalks, however, are what the author identifies as the 'older design', with the sidewalk ramps encroaching on the roadway. Meanwhile, the city official seems to suggest that this 'older design' requires a 'boulevard', which my street most definitely is not, as it is barely sufficient to allow two cars pass each other (I'm not even sure they can...but then again, my street gets very little traffic).

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:46:08 in reply to Comment 110440

I think they use the modified standard on roads they consider "arterial" - that's why you see them on Herkimer or Dundern, while adjacent roads have the normal ramps.

Dundurn is a pretty narrow road, I imagine they did it for easier plowing... but as a cyclist, I have to say they failed at that anyways, Dundurn's bike lanes (which would be most impacted by conventional ramps on Dundurn) were a death-trap most of the winter anyways.

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By bubble boy (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 19:17:55

the moops strike again

pathetic staff response, but we are all used to it by now

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 19:58:51

This is bizarre, yet typical of Hamilton on so many levels.

  1. Design engineering standards failure. We need to follow engineering standards to make our streets safe.

  2. The absurd justifications. "Those that must park (a car) on the street because they have no driveway..." Wow! Somebody "must" have a claim on the city for the storage of their private property? That is so bizarre and absurd. I've got stuff in my basement I would like the city to provide storage for! So, Mr. Moore, where is the city providing a storage space for the stuff in my basement?

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:36:23 in reply to Comment 110444

Yes, but you must move it every 24 Hrs like a car

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 21:18:01

Last fall I was walking home up Locke, between King and Main. Ahead of me, an elderly woman in a scooter crossed the street also heading north, and upon riding up the steep sloped ramp, her entire scooter tipped and threw her completely into the right lane of traffic. She was laying there helpless, thankfully no cars were flying by then, as they do with the extra lane the city wedged into this residential street years ago to encourage speeding. A few of us helped the woman up and pulled her scooter to a flat portion of sidewalk.

How insane is this? Had a car been coming by right then, the results would have been horrendous and fatal.

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:39:37 in reply to Comment 110446

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 10:24:22 in reply to Comment 110446

Exactly. Forget the issues with navigating snow or garbage cans -- even completely clear the sidewalks pose a serious risk to anyone not 100% able-bodied, pushing a stroller, or just trying to keep their kid out of traffic (short of death gripping their hand).

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 23, 2015 at 22:06:17

Needless to say, this crappy design of sidewalk violates the CROW engineering design standards for infrastructure and public space. For details of what it should be like, see:

https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/...

Key point: Driveways may not influence the level of the sidewalk or cycle path.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2015-03-23 22:10:28

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:42:03 in reply to Comment 110447

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 07:21:11

How does either design have any impact on curb parking? Am I missing something?

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2015 at 07:24:03

Even the old standard is a crappy experience in Winter. We have this sort in my neighbourhood, and when my wife and I walk the dog in the winter, I either walk on the road next to her or we do a single-file/two-abreast weave as I try to avoid the slippery sloping parts ... on which I have nevertheless taken a handful of falls and acrobatic, arm-flinging, leg-waving near falls over the years.

And I live in "walkable Westdale" - a place where the narrow, half-sloped sidewalks mean that two people can't walk abreast if there is packed snow on the ground.

Comment edited by moylek on 2015-03-24 07:24:37

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 09:31:51

A few weeks ago both of my children slipped on ice on one of these sidewalk ramps on the south side of Herkimer between Locke and Dundurn while walking to school. We were all walking slowly and carefully, but it was just very difficult to stay upright on this long sloping surface covered with ice.

This is a mildly annoying design for able bodied pedestrians during good weather, but it is downright dangerous for the less able bodied and for everyone in winter.

I find it hard to believe there is any good justification for this design, other than "cars first" (even on the sidewalk). And even then, what is the inconvenience for motorists? We have one of the old designs at our driveway and it is no problem. The only way I can imagine it being a problem is if you try to turn in and out at high speed and get a large bump. Which, of course, you shouldn't be doing! (Or maybe if you drive a lowrider!)

And the old design has absolutely no effect on street parking (unless maybe you want to block someone's driveway!).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-03-24 09:33:25

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:44:37 in reply to Comment 110453

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 13:15:31 in reply to Comment 110512

Ummm ... as I and my children have experienced personally, it is much easier to slip and fall and a sloped icy surface than a flat one. Especially when melt water is running down the surface (gravity causes you to slide!).

This is pretty obvious.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-03-25 13:15:52

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By Steven Toth (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 13:00:01 in reply to Comment 110512

People not clearing snow and ice does make the problem worse, you are correct. However, even on cleared walks a thin layer of ice does form on the slope when snow on lawns melts and refreezes on contact with the concrete. The design fault is that it doesn't provide enough flat surface for pedestrians. A sloped icy surface is more treacherous for pedestrians than a flat icy surface.

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By Wmacphail (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 10:06:22

keep up the good work on this sir. Clearly the reaction from commenters means you're not alone.

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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2015 at 16:53:13

Winter, spring, summer, fall.

I walk a LOT, and these long-slope curb cuts quite literally cause me a great deal of pain. How is my cane supposed to do its job when it is constantly higher or lower than it needs to be? Im supposed to be walking as much as possible, by medical advice, but having the sidewalks always uneven causes strain to the knee and lower back.

Its no wonder so many people opt for scooters when using manual mobility devices in this city leaves you reaching for the painkillers.

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By Rallyup (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 18:22:09

We need to rally at City Hall. I would attend. I wonder how many others would too...

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 20:04:59

Unfortunately, I think the city needs to be sued for liability when injuries are caused by this design. When the city has lost a few lawsuits, the design will change.

It wouldn't be a preferred method of trying to make a change at City Hall, but we already know the city DOES NOT LISTEN.

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By matherbw (registered) | Posted March 24, 2015 at 20:52:21

I fully agree with Steven Toth's concerns about the modified standard sidewalk design and its shortcomings from a pedestrian point of view. As a stroke affected individual acutely aware of the cant of walking surfaces, it seems to me that a sidewalk design should serve the pedestrian public, not the needs of car owners. The older design worked - why change it? I routinely step into the road (where possible) to walk around the areas where the modified standard has been used, and during times if the year when the sidewalk is is obscured the modified design is just plain dangerous - not just to people like me and other disabled or elderly persons, but to EVERYBODY.

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By mine (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:58:56

Last year the sidewalks on Queensdale were replaced, a couple of years earlier Crockett sidewalks were done. I doesn't look they have flat are at all. The seem to be all slope.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:33:34 in reply to Comment 110505

Aren't you ecstatic about Jackson? Throws his weight around to kill bike-lanes on Queensdale, but doesn't give a crap about giving you decent sidewalks. Nice guy.

To me it seems plainly obvious that this design was intended for use on grassy boulevards or double-wide sidewalks and using them on old-fashioned narrow directly-abut-road sidewalks is a complete mis-use of it.

You can see where the city likes them - roads that are "arterial" where they want to use every inch of the road for lanes of high-speed traffic. As far as I'm concerned, if that road has a normal old-fahsion sidewalk next to it, the design has already failed regardless of which ramps you want to put in. Dundurn North also sports the "modified standard", for example, while other roads throughout Strathcona have the normal ones.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2015-03-25 12:40:59

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By pedestrian1 (anonymous) | Posted April 01, 2015 at 14:03:04

It's not just people with issues, the sudden slope can cause falls by able bodied people who don't notice. This design fail helps nothing. the old style worked fine and pulling in the curb makes no logical sense and no car should be parking in front of a driveway anyway.

Think too the added slope when iced because the city fails in making sure sidewalks are clear.

This extra car accommodation truly shows how backward city policy and it's managers continue to be. That email response was contemptuous nonsense. As if the very existence of sidewalks was some huge accommodation.

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By core-b (registered) | Posted March 24, 2017 at 08:31:55

As an older person, I agree with many of the comments here. A while back, I was at a neighbourhood meeting with many seniors in attendance. Sidewalks were one of the discussion topics. A young lady advised that in Europe (sorry I don't remember where or if it was even stated) the roadway is raised to meet the sidewalk. Our system is to lower the sidewalk to meet the road causing all kinds of issues for pedestrians of all abilities. Why couldn't we start doing this here?

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