Special Report: Walkable Streets

New Life for Long-Delayed Queen Street Conversion

The status quo on Queen Street is both dangerous and pointless for everyone in its current configuration: motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, commuters and local residents alike.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 31, 2017

An article in today's Spectator reprises west mountain Councillor Terry Whitehead's on-again, off-again relationship with the proposal to convert Queen Street to two-way.

Queen is one-way southbound between Barton Street and Herkimer Street, and two-way south of Herkimer until it turns into the Beckett Drive escarpment access, which turns into Garth Street in Ward 8.

Residents in Wards 1 and 2, which straddle Queen Street, have been calling for years to have Queen converted to two-way. In 2012, Councillors received dozens of letters over a holiday weekend calling on Council to approve then-Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie's motion to establish a two-way streets implementation team. A public opinion survey conducted around the same time found that most Hamiltonians supported converting north-south streets to two-way.

Naturally, Council punted and agreed instead to establish a study group. That group conducted a block-by-block audit of Queen Street in early 2013 and submitted its recommendations, which went to City Hall to gather dust.

In 2014, Queen was the site of two separate serious vehicle collisions with pedestrians in a single month and demand for change erupted again, prompting apologists for the status quo to absurdly declare a 'war on cars'.

Possible Detente

After reflexively opposing any change on Queen for years and even going so far as to propose a moratorium on all new traffic calming projects across the entire lower city (which at least one other councillor seems to believe Council adopted), Councillor Whitehead recently signalled a willingness to consider options for converting Queen to two-way.

His preference was for a reversible centre lane to maximize northbound lane capaciy in the morning and southbound lane capacity in the evening.

When staff recommended against a reversible centre lane (for the obvious reasons) and suggested the conversion would cost $1.1 million, council punted yet again. So today's Spec article is encouraging:

"Done properly, I think a two-way Queen would provide a safe, efficient alternative to aid the flow of traffic to and from the west Mountain," said the Ward 8 councillor, who hopes to resurrect a debate on the proposal that was put off last June to allow politicians along the route to try to find common ground.

Of course, the devil is in the details and Whitehead still prefers a reversible centre lane, but at least the conversation is finally happening. It's just frustrating that one west mountain councillor seems to get a veto on improving a dangerous street in a different part of the city.

Pointless Legacy Design

The status quo on Queen Street is both dangerous and pointless for everyone in its current configuration: motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, commuters and local residents alike. The perceived need to accommodate this legacy traffic pattern has resulted in an absurd street design on Queen itself, as well as equally needless deformations of the street network all around it.

Queen carries around 11-12,000 cars a day. At three southbound lanes, it has a grossly overbuilt street design that allows for dangerously high vehicle speeds, in part because cars can easily pass each other.

Serious collisions on Queen - especially involving pedestrians - are so frequent that the City actually conducted a safety review in 2014 and implemented some minor improvements, like new ladder crosswalks, a much-needed pedestrian crossover (PXO) at Herkimer and a new 40 km/h speed limit.

Yet despite these tweaks, the fundamental problems with the street design persist and the hits keep on coming due to dangerously high speeds.

Car flipped upside-down at Queen and Charlton (RTH file photo)
Car flipped upside-down at Queen and Charlton (RTH file photo)

This claim - that Queen is overbuilt and has too much speeding - often strikes motorists as surprising or even dubious, because the street doesn't feel overbuilt to people who only drive on it. The sequencing of traffic signals on Hamilton's one-way street network results in cars being clumped together into "platoons" so that motorists are always surrounded by other motorists and the street feels congested.

For people outside of cars, the street alternates between roaring platoons of cars and a ghostly emptiness that speaks volumes about the inefficint use of this scarce public right-of-way.

Queen Street South during PM rush hour, in between platoons (RTH file photo)
Queen Street South during PM rush hour, in between platoons (RTH file photo)

Deforms Entire Network

But keeping Queen one-way doesn't just hurt Queen - it also deforms all the streets around it.

Because Queen is one-way southbound, all northbound car traffic coming down the Beckett Drive escarpment access is forced to divert onto an east- or westbound street in order to find a parallel street on which to continue north.

At Aberdeen Avenue, that means a long line of cars trying to turn left, with a deformed traffic signal at Aberdeen and Queen - the east-west green sequence is so short that even a healthy adult can't get across the street ahead of the Don't Walk signal.

On Aberdeen, the overwhelming majority of cars are cut-through traffic. When Beckett Drive was closed for reconstruction a few years ago, Aberdeen was almost completely empty - even during rush hour.

Aberdeen Avenue during Beckett Drive closure (RTH file photo)
Aberdeen Avenue during Beckett Drive closure (RTH file photo)

If Queen Street allowed northbound vehicle traffic, most drivers heading northwest or west would still use Aberdeen, but the total volume of traffic would still go down, making it easier to implement the contentions traffic calming measures on Aberdeen that residents have been demanding to improve safety and social inclusion.

Likewise, it would not be such a challenge to control rat-running car traffic on Stanley Avenue, which has a No Left Turn off Queen during rush hour, plus concrete speed humps to try and reduce dangerous speeding.

And likewise, a significant share of the traffic on Herkimer is cars that can't proceed north on Queen. Herkimer carries 8-10,000 cars eastbound while its westbound partner, Charlton, only carries around 5-6,000. Herkimer is a designated local collector, not an arterial, and should not be expected to accommodate that much cut-through traffic.

Classic Win-Win

Converting Queen to two-way will repurpose the excess southbound lane capacity to add northbound capacity that is obviously needed (and currently causes rat-running through residential streets), while eliminating the capacity for passing at dangerously high speeds.

It will also reduce excess driving due to people being diverted by allowing more direct northbound car trips to destinations close to Queen Street.

It just makes sense that a two-way street is more usable to motorists than a one-way street, because it allows motorists to go in twice as many directions. It never ceases to amaze me when people who live on two-way streets themselves can't seem to understand the obvious benefits of converting another street back to two-way.

And it's not like we don't have firsthand experience, right here in Hamilton, that two-way conversions work. In 2002, when the City converted James and John Street North to two-way, opponents predicted chaos and disaster. That didn't happen, but that didn't stop opponents from predicting chaos and disaster again three years later during the James and John South conversions.

With the number of other two-way conversions that Hamilton now has under its belt since then - while still too few and too slowly - there should be no one left in the city who still thinks this is going to go badly. Yet every two-way conversion dredges up the same discredited knee-jerk fear of change.

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 writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By kdslote (registered) | Posted October 31, 2017 at 12:44:28

I hope that sense finally prevails and this 2-way conversion finally happens! Am I correct though that it is only being considered from Herkimer to Main due to LRT at King? If so, that would be unfortunate - extending one more block to King would create a really great direct route to the King St 403 accesses.

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By kdslote (registered) | Posted October 31, 2017 at 12:47:32 in reply to Comment 122077

Or even better - convert Main to two way as well!! Then we'd actually have a transportation network in the SW that wouldn't require driving several blocks in the wrong direction, then doubling back to reach a destination!

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted October 31, 2017 at 12:48:36

Yet every two-way conversion dredges up the same discredited knee-jerk fear of change.

I believe in the Marxist analysis of this situation.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2017 at 13:00:25 in reply to Comment 122078

It seems to me that converting Main to two-way is inevitable ... which means Council will resist it to the bitter end.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted October 31, 2017 at 18:57:50

Dreschel has a hilarious article in the Spec about Mr. Whitehead's various ideas, and his skill at imitating the call of a loon. Seriously. I highly recommend clicking through on the video and watching Whitehead's skill at producing the call of the loon. See:

https://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/77...

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted November 01, 2017 at 08:47:30

As a resident near Queen North, I'm really tired of this ridiculous LRT excuse as a means of doing nothing to improve safety down here.

Queen South is loaded up with ladder crossings, pedestrian signals and now a new PXO. Queen North has NOTHING from Cannon to King. We've been asking for years for at least one crossing near Napier and continually have this lame 'LRT' excuse tossed back as a means to maintain the status quo.

Two-way conversion should happen all the way to Stuart. We're talking adding a yellow line of paint on the road. It will be faded and in need of repainting long before LRT opens. If they decide at that time to paint it white again, so be it.

LRT is slicing right through the middle of the lower city....very interesting to see how the poorer communities to the north are being treated with respect to road and traffic safety compared to the southern half of the lower city which is equally as close to the LRT line.

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