Special Report: Walkable Streets

Taking Steps Toward a Pedestrian Master Plan

The Pedestrian Master Plan is an opportunity for Hamilton to raise the priority of walkable neighbourhoods from 'nice to have' into a real strategic goal.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 10, 2011

Great cities are walkable: wide sidewalks, shielded from traffic and shaded by overhanging trees; continuous streetwalls that frame the sidewalk and offer various amenities, with apartments and offices above; and safe ways to cross the street without being exposed to high-speed traffic.

Walkable streets aren't difficult or even particularly expensive to create. Cities around the world have managed to create lively public environments following the same general principles. It requires only the political will to make walkability a priority.

Pedestrian crossing prohibited at the west side of the intersection of King and Dundurn (RTH file photo)
Pedestrian crossing prohibited at the west side of the intersection of King and Dundurn (RTH file photo)

Here in Hamilton, we talk a good game about walkability. Our downtown land use plan, approved by Council in 2001, is called Putting People First. Its defining vision reads in part:

The Downtown Hamilton of the future will be a vibrant focus of attraction where all our diverse people can live, work and play. The future Downtown must be built on a human scale, with streetscapes offering comfort, access and safety for pedestrians.

Council voted in April 2006 to establish a Pedestrian Committee, its mandate to deliver "improved pedestrian safety and better pedestrian access" and "pedestrian-oriented input to use of public space".

That November, a Pedestrian Workshop featured a keynote speech by Dan Burden in which he called walkability "the cornerstone and key to an urban area's efficient ground transportation".

In April 2008, Council unanimously adopted the International Walking Charter, which recognizes "the benefits of walking as a key indicator of healthy, efficient, socially inclusive and sustainable communities" and "the universal rights of people to be able to walk safely and to enjoy high quality public spaces anywhere and at anytime."

Studies in various neighbourhoods have identified numerous specific actions that would improve safety and comfort and make those places more inclusive.

Every year, the Public Works Department holds a Transportation Summit - the next is on Wednesday, March 9 - in which a succession of engineers and planners extol the vital importance of making neighbourhoods walkable, calming traffic, and improving transit.

A number of public policy documents also promote walkability: the Strategic Plan, Public Works Business Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Public Health Strategic Plan, Official Plan, Clean Air Hamilton Strategic Plan, Vision 2020, Places to Grow, Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan, and provincial accessibility legislation.

Traffic Takes Priority

All to no avail. Where strategic documents translate into actual policies and investments, walkability consistently takes a back seat to traffic flow. Walkable streets are wonderful and desirable - as long as they don't get in the way of the high-speed automobile traffic streaming through the city on multi-lane thoroughfares.

The City commissions studies, consults the public, holds summits and workshops and brings in experts, only to balk at the prospect of actually transforming our dangerous, frightening, car-centric streets into real people places.

The latest round of consultation draws us toward a Pedestrian Master Plan that will establish policies, design guidelines and standards for pedestrians and compile a list of capital spending projects to close some of the gaps that currently fragment the city.

Maybe this time, the right to walk through a neighbourhood in safety and comfort will finally trump the right to drive across the city at high speed. One thing is certain: we will never see a real change in the city's priorities without extensive public engagement.

Public Works staff are hosting four Public Information Centres - on March 28, March 30, April 5 and April 7 - to explain the study and solicit feedback.

The City has also provided an interactive map where you can flag and describe problem areas or opportunities for improvement.

This essay was first published on OpenFile Hamilton.

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 PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 14:45:49

The potential to transform this city for the better through a real commitment to people-friendly streets is enormous. Imagine if this issue generated even half as much public interest and engagement as that goshdarned stadium...

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By Hooty (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 21:01:35

How does the Hamilton Strategic Road Safety Program factor into this issue? The city and associated stakeholders have already taken steps to review pedestrian and vehicular safety - do they not get any credit for efforts to date?

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:05:57

Didn't this already happen? When the bus left Gore a huge pedestrian walkway was going there. Why is it a parking lot?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 22:58:05

I think the answer to both TnT and Hooty is - yes, we do have existing plans, and we've had many studies that have suggested more pedestrian friendly roads, but as usual, we're doing another one, because that will put off actually having to implement anything for another year or two.

Sad, I know...

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By rednic (registered) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:51:27

i read in the spec that the parking spaces by gore park were bringing in a huge sum of 2400 $ a month ... Which is about the same amount of money spent on free lunches at city hall .. and that is why the plans for a pedestrian walkway have been turfed ..

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 23:44:05 in reply to Comment 60926

Let them eat concrete?

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By BS (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:06:59

It's not just Gore Park which got screwed, but the ped walkway connecting Gore Park to the new Macnab Transit Terminal which would have been a natural connector between the two was also scrapped. Yet another lost opportunity in Hamilton... a common theme.

When it comes to putting people first in Hamilton, it's all talk and zero action. Putting People Behind Cars is more like it.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2011 at 12:30:52 in reply to Comment 60927

Is that what happened to the planned walkway? I just assumed work would begin once the weather was more construction-friendly.

I'm very disappointed at the loss of that walkway, as it would have been nicer than the parking lot/empty gravel lot which is located there now...

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 23:42:27 in reply to Comment 60927

Or sometimes under the cars.

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By FatalFourWay (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 15:43:47

There is a greater need for cleaning up the city core and automobile access. Some businesses can survive without cars, but people need to carry things home. Thus safely moving cars and people apart is the answer.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 14, 2011 at 13:56:50

If it was meter parking, I'd actually support this. Meter parking is for customers, and that's good for local business. Something like the setup with the little meter-lots along King in the Westdale Village. The fencing and bus stops along King downtown means there is actually kind of a shortage of street-side parking along there... and it's not like street-side meter parking is some kind of anti-urbanist concept, I'm pretty sure that even hyper-dense places like Manhattan thrive on streetside parking.

More lots are just for commuters who work downtown, since most of the city's lots are priced in such a manner it's kind of nasty for shoppers (and heaven help you if you want to eat dinner downtown, since they'll ding you for both the day and evening prices if you happen to arrive before 6pm). It's pretty darned obvious we don't need more of that, but it sounds like it's exactly what they've put in there. The low-hourly/high-daily price of meters seems far more conducive to a healthy downtown economy than the high-hourly/low daily pricing they use on the lots throughout town.

Either way, my big want here would be some sort of deployable barrier set-up that allows them to close the lot without requiring police to supervise the entrance/exits. Then they could close it frequently for events, even weekly like Kensington Market.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2011-03-14 13:57:44

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