Special Report: Walkable Streets

Plans for Pedestrians or Streets for Pedestrians?

Although the various plans and policies developed in Hamilton are usually progressive and intelligent, they are mostly ignored by our decision makers.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published February 18, 2012

I am currently living in Paris while collaborating with a French scientist, and spend a significant part of each day commuting by inter-urban rail between the centre and the southern suburbs. These trips give me time to catch up on French culture, and especially on the French approach to urban planning.

Motorists and pedestrians coexist on Paris streets (RTH file photo)
Motorists and pedestrians coexist on Paris streets (RTH file photo)

The other day I was struck by an article by Olivier Razemon in Le Monde called "Strasbourg ouvre la voie aux piétons" (Strasbourg paves the way for pedestrians).

As I read the article, I thought, This is exactly like Hamilton's Pedestrian Mobility Master plan!

In fact, even the description of the goals sounds similar:

Il s'agit de redonner toute sa place au piéton, oublié des politiques urbaines. Cela relève du 'vivre ensemble'. (After having left them out, it's a matter of putting pedestrians back at the centre of urban planning. It's part of living together.)

— Alain Lund, councillor in charge of urban design

I was struck by the fact that Strasbourg and Hamilton, both medium-sized cities with populations of about half a million, were embarking on very similar urban design projects.

However, as I read through the article, I realized that the French and Canadian approaches to urban design are very different.

France emphasizes top-down engineering solutions to implement an overall strategy, while Canada favours extensive preliminary consultation and numerous feasiblity studies before even considering street-level changes. Actual engineering changes are considered piecemeal (if at all), and without regard to overall policy.

Illusory Democracy

When I returned to Canada in 1998 after having lived in France for four years, I was initially very impressed by the planning culture in Hamilton.

I was amazed that City staff were constantly soliciting citizens for their input at the earliest stages of urban design projects.

Vision 2020, Putting People First (the Downtown Master Plan), the Durand Traffic Study, Setting Sail, and more recently the Cycling Master Plan and the B-line Land Use Secondary Plan all involved significant public consultation that really did shape the final recommendations and policy.

In contrast, the French system is to consult only once the basic strategic decisions have already been made by elected officials. Residents can influence implementation details, but not (usually) whether or not the project goes ahead.

I actually felt proud that Canadians do things in a more democratic way!

However, as I naively attended the various public information sessions, and spent six years on the board of the Durand Neighbourhood Association trying to effect positive change, I realized that the "democratic" nature of all this public consultation was largely illusory.

Although the various plans and policies were usually progressive and intelligent, they were mostly ignored by the decision makers. In fact, council and staff decisions often go directly against the recommendations of these plans.

In particular, I was shocked that councillors started dismantling the Cycling Master Plan immediately after voting to adopt it!

A Different Process

The Le Monde article illustrates a very different process. Before any studies are commissioned, the decision makers adopt an overall strategy.

France has an extensive history of making long-term fundamental strategic decisions: supporting a civil aviation industry (Airbus), focusing on nuclear energy, building a network of high speed rail lines (TGV), building a network of tolled freeways, and so on.

Paris: Pedestrian-only street in the Latin Quarter (RTH file photo)
Paris: Pedestrian-only street in the Latin Quarter (RTH file photo)

One of the most recent strategic decisions has been to put pedestrians at the centre of urban planning. In the case of Strasbourg and Paris, the basic principles come from the top (the Mayor and Council), and are then implemented by engineers.

Because the French elite is dominated by engineers, they tend not to bother with "feasibility" studies. The idea is that it is the job of politicians to decide policy, and it is the job of engineers to implement the policy.

The end result is that once a strategic direction is decided, and the engineers have been given their orders, change happens quickly.

In contrast, in Hamilton and Toronto council and staff pay lip service to doing the right thing (e.g. adopting the pedestrian charter, or declaring that Hamilton is the "best place to raise a child"), but then balk at the changes that must be made to actually implement the policies they have voted to support.

The result is endless public consultation and excuses for doing nothing.

Universal Obstacles to Change

One of the most common excuses is, "it won't work here" or, "it is not in our culture: we're not Europe". It is important to remember that the first pedestrian street in France was opened in Rouen in 1971, and that even Paris did not start giving pedestrians a central place in urban planning until Bertrand Delanoë became Mayor in 2001.

Indeed, the article on Strasbourg's pedestrian initiative repeats some of the same concerns and objections we hear in Hamilton and Toronto, notably, "Le dogme 'no parking, no business' fait encore des ravages" (The 'no parking, no business' dogma is still wreaking havoc).

Merchants invariably oppose pedestrian improvements because they believe that they make all their money from motorists who need to park for free right in front of their shop.

In fact, Frédéric Heran (an economist at the Université de Lille) found that pedestrians and cyclists spend more money in downtown businesses than motorists because they are regular customers, even though they spend less per purchase.

Real Changes at Street Level

Instead of approving funding to draft a "pedestrian master plan", on January 23 the city council of Strasbourg voted unanimously to support ten "actions" that will be implemented in the next few months! Not surprisingly, these were not publicity campaigns encouraging people to walk more (as we see in Canada), but engineering changes at street level.

These changes include: opening dead end streets to allow cyclists and pedestrians to pass through; building safe and comfortable pedestrian routes in the suburban and industrial areas outside the historic downtown core; changing the timing of traffic lights at busy intersections to allow pedestrians more time to cross; widening or moving pedestrian crossings to make them more convenient for pedestrians rather than for motorists; and widening sidewalks on high pedestrian traffic streets (so pedestrians have more space than motorists).

Perhaps, instead of asking the "usual suspects" to volunteer their time and input at public information sessions, Hamilton Council could reassure residents that we are not wasting our time by voting unanimously to implement real engineering changes at street level "in the next few months"!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By jackson (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2012 at 21:52:52

I see no reason to play 'bottom-up' and 'top-down' planning off one another. London, for instance, has Transport for London, which coordinates transportation infrastructure through a central agency. It includes extremely rigorous planning protocols that force, for instance, development to take into account transportation consequences and build accordingly. It offers developers best practices to follow and allows considerable citizen input. The Canadian system is based on discretion and fluffy language. The provincial policy statement, for example, describes a utopian place where farmland is saved, transit maximized, goods moved, aggregates mined, the economy flourished - and no one is ever unduly affected. The result is status quo. Same thing for the growth plans and most official plans. Politicians never want to actually restrain themselves from acting. The answer in part may be to take it out of their hands. The engineer-planners you describe are no doubt unelected. In London things are done by a combination of the mayor's office, citizen input, and the transportation authority.

Permalink | Context

By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 04:06:21 in reply to Comment 74536

Thanks for bringing up the excellent example of London.

I've spent less time there recently, so I focused on France, but London has made impressive progress recently in rebalancing its transportation system. (Its public transit system has been neglected, but that should change with the upgrades for the olympics.)

I would argue, however, that the UK is also much more "top down" and "can do" engineering-wise than Canada.

I was impressed that when nervous reporters suggested to Mayor Ken Livingston that the congestion charge needed more study to decide whether it would be a good idea, his response was "I've studied it. It is a good idea".

Livingston later lost to Boris Johnson, who was the "suburban" conservative candidate (a bit like Rob Ford), but even Boris has kept the congestion charge and is actively supporting the massive expansion of the cycling network in London. Politicians of all stripes in London subscribe to similar, rational, transportation strategies.

As in Paris, in London the fact that implementing a congestion charge or adding cycle lanes would be an engineering challenge is not seen as an impossible obstacle.

Here in Hamilton, I am amazed that the location of the maintenance yard is seen as a possible deal breaker for LRT. This in a city with huge areas of vacant and under performing lots!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-02-19 04:08:00

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted February 18, 2012 at 23:05:18

Great article. I recall standing at York and Locke last year with my councillor and a big wig from Public Works. We were discussing how the light doesn't stay green long enough to allow pedestrians to get across the huge 6 lanes of York. The public works fellow said "that's why we have these nice islands for people to stand on half-way there" (this was my first clue that this guy, and the department, don't give a rip about pedestrians) My second clue was the rant he went into when we suggested extending the light by 7-10 seconds. He replied, exasperated "If we add 7 seconds here we'll have to change all 30,000 lights across the entire city to avoid gridlock!!". I actually laughed out loud to my councillor right in front of the guy. I then reminded him that we just took away 3 lanes from York Blvd a few blocks east of where we were standing and I'm not aware of the other 30,000 lights being affected due to 5 eastbound lanes becoming 2. Meeting over. Same old story. I better get used to scaling the tiny 3 foot sidewalks with my 3 kids next to 5-lane truck freeways with timed lights in my neighbourhood for years to come.

Comment edited by jason on 2012-02-18 23:07:11

Permalink | Context

By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:44:13 in reply to Comment 74537

I actually laughed out loud to my councillor right in front of the guy.

A sure way to make friends with someone you are trying to influence.

I find snarky condescension tends not to get me what I want... go figure.

Permalink | Context

By jason (registered) | Posted February 20, 2012 at 21:17:54 in reply to Comment 74558

It wasn't snarky. It was literally a reflex response....we all chuckled. You had to be there. Didn't mean to make it sound like we were ripping the guy....but it was pretty sad. Was like we were chatting with someone from the 70's. Our conversation was very polite and respectful....and we all walked away realizing that fancy slogans about livability and revitalization are quite hallow.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jackson (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2012 at 23:26:07

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Permalink | Context

By jackson (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 12:46:48 in reply to Comment 74538

This 'jackson' is not the same as the one I posted under above. No doubt it's mahesh stirring shit up as usual.

Permalink | Context

By ATwatch (anonymous) | Posted February 20, 2012 at 09:00:49 in reply to Comment 74550

Nah, that comment dropping's got Allan Taylor written all over it.

Permalink | Context

By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 04:16:14 in reply to Comment 74538

I think Jason's point is that the role of engineers is to solve the problems identified by residents and the decision makers.

If a councillor, supported by residents, says that an intersection needs to be made safer and more convenient for pedestrians, then the engineers role is to suggest effective solutions (not find excuses for doing nothing).

Similarly, if the Mayor and Council officially adopts a hierarchy amongst road users (e.g. putting pedestrian needs first, as Hamilton has done), then the engineers must use this hierarchy to decide between different design solutions.

In other words, strategic policy decisions need to be implemented concretely in each engineering decision. This has not happened yet in Hamilton or Toronto.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-02-19 04:16:32

Permalink | Context

By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 19, 2012 at 23:53:51 in reply to Comment 74540

If a councillor, supported by residents, says that an intersection needs to be made safer and more convenient for pedestrians, then the engineers role is to suggest effective solutions (not find excuses for doing nothing).

This is what gets to me.

This city has piles of creative... even bizarre solutions for keeping automobile traffic flowing. We've got traffic devices that I've never seen anywhere else, and they're effective at their intended purpose - Hamilton's traffic is fast and smooth.

So why is it that they moan like little kids with skinned knees when we ask for the same creativity and innovation when we talk about making our streets work for non-drivers?

Permalink | Context

By Galanga (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 09:49:02 in reply to Comment 74540

It's possible that a top-down planning arrangement is also a long-game scenario. Municipal politics in Canada is typically fought in four-year terms, with the third given to fretting about the fourth. Sometimes you have a mayor who rejects the pre-existing game plan and that only makes the process less efficient, especially as frustrated staff may just choose to hit eject rather than spend their prime earning years spinning their wheels.

Permalink | Context

By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 10:33:46 in reply to Comment 74546

I don't think successful urban planning necessarily requires an autocratic mayor.

You'll notice Strasbourg city council voted unanimously to support the pedestrian friendly changes.



is a good Canadian example of a city that decided on a long-term rational and progressive urban planning strategy and has stuck to it for over 40 years, despite highly polarized municipal politics.

One necessary condition for success is to take day to day planning decisions out of the hands of council and ensure the urban designers and traffic engineers follow the policies agreed by council. It helps to have a top-rate director of planning, as Vancouver had in Larry Beasley.

Council should not be micromanaging and over-turning staff on every zoning issue, from placing stop signs to rezoning lots.

They should, however, decide the strategy and solicit the best advice on how to implement the strategy from staff and residents. Council should then decide which tactics to implement based on respect for expert and community advice.

Of course, urban planning works best if the fundamental strategy is not overturned every four years!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-02-19 10:34:23

Permalink | Context

By jason (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 08:46:44 in reply to Comment 74540

exactly. And I had the benefit of standing 2 blocks west of Queen, where the city had recently taken a 5 lane street and narrowed it to 3, and then further narrowed the eastbound lanes to 2 approaching Bay. If such a major change could be done without causing so much as a dent in the overall traffic flow of the city, surely 7 seconds could be added to the light at Locke and York without causing mass hysteria.
They suggested 3-4 seconds instead and that's what they went with. Apparently there is an earth shattering pandemonium that takes place somewhere between 4 and 7 seconds in the world of traffic light patterns.

The real issue which was evidenced to the group of us (another citizen was there as well) was the complete lack of care for anything pedestrian related by someone who is in the top ranks of Public Works. I felt like I was in the 1970's for a few moments.

It's impressive to hear of your experience in a huge, busy city like Paris. Hamilton, as we know, has ample lane capacity all through the lower city. I'm sure Paris is more jammed and congested. Yet they are still willing to make the important choices necessary to be a safe, vibrant 21st Century city. Bravo.

Permalink | Context

By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 19, 2012 at 06:27:33 in reply to Comment 74540

If a councillor, supported by residents, says that an intersection needs to be made safer and more convenient for pedestrians, then the engineers role is to suggest effective solutions (not find excuses for doing nothing).


The prevalent attitude of those working on behalf of the public...that of coming up with reasons why something can't be done...would never survive in the 'other' world we have. You know, the real one...

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 08:49:33

(e.g. putting pedestrian needs first, as Hamilton has done

I'm sure you know this, but that has only been done on paper. Real-world evidence shows very little, if any, change in the actual planning process to make this a reality someday. It's the same as 'best place to raise a child' as you mention in your article. Nice slogans, and goals that should be our aim. But they aren't.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Galanga (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 08:50:25

Hamilton is a city built in large measure by industry and, in large measure, on subservience to/worship of industry. So I'm never surprised when individuals here are treated like cogs in a machine. Canadian municipalities on the whole seem to regard citizen input as a necessary evil rather than an enriching collaboration.

Much more would certainly get done if planning visionaries scaled the bureaucracy at City Hall in sufficient concentrations to allow them to alter the status quo. Then citizens could just let the Mayor and City Council protect our best interests.

There are inherent limitations to that arrangement, of course.

Still, not every ominous formula plays out as expected. Heritage-razing urban design executed by an imperial autocrat sounds like it would be an unpalatable recipe, but Bonaparte-Haussmannn proved a notable exception.

Without invoking the "it won't work here" excuse, although the procedural mechanism is certainly transferrable, I wonder about the ways in which population density of some jurisdictions facilitates or impedes such planning. Greater London, foe example, seems to house a population around 11 times that of the Hamilton CMA in an area around 1/6 larger than the Hamilton CMA. That kind of reliable foot traffic creates a kind of urgency and also potentially fosters a dynamic forum for urban planners.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 10:49:34

Population density does make a difference, but policies can either encourage or discourage dense multi-use development.

It is also important to remember that the overall population density of Hamilton includes a very large proportion of rural land. The urban areas already have population densities not really qualitatively different from London:

London: 5000/km^2

Ward 2 has a density of 6100/km^2 and wards 1-10 have an average density of 2800/km^2.

Permalink | Context

By Galanga (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2012 at 12:07:10 in reply to Comment 74548

Agreed on policy. That's what I was getting at with my clumsy "procedural mechanism is certainly transferrable" bit.

And I'm not denying that there's room for nuance. I'm simply suggesting that city-wide initiatives might be easier to roll out if you were looking at high density across a large area. My point regarding Greater London was that it achieves high density across a large area, would be my point. Greater London is 1,572 km², while Ward 2 is 6.1km². Hamilton's lower densities arguably promotes widespread car use viable; from what I've been able to surmise, Londoners are more typically pedestrian.

Size isn't everything, of course. Being compact (Ward 2 is about 14 blocks wide) is can help concentrate finite production values.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By moylek (registered) - website | Posted February 20, 2012 at 08:50:27

Of course, Hamilton has experienced sweeping, policy-driven, top-down change before. We're still experiencing it today: one-way urban expressways, the razing of York Boulevard, the plopping of enormous masonry monoliths overtop of vital streets (Jackson Square; the McMaster hospital).

I agree that Hamilton's model for enacting its transforming vision falls somewhere between "flawed" and "feckless". But I do wonder if that's not saved us some pain as well as some progress.

That said, our penchant for endless consultation followed by inactivity is embarrassing. It's one thing to support the status quo or to argue for slow, incremental change - but it's quite another to preach progress and consultative democracy while practicing obstructionist beauracracy.

So how do we change city hall so that things get done? And how do we make sure that the things that are done don't just do more damage?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:56:03

As with so many of these cases, the urban culture of a place seems to influence the policy that gets put into play.

London is apparently served by 357 heavy rail stations and, below ground, a subway that's been in service for almost 150 years. I have to believe that those sorts of things promote pedestrian-forward thinking.

Hamilton is predicated on the car. That doesn't make pedestrian-forward policy imposible to enact, just challenging and frustrating.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By H+H (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2012 at 13:34:27

Nicholas - thanks for the insights and the info.

Not to take us off topic but just to reinforce your point about the public consultation process, I've been both frustrated by and disappointed with the sequence used in our public consultations. We have a basic topic in mind; then we ask the public; then we ask the Councillors if they like what the public said; then we ask if there is any money to fund the ideas generated by the public and shared with Council. Seemingly invariably, Council says we can't afford it.

Case in point from my own experience is the Gore Master Plan process. As a member of the public stakeholders group, I was very impressed with the consultation step. We had hands on and very direct input to the final proposal. It was engaging, collegial, exciting. Problem was, Council had not approved any money for the pilot project, only that there might be a pilot project. We invested many hours at many meetings. It was a good plan. But, Council said they could not afford the $200,000 for the pilot project.

Instead, the buses were removed from the Gore and parking meters were installed seemingly overnight. Two years passed with no communication whatsoever and we have just been invited to get together again to continue to work on the next phase of the plan. I still admire the way the public input part of the process was handled by staff, but think the steps are out of sequence, just as Nicholas states based on his own experience. It makes for a less than satisfactory experience. Having said that, I will be attending the next meeting. Can't give up now, can I? :)

Permalink | Context

By Spektor (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2012 at 15:48:56 in reply to Comment 74581

No, please ... give up.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2012 at 17:22:46

I really don't see any bottom-up aspects to Hamilton's planning, now or any in recent memory. There's been plenty of ineffective top-down "leadership", but that doesn't equal effective public engagement. It's never been a "lack of vision" holding us back - there's always been plenty of ambition and grand ideas, they just weren't very good and didn't quite work out. "Civic Square", the RHVP, Aerotropolis...these notions are "ambitious" to a fault.

We need less single-minded re-imagining of the city and more public discussion aimed at creating a workable vision.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 05:25:25

The top down/bottom up dichotomy is rather crude, but I mean what Graham pointed out: that the sequence in public consultations about policies is wrong.

There is no point developing new policy, or planning new infrastructure projects if Council has not already decided that we need a new policy, or that they are going to fund the infrastructure project. Once Council decides they want to make changes (and that there is a rough budget in place), then they should start public consultation to help shape the scope and details of the policy and project.

Of course, deciding that we need a new policy also means that the policy will actually determine day-to-day decisions, not just sit on a shelf.

It may turn out that the policy or project is not feasible, or that Council wants to make significant changes, but that should be an extremely rare occurrence. It is usually pretty easy to know what one is getting into, and to define the scope of the policy or project clearly enough to avoid this problem.

As in the case of Strasbourg, Council can also show goodwill by kicking off the process with a number of simple and quick changes. If you want a new policy to make it is easier, safer and more comfortable for pedestrians to get around ("A pedestrian master plan"), why not immediately make a few positive changes so the public is confident you are serious. Pilot projects are always good (as in NYC).

The current sequence, which ends up simply wasting public and staff time, is disheartening and seems more like "therapy" http://raisethehammer.org/article/859/ than decision making. In other words, it makes staff and the public feel like they are contributing and making positive change, although nothing actually happens.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-02-22 05:26:14

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools