Special Report: Walkable Streets

Support Growing for Walkable Streets

Momentum is building among councillors and city staff to revisit Hamilton's 50-year-old commitment to fast traffic flow through the core.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 28, 2012

The City may soon be changing direction on its one-way thoroughfares. With a steady increase in public awareness of the social, health and economic value of walkable, complete streets, public and institutional momentum is building to revisit Hamilton's 50-year-old commitment to fast traffic flow through the core.

Farr: Neighbourhoods Want Walkable Streets

A May 2012 study published by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce found that pedestrian-friendly streets attract new creative businesses and concluded, "walkable environments should be viewed as economic infrastructure that attract employment and should be invested in accordingly."

Jason Farr, Councillor for downtown Ward 2, agrees with the study. In an email response to RTH, Farr confirmed that all six neighbourhood associations in his ward have expressed support for walkable streets. He has requested a meeting with staff to ask why the city isn't moving ahead with making its downtown streets more walkable.

"Specifically," writes Farr, "I have been interested for some time now in investigating the transformation of Cannon Street. For me, the issue arose early last year at the Beasley Neighbourhood charter planning sessions."

He adds, "King and Main remain on the radar and I am hopeful the Pedestrian Mobility Plan that will be presented to Council in the coming months will shed light on the issue to a much greater extent."

He believes the Pedestrian plan "will be an eye-opener for all of us on Council. Recent discussions on the subject by the Chamber, the CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation (Terry Cooke) and the many offerings from residents and concerned citizens (through blogs and editorials and emails to Council) who have taken the time to thoughtfully address the issue are also very helpful."

Farr notes that several pedestrian-activated crosswalks and stop signs are in the works to calm traffic and improve pedestrian mobility, and that work is proceeding to convert Park Street and the part of Caroline Street between Main and King to two-way traffic.

Other Councillors

Brian McHattie, Councillor for Ward 1, has long supported improved neighbourhood walkability and is also interested in "tackling two-way on Cannon" Street as a first step.

McHattie notes that it may be "a bit more difficult" to convert Main Street to two-way due to the proposed Light Rail Transit system on King Street. However, the city's own LRT plan recommended two-way conversions of Main and Cannon before the traffic engineering department nixed it due to an overriding priority for traffic flow.

On Friday, Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli shared his thoughts on the lower city's one-way thoroughfares, saying he believes improved walkability is "absolutely a part of the picture".

Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla also believes "two-way streets are conducive to the improved walkability of the Core." He notes that he is hearing about the "inconvenience factor of two way streets" from people opposed to two-way conversion.

Street Engineering and Economic Development

City staff are also looking more closely at walkable streets. RTH contacted Glen Norton, the City's manager of urban renewal, for his take on the walkable streets agenda. He confirmed that his office shares the conclusion of the recent Chamber study, writing, "It is becoming more obvious that it will be very difficult to achieve the changes we all want to see in our downtown without some significant changes being made to our traffic system."

Norton agreed that two-way conversion is "one of the potential solutions," along with "reducing the number of lanes, adding parking and 'bump outs', adding dedicated and separated bike lanes (as in Vancouver and many European cities), widening sidewalks, slowing down the speed of traffic, and even 'breaking' the synchronizaton of the street lights."

He announced that the urban renewal office has begun "actively stepping outside of our 'box' and taking on more of the role of advocate for all of our downtowns, and we are committed to furthering the goals of walkable/livable streets for all of our citizens."

Norton also believes the time is right to advance the agenda of walkable streets:

I am known as an optimist, but I believe the general public is "there" already, largely due to coverage this issue has received from RTH and other media, and due to their own experiences in trying to navigate our downtown streets on foot or bicycle. Our citizens have been increasingly vocal, and specific, about what they want for these streets.

He concludes that the next step is for Council to "provide the policy direction to the appropriate staff departments to make it happen."

With the initiative by Councillor Farr, supported by Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie, to tackle Cannon Street, that new policy direction may well be forthcoming.


Hamilton converted nearly all of its lower city streets to coupled one-way streets in 1956, as part of a wave of one-way conversions across North American cities that were being recommended by the brand-new traffic engineering profession.

The one-way streets were effective at moving large volumes of traffic but harmful to the local business and community vitality of the neighbourhoods they passed through. Business groups were already begging the city to reconsider, only months after the 1956 conversion.

After decades of neighbourhood decline and business stagnation, public pressure started to build in the mid-1990s for the city to reconsider its commitment to one-way streets. A Downtown Ideas Charette in 1996 brought architects, planners, developers, engineers and creative professionals together to call for pedestrian-friendly streets, two-way traffic flows, a network of bike lanes, mixed use zoning and more infill development.

That inspired the 1998 Smart Moves urban planning document that emphasized fostering pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly livable streets with dense, mixed use development. Smart Moves evolved in 2001 into Putting People First [PDF], the city's secondary plan for downtown land use. It was developed around the following vision:

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. The future Downtown will combine the best of our heritage with new commercial and domestic architecture and use. The future Downtown will redirect our gaze from the urban core to the surrounding neighbourhoods, the waterfront, and the escarpment, seamlessly linking commerce, housing and recreation.

Unfortunately, the rollout of the plan was based around modest incrementalism rather than bold action, and the pace of execution has been glacial.

Slow Progress

Ten years after James Street North and John Street North were converted from one-way to two-way traffic in 2002, the City of Hamilton remains stuck in the slow lane on converting additional streets. In the decade since, the city as also converted sections of James South, John South, Charlton, Herkimer, Hess, Caroline, York, Wilson, and Park.

York Boulevard is a significant eastbound thoroughfare, and the manner in which it was converted to two-way reflects the City's ongoing commitment to traffic flow. With three eastbound lanes and only one westbound lane and severe restrictions on westbound turns from cross streets, York has been engineered into a TWINO: two-way in name only.

No left turn onto York westbound from James. You can't turn right onto York westbound from James, either. (RTH file photo)
No left turn onto York westbound from James. You can't turn right onto York westbound from James, either. (RTH file photo)

Similarly, a proposed pedestrian scramble intersection at York and MacNab was removed from the plan because it would be "inefficient" for motorists.

On the Cusp and Holding

When Ken Greenberg, who participated in the 1996 design charette, spoke again in Hamilton at last month's On The Cusp event, he wryly noted, "What's really interesting is that a lot of the ideas that came out of that charette are the very same ideas that you may be on the cusp of realizing."

He went on, "Some have actually happened, and they're pretty significant, and some are still there for the taking. But I look back at the material that came out of that charette, I realized that there was a set of ideas, a powerful, integrated set of ideas that still make sense."

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of that integrated set of ideas has been hampered by the slow, piecemeal manner in which it has been put into practice.

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 Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 08:59:22

Execution is everything. I'm kind of worried that the City will manage to find the worst possible compromise, and spend a long time getting there.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 18:05:54

Funny how the city can react immediately to the wishes of WalMart, closing down a lane of traffic on Centennial Parkway underneath the train overpass to create a make shift sidewalk for pedestrians, narrowing down the busy traffic corridor to the QEW down to one single lane.

Cars, mine included, have no trouble getting through there. Surely it can serve as some sort of example, just as can the lane closure at King and Hess and at the Main st bridge over the 403.

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By IY (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 18:23:28

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

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 20:58:39 in reply to Comment 77422

Why not look at the other articles on this site that address these topics? Many of them cite evidence on precisely the two points you raise.

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By IY (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 23:08:25 in reply to Comment 77427

I have, but unfortunately I have not seen any study looking into the thins I mentioned or other cities world-wide and their own experience with the problem. This could be my own over sight. I am certain we are not the only city who ever faced that and knowing what happened elsewhere is important. I'd appreciate if you could point me to the relevant study, I'd be much obliged.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted May 28, 2012 at 20:47:12 in reply to Comment 77422

I smell a big, fat rat.

This is the argument we always hear against two-way conversion: Manhattan is full of one-way streets and everything's fine there...it's the best city in the world, etc etc. I call BS on that one as I really couldn't care less what's happening in NYC. All I know is that Main, King and Cannon [in particular] are killing downtown and the health of our city will not improve until we address the traffic situation.

BTW, I wonder how many people - in history - have moved from Manhattan to Hamilton ON? Very interesting...

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By IY (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 23:19:49 in reply to Comment 77426

I am not quite sure I understand the need for all the abusive language, but to each his own. My point was not that NYC is the best in the world, I very much don't think so. My point is different: the proposed transition is a major overhaul of the system that will affect many many people and it is important to look at other examples around the world. You, for one, are certain the problem is King and Cannon. But, is this certainty backed by knowledge and experience from other cities with similar problems, or is it just that it "sounds right"? Many things sound right, but turns out to be false.

Sometimes one just has to follow one's intuition. But, in this case, where so much is at stake it seems prudent to consult the experience and knowledge acquired in other metropolitans around the world. Otherwise we may end up destroying a part of the system that is functioning well and get nothing positive in return.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:48:24 in reply to Comment 77426

drop millions more people here, millions of tourists and Manhattan's economy and I'll support our one-way system. I mean, Brooklyn is more dense than Toronto. It's not reasonable to even try to compare us to Manhattan.

Comment edited by jason on 2012-05-29 08:48:56

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By kent (registered) - website | Posted May 28, 2012 at 23:44:45

OK, I visited Montreal last year, and it has to be said: there is no reason one-way streets cannot be pleasant and walkable.

Don't believe me? Go walk along any main street in Montreal.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:51:39 in reply to Comment 77432

Yes, you're right...they can be pleasant and walkable. But again there's the size issue - Montreal is much bigger than us. We have King through the IV down to 2 lanes and it still flies like a freeway. We're not big enough to need these one-way streets.
Plus, our downtown's main east/west retail street has always been King. Yes, one street. Not several blocks like Montreal or other big cities. Unless we want a whole bunch of 1-way streets that are 1 lane wide, one ways will be too fast for us.

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By kent (registered) - website | Posted May 29, 2012 at 12:41:14 in reply to Comment 77443

I'm all for narrowing the streets, adding wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and parking. (This is all part of the lively Montreal one-way streets).

I don't drive and don't even care if the street is one-way or two-way, I'm just sick of the orthodoxy that making it two-way is the only answer.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 06:25:30 in reply to Comment 77432

Sure, we could narrow our one-way streets, add bump-outs, plants trees, add bike lanes, etc. But why not make them two-way while we're at it? Afterall, they're better for business, safer for pedestrians and cyclists, better for navigating the city and so on.

Oh wait, nay-sayers are only interested in their ability to blast through downtown as quickly as possible...I forgot.

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By downtowninhamilton (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 07:06:17 in reply to Comment 77433

Drop the tired rhetoric.

I was on Stanley St yesterday and noticed they have added speed humps there. That's a one- way street. I think that's going to help over there since drivers didn't seem to notice that it's a residential street and while walking along there to go to the Locke St library we would see cars blow through the stop signs there.

Maybe doing something like that as a calming measure on some of our one-ways would help. Maybe dropping 1 lane to put in a designated bike lane (with barriers, I think that would be manditory) and widening the sidewalks out there would help some of those who are anti-one-way.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 07:21:58 in reply to Comment 77434

If you support dedicated bicycle lanes, the removal of car lanes to build them, wider sidewalks (which also generally mean fewer lanes), speed humps, and other traffic calming measures, then clearly you agree that motorists ought to sacrifice some of their convenience and ability to blast through downtown in the interest of improving neighbourhoods and making them better for pedestrians and cyclists.

Given that, what is your problem with two-way streets? Is there something morally repugnant about cars going both ways on the same street? (Perhaps a touch of bidirectional-phobia?) The idea that two-way traffic causes more pollution is a red herring (in walkable neighbourhoods, more people walk and cycle, which is better for the environment), and so is the false claim that one-ways are safer.

Or, given that creating wider sidewalks and dedicated, separated bicycle lanes would likely be more expensive than simply painting a yellow line down the middle of the road and adding some stoplights, is your support of those measures just a delay tactic?

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 07:23:24

I think there is general agreement among city planners and urban enthusiasts that two-way streets are only one aspect of any plan to make neighbourhoods more livable. Conversion to two-way should ideally be accompanied by street calming that includes (as noted above) bump-outs, plantings, widened sidewalks, speed bumps, and bike lanes. The most successful one-way to two-way conversions did not occur in isolation but were rather part of a bigger plan.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:26:42

No on all counts.

I can't speak to the price of barriers between bike lanes since I've never looked into it. However, there must be compromise between 2-way, 1-way, walkability and safe cycling. I think that it's a fair compromise to do something like what I said above. But, I also think it's fair to say that we should be able to travel conveniently through our city. Never once have I been out in my car on a 2-way street and said 'oh, I should stop at shop X' and impulsively go in. I haven't done that on a one-way either.

I live downtown but work in Missisauga. It takes me about 10 minutes to get from my house to the 403 (John-King-King St exit; or sometimes Charlton-James-Wilson/York-403, or also John-King-Dundurn, depending on what traffic is like). Adding in 2-way would, in my estimation anyway, double that trip due to stopping more due to the same traffic in half as much space. I would move out of the core if that were the case, to somewhere where I can get on the highway quickly.

Likewise, my extended family lives in Dundas, in Burlington, and out beyond. I need to be able to get to their homes quickly and efficiently.

There MUST be compromise in this discussion. Simply saying 'we must go to 2-way' is not a discussion, it's trying to impose your will on mine.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 11:31:37 in reply to Comment 77439

Two-way is the compromise. It is far less costly, and will get you out of town to your work and family, and around town, far more quickly and efficiently than the speed bumps and lane reductions that you are suggesting.

One-ways are good for one thing and one thing only: processing through traffic as quickly as possible. If you're going to hamper their ability to do that by narrowing them, de-syncing the lights, etc, you have to ask yourself what it is about one-ways, other than familiarity, that you're clinging to so desperately that you are actually willing to create a slower, less efficient system than two-ways?

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By compromise (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 11:21:24 in reply to Comment 77439

"There MUST be compromise in this discussion. Simply saying 'we must go to 2-way' is not a discussion"

Good idea. Let's compromise and switch our streets to 1.5-way!

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:56:44 in reply to Comment 77439

It is about so much more than stopping at a store in your car on an impulse. It's about making the core of the city a pleasant place to live, and to attract new citizens who will live here - and to be especially attractive to new citizens who don't have cars (or who will drive less) since their tax dollars are more efficient as they'll have a lower impact on the infrastructure.

The only way we will be able to afford the costs of maintaining this city in the future is if we increase the number of people who live here without increasing the area which we have to service with roads, sewers, water, etc. This means higher density. This density has to happen in the core. And we will never achieve this density if we continue to pander to through traffic.

The end result of fast through traffic is high taxes. And I'm sure we can all agree they are too high already.

Council needs to sit down and take a really good look at how we are going to increase our tax base in the moderately near future. The longer we put this off, the deeper we will spiral and it's going to get to the point where we won't be able to climb out.

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 15:38:14 in reply to Comment 77445

"Council needs to sit down and take a really good look at how we are going to increase our tax base in the moderately near future. The longer we put this off, the deeper we will spiral and it's going to get to the point where we won't be able to climb out."

While there's no question that Council by needs alone must be aware of how we're going to increase our tax base in the moderately near future, the problem is that a) they're locked-in to habts that are hard to break, b) they're influenced by people wanting to keep the status quo rolling (that is, developers by way of City Staff), and c) they're not going to learn a new language unless forced to.

We charge them with looking after things in the best ways possible. But this assumes that their skill sets and those resources at their disposal (City Staff) will get them to effect policy that provides progress towards what you're suggesting.

Um... Clearly that's not working, Those At The Controls are either unaware of how else to do things, are being wilfull in not doing things in those ways, or the forces being exerted on them to continue on this path are great enough to sustain the status quo. (That is, there's no resistance.)

So nothing will happen until there's another force exerting an obverse pressure that hasn't previously been seen all that often. (Save for when an incumbent gets turfed.)

This isn't rocket science. Actually, it's the science of leverage.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:47:51

not everything has to be converted to 2-way... its not the fact that traffic only moves in one direction that is hurting downtown - its the SPEED at which it is doing so

for those who like to use MTL and NYC as examples, how quickly do you see those cars moving??? i can assure you not as quickly and dangerously as they do on Main Street and Cannon Street in Hamilton!

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 15:22:10 in reply to Comment 77441

Ummm, actually the fact that traffic moves in one direction is actually a bigger deal than we realize. I won't share which business owner told me this for fear that some take it the wrong way, but a downtown business owner told me recently that one of the big concerns back in the 50's when the switch was made was the sudden inability of the more prosperous west end residents to come along King St to their shops. Reading old newspapers from back then, it is certainly a major topic of discussion. This person said that it is still true today....due to a variety of factors, there is a much higher disposable income west of James, than east. With Main and King functioning as they do, folks from the west end only ever come along King on their way home now.

I'd never thought of this before, but reading those old Spec articles from the 50's, he's right...this was a major concern among shop owners. In bigger cities with 2, 3 or 4 parallel blocks of street retail (Montreal, Portland, NYC etc...) this wouldn't matter as much, but here our downtown strip is one long skinny street - King...and James, north/south.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 09:00:52 in reply to Comment 77441

also consider the widths of the sidewalks.....

1.5m wide on Cannon Street 4+ m wide on Ste. Catherine in MTL

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By Presque (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 10:13:10 in reply to Comment 77447

Never considered the similarities before, but yes, aside from sidewalk girth, it's uncanny! :)

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 08:53:11 in reply to Comment 77441

Last time I was in NYC I waited 50 minutes to go 3 blocks...on a one-way street with 4 lanes.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 11:19:51 in reply to Comment 77444

Clearly they need to sync their lights!

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By stats (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 12:55:43

I'll gladly link the 2011 stats when they become available. In the meantime the 2006 stats are the only reliable stats available. I'm not attacking straw men but rather pointing out correctly that in spite of all protestations to the contrary the number of autos continues to rise as our population increases. It is not I who is not debating honestly

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By O. Shea (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 13:42:43

Just heard this on Scott Thompson and you know what, I actually like our oneway streets but it's pretty damn obvious what affect they've had on the downtown. I'm not--quite--old enough to remember the glory days of this city but I used to go down town as a kid and I'd love for my kids or maybe grandkids to have a downtown they can be proud of like I was. I think commuters can survive a couple extra minutes to get across town if it means kick starting the core again. I was against the James and John switch,especially the south side near the Mountain access but you know what, I drive down and up everyday and it's fine, I oftentimes hit worse traffic on Mohawk trying to get to my street. What are we afraid of, it's just a twoway street like we have all over the Mountain.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 15:23:45

What are we afraid of, it's just a twoway street like we have all over the Mountain.

Well said.

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