Special Report: Walkable Streets

Ghost Crosswalks Haunt Hamilton Intersections

Let's hope that recent citizen actions mark the beginning, not the end, of 'autonomous civic engineering' around our city, or at least spark a little serious soul-searching among those who do it for a living.

By Undustrial
Published May 12, 2013

The better part of a year ago, I promised RTH editor Ryan McGreal a photo-essay on Hamilton's "Ghost Crosswalks". Though I took plenty of pictures, I got caught up in other projects and never got around to it, something that's been bugging me ever since.

When, this past week, the issue of crosswalks came up in a big way, it seemed like time to make these pictures public.

"Ghost crosswalks" are the last remains of old painted crosswalks which have been left to fade by the city. It's an ironic term with particular meaning in Hamilton after they became de-facto city policy.

It has been said that Hamilton's longstanding head of traffic engineering, Hart Solomon (now retired), felt crossings without signals were a liability.

Signs were removed and lines were allowed to fade. Even last summer I had trouble finding remaining examples which would still show up in photographs.

Solomon's reign has a lot to do with why we have such an overbuilt road network today. He's long been criticized for prioritizing automobile traffic above all else, leaving us with "urban highways" like Main and Cannon and treating bikes and pedestrians as an afterthought.

These five-lane roads carve the city into blocks, making travel on foot an arduous, toxic and dangerous affair, especially for those with strollers or mobility issues.

There have been some recent successful efforts to reverse this process, like the battle for a pedestrian crossing at Aberdeen and Kent, where the first requests only gained a sign telling pedestrians to "cross at the lights" (a 400m detour to Queen or Locke).

The downside is that it took a long and sustained effort from some of the most affluent and influential neighbourhoods in the lower city.

With hundreds more crossings, often in very poor neighbourhoods who're only now seeing our lead pipes replaced, it's hard to imagine more than a hand-full seeing lights installed before the end of the decade, especially where they're needed most.

Long-standing frustration boiled over last week, when a group of residents who were inspired by a recent speech on "Tactical Urbanism" decided to take a little initiative of their own.

At Locke and Herkimer they used a few traffic pylons (their adopted symbol) to create "bump-outs" in an attempt to calm traffic and give kids from the nearby school more space to stand.

Guerilla bumpouts at Herkimer and Locke before they were removed (RTH file photo)
Guerilla bumpouts at Herkimer and Locke before they were removed (RTH file photo)

In an even more daring act of guerilla civic planning, somebody installed a crosswalk at Cannon and Mary (I'm told they "painted" it with cornstarch). Cheeky and poignant, it was direct action at its finest, albeit pretty tame by even the standards of teenage pranks.

Then the city found out.

Public Works General Manager Gerry Davis freaked out. They contacted the police, sent a memo to council and declared the work of Tactical Urbanism supporters to be "illegal, potentially unsafe and adding to the city's cost of maintenance and repair".

The ad-hoc crosswalk was painted over with black and the cones vanished.

After years of letting crosswalks fade, they're now seeking to criminalize the very act of painting crosswalks. Not surprising, I suppose, after their crackdown on jaywalking, it's pretty clear that they're more interested in punishment and blame than addressing their own shortcomings as traffic engineers.

Beyond that, there's the matter of control. Authority never likes being challenged and can often be prone to 'overreact' when it feels that's happening. City bureaucracies operate on the premise of total control over their domain.

Residents taking this kind of initiative can be a terrifying prospect for staffers, threatening their already tenuous hold on chaotic city life.

The Public Works department, of course, was already having a rough week. The ongoing "time-theft" scandal, which saw 29 front-line workers fired for severe slacking last January, has now focused its attention a little further up the ladder.

Of 28 supervisors, 16 found themselves under investigation. Of those, four have now taken early retirement and a fifth quit outright. Others may be facing suspensions.

This only confirms a longstanding image of the department's work-ethic (or lack thereof), provoking another firestorm of public criticism, which I have no doubt is contributing to a bit of a siege mentality down at 77 James North.

In the face of years of this embarrassing inaction, it isn't surprising that a few vigilantes have taken it upon themselves. Gerry Davis may feel this is dangerous, but letting crosswalks fade has consequences of its own.

In 2007, an elderly couple was struck and killed at a notorious "ghost crosswalk" in Stoney Creek. As one neighbour complained, it had been a school crossing before the city removed the signs and crossing guard then left the painted lines to fade.

One has to wonder how many more people have been hurt or killed over the years at these crossings, or if it has even been studied.

In this case, as in too many others, bad traffic engineering can kill. Focusing on the free and easy flow of automobile traffic to the exclusion of all other road users has not produced a safer or more prosperous city.

The neglect shown for pedestrians revels a whole host of prejudices: classism, sexism, ageism and ableism, which suggest that some road users just aren't as "important" as others.

In spite of this, people still need to travel the city, even those with walkers, wheelchairs, strollers or scooters. They will cross streets wherever they can, because the only other option is turning around and going back home.

If this means a regular risk of injury or death, that's just something we've come to accept as part of modern urban life.

It doesn't have to be this way. Making a trip to the doctor, day care or convenience store doesn't need to mean a pulse-pounding, real-life game of Frogger.

Neighbourhood planning must first reflect those who live and spend time along those streets, and only then give though to matters like the efficient flow of traffic to and from suburban bedroom communities.

Through acts like Intersection Repair, which helped inspire Tactical Urbanism, neighbourhoods have had amazing success redesigning and repainting their own streets, going so far as to install benches and bookshelves along the sides of elaborate road-murals.

Most inspiring of all, city departments learned to live with it.

Let's hope that recent actions mark the beginning, not the end, of 'autonomous civic engineering' around our city, or at least spark a little serious soul-searching among those who do it for a living.

After all, there's little point making a city an easy place to drive at the price of making it a safe place to walk.

First published on Undustrialism

Undustrial is a writer, tinkerer, activist and father who lives in Hamilton's North End. He chooses to remain pseudonymous as he frequently works with much of Hamilton's Development industry.


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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 12:22:34

I love the 'guerilla bumpouts' and have long fantasized about fluorescent spray painting lane markers such that people would know just how stunned and completely out of their lane they are when making a turn.

Yes, in all likelihood dear reader, you are one of them and have no idea where your wheels are. The best way to be a better automobile driver is to get on a bike and start watching how others drive.

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By cornfused (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 18:02:13 in reply to Comment 88656

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 13:51:40

Awesome article! Thanks.
It would be great if engaged citizens would repaint "ghost" pedestrian crossings in their own neighbourhoods temporarily, until the city can get around to doing it permanently.
The purpose of the white lines is simply to remind motorists to watch for pedestrians, and to drive at a speed that will allow them to stop in time.
People will be crossing in those locations with or without the lines, so let's all take responsibility for making it safer for pedestrians and motorists.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 14:21:19 in reply to Comment 88660

Not only that, but under the Highway Traffic Act all intersections are pedestrian crosswalks and drivers must yield to pedestrians. Unfortunately, most drivers don't know this and think they only need to yield in designated crosswalks, or even at a red light or stop sign.

It is indeed highly ironic that Davis would refer to the Tactical urbanism actions as 'dangerous' while the City's choice to remove all signs from painted cross-walks and allow the lines to fade over many years is passed over without comment. That is true anti-pedestrian vandalism! They could have at least ground off the lines, as they did for the tactical crosswalk ...

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By Rational Optimist (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2013 at 10:53:47 in reply to Comment 88661

"Unfortunately, most drivers don't know this and think they only need to yield in designated crosswalks, or even at a red light or stop sign."

I don't personally know how to do it cost-effectively, but drivers need to be educated about this. Even when there are painted sidewalks and signs (what comes to mind for me are Locke and Hunter, Dundurn in front of Lord Kitchener), the vast majority of drivers believe it is the law of the sea, and the bigger craft has right of way. Most are not prepared to stop even when a pedestrian is visible on the curb, and of course those on foot are forced to wait. This is only a minor inconvenience for able-bodied people at a street with lighter traffic, but a serious inconvenience and unsafe if it takes you longer to cross and traffic is moving at dangerous speeds.

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 14:28:39 in reply to Comment 88661

Unsurprisingly, The City has a duty of care. For a Manager to willfully neglect the state of crosswalks would not bode well in any subsequent litigation.

The comments made in respect of TU being unsafe are laughable and ironic, given who is making them.

Perhaps the City Solicitor should conduct an internal audit.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 17:42:20

There are some nice and polite drivers, yet the majority would run you off the road, as a pedestrian. Someimtes, I think how quiet it would be, if there was no traffic noise. It is going to take a lot to cahnge attitudes

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By *ism (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 17:56:45

Sexism? Really?

Ableism? Now you're just making shit up.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 13, 2013 at 23:54:05 in reply to Comment 88671

Like it or not, some people have much more trouble traversing the streets than an able-bodied adult. Some can't afford it (of which women and the disabled are disproportionately represented), and others physically can't, or are too young/old. Of those who travel the city's sidewalks, some have a far harder time of it than others - especially those with scooters, strollers, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or small children in tow - able bodied males are notoriously un-afflicted by these. Poverty doesn't afflict all groups equally, and neither does pedestrianism. Don't believe me? Take a bus.

Prioritizing the convenience of drivers at risk to the lives of pedestrians makes a pretty clear statement about who's more "important".

And yes, I know that some men push strollers too. I'm one of them, and it's been a rather eye-opening experience.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2013 at 14:28:38 in reply to Comment 88708

I absolutely see classism and ablism being relevant here, but I have trouble figuring out where sexism comes in except for disregarding mothers of single-car families who have to push a stroller everywhere (which, as a temporarily stay-at-home dad who pushes a stroller everywhere, I'm not sure I can agree with).

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By LeanneP (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2013 at 20:17:29

I'm happy (tho saddened at the same time) to see some of the Durand's ghost cross walks represented here.

I regularly volunteer at Central school whose field trips are often very local so I am often helping a few dozen small children negotiate the roads in the Durand. If we walk to the YWCA for swimming lessons, two dozen children must add two blocks to a one block walk in order to cross at a light and avoid the now very dangerous ghost crosswalks. The same for trips to the Art Gallery of Central Library. Instead of direct routes, we must walk west and away from our destination to cross Hunter.

I didn't realise it was an unofficially official city policy to allow the crossing marks to disappear. I fantasize about painting out the entire crosswalk area in yellow to restore all of these crosswalk markings. Of course, I also fantasize about building road bumps along Bay South to calm the crazy racing traffic there. I don't want to see any of our kids, seniors or adults getting hit by jerks in cars who need to get to their destinations a whole 15 seconds faster than everyone else.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted May 13, 2013 at 05:49:46

OMG ghost crosswalk are all over this city , city Hall are juste waitting for a lawsuit and then they will pait them .

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By Jay Robb (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2013 at 09:51:31

So what's the consensus on naked streets -- stripping out all of the lanes, lines, stop signs and signals? It gets a mention in Jeff Speck's Walkable City, with reference to success stories in European cities. Couldn't do it everywhere but are there streets in Hamilton where this could work? Could it work on some key streets downtown that we're looking to make more pedestrian friendly?

And distracted drivers who speed through school zones and fail to yield to parents & kids don't need traffic cones. They need to be pulled over by the police and issued stiff fines and demerits. Maybe the Hamilton Police Service should set up where there's been acts of tactical urbanism - potential hotspot for safety violations and a revenue generator.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted May 13, 2013 at 14:42:31 in reply to Comment 88681

Or we could design roads for 30-40kmph instead of 60kmph when they cut through a school zone.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted May 14, 2013 at 12:31:59

Not sure whether I should post my comment here or the Yes We Cannon (or perhaps Tactical Urbanism) article but amazingly when I started looking for these along Cannon St east I found them pretty easily, 1 by the park beside the knitting mills, right opposite the old car dealership, another just west of Steven Street. Just rejuvinating these Crosswalks would solve half of Cannon's problems in that it would force people to actually drive the street, instead of merely pressing the gas and (kind of) watching the lights...

( I will supply the paint)

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted May 15, 2013 at 22:45:10

Unindustrail strikes again, great pice of writing.

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