Special Report: Walkable Streets

Raise the Pedestrian

Pedestrians legally have the right of way at intersections, but drivers in Hamilton do not expect to have to stop for them. This expectation needs to change if Hamilton is to achieve inclusive streets.

By Brynn Horley
Published August 20, 2013

Growing up in Southern Ontario, I have since become a Haligonian. Over the past four months I have had the pleasure of living back in this beautiful, vibrant and welcoming city. However, having adapted to a Halifax lifestyle, walking around Hamilton has nearly resulted in my death on several occasions.

Crosswalk at Locke and Hunter (RTH file photo)
Crosswalk at Locke and Hunter (RTH file photo)

Halifax has a very special attitude towards the pedestrian. One glance across the roadway will have cars in all directions to come to a halt. The pedestrian is royalty and this condition is easy to get used to. As an occasional driver, I quickly adapted my driving due to the scorn of behaving otherwise.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I took sailing lessons as a kid and the rules on the high seas are clear and concise: sail over power. This means those with less mechanical advantage are to be given the right of way, giving safe mobility to all.

On several occasions during my stay in Hamilton, I have stepped off the sidewalk at a crosswalk, at intersections without lights or stop signs, foolishly assuming eye contact with drivers will result in their stopping to let me cross. I've had to scurry back to safety each time.

As far as I can tell, those mysterious white lines painted across the road have been a waste of your tax money, as they hold no meaning to drivers or local pedestrians. (The case of crossroads where there is a vehicle intersection but no marked pedestrian crossing is a topic for another day.)

Gil Penalosa, the renowned speaker on urban issues and Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, reminds us that designing streets and enforcing policies for the pedestrian and the disabled is the route to truly democratic cities, as every person is included.

Continuing to treat the car as king is to promote a caste system, where those who are unable or uninterested to own a car will continue to be discriminated against - and the Ontario Highway Traffic Act agrees:

140.1  (1)  Subject to subsection (2), when a pedestrian or a person in a wheelchair crossing a roadway within a pedestrian crossover,

(a) is upon the half of the roadway upon which a vehicle or street car is travelling; or

(b) is upon half of the roadway and is approaching the other half of the roadway on which a vehicle or street car is approaching so closely to the pedestrian crossover as to endanger him or her, the driver of the vehicle or street car shall yield the right of way to the pedestrian or a person in a wheelchair by slowing down or stopping if necessary.

This is legally the case in all provinces, and I have seen evidence that it is also the case in at least several American states.

Aside from some streets (which are more accurately described as highways), most streets in Hamilton have much resemblance to Halifax streets. So what is the major difference? Its not in design: therefore, it must be in driver and pedestrian expectations.

I'm no expert on human behaviour, so I won't delve into the 'why' but the differences I see are palpable. In Halifax, pedestrians walk with confidence, sometimes a foolish amount. They know their rights. They know that drivers also know the law and will yield.

Beyond this, there is a genuine concern for fellow citizens without the protection of metal armour. This might be what is missing in Hamilton: a failure to recognize that the driver of the car is as much a citizen as the pedestrian, maybe even a forgetfulness that it is in fact a person in control of the car.

This became obvious in a recent article in the Hamilton Spectator, where McMaster University Geography Professor Nikolaos Yiannakoulias is quoted saying, "What you really want to do is get the cars to behave properly".

He seems to believe that self-driving cars have arrived and now dominate. Reminder: currently 99.999% of cars do not have "behaviours".

So how do we return to an appropriate balance between drivers and pedestrians? Firstly, we need law enforcement to protect the rights of pedestrians.

I'm not suggesting that Hamilton Police cash in on decades of ingrained driving habits, but actively advocate for driver expectations to match the requirements of the law. Dole out reminders and stern warnings and eventually follow with more serious repercussions if necessary.

Take the state of New Hampshire: they do a great job in communities of all sizes at reminding drivers that the law protects pedestrians, as evidenced in this photo:

State Law: Yield to Pedestrians (Image Credit: New Hampshire Union Leader)
State Law: Yield to Pedestrians (Image Credit: New Hampshire Union Leader)

I hope in the meantime the good people out there who are also happen to be drivers actively shift their own expectations, reminding themselves that the pedestrian crossing the road is not the punchline of a bad chicken joke. They are as worthy a citizen as the driver is and deserve safe mobility.

I also think Hamilton could use some foolishly confident pedestrians. I'm not encouraging anyone to behave dangerously, of course, but because I truly believe that I deserve to cross the road even at marked crosswalks that don't have stop lights or stop signs, I'll stare down those drivers heading my way and I'll solidly plant a foot onto the asphalt.

This time, however, I'll keep one foot on the sidewalk until it's safe, rather than stroll casually into moving traffic.

Pedestrians need to demonstrate, cautiously, that they expect that drivers know that the law gives pedestrians the right of way; and drivers need to expect that occasionally they'll have to stop to let people cross the street.

Brynn Horley grew up in rural Brigden, ON, and moved on to Toronto where she studied Architecture. After working in that field for several years she is now a Grad Student at Dalhousie University, studying her Masters of Planning. Brynn has had the pleasure of working for the summer on food issues in Hamilton, and has had an incredible time with the art, culture, food, nature and sailing it this amazing place! Brynn is very passionate about environmental issues as well as community and culture building. You can follow her on Twitter @Urban_Leaves.


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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 08:00:41

360° awareness is the key.


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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 08:07:28

When police in Hamilton have a pedestrian or cyclist "safety blitz" the focus is on ticketing pedestrians and cyclits who get in the way of drivers.

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By Conrad664 (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 09:20:45

I DRIVE AND I WALK TO WORK 99% to work if i ever see someone cutting me off again im sxure il falow them and run them over .. im sick of this drivers that holds all the powwer in this city drivers and pedestrians we all are Citizens in this country

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By janetrymal (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 09:58:35

i've always noticed that the one place in hamilton where this is the case is james street north between cannon and barton. pedestrians often come right out into traffic, and i am always aware that they may. and it's been this way as long as i can remember (40+ years). even though the speed limit there is 50, i find i'm rarely going more than 35. i don't have any issue with it, i've just always thought it's interesting that it happens there, while in the rest of the city, it's a free-for-all.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted August 20, 2013 at 10:06:54

This is a little unfair, Mr. Horley. Or at least not comprehensive.

Hamilton does, in fact, have at least one sign which reminds us to yield to pedestrians ...


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By Pronouns (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 10:27:34 in reply to Comment 91074

Ahem. Ms Horley.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted August 20, 2013 at 11:07:16 in reply to Comment 91076

Ahem. Ms Horley.

Oops. I quickly scanned "Brynn" as "Bryan". My apologies.

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By jorvay (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 10:19:53

I've never had the pleasure of visiting Halifax in my adult life, but I'm well aware of the reputation there and throughout much of the Maritimes for yielding to pedestrians anywhere and at any time. I finally had a chance to experience this first hand last year, though shockingly, it was completely across the country in British Columbia. Everywhere we went, from the smallest hamlets to the heart of Vancouver, people would go out of their way to stop and let you cross. Everywhere. Every time. Every driver. I've traveled quite a bit over the years and always been happy to come home to Hamilton after a nice trip, but it was hard to come back after that one. The difference in interactions between people in cars and on foot (and on bike too of course) was hard to swallow.

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By Hmm...ilton (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 14:55:05 in reply to Comment 91075

I'm going to have to disagree with you when it comes to Vancouver. I lived there for a number of years and was nearly hit by motorists blowing through crosswalks on almost a daily basis. This was especially true on the south side of the Granville bridge, Gas town, the north side of the Burrard bridge and anywhere out towards Point Grey.

I recall one instance where a guy in an expensive car got so close to me as I was crossing that I was able to tap his back window. He of course stopped and we had a wonderful quarrel on right there on the bridge. That particular crosswalk had 5 crossing signs leading up to it and the speed limit was 40km as the crossing was on the ramp entering the bridge. But people rarely went under 70 and even more rarely stopped for pedestrians. The point of all of this is that even in a city as walkable as Vancouver you're going to find your fair share of oblivious or just plain arrogant, asshole drivers.

I'm glad you had a terrific experience in Vancouver and that you were able to come away with the feeling that the motorists out west are more aware of pedestrians than here in Hamilton, but as person who lived there I unfortunately came away with a completely different experience. One thing I will say about the crosswalks in Vancouver though is that I did see on more than one occasion, police actively ticketing motorists who did not yield when required to do so. Something I wish I could see at least once here at home.

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By Mike M (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 11:28:44

While I appreciate the differences between Hamilton and Halifax, I don't think they are explained by what the writer was describing. I live in Halifax during the school year while taking a degree. Principally, there is a cultural difference in the small, older neighbourhoods like downtown Halifax (and Dartmouth). I think this is true of a lot of smaller Canadian towns and older neighbourhoods of cities I have visited.

Firstly I will agree that Halifax drivers show great deference to pedestrians - if you're in the right places. Although I am no expert, I would guess that the cultural deference to pedestrians in downtown Halifax is gleaned from two things: older design for streets and their cultural pace of life. In South-End and downtown, on-street parking is everywhere, rarely is there more than two lanes of traffic going in a single direction, and the older street layout maintains tight turn radii for vehicles. Consequently, I really believe there is a learned behaviour of stopping for pedestrians simply because traffic speed is mitigated to a more reasonable pace. This has been buttressed by their adoption of pedestrian crossings everywhere which, as a result of their old street design, rarely requires enforcement. Drivers and pedestrians achieve an entirely different equilibrium due to coherence of design.

I have found the behaviour outside of Halifax's older South- and North-Ends to be very similar to the generic medium-to-large-sized Ontario city. If you venture further out in suburban Halifax or Dartmouth, you get the same multi-lane, quasi-highway typical of post-1970s development. In these places, crossing a multiple-lane road would not get you the same consideration for pedestrians that you would get in South-End, downtown Halifax.

South-End Halifax is great because a wide swath of its downtown streets are composed in this way, leading to a coherent expectation for pedestrian behaviour over a large area. Hamilton's neighbourhoods have been fragmented by four- and five-lane streets which eviscerate the consistency between neighbourhoods. It wrecks the cultural coherence toward pedestrianism we could develop in linking the great older neighbourhoods we have in the city. Think about the discord of walking on Locke Street and then turning onto Main.

While enforcement of Highway Traffic Acts is necessary, I don't think it is responsible for mass behavioural change. There is a structural difference in street design of Halifax and Hamilton that leads to a whole culture around pedestrian and vehicle interaction. There are not enough police in the whole city to deter drivers from using 60km highways through downtown neighbourhoods to their advantage. There is a cultivated expectation of speed through downtown Hamilton streets. These learned behaviours prevent our great walkable lower-city neighbourhoods from developing confidence as a unit. Our street design choices in Hamilton have resulted in a civic culture that does not lend itself to prioritizing pedestrians.

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By LynnG (anonymous) | Posted August 22, 2013 at 12:13:28 in reply to Comment 91079

Great analysis Mike. I agree that part of East coast behaviour is the slower-paced approach to life that supports less impatience and rudeness that is typical in the GTA (in my experience). Part is also the urban design of the older neighbourhoods, as you described. Hopefully, switching one-way streets such as Queen and maybe eventually even Main and King back to being complete streets will change the car-aggressive driving habits over time.

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By SafePedestrian (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 14:09:53

Ms. Horley,

Your argument is flawed. Sail over power has nothing to do with a mechanical advantage rather maneuverability. Pededstrians are far more maneuverable thus if relying on "sail over power" should always give the right of way to the motor vehicle. But again it's not as simple as that. You step in front of a car you die. Right of way or not. If cars are passing, let them go. Drivers should give the same respect.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 20, 2013 at 16:23:23

Anybody know what the plan is for the new bump-out at Paisley and King? Because I love being able to cross there. I just don't know what they've got in mind for the two lanes of traffic that are constricted out of existence at that point... a bike lane? A parking lane (redundant with the north/south lots)?

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By Ed Sernie (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 18:17:15

On the other hand (by the way, I do not have a driver's license), when I was in grade school in Burlington (1959) we were taught to STOP -- LOOK Both Ways -- and LISTEN before entering an intersection: only after we saw and heard that it was safe to cross the street. Does anyone else remember school visits by Elmer the Safety Elephant?

How often do you see people step off the curb, eyes focused on their text messages or with earbuds blasting away, totally oblivious of their surroundings? Far too often, and sometimes not even so distracted. I feel sorry for some drivers, especially the bus drivers who have to navigate the routes around McMaster University.

Everyone must take responsibility for their own safe walking, riding, and driving practices: with mutual respect, everyone should be accorded the royal treatment.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 21, 2013 at 15:23:38 in reply to Comment 91107

How often do you see people step off the curb, eyes focused on their text messages or with earbuds blasting away, totally oblivious of their surroundings?

Sure, my wife almost hit one on her bike just the other day, stepped right off the curb into traffic without looking.

Too many people are far to careless in this city regardless of mode of transportation, pedestrians included. And then you give some people any set of wheels (skate board, bike, car, roller blades, e-scooter) and they seem to lose all their common sense.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 19:40:27

Except, in this case here, pedestrians have the mechanical advantage. A pedestrian can stop on a dime, aren't bound to the road and can move in any direction in exceptionally short order. The only place where they are at a disadvantage is speed.

A car on the other hand has momentum to deal with, is restricted in his directions of travel, he can't reverse in the a span of mere seconds, he can't hop the curb without causing damage to himself and likely others.

Just sayin', respect is a two way street.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted August 21, 2013 at 19:30:51 in reply to Comment 91114

You are just flat out sad my friend.......

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By z jones (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 20:34:11 in reply to Comment 91114

Except, in this case here, pedestrians have the mechanical advantage.

I've seen some lame trolls in the comments but this one deserves some kind of medal!

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By J (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 22:13:07

I actually agree with the Mac professor. Self-driving cars will impose rationality on drivers, who currently abide by a rule I think invented by car advertisers that driving is about freedom from rules. In fact, driving is an increasingly rare example of human activity where you can kill someone basically on the idea that your freedom is more important than their safety.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted August 22, 2013 at 15:54:05

Halifax is great for pedestrians (being 3/4 surrounded by water is a positive constraint for city builders?), they have tons of pedestrian operated crossings which would be perfect on many streets in hamilton.

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By wcj (anonymous) | Posted August 22, 2013 at 17:48:01

There's also this, from later in Ontario's Highway Traffic Act:

Pedestrian right of way

(28) Every pedestrian who lawfully enters a roadway in order to cross may continue the crossing as quickly as reasonably possible despite a change in the indication he or she is facing and, for purposes of the crossing, has the right of way over vehicles. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144 (28).

I was wondering if there's a loop-hole for jaywalking, as in getting around the designated pedestrian crossings as there are few of those around, and it turns out, perhaps, there might be!

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