Special Report: Bus Lane

The Choice We Face: Easy Motoring or a Prosperous City

We need to do better than knee-jerk opposition to change because it may create some short-term disruption in travel patterns that, frankly, have not been good for this city for a long time.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 01, 2013

While automobile commuters and some politicians continue to complain about traffic moving more slowly on King Street during rush hour now that the transit lane is in operation, an Ottawa Citizen columnist offers a different take on our love affair with fast arterial roads. In a piece on the recent Coroner's Report on pedestrian fatalities (you can read RTH coverage), the author writes:

So-called arterial streets are the [worst for pedestrian fatalities], home to about 75 percent of the fatal accidents.

There were some interesting findings about speed. The report quoted an earlier analysis that said a pedestrian has an 85 per cent chance of dying when struck at 50 km/h, but only a five per cent chance at 30 km/h.


The chief coroner suggested cities take a "complete streets" approach that would also include lowering speed limits to 30 km/h on residential streets and 40 on many others.

It likely won't happen, of course. Everyone is in a screaming hurry to get anywhere, except the dead, who now have all the time in the world.

This will be familiar to regular RTH readers, of course, but it raises the central question: should our downtown streets cater mainly to automobile commuters who want to cut through the city as fast as possible, or should they be optimized for safety, comfort and broad accessibility?

Thriving Downtowns

We keep hearing the argument that downtown businesses will suffer if people can't drive easily to them - but we have spent the past half-century making it as easy as possible to drive through downtown and it coincides with the long and tragic decline of the core.

When we look at cities that have lively, thriving downtowns, they are invariably places with constrained lane capacity - places where most of the street is given over to sidewalks, parallel parking, bike lanes and other public pedestrian amenities rather than abundant through lanes.

New transit lane on King Street (RTH file photo)
New transit lane on King Street (RTH file photo)

It's too early to determine how the addition of a transit lane on King will change people's patterns of movement, but we do know that the complaints by motorists started pouring in before the lane was even in place. For many Hamiltonians, the ability to drive at or above the speed limit anywhere at any time is considered a right, not an entitlement.

I've made a point of driving and cycling on King Street as much as possible over the past week. This is necessarily anecdotal, but from what I've been able to observe so far:

Traffic Speed

Automobile traffic does slow down during rush hour, but it flows at or near 50 km/h the rest of the day. This is entirely normal for an urban street in a medium-sized city.

It is profoundly unhealthy to have so much excess lane capacity that traffic can flow freely during rush hour, because it means the street is grossly overbuilt the other 22 hours of the day, when most of the people on the street are local drivers and pedestrians rather than cut-through drivers.

King Street has gone from a de facto expressway into a normal city street, like any number of arterial streets on the Mountain that also slow down during rush hour. As a city, we need to re-calibrate our expectations about how fast we think we can drive during rush hour.


Riding a bike on King has gotten a lot worse since the transit lane was added. Drivers have become a lot more hostile, following too closely and passing more aggressively.

When the street was overbuilt, it was easy for a confident cyclist to take a lane and let cars change lanes to pass. With only two travel lanes, lane-blocking leads to honking and aggressive driving. However, outside of rush hour the traffic still moves far too quickly for even an experienced cyclist to keep up.

This problem would be easy to solve, except the City has decided not to allow cyclists in the transit lane. I hope they will change their minds about this as the pilot project progresses.


One business owner on King Street has already announced that he is closing his restaurant this weekend. He claims that the lane has not driven him out of business but rather he is making a "business decision" to close because he believes the lane will prevent him from being able to succeed.

Transit lane sign on King Street East (RTH file photo)
Transit lane sign on King Street East (RTH file photo)

The business owner has a checkered history of stoking media controversy to draw attention and has posted a steady stream of anti-transit lane signs in front of the restaurant.

In other words, this is an anecdote - and a dubious one at that - rather than evidence that the transit lane is failing. Again, the evidence from every city with a successful core is that slowing automobile traffic and improving transit are the most reliable ways to support local retail business.


For too long in Hamilton, we have prioritized driving over the other ways of getting around, to such an extent that other ways of getting around have not even been viable options. As a result, most people are forced to drive for most trips, even though large majorities of Ontarians (especially younger people) consistently say in polls that they would rather drive less and walk/cycle more.

Another important consideration is financial sustainability. After decades of building our city around the assumption that almost everyone will drive for almost every trip, we have a legacy of road infrastructure we can't afford and an urban area vastly under-performing its potential.

In other words, building a city for driving has simultaneously driven up our costs and driven down our revenues. We simply cannot afford to keep doing that, as evidenced by year after year of large annual deficits in our infrastructure maintenance budget.

Of course, shifting more trips from driving to walking, cycling and transit also reduces air pollution and improves public health, reducing health care costs and raising quality of life. Indeed, for several years Hamilton has had the dubious distinction that more than half of its air pollution comes from automobiles - a direct legacy of our commitment to making it as easy as possible for people to drive anywhere at any time.

And as noted at the start of this essay, faster automobile traffic leads directly and predictably to a higher risk of pedestrian collisions and fatalities.

We Need to Do Better

We need to do better than capitulate to the narrow, selfish desire to drive faster - a desire every one of us shares. We need to recognize that in a large, complex system like a city, there are important trade-offs between the convenience of easy motoring and the vitality of a thriving local economy; between the speed of four- and five-lane thoroughfares and the safety of complete streets that meet a broader set of needs.

We need to do better than knee-jerk opposition to change because it may create some short-term disruption in travel patterns that, frankly, have not been good for this city for a long time.

This is not about downtown versus the suburbs. It's about choosing between the unhealthy status quo and a city that is financially sustainable and economically prosperous.

If you pay property taxes, you will benefit from a city that can balance its budget without deferring its infrastructure maintenance year after year.

If you currently commute out of the city to work, you will benefit from a local economy with a larger number and diversity of jobs, where people have more money to spend because they're spending less money and time on long commutes.

If you are tired of the downtown not 'pulling its weight' in generating tax revenue, stop demanding that the downtown continue to deform itself in such a way that it repels the influx of people and investments it needs to thrive again.

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 Huzaifa Saeed (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 11:58:42

The argument that one way streets are better for Hamilton Businesses isn't supported by evidence. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce currently has a taskforce setup on Commercial Districts Renewal which is looking at the benefits of Complete Streets in bringing economic life back to the downtown core.

The McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics (Who as some of you might recall authored the excellent LRT Case Study last year) is currently in the latter stages of a report on complete streets for the taskforce and the city.

The results should be out in Spring 2014 and hopefully will show to the anecdotal naysayers some concrete evidence of the virtues of putting people first in our urban planning.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:13:19

"We need to do better than capitulate to the narrow, selfish desire to drive faster - a desire every one of us shares."

I want to make it crystal clear that I do not share this desire. I have no desire whatsoever to launch a lethal cancer poison attack upon my fellow citizens of Hamilton by driving a car here. The fact that children are especially vulnerable to this type of lethal poison attack is a very strong further deterrent to my launching such a lethal attack upon innocent children by driving a car in Hamilton.

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By Insane Traffic (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:27:49

It took me 20 minutes to go from Denningers to Jackson Square. Never again will I drive down King St E. If I need to go West, I will take Cannon all the way down and avoid the core all together

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:43:57 in reply to Comment 94087

BINGO. That's what we've been waiting for. Use Cannon, Wilson, Hunter, Charlton etc.... and if you're headed to Ancaster or W. Mtn, use the Claremont Access to Linc. What other city on planet earth do people just drive through the main street in the middle of a medium or large city??
Hamiltonians have always had this strange notion that by them not "driving through downtown anymore", somehow downtown will die. Are businesses making money off your tailpipe fumes? No. Businesses make money when streets are safe, comfortable and enjoyable for human beings to walk, sit and hang out on. Look at James North. Thousands of Hamiltonians have vowed to "never drive there again". And it's doing better economically than it has in decades.

I commend you personally for finding an alternate route. Too many Hamiltonians don't. Today I went up the West 5th access and was stunned to see all these single occupancy cars backed up almost to the Mtn Brow coming down. When I came back down 30 minutes later I went over one block to Upper James, down the Claremont at 80k the entire way. Zero traffic.

Folks choosing to sit on King can't blame anyone but themselves.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-11-01 18:46:45

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 15:01:15 in reply to Comment 94087


It's working!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:41:26 in reply to Comment 94087

... you were commuting through the heart of the city. Think about that. Your commute was driving through the place all the buses change-over and people shop and stuff like that. Isn't that kind of weird? Haven't you noticed that people don't do this in successful cities? That they go around downtown unless they're going to downtown? I mean, the only people who go through downtown Toronto are people taking the TTC and GO. Buffalo is similar. Even cities with lots of 1-ways downtown like Montreal or Oakville or NYC? You'd be pronounced insane if you tried to take a short-cut through the city core.

So maybe this is the exact point? Maybe King and James shouldn't be something you whip by quickly on your daily commute? People don't do that in cities that are actually successful.

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By Insane Traffic (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:28:43 in reply to Comment 94087

King ST W**

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:30:13

"Recent data released by Statistics Canada confirm a growing commuting trend in Hamilton. Close to one-in-five commuters
spent 45 minutes and over to get to work. As a result, Hamilton CMA is ranked seventh in Canada for the longest commuting time behind Oshawa, Toronto, Barrie, Montreal, Vancouver, and Abbotsford-Mission. In Hamilton, the age group 25 to 44 represents approximately one-in-two of those commuters. This age group typically has the highest proportion of first-time homebuyers, which helps explain the commuting pattern in the Hamilton CMA. The current trend reflects an ongoing movement of homebuyers from the
GTA in search of more affordable ownership housing."


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By al (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:35:21

this stupid pilot project will set complete streets back years in this city. This will now be one of the main election issues, all for what? A couple kilometres of a lane that was already blocked by parked cars half the time in some places, which will have no better bus service because the HSR is maxed out, and which will act as a giant straw man of what LRT or bike lanes would do to King street.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:55:03 in reply to Comment 94092

How is it a straw-man of what LRT will do to King Street? I mean, I thought that was the whole point of this study - find out what LRT would do to King. And we've found out? Yeah, driving through the International Village is going to suck (LRT may be converting IV into pedestrian-only).

LRT will be taking away two lanes instead of one. It will be seriously constricting auto traffic on King instead of merely dampening it slightly. Let's not beat around the bush here - this pilot program is partially about seeing how the city responds to that. Now, part of the argument is going to be that LRT isn't "worth it". The public is going to make that argument. For folks who drive the west side of downtown or those who drive on Cannon? The bus-only lane has been negligible, and there'll be an easier fight there to show that the traffic impact of LRT will be worth getting trains.

But for people on the east side of downtown who used to commute on King Street, they knew abstractly that losing those lanes before will make King more difficult for them at rush-hour, and now they've had it confirmed. This is an honest warning of the future of King Street - heck, it may even be soft-peddling the impact LRT will have on King.

Right now, probably the best option is to persuade commuters to take Cannon (sorry Beasley/Landsdale/Gibson/etc) or the expressways and see how they're still making decent time. This will show that the city doesn't need a fast King Street and we can give it over to the LRT.

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By two ways (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 12:56:45

If Main Street was two-way, the transit lane on King Street would be a total non issue.

Just saying.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:47:27 in reply to Comment 94096

Absolutely true.

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 13:41:22

All you need is a positive spin on things - imagine the headlines were: "City's new bus lane expedites travel for thousands!".

The best part is that it's true - I bet 99% of affected drivers, and probably Bratina too, have never experienced the can of sardines that is pretty much any bus bound for McMaster.

Instead, the disgruntled noise of selfish single-occupant drivers (and dare I say single-occupant cyclists to a much smaller extent - valid points, but take a win for transit and traffic calming when you get one) are winning the publicity battle against this one so far.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2013 at 13:52:53 in reply to Comment 94100

The problem is that college/university students don't vote in municipal elections. Ever. Anywhere.

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By CBT (anonymous) | Posted November 02, 2013 at 15:34:36 in reply to Comment 94101

That's not true. I voted in municipal elections when I was at Mac, and so did all of my local friends.

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By JayRobb (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 14:04:31

Worth reviewing - and maybe adopting - the messaging used by TransitCamp YYC - a civic action group dedicated to executing citizen solutions for Calgary’s transit challenges (lifted from their website):

Does being pro-transit mean you support a “War on Cars”?

Too often discussions about improving transit deteriorate into accusations of exactly that. Converting vehicle lanes to transit-only lanes, limiting parking to support transit ridership or spending more money on transit infrastructure than on roads almost inevitably triggers the response that these actions constitute a “War on Cars.” Is this really the case though?

To be honest, some pro-transit groups do take a hostile view towards drivers. Some transit advocates view people that drive cars as lazy, destructive and generally unconcerned about the world around them. At TransitCamp, that is not how we view things. We do not see those who choose to drive as being negligent or lazy or evil. We see drivers simply as people making the best choice they can about how to get where they want to go. We do not believe that making people feel guilty about driving will get them to take transit. Instead, as is often the case, transit simply does not work for them in their situation. The goal shouldn’t be to force people to take transit, but to improve the transit system so it works better for as many people as possible.

Transit isn’t going to work for everyone, even with a great transit system. Some people will need to make trips that are too difficult to serve with transit, such as to low density areas far away from other development. Other people may just never want to take transit at all. Others still may need to use a vehicle for other things, such as carrying equipment or as part of a job that requires them to visit multiple sites every day. Transit is not going to work for these people. But that does not mean it cannot be made to work for a lot of others in our city. Simply because not everyone can take transit, does not mean that more people can’t, or that it isn’t a useful service to have.

What we all recognize is that transit benefits many people in a city, including those that never take transit. In fact, some of our members never even take transit at all. For those using it, transit can ease the stress of congestion, save time, save money (a vehicle typically costs between $8000 and $12000 per year to own, operate and maintain) and improve safety (transit riders are 200 times safer than those driving private automobiles). For non-transit riders, transit reduces congestion as well as the burden on parking spaces. For the city as a whole, transit reduces pollution, attracts labour, and makes it generally easier to get around.

However, we are not naive to think that there are not conflicts between cars and transit, especially when it comes to building infrastructure, allocating road space or prioritizing signals.

For us, the real debate is not about transit vs cars, but what is the most efficient use of resources. When it comes to allocating space, often transit should have priority for the simple fact that transit is more efficient on space. That is, more people can travel along a single lane on transit than they can driving private automobiles. When we advocate for things such as making cars wait for transit at a traffic signal, it is not because we think transit riders are better than car drivers, it is because a bus carries around 60 passengers and an LRT over 600. We just think 600 people on a train are a greater priority than the 30 or 50 or even 200 waiting at a light for a train to cross.

The same goes for converting traffic lanes to bus lanes. Sure it may seem like the road isn’t being used as efficiently as before, but you have to remember that each bus represents about 60 cars. While a freeway carries about 1 800 people per lane per hour (ideally a minimum of 2 seconds between each car), bus lanes can achieve about 4 800 people per lane per hour (assuming 80 people per bus and 1 minute between buses, some systems exceed this substantially because buses are closer together) and heavy rail transit (subways and metros) can carry up to 40 000 (roughly 1500 people per train with 2 minutes between each train). That is 20 times more than a freeway lane. The reason is that people on a train sit or stand right next to each other, while drivers have an entire car and a lot of space around them. The 7th avenue Transit Mall carries around 18 000 people per hour per direction at maximum capacity (completely full trains). Imagine how many extra vehicle lanes we would require if we didn’t have the train.

So remember, the next time you hear someone mention that transit improvements unfairly favour transit riders, just respond that transit improvements really just favour lots of people over a few people. It isn’t a “War on Cars” it is a War for Efficiency.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:50:26 in reply to Comment 94103



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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 17:43:35 in reply to Comment 94103

Inspiring post. Nicely written.

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By deleted (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 16:05:18 in reply to Comment 94103

insult spam deleted

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 16:00:04

This is a bit off topic but I wonder if we would be having these discussions is LRT was proposed for Main St. I am still not convinced that Main St would not be be the better choice, with Main and King 2 way converted.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2013 at 16:18:48 in reply to Comment 94107

You can tell the real reason that the City's planning department wants it on King - they see Main and Cannon as paired 1-way corridor truck-routes. Keeping it on King minimizes the interference with this.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 16:08:14

A war on cars, hmmm, interesting choice of words. We should all be reducing using cars, considering that toxic bituman usage and line 9 and other areas, which threathened our access to water.

Anyways walking along King Street, would give people more of an opportunity to look inside business windows, then racing by in a car.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:48:50 in reply to Comment 94109

I don't even reply to the 'war on cars' nonsense. One measly lane on King is dedicated to buses (which happen to carry more people every day than every car on the street). A war on cars would be permanently closing King, Main and Cannon to cars altogether. Not taking 1 lane of 4/5 for buses.

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 17:39:29

the hamiltonian admin is claiming that no one has submitted a pro bus lane op ed piece for consideration. im not able or available to but i wish i was. its all mahesh all the time over there on transit.

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 14:16:01 in reply to Comment 94112

Thanks for the tip. Done.

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 19:45:37 in reply to Comment 94112

I love that that Mahesh character had the time to take 84 pictures of traffic on day 4 of the bus lane trial: http://s265.photobucket.com/user/hamilto...

Check out the combative language on the last few. "Is this what is called 'the unintended consequences' of playing SIM city with the social fabric of reality?"

Or the SIM city urbanists with their designer rollerblades, playing god, and the depravity of transit planning. I sincerely hope he comes down from troll mountain to run for mayor again, what a kook!

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 23:57:01 in reply to Comment 94122

He must have tracked all those pre-3:30pm drivers to know for a fact that they were patronizing businesses along King. And when they vanished, that was it for business. ;-)

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:50:56

Quick anecdote from today. I never drive through downtown on my way home because I understand how cities work. But today I chose to take King to see what the fuss is all about. It took me 9 minutes to get from Wellington to Dundurn. At 4:45pm. On a Friday. Make that same trip along Queen or Yonge at 4:45 on a Friday. Or in downtown Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa etc.....

6 minutes took me from Wellington to James. 3 minutes to Dundurn from there. If that's considered chaos, Heaven help us.

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By Godfather (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 20:15:48

I want you bastiches to know that I have decided to move to Hamilton in the hopes that those lousy corksuckers at City Hall will turn all the one way streets into two way streets for good. This will be good for my family, and a favour which which I will be forever indebeted. And to all of those sonemambitches who insist on violating my fargin rights, and the rights of my family, by keeping all of the streets like highways, I say you aizeholehs need to learn some respect.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2013 at 20:19:27 in reply to Comment 94123

We're pulling out Roman Moronie? Really?

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By Godfather (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 23:17:36 in reply to Comment 94124

Its johnny dangerously aizehole.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 02, 2013 at 09:25:30 in reply to Comment 94126

Roman Moronie was the character in Johnny Dangerously.

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By Godfather (anonymous) | Posted November 02, 2013 at 16:48:11 in reply to Comment 94134

Are you calling me an ignorant aizholeh, aizholeh?

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By mainstreet (anonymous) | Posted November 02, 2013 at 12:56:22

Do the ward clrs. really think their getting votes by creating a daily traffic jam downtown? This will cost more votes than that gate in corktown that no one even asked for either.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 02, 2013 at 13:06:33 in reply to Comment 94138

WHy don't you take cannon?

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 02, 2013 at 16:10:51

Or Hunter or charlton or Barton or Wilson or the bus.

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted November 02, 2013 at 20:02:48

If the proprietor of Hillbilly Heaven is going to claim that the bus lane is preventing his success, I'd like to enter some anecdotal evidence that this is hogwash. I walk through the International Village regularly because it lies between my house and the GO Centre (yes, I commute to Toronto). Hillbilly Heaven is never full and often completely empty, even at dinner time. He's tried "all day fresh coffee," promotion in Chinese, and who knows what else, but the dynamic hasn't changed. The busiest I've seen it is, perhaps, three tables of custom. Now, apart from generally wishing well to business in the Village, I have a special affection for Southern Barbecue, having moved here from Texas. I don't know why Hillbilly Heaven has not been a success, but I do know the end of the line has been a long time coming and has nothing whatever to do with the bus lane.

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By voice of fire (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2013 at 07:28:07

prosperity and traffic jams don't go together. Lets choose prosperity so we can continue to hand out money to all the losers in town and pretend their not on the dole. People need to earn a living to support vote buying and other spin projects being promoted by clrs. Let the wheels of commerce roll unimpeded for a change, You never know if their successful, they might threaten you with an actual job.

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By Citizen21 (registered) | Posted November 10, 2013 at 21:03:29

Easy motoring or a prosperous city ... definitely NOT an either or scenario. I'm tired of these fallacious, false dichotomies. The word "prosperous" is a vague an undefined term in regards to the city, and shouldn't be thrown around and expected to have weight. All these change agents who will benefit financially from these plans use these vague buzz words to try to ram their agenda through. Easy motoring AND prosperity can both work, if we decide to leave our arterials alone (what way we get around should be determined by the people and NOT authoritarian social engineers!) so that people can get to where they're going on time without relying on a PRIVATE usurping entity or being subject to a mass revenue generation scheme by the police.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 11, 2013 at 09:23:45 in reply to Comment 94618

"what way we get around" has already been determined through engineering - when we built to suit personal automobiles to a MUCH greater extent than any other option.

What you are asking for ("what way we get around should be determined by the people") requires a balanced network that gives equal priority to all transportation modes so that people can freely choose.

In other words, you want roads that move traffic in both directions, with space set aside for walking, cycling and public transportation.

So you're right, we should build complete streets.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted November 10, 2013 at 21:36:31 in reply to Comment 94618

authoritarian social engineers

Sheesh, someone's been listening to too much Alex Jones.

Explain to me how traffic engineers switching the whole lower city to a network of paired one way arterials literally overnight in a revolutionary traffic master plan is somehow not authoritarian social engineering, but slowly converting them back into normal two way streets like everywhere else on the fucking planet somehow is.

Your spoiled privilege is showing through your ideological umbrage.

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