Special Report: Walkable Streets

Hamilton Deserves Better than Knee-Jerk Populism

This is not just some "culture war" drama but a life-and-death struggle to make this city safe for its own citizens - and particularly its most vulnerable residents.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 02, 2014

March was a rough month for pedestrians in Hamilton. Last Friday, I wrote about two separate collisions on Queen Street: at Queen and Herkimer on March 7, and at Queen and Main on March 26. In response, city staff are undertaking a traffic safety review on Queen.

But there were also at least four other vehicle collisions with pedestrians last month.

Pattern of Pedestrian Injuries

These anecdotes are instances of a very troubling pattern of events: according to a report by the Social Planning and Research Council, Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians. Pedestrians in Hamilton are almost one and a half times as likely to be injured as the provincial average.

For decades, Hamilton's streets have been designed chiefly to facilitate high-speed, high-volume automobile traffic, and every other use of the street has been marginalized. Residential streets next to neighbourhood playgrounds are configured as multi-lane one-way thoroughfares with dangerously high speeds.

Vehicle measured at 56 km/h on Herkimer Street next to Durand Park on Saturday, March 29, 2014
Vehicle measured at 56 km/h on Herkimer Street next to Durand Park on Saturday, March 29, 2014

Even today, more than 20 years after the citizen-led Vision 2020 planning process imagined a sustainable city in which people have a real choice to walk, cycle and take transit in addition to driving, the City has done little more than nibble around the edges of the problem.

And even those modest steps are greeted with outrage by defenders of the status quo.

Disinformation and Dog Whistles

Yesterday, talk radio host Scott Thompson demanded that cyclists pay for bike lanes with licencing fees.

Despite communicating directly with Justin Jones and me on this very issue over the past two weeks, Thompson completely ignored the facts: everyone already pays for roads through property tax (municipal) and income tax (provincial), the total amount that drivers pay in taxes and fees falls billions of dollars short of what our roads cost, 90 percent of cyclists are also drivers, and every time someone rides a bike instead of driving, it actually reduces wear and tear on the road.

But in a city where cyclists are almost twice as likely to be injured in a collision with an automobile as the provincial average, the online commentary on that article was thick with denunciations of "entitled" cyclists.

This morning, Andrew Dreschel brought a more nuanced approach to the question of what to do with our streets, but a hyperbolic, inflammatory headline - "Is Hamilton at war with cars?" - mars what is otherwise a pretty reasonable column. (I'm told Spectator columnists don't write their own headlines.)

The web edition of the article originally carried this headline too, but it was changed some time this morning to the less inflammatory "Car still king, but sharing is key".

Citing the modest steps the city has begun taking to address Hamilton's dangerous streets, Dreschel asks, "Does this represent a war on cars, as some maintain?" He answers with a qualified "no", but not before blowing the dog whistle of driver outrage that streets should do anything other than carry automobile traffic as fast as possible.

The Evidence is Clear

The evidence is abundantly clear, and we have been repeating and adding to it for years. Complete, two-way streets are much safer than one-way thoroughfares for all road users, including drivers.

They are safer for children, who are among the most vulnerable road users and the most susceptible to high-speed collisions. They are safer for senior citizens, who are disproportionately represented among pedestrian casualties.

Hamilton's lower-city streets have lots of excess capacity that can be repurposed for bike lanes, wider sidewalks, patios, curbside parking, street canopies and so on without causing any significant congestion.

In addition, repurposing public space will significantly reduce the city's infrastructure lifecycle costs. The Waterloo Region government calculated that each one-percent modal shift from driving to active transportation will save $30 million in infrastructure costs. Hamilton City staff have not done a similar analysis and, last time I asked, have no plans to change that.

Converting traffic flow to two-way and slowing traffic is better for business than having traffic blast by at high speed on one-way streets. It attracts new investment, generates new business and raises property values.

People feel more connected to their community when they live on safer streets with slower traffic. They have more friends and acquaintances and feel more safe and comfortable.

Two-way streets are more usable and user-friendly - even for drivers. After all, a two-way street serves drivers going in both directions! In contrast, one-way streets are harder for wayfinding, making a mental model of a place and navigating within it.

Complete, two-way streets also support neighbourhood equity - especially since Hamilton's one-way thoroughfares disproportionately run through the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the city. (That is not a coincidence.)

We Deserve Better

Hamiltonians deserve better than the divisive, inflammatory, information-poor commentary we receive on this issue. Too many people in positions of influence default to cynical populism, knee-jerk opposition to change, emotional appeals, fear-based rationalization and misinformation.

We need less heat and more light. This is not just some "culture war" drama but a life-and-death struggle to make this city safe for its own citizens - and particularly its most vulnerable residents.

It's not about downtown vs. the suburbs. It's not about Millennials vs. Boomers. It's not about drivers vs. cyclists. These are all false dichotomies that drive a wedge into everyone's common interest in a city that is safe, healthy and prosperous.

Politicians, community and business leaders, commentators and regular citizens alike have a duty to get informed with good information and make sound, evidence-based policy decisions rather than provoking contempt and squelching the necessary steps we know we need to take.

People's lives depend on our collective ability to understand and do what needs to be done.

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 JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted April 02, 2014 at 09:27:56

Thank you for this. It is often painted as an urban/suburban or left/right split, but that's nonsense. Nobody I know would be willing to sacrifice a young person's life to save 2 minutes a day in traffic. The facts, which you so eloquently present, need to be supported with a strong narrative. Unfortunately the toll of carnage you present tell all too clear a story.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 09:59:35

Editor's note: this comment was expanded into an article.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2014-04-02 12:20:28

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By Steve (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 10:03:13

Wasn't it Scott Thompson the person who championed a clean sweep at City Hall in the 2010 Election?

Based on the 2010 Election results, I guess we don't have to worry about anyone listening to him. At least not listening seriously.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 18:01:42 in reply to Comment 99613

I thought yesterdays article was an April Fools joke.
Why is our paper even bothering with stuff written by someone from Oakville?? Who cares.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 10:13:46

Great article, Ryan. On the issue of safety, I'm game to fight dog-whistle with dog-whistle. As candidates start campaigning, we need to press them hard on their actual commitment to our city's vision, because there's no good justification for wide high speed zones in residential areas.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 10:39:16 in reply to Comment 99614

And not just lower-city candidates. If there isn't a voting majority onside with a progressive vision of the city and a shared willingness to work toward that vision, we will enjoy another four years rehashing the behaviour of the last 60.

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By KingDundurn (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 10:30:12

Please add King and Dundurn to the map.

I had to run and jump to dodge a car that was turning left and was oblivious to me crossing.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted April 03, 2014 at 08:45:46 in reply to Comment 99616

King & Dundurn is controlled by the MTO due to its proximity to a 400 series highway. The city (MacHattie specifically) have been trying to get them to make concessions to traffic calming for years, only to be met with staunch refusal. Write your mpp.

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 11:31:34 in reply to Comment 99616

Something needs to be done on that intersection for sure. I've been on both sides of near collisions (as a pedestrian, and a driver). The way that the crosswalk angles South means puts pedestrians right behind many cars' A-pillar.

On topic - great summary Ryan. It's a pity the spec chose such an inflammatory headline (at first). Hopefully the debate will help re-center this issue around public safety.

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By DownerInDowntownHamilton (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 10:47:29 in reply to Comment 99616

If you include near-misses the whole map will be a sea of pindrops.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 22:21:41 in reply to Comment 99619

As would anywhere with cars and pedestrians.

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By Al M. (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 11:05:37

As a cyclist, I actually wouldn't mind buying a yearly license as long as I knew that the money was being used for bike infrastructure. However, I DO think that if we're trying to get more people to bike to reduce congestion, that a yearly licensing fee would actually put a barrier up for people to do this.

Scott Thompson's article completely ignores the fact that EVERYONE pays for roads, whether or not they drive. Because the purpose of our roads is to increase economic activity by reducing travel effort, most people don't complain about this. We need to stop thinking of roads as a way to move cars and start thinking of them as a way to move people.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:39:46 in reply to Comment 99621

Scott Thompson's article deliberately obscures the fact that EVERYONE pays for roads...

Fixed. ;-)

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:26:14 in reply to Comment 99621

I too would pay a voluntary registration in order to support the infrastructure.

In fact if we had kickstarter campaigns for individual projects like YesWeCannon that donated whatever they raise toward the cost, I'd support that too.

What I don't want to see is mandatory licenses taking wheels away from youth, or people who are simply strapped for cash, or double charging those who already have a vehicle. For no reason other than vitriolic idiocracy.

It is a waste and a shame for an advanced society to fight a nearly zero footprint way of zipping around. While single occupant vehicles create congestion, while screaming how consideration for other people will create congestion.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 02, 2014 at 11:27:24 in reply to Comment 99621

The problem with any impediment to cycling - not a cost one, but a tedium one - is that the most significant contributor to cycling safety is the ubiquity of cycling.

That is, the safest place to be a cyclist is any place that has lots of cyclists. Cyclists die when they're a surprise. If drivers expect to see a cyclist around every corner, they deal with them well.

If a casual cyclist must wear a helmet or must pay a licensing fee, he or she won't bother cycling. And that means less cyclists on the road, and that puts less-dissuaded cyclists like you and me at greater risk.

If there was a 10% levy on all new bikes to help pay for cycling infrastructure? Nobody would notice, because it doesn't create any beaurocratic troubles for the cyclist. Well, except for bike salesmen, that might sting for them a bit. But cyclists don't base their decision to buy a new bike based on a 10% difference in cost... it might effect which bike they buy, of course, but not whether they bike. They can happily ignore it. But once you create the tedium of yearly or monthly fees and beaurocracy, nobody will keep a bike for their rare once-a-month excursions that are needed to build a regular cycling habit.

Hardcore cyclists aren't born fully formed, they work their way up to it. Regulations will create a barrier to entry, which creates a problem for everybody.

Even the lights/reflective tape requirements for bikes are a problem. If I buy a car, it's street legal. If I buy a bike, it needs lights/bells/reflective tape, etc. How many casual cyclists do you see with a properly kitted out bike? Not many, right? Is it because they're scofflaws, or just because somebody sold them an incomplete vehicle?

If you focus the fees/regs/etc. at the sales level, then the impediment on trying out a bike is a small amount of money. If you point the fees/regs/etc at consumers, then you've created a large pain-point for a casual cyclist, and that means you won't get a cycling community, and that means the hardcore cyclists are at much greater risk because they're strange unexpected sights on the road.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-04-02 11:30:07

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 20:27:28 in reply to Comment 99622

the safest place to be a cyclist is in the city's car-free zone.

There. Fixed it.

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By View From The Mountain (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 11:40:14

You say that everyone already pays for roads through income (provincial) and property taxes (municipal) taxes. But you failed to mention the gas taxes (provincial), which obviously won't be recovered from cyclists. I would be curious to know how much of the gas tax goes directly to roads.

I drove (by car) on Burlington St. the other day, and I saw two sets of side walks - literally side by side - in an industrial neighbourhood. Pedestrian side walks that will likely never be used by pedestrians or cyclists.

Then I took a drive along Rymal - home to one of our busiest library branches, a newly opened Catholic high school, and soon one of the largest Public high schools in the city - and for the most part saw no side walks at all. Students, mothers with baby carriages, those who dare walking along what's left of the gravel on the side. It almost seems as if we gave up on maintaining our Mountain thoroughfares after the great Expressway was born.

I'm not sure who is responsible for allocating our tax dollars to maintain local roads, side walks, or planning our transportation infrastructure, but obviously, there's a major disconnect. Instead of the patch work we have, we deserve a proper master plan for the entire city; whether that means converting existing roads to be more pedestrian friendly, upgrading the existing system, or covering our neighbourhoods in roundabouts - it must include some common sense.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:49:53 in reply to Comment 99624

The whole who has or doesn't have what and where in this city is firmly rooted in Area Rating.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:00:49 in reply to Comment 99624

You're bang on. It is outrageous that there are roads with no sidewalks on the mountain. This is where the drive for "routine accommodation" comes from - the concept that all road users need to be accommodated as a routine part of the process when roads are designed and built.

The problems on the mountain aren't just on roads that are in more far-flung areas like Rymal. I wrote a blog post about the lack of sidewalks on one side of Fennel, in front of Mohawk, where so many people walk on the sidewalk-less side that there is a well-worn dirt path there (https://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/2035/walkability_fail_on_fennell_avenue_west) Can you imagine drivers being asked to drive down an unmaintained, bumpy dirt road in the middle of the city? I sure can't.

Instead of the patch work we have, we deserve a proper master plan for the entire city

Although I'm pleased that the City is going to look at the problems on Queen, what troubles me is that it takes injuries and deaths before the City moves to act to make streets safe. Essentially, the current approach uses individual people as a kind of expendable barometer - in other words, someone has to sacrifice their life or their health before the City acts to change what we already know is a problem.

So you are absolutely right that we need more than patch work, and we do deserve a proper plan.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 11:53:13 in reply to Comment 99624

"I saw two sets of side walks - literally side by side - in an industrial neighbourhood. Pedestrian side walks that will likely never be used by pedestrians or cyclists"

I'd hope they aren't to be used by cyclists. Riding your bike along the sidewalk is against the rules of the road.

Seriously, though... there was a time, not long ago, when those sidewalks were used by thousands daily, by steelworkers who lived in the area and walked to work. It was long-term infrastructure that is now sadly disused.

I agree that pedestrian infrastructure along Rymal, now a heavily residential area in many parts, is disgraceful! More needs to be done to encourage walkability there.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 23:39:30 in reply to Comment 99626

I'd hope they aren't to be used by cyclists. Riding your bike along the sidewalk is against the rules of the road.

I dunno about this.. In certain areas the only safe place to ride your bike is on the (empty) sidewalk. Never let a rule stand in the way of a better idea, i.e. don't die.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:02:07 in reply to Comment 99626

comment from banned user deleted

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:08:15 in reply to Comment 99629

Ironically, I used to work at Steelcare Plant 19 along Eastport Drive. There are no sidewalks along Eastport, and the nearest bus-stop is at Eastport and Beach.

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By FenceSitter (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 20:57:18 in reply to Comment 99630

I was under the impression Burlington St was reduced to 3 lanes (from 4). The sidewalks were installed during construction/resurfacing of the road. Appears this decision was full of common sense. Putting in the sidewalks probably cost on par (or less) than resurfacing the extra lane. It will certainly save money over the life of the road.
I thought it made the drive a little less hostile. Not sure I will ever walk along there, but that is probably what they said about Rymal 10 years ago.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:01:42

You often hear people say things like "I'm all for bike lanes, but not at the expense of increased congestion". Or "I'm all for pedestrian safety, but not at the expense of increased congestion".

Well, I'm all for folks driving their cars, but not at the expense of the life of a friend / family member / colleague etc.

It all comes down to design. No amount of education, enforcement, evaluation or encouragement can overcome bad engineering.

It's time to get serious.

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By Moved Out (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:23:33

A well rationed article that actually has the facts.

I'm an engineer and I've done road design. The wear and tear angle is not to be overlooked. If anything the bicycle "license" should be a refund (too hard to administrate, in practicality, but if were really hung up on costs that's what they really "cost").

Yesterday I argued with a man who really seemed upset that cyclists "think they're entitled to a free ride" because "they're saving the world". The truly "entitled" are the ones who make this all about a battle of egos and don't even notice.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:49:11 in reply to Comment 99638

"they're saving the world".

I think everybody's feeling a little awkward thanks to the pretty terrifying IPCC report on climate change.

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By Good Point (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:28:26

The best argument against adding a further tax by taxing cyclists that as 90% of cyclists drive, they already are taxed multiple times for their road use.

Having said that, that does not justify increasing taxes on drivers otherwise who all pay property and income and HS taxes.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:37:38 in reply to Comment 99641

All the more reason why we need to make more efficient and more sustainable use of our roads.

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By oh Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:57:44

Scott Thompson on air & in the Spectator is a deliberate & professional idiot--that's what he's paid to be & do. His CV brags how he flunked an IQ test and so qualifies for his work. This goes way back to other CHML call-in "hosts".

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 18:49:54

So to comment on good info being brought forward, one does have to consider that the radio show and the spec are based on profit models, which is opposite to this forum. For profit cannot be taken for granted as having morals,ethics or integrity. How many Hamiltonians listen to his inane comments vs reading this format?

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By Sad (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 23:37:35

It seems the Spec's nickname should move from Speculator to Speculatroll these days. Hyperbole and angst seem to be a new editorial criteria. Sad what it takes to attract eyeballs these days.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 03, 2014 at 09:41:05 in reply to Comment 99684

Yep, eyeballs trump respectability in today's media. Mark my words, Rob Ford will get hired as a columnist somewhere after he gets booted out.

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By screencarp (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 01:04:15

I'd like to point out all but one of these incidents occurred on two way streets and have nothing to do with cycling. We have lot's do do to make our streets safe and complete, but lets not lie to folks to advance our "agenda". Two way does nothing to mitigate the issues with Hamilton streets, but bike lanes, wider sidewalks, bump-outs, walk only lights do. Let's pick our battles based on fact and not "one way streets are bad because one way streets are bad, m'kay". Two way streets are in no way safer for drivers or pedestrians than one way streets.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 07:10:15 in reply to Comment 99687


Ok that's enough. Stop insinuating this is some kind of "agenda" or "lobby" or "mantra".

Properly built cities are just that, properly built cities. This site is contains participants from the general public that care about the stressful dirty state of getting around.

If that is a lobby or an agenda, then everybody that takes the other side of the argument is also part of a "lobby, agenda, and matra", to be overly cheap and keep our streets unsafe and selfish at the cost of people, and to troll using populist knee jerk arguments which are exactly what this article and subsequent comments are calling out.

Edit : I realize having a goal you want to accomplish meets the definition of an "agenda" but this word is being misused against people that want a better city. Meanwhile pejorative misinformed counter-arguments like Thompson's don't seem to be called an agenda, or a lobby. That's what makes if frustrating. One sided use of the term pejoratively.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-04-03 07:16:55

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By Jason Nason (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 08:37:30

I have been nearly hit by a car crossing at a crosswalk more times than I can count. Each time I didn't get hit because I am more aware of my surroundings and other traffic than most cars. I cross every street, not by looking both ways, but looking in every direction. Left, right, over my shoulder and finally towards oncoming traffic. And I repeat this as I continue to cross. I've had to stop (mid-cross) numerous times as an oblivious driver failed to see anything other than the oncoming traffic and nearly hit me.

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 09:47:59

In the article you said "Converting traffic flow to two-way and slowing traffic is better for business than having traffic blast by at high speed on one-way streets. It attracts new investment, generates new business and raises property values." Well it seems that Councillor Merulla agrees. Yesterday he said that Main and King are 2 way east of the Delta and the sky isn't falling. Everything there works just fine. In fact he said that the tax revenues in the 2 way sections are somewhat greater than the one way.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 10:30:26

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the list of accident locations and realized that all of them, yes all of them ocurred on your beloved 2 way streets. You referred to some report from some obscure planning council for how dangerous our streets are but I haven't seen any numbers.

I have posted this link several times but will do so again.


Pay extra special attention to the end of page 22. This report has all the numbers you could possibly want. The only possible problem could be that so many of our safe and efficient one way streets have been tampered with.

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 12:24:19 in reply to Comment 99709

"some obscure planning council" As usual you mock what you don't know when it contradicts your selfish assumptions. The SPRC is an important well respected research group that does a lot of work for the city.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 19:48:04

Really, the SPRC is a well respected research group??? Give me a break , they do what they are told, these so called researchers. While they ahve good people working for them, they are suppressed because of funding reasons. LOL@LOL, you are pushing your own agenda, which is not the agenda of the people.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 06:04:31 in reply to Comment 99748

It's adorable that you think you speak for The People, but The People are capable of speaking for themselves and you do not speak for me. If any of the comments here are pushing an agenda, then so are you, just a different one.

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