Special Report: Walkable Streets

City Streets Engineered for 70-100 km/h

Our traffic engineers are actively enabling dangerous lawbreaking by motorists. This is not just hypocritical and immoral, it is also extremely dangerous.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published April 04, 2014

I was shocked, when reading the City's Road Classification Policy Paper [PDF], to discover that the city's policy is to design minor arterial streets for 70 km/h and major arterials for 80-100 km/h.

What's worse is that the traffic engineers want the average speed on minor arterials to be 50-60 km/h, and the average speed on major arterials to be 60-80 km/h. In other words, they are designing urban arterials for freeway speeds, and they actually want average speeds to be illegal!

Core Road Classification - Urban
Characteristic Minor Arterial Major Arterial
Traffic service function traffic movement major consideration traffic movement primary consideration
Land service/access permitted, with some access control permitted, but with rigid access control
Traffic volume (veh/day typical) 5000-20,000 > 10,000
Flow characteristics predominantly uninterrupted flow uninterrupted flow except at signals
Design speed (km/h) 70 70-100
Average running speeds (km/h) 50-60 60-80
Desirable connections collectors, arterials and expressways
Transit service express and local buses permitted
Right-of-way width (m) (typical) 20-36 26-36
Min. Intersection spacing (m) 200 400
Traffic calming (default) where required, gateway features not applicable
Vehicle type (default) all types, may be truck route all types, truck route
Accommodation of cyclists (default) wider lanes or separate facilities where required

Designed for Illegal Speeding

This has to stop. How can the city be designing roads for illegal average speeds, and make them safe to drive at highway speeds?

It is no wonder people are speeding on urban streets and treating them like highways - that is how they are designed.

These engineers are tacitly condoning, and indeed actively enabling, dangerous lawbreaking by motorists. This is not just hypocritical and immoral, it is also extremely dangerous.

Accepting that motorists' average speed will be around 20 km/h (40%) over the limit on a major arterial, and designing in an additional margin of 20 km/h 'just in case' is really criminal.

70 km/h on a street like Queen makes collisions far more likely, and a collision at that speed is certain to kill a pedestrian.

It is no wonder the 2002 Durand Traffic Study found that 40 percent of motorists exceeded the speed limit and 200 motorists per day exceeded 65 km/h on minor arterials. Apparently this is just what the engineers expected, since their policy is to engineer these roads for 70 km/h with the expectation that drivers will go 50-60 km/h.

Vehicle measured exceeding the speed limit on Herkimer Street next to Durand Park on Saturday, March 29, 2014 (RTH file photo)
Vehicle measured exceeding the speed limit on Herkimer Street next to Durand Park on Saturday, March 29, 2014 (RTH file photo)

Recall Our Streets

Do the Hamilton Police Service know that the traffic engineers are actively and deliberately making their enforcement job more difficult and their lives more dangerous?

Forget about the truly safe speed of 30 km/h for a moment. We need to insist at a minimum that our streets are designed assuming a legal average speed! That means 40-50 km/h, not 50-60 or even 60-80.

The Highway Traffic Act is absolutely clear on what a speed limit is, and in a dense urban setting it is literally a matter of life and death.

Earlier this week I wrote about recalling our streets due to their known design defects, but that was before learning that our streets are consciously, deliberately designed for deadly illegal speeding. It is as if GM programmed the speedometers on their cars to display 20 km/h less than the vehicle's actual speed.

How on earth is it acceptable for our traffic engineers to design our roads with the assumption that motorists should break the law? This must be changed without delay.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By higgicd (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 07:19:01

This is generally what traffic 'engineering' is all about - it is a math problem. Maximize flow. That is how you get an extensive network of one-way streets, because they are exceptional for moving a large number of vehicles at high speeds. I just hope that the work of everyone here at RTH and around the city has helped to shift our thinking away from a 1950s focus on engineering to a perspective based more in human-scale traffic and transportation planning. Just goes to show you how hard it is to overcome the legacy of past decisions though.

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By mkuplens (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 07:24:41

To be fair, you do want emergency services to be able to go places quickly, safely; part of that is designing the road so they can in fact move at speed. But that also means curbing the limit for other motorists if you don't want them to go that speed, also.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:38:48 in reply to Comment 99775

You sir are the voice of reason in a sea of lunacy.

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:26:02 in reply to Comment 99775

I have always wondered the utility of designing a street for the worst case scenario usage. Take this chunk of Isaac Brock Drive in Stoney Creek (street view): http://bit.ly/1oxxAvZ

(edit - had to use a shortener, full link didn't work correctly)

Driven there many times as the in-laws live up there. The driveway to the immediate right is the local fire station, and its presence appears to have dictated that the entire road there be about the width of 4 lanes of traffic, though the road markings are only for 2 lanes. Nevertheless, despite the 50km/h speed limit (40 in some areas), people just scream through there as the sheer amount of road space makes for very comfortable driving at high speeds. This despite the immediate area being home to a nursing home and many families with children.

To overcome the issue a stop sign was just added down the street, but its shocking how many people just do the roll-through, or (totally serious here) - just drive through it as if it is the biggest inconvenience to their right to a high-speed drive.

Comment edited by higgicd on 2014-04-04 08:28:47

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:10:35 in reply to Comment 99775

Lower speed = less emergencies

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:28:50 in reply to Comment 99784

That’s right. We can’t plan our lives solely around emergencies (imagine if we did), and sometimes doing so can actually lead to more of them. I read that book ‘Suburban Nation’ not too long ago, and they make a lot of the fact that road designs in new subdivisions (and existing) are influenced to a great extent by fire departments’ desire to be able to get huge rigs (or multiple huge rigs) to a hypothetical fire very, very quickly. Eventually in a lot of these places you have the situation where there has never been a fire, but the road design has killed or injured a handful of children. If there ever was a fire, that particular home owner might be very pleased that two big trucks were able to quickly manoeuvre the unnecessarily wide roads in his community that he’d been suffering all those years.

This is to say nothing of the fact that building codes (and a host of other factors) make fire calls less common nowadays, and that maybe smaller vehicles could be appropriate in a lot of cases. That’s probably not going to fly in Ontario any time soon, where fire fighters can be awarded pay for “lost overtime” if a city decides to sell a truck that is no longer required: http://blogs.windsorstar.com/2013/08/02/...

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By robert_D (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:03:51 in reply to Comment 99775

Cars should pull over and yield for emergency services, we don't need to design ridiculous amounts of excess capacity for ambulances and fire trucks.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:21:17 in reply to Comment 99780

yes. Like every normal city on the planet.

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By mkuplens (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:17:33 in reply to Comment 99780

No disagreement there!

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By April Reign (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 07:26:21

I live near Main & Wentworth. Going anywhere requires dodging highway speed traffic. Try to cross at the Main at Wentworth intersection.. traffic turning doesn't give a rats behind about the pedestrians trying to cross. You literally take your life in your hands.

Most people around here jay walk because it is SAFER. You can find the breaks in the traffic and use them rather than hope the next driver will give you a millisecond to cross the road.

Even walking the dog down Delaware is dangerous, especially at the corner of Sanford & Delaware where a pedestrian crossing the road, with right of way, means ...well nothing.. I have come close to being hit by cars and trucks turning onto Sanford countless times.

A certain councillor opined he was "tapped out" well suck it up buddy cause some of us are tapped out from our lives being in constant danger. I may not drive but I hope that doesn't mean I have less right to be represented by council.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 07:33:38

This is an example of professional engineering incompetence. Design for failure. There are many examples of proper traffic engineering design. Including use of one-way streets

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-04-04 07:35:48

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By mkuplens (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:18:41 in reply to Comment 99777

I'm at a loss why King William and Rebecca are shortlisted for two-way conversions – they're stellar examples of sensible one-way roads in our network.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:40:30 in reply to Comment 99786

Here's the city's previous listing of "low-hanging fruit" that were already identified for conversion back to 2-way.

Bold Street from James to Queen

King William from John to Wellington

Rebecca from John to Wellington

Hughson North from Wilson to Barton

Park Street North from York to Barton

Hess Street South from York to Barton

Caroline from Main to York

Now, what does every entry besides Bold have in common? They're all in the North side of Downtown. Are people really clamouring to convert the handful of 1-way streets that exist north of York Boulevard?

Even in more ambitious debates about 2-way conversion, they're willing to talk about all the big massive artieries like King and Main, but still, we don't hear about Durand. Why not? Is there some massive demand to keep Duke street 1-way?

Why does the city completely avoid talking about all the 1-ways in Durand/Kirkendall? That's the densest web of completely superfluous 1-way streets in the city - why is it always glossed over?

Occasionally Queen and Bay is brought up because they're conspicuous in their absurdity, but if they were kept off the table I'd assume that the City staff are obsessed with protecting their own commutes to City Hall.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-04-04 08:40:53

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 12:52:24 in reply to Comment 99790

The DNA is arguably the most organized, accomplished and moneyed neighbourhood association in the city. I would find it strange if their efforts to humanize the neighbourhood over the last 42 years did not include significant legwork on walkable streets and two-way conversions. I believe there are some members on this board. Perhaps they can speak to the systemic resistance such efforts with which such efforts are being met.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 14:24:10 in reply to Comment 99834

Indeed, walkability and humanized streets have been a top priority of the DNA for the past four decades. I was on the board for six years, including a couple of years as vice president. I hope other board members will join in to describe their experiences.

The bottom line is that until recently (I hope) even sustained efforts to get change at street level met with both passive and active resistance. The usual tactic on behalf of some staff was to ignore reports and requests, sometimes for years, until pushed to respond by our councillor. The eventual response was either to suggest yet another study, or to explain why city policy or cost or best practices meant nothing at all could be done. More recently, even proposals (like two-way conversion) that are not opposed by staff have been rejected, delayed or watered down at Council level by those councillors who believe that downtown neighbourhoods don't deserve the same livable streets as their own residents enjoy.

I really am optimistic things are changing, and the real stubborn, blinkered, resistance has now moved up to the council level, which is a big improvement. There are some really top rate people in traffic engineering now, but it is hard to change such an engrained culture all at once.

Here is a more detailed explanation of what we have experienced in Durand that I contributed last year:


Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-04-04 14:31:37

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 07:41:34

Over-engineering works very well for freeways and rural highways where it improves safety and saves a lot of lives. And so in most nations you can enjoy highways that pretty much look the same and share common safety features.

Inside the heart of a city, the experiment revealed over-engineering for traffic has more negatives than it's worth, so many cities stopped over-engineering for cars, and start balancing out. And that trend is spreading worldwide across cities that want healthy and productive citizens. And likewise, you start to see common elements show up across such places.

Those are very different features, catering to very different conditions. Hamilton applied the highway blueprints to its own roads when industry saw huge numbers of people driving to the north end to start their shifts while those ending their shift are doing the trip in reverse.

Science has evolved as new information becomes available. Policy can do the same, and should.

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By robert_D (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:07:21

I'm just as concerned with their position that all major arterials must be truck routes. Truck routes serve the purpose of directing through traffic onto certain routes, and encouraging trucks take particular routes. If we just make every major arterial (which are every ten blobks roughly) part of a truck route, we are essentially giving them free reign to drive on any street they would possibly want to.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:07:40

What's funny is that all the definitions in that table would make perfect sense if you moved the labels one column to the left and put "regional highway" in the place of major arterial, and created an actual 30km/h category at the bottom for actual residential local roads.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 08:48:29

I was reading this document a while back to see what the municipal government thinks a road right-of-way “should” be. If a lane is twelve feet wide (which is the minimum for U.S. interstates, not for city street lanes), a “local residential” street is more than four lanes wide (assuming sidewalks on both sides, 1.5 meters in width as per this document), and a minor arterial (or residential collector) would be between five to nine lanes wide (not taking in to account street parking, which should take up somewhat less road width than a traffic lane).

People have told me extra road space is allowed for piling snow, but it seems strange to design a road based on conditions experienced only three months out of the year (this winter notwithstanding, Hamilton doesn’t receive that much snow, and a grass boulevard is capable of storing it as well as asphalt), and I’ve heard a few other reasons, none of which make a lot of sense to me. Why pay for all this asphalt that doesn’t do anything except make motorists feel more comfortable exceeding a reasonable speed?

Question: how wide does our municipal government say a “traffic lane” in a city should actually be? Other cities say ten feet wide, meaning that a great deal of streets in Hamilton would appear to have ample room for wider sidewalks, a boulevard, or bike lanes. This must not be the definition here, though…

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By durander (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:31:52

"What's worse is that the traffic engineers want the average speed on minor arterials to be 50-60 km/h, and the average speed on major arterials to be 60-80 km/h. In other words, they are designing urban arterials for freeway speeds, and they actually want average speeds to be illegal!"

Freeway speeds are much higher than this. Generally designed to 120 km/h. It's not about wanting to have higher speeds, so don't make that mistake. Should we design streets for the exact posted limit, with no factors of safety? If anyone has a degree in traffic engineering, let me know...then I'll start to listen a bit more.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:48:20 in reply to Comment 99804

Yep, the traffic engineers are doing a great job!

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:43:41 in reply to Comment 99804

By freeway speeds, I meant the 70-100km/h design speed of the major arterials. And these city streets are obviously not actually safe to drive at 100km/h, even if the lane widths, lack of controlled intersections make it possible!

And even the minor arterials, at a design speed of 70km/h is designed for typical highway speeds (80km/h).

There can be a bit of an extra margin (say 10km/h), but designing a major arterial for up to double the legal speed limit is a recipe for disaster: there is just no way this speed is safe, especially for pedestrians and cyclists who have to share this road!

The danger of these high speeds in a dense urban setting is just basic physics ... and, in case you are wondering I do have a PhD in applied math and physics ... my research area is applied mathematics and scientific computation for physical phenomenon such as fluid flow and fluid-structure interaction (and I am an associate member of the mechanical engineering department at McMaster).

You don't need to be a traffic engineer to understand that roads designed for double the speed limit will encourage speeding, or that the risk increases with the speed squared (i.e. a driver speeding at 70km/h is at least 2.5 more dangerous than a driver obeying the speed limit at 45km/h both because reaction times are less increasing the chance of a collision, and because the energy is higher making the collision more damaging).

And in some countries, like Australia and the UK, the posted speed limits are actually rigorously enforced.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-04-04 10:55:13

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:37:32 in reply to Comment 99804

LOL at the car driver who is outraged that anyone would expect drivers to obey legal speed limits.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 10:52:43

I'm torn on this one Nicholas. As I've mentioned before and as I tell anyone who asks, I have a diploma in Transportation Engineering Technology from Mohawk, so I am a dreaded "Traffic Engineer" more or less. Now I happen to be far more interested in cycling and walking and always have been, so I always viewed the training I received through that lens. With that said, I still really dislike the meme of the evil traffic engineer that goes around. We aren't all so bad. I'm not typical perhaps, but there is nothing illegal or immoral about traffic engineering. They are doing as they are trained to do. They just ask and answer a different set of questions, typically.

First of all, yes the Police know, the HTA "knows", everybody knows that most streets are built with a Design Speed which is higher than the posted speed limit. So there is no conspiracy here, no deliberate misleading going on. It is established practice within the field for many years in virtually every city in North America, if not the world. Does that mean it is a good practice? On city streets, probably not. Complete Streets concepts tell us that it is not good practice. The results of that practice shows us that it encourages operating speeds which match the design speed rather than the posted speed. And very few pedestrians and cyclists in an environment which is unfriendly to them.

Second, while I get the outrage over encouraging speeding, you had nothing to say about the rest of the report. It does contain consideration for pedestrians, cyclists, traffic calming, low speed local roads, etc. Those considerations are not perfect by any means, and could stand further scrutiny and refinement, in my opinion. That, to me, is the low hanging fruit in this study, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful discussion about complete streets and sharing the space in the right-of-way. There is definitely a discussion to be had about design speed vs operating speed, but that is a big conversation with a lot of baggage attached.

Having said all of that, I have to push back against most of the ingrained thinking in traditional traffic engineering every day, which always assumes traffic growth, makes cycling and walking nice-to-haves instead of must-haves, plans from the centre line out rather than from the sidewalk in (question of priorities), etc. So while on one hand I get what you're saying and share your frustration, on the other hand I disagree with the conclusion that something sinister is at work here.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 11:04:31 in reply to Comment 99810

I knew the design speed is higher than the legal speed: having some margin is prudent. However, there is a huge difference between having a design speed of 10km/h over the limit (20%), and a design speed 40 or even 50km/h over the limit (up to 100%). I doubt many non-experts knew how large these margins are!

The shocking points are:

  1. The design speed can be up to twice the legal limit. There is no excuse for this.

  2. Even the expected average speeds are well over the legal limit, up to 60% higher for major arterials. This is irresponsible.

I wasn't intending on doing a detailed review of this report, I was pointing out some shocking, and little known, assumptions that guide our road design.

All the nice words in the world about pedestrians, cyclists, traffic calming, low speed local roads mean nothing compared with the basic design philosophy and the fact that minor- and major-arterials are clearly intended as sacrifice zones as far as pedestrians, cyclists and those living along these streets are concerned.

I'm not impugning all traffic engineers, there are some very good ones out there, and the culture seems to be changing. But I will not hold back when I come across this sort of dangerous and irresponsible "advice" on the behalf of consultant we've paid for.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-04-04 11:12:15

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 11:10:52 in reply to Comment 99811

Okay just to clarify, I can say with certainty that when the ranges of speeds are shown, they are meant to be paired. So for example, a street with a design speed of 100 would not have expected operating speeds of 60. And it would not be signed for 50.

100 DS = 80 OS / PS. 90 DS = 70 OS / PS. Etc.

The design speed would never be twice the posted limit. Ever.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 11:16:25 in reply to Comment 99813

Okay: so if that's true, which Hamilton major arterials have speed limits of 80km/h? This is a highway speed. As far as I know, almost all major arterials (like Queen) have posted speed limits of 50km/h, and none have posted speed limits of more than 60km/h, at least in the lower city.

And why are the expected average speeds all over the legal speed limit. Even if this is just observation, why do the consultants not treat this as a design failure that needs to be remedied, rather than as a characteristic of a class of roads?

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 11:24:30 in reply to Comment 99814

To my knowledge no Hamilton arterials have a posted limit of 80. But these are just design criteria, in the event that an arterial is designed or redesigned in the future to have a posted limit of 80.

Your second question is excellent. The answer is as you suggested, that it is based on observation. You would be right to wonder why this is accepted as a characteristic rather than a flaw in business-as-usual. I think this is a good assumption to challenge and we have plenty of evidence to support alternatives (Complete Streets, etc).

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By Pipes (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 12:03:59 in reply to Comment 99816

Eastport Dr is an arterial road having a posted limit of 80.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 12:17:59 in reply to Comment 99825

Yes, but it really is not actually a major arterial. It is classified as an "expressway" (like Cootes Drive). An expressway is a limited access road for high speed traffic. It is not at all a major urban arterial like Queen or Cannon.

Eastport drive is in fact a Highway 7189, which explains its highway speed limit of 80km/h

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By Pipes (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 13:44:58 in reply to Comment 99827

Review of the Transportation Master Plan Exhibit 8.2 shows it coming up as an arterial road. Unlike Cootes it is an undivided road and thus not an expressway.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 11:41:18

Have spent the morning wheeling around the city and have to say that the speed(ing) issue is by no means isolated to central or even lower city neighbourhoods. This is a city-wide phenomenon.

Coincidentally, Hart Solomon sounds like it could be the name of a Formula 1 driver.

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By Desmond (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 12:27:18

Isn't it telling that someone sat at the radar detector for I'm sure more then 1 vehicle and the fastest speed they could come up with was 6km over the limit?

Mountain meet molehill.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 12:34:41 in reply to Comment 99830

The actual data (as opposed to one photo) measured by the city were that 40% of traffic exceeds the legal limit and 200 per day exceed 65 km/h.

And the photo is right next to a playground ... where a safe speed is around 30km/h. And that is the limit near playgrounds in western Canada.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 12:29:57

Completed questionnaires, which sought the input of Hollybush Drive residents on the possible implementation of traffic calming measures along the busy thoroughfare have been turned over to the City of Hamilton for tabulation.

The survey was circulated in February, when a group of Waterdown residents, including Janet Hueglin Hartwick, Kelly Hine and Amy Moss-Archambault, went door-to-door to garner feedback.

The trio connected with dozens of residents, many of whom were eager to share traffic-related concerns with the canvassers. They echoed that of Hueglin Hartwick, who has witnessed driver behaviour she believes is impacting the safety of pedestrians and families.

Motorists, claimed Hueglin Hartwick, appear to be driving faster than the 50 km/h posted speed limit. Vehicles, she said, seldom come to a full halt at the lone stop sign on Hollybush Drive at Ryans Way.


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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted April 06, 2014 at 07:45:31 in reply to Comment 99918


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By Porkwarrior (registered) | Posted April 06, 2014 at 02:34:25

54km/h, never hit a red light.

That has been the mantra of Hamilton's traffic planning, since before entitled Toronto transplants without a trust fund washed up in The Bay.

I truly am sorry you can't afford the kgreen' condo you sorely crave, but Hamilton dos'nt need to be turned into a Toronoto Lite.

Thanks, but stick to Burlington!

Comment edited by Porkwarrior on 2014-04-06 02:37:08

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