We have compelling examples of how a lively urban street works right in our own city, but we stubbornly refuse to draw the obvious conclusions.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 08, 2014
Yesterday evening I had an occasion to stroll around downtown Dundas. As always, I was struck by how lively and pedestrian-friendly it is on King Street West.
King Street West, Dundas
It's just one automobile lane in each direction, with curbside parking on both sides. The buildings are mostly two and three stories, mixed-use and built right to the sidewalk.
The sidewalks themselves are reasonably wide and are shaded by street trees and some overhanging canopies.
The street has a convivial mix of food, clothing and specialty shops, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, banks and other services.
Historic facades are for the most part intact and in good repair, especially this three-storey apartment block across from Ogilvie:
Beautiful three-storey facade, King Street West at Ogilvie
With such beautiful streetwall along most of King West, it's hard to understand why the design of the new Shoppers Drug Mart at Albert Street turned out so muddy and incoherent.
Shoppers Drug Mart, King Street West and Albert Street
First, the positive: at least it's two stories tall, with additional medical services on the second floor. It's also mostly built to the sidewalk (about which more below) and there is at least one entrance that opens onto the street.
On the other hand, the design is still frustratingly suburban. The building is set back a few feet from the sidewalk to make room for an utterly useless sliver of token "front lawn".
In addition, a big blank wedge is cut out of the corner at King and Albert to make a "daylight triangle" so drivers don't have to slow down when turning at the corner. How on earth do drivers manage to turn at corners where older buildings are built with right angle, we wonder?
Another issue that becomes increasingly glaring after spending some time walking around King Street is that it's surprisingly difficult to cross the street safely and legally.
Starting with the signalized intersection at York Road, we need to travel 250 metres - a quarter kilometre - to the next intersection at Cross Street. That's a long stretch without a safe crossing on a street designed for lots of pedestrian traffic.
It's a short 66 metres to the intersection at Ogilvie Street, then another 190 metres to the intersection at Sydenham Street.
It's 90 metres to the button-activated crosswalk at Foundry Street (about which more below), and then a sprawling 400 metres - almost half a kilometre! - to the intersection at Market Street. That's an insane stretch without a safe crossing in an urban central business district.
There is a marked but uncontrolled crosswalk at Albert Street by the Shoppers Drug Mart. However, in my anecdotal experience, drivers mostly ignore their responsibility to yield for pedestrians trying to cross there.
Now, about that button-activated crosswalk at Foundry Street.
Button-activated crosswalk on King Street West at Foundry Street
After pushing the walk button, I waited 56 seconds for the signal to change before I could safely cross.
Then, to be sure that it wasn't just a fluke, I waited a few minutes and pushed the button again. This time, I had to wait a whopping 85 seconds before the light changed!
This is a common issue in Hamilton. Our Traffic Department is notorious for installing button-activated crosswalks that make pedestrians wait an unreasonably long time before stopping automobile traffic.
The evidence indicates that pedestrians are more likely to cross against the light or just not bother walking when crosswalks don't work or take too long to work.
The City's Public Works Department is trying to change its culture to be more pedestrian-aware and -friendly. Presumably this crosswalk was programmed at a time when the traffic engineers were a lot more reluctant to do anything that might interfere with the smooth flow of (some) traffic, but now it's time to send an engineer back out to fix it.
Another issue is that the crosswalk is on an intersection but pedestrians are only allowed to cross on the west side.
Cross Other Side
This is another way we make our crosswalks crippled-by-design to save a little money, after determining that the only legitimate new crosswalk design is the most expensive among the alternatives available to our traffic engineers.
But there is one design decision King Street West in Dundas gets absolutely, unequivocally right, and that one decision has a bigger overall impact on the street's essential walkability than all the problems combined.
Heavy automobile traffic
The street carries a heavy volume of automobile traffic as the main street in Dundas. It is fed from the west by Highway 8 (in fact, it is part of Highway 8), from the north by Sydenham Road, from the east by Governor's Road and from the south by Main Street - all high-volume arterials.
It is also a major destination in itself, the central business district of a thriving and growing community.
Yet it remains just one lane in each direction with all-day curbside parking.
I don't hear anybody clamouring to "improve" automobile traffic flow by converting the street into a multi-lane one-way thoroughfare as was done in Hamilton's downtown streets in the 1950s and has yet to be reversed.
Why is it that we so obviously recognize the tremendous value of a slow, pedestrian-friendly main street in Dundas, but then toss that comprehension out the window when it comes to the main streets of downtown Hamilton?
Five lanes of traffic on Main Street East in downtown Hamilton
Likewise, Wilson Street in Ancaster recently got the "complete streets" treatment: lane narrowing, wider sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees, the works. Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson is obviously, visibly proud of downtown Ancaster, yet he steadfastly opposes anything similar in downtown Hamilton.
Why is it that we are so willing to continue sacrificing the urban centre of Hamilton to fast, high-volume automobile traffic after decades of direct evidence that our one-way urban expressways destroy the viability of their surroundings?
We have compelling examples of how a lively urban street works right in our own city, but we stubbornly refuse to draw the obvious conclusions about what we need to do to achieve the same results on our long-abused and much-maligned one-way arterials.
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