Special Report: Walkable Streets

Crosswalk at Hunter and MacNab Deformed to Maintain Automobile Traffic Flow

After local residents organized to dedicate money to new walkability infrastructure, they are now faced with the prospect of spending another few months trying to get the city to fix the broken-by-design implementation of that infrastructure.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 30, 2014

Once again, the City's Traffic department is sacrificing the usability of a new signalized crosswalk on the altar of traffic flow.

New crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab (RTH file photo)
New crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab (RTH file photo)

The new crosswalk on Hunter Street at MacNab was just put into operation last week after Ward 2 residents voted in the Participatory Budget process to spend some of the Area Rating Capital Fund on it.

Instead of being pedestrian-activated as requested, the traffic signals are on a cycle that is timed to coincide with the "green wave" of synchronized lights on Hunter Street.

The City installed a button on each side of the crosswalk, but as the buttons do not actually activate the traffic signals to change, they merely serve as non-functioning decoys that have the effect of reducing pedestrians' confidence that infrastructure will work for them.

So we have a new signalized crosswalk that stops automobile traffic at regular intervals whether or not someone is trying to cross, yet has no way for a pedestrian to activate it to stop traffic when someone is trying to cross.

'Unexpected' Red Light

An email response from Public Works yesterday explains the decision to put the signals on a timed cycle rather than making them pedestrian-activated:

Staff noted that progressive traffic flow on one-way streets results in groups of vehicles travelling along the one-way roadway and as they proceed they encounter successive green displays. When this progressive flow is not provided the appearance of the green displays is completely random and sporadic and can create situations where approaching drivers are suddenly faced with an unexpected red display. When this occurs some drivers may brake, others may elect to run-the-red which would endanger pedestrians who are crossing the roadway.

Yes, you literally just read that the City is afraid drivers will see a red traffic signal and not know what to do.

The whole point of this crosswalk is to calm traffic, slow down the dangerous vehicle speeds on Hunter and establish a safe way for people to cross in a high-pedestrian-traffic area.

But the traffic engineers have decided to make the intersection less usable to pedestrians in order to avoid facing drivers with an "unexpected" red light.

This beggars belief. Drivers don't expect to encounter red lights because we have designed our streets so automobiles never have to slow down. That assumption is exactly what needs to change, and it will not change until we change the design of the environment in which people drive.

The response also suggested that it is a practice to synchronize crosswalk signals with the green wave on one-way streets. Last year, the City installed a signalized crosswalk on Herkimer at Caroline and put it on a cycle as well, but that cycle was not even synchronized with the rest of the green wave on Herkimer.

After a few months of pressure from local residents and the Durand Neighbourhood Association, the City came back and reprogrammed the intersection so that it works as expected: the traffic signals are green unless a pedestrian pushes the button, at which time the trafic signals turn yellow and then red, and then the Walk signal comes on.

Similarly, the signalized crosswalks on Queen at Duke and on Aberdeen at Kent were programmed to have a "minimum service level for pedestrians" - someone waiting to cross the street would have to wait between 40 seconds and almost two minutes after pushing the button.

Passive-Aggressive Installations

These new crosswalks are being installed because residents are choosing to spend the Area Rating Capital Fund on them, not because the Traffic Department has decided to start making our streets safer and more accommodating for pedestrians.

So it is particularly frustrating to see them programmed in a manner that comes across as passive-aggressive. After local residents organized to dedicate money to new walkability infrastructure, they are now faced with the prospect of spending another few months trying to get the city to fix the broken-by-design implementation of that infrastructure.

It's insulting to the engaged residents, a waste of everyone's time and an irresponsible use of scarce City resources that must go back and revisit an installation that should have been done right the first time.

Enough is enough! The City needs to stop deforming and sabotaging the positive changes that residents demand to make their neighbourhood streets safer and more welcoming.

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 Sean Palmerston (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 08:26:17

Seriously? What is the point of even having this new traffic light if it doesn't work for pedestrians. Terrible.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 08:43:36

"Drivers don't expect to encounter red lights because we have designed our streets so automobiles never have to slow down."

Much truer in the lower city in general and the core in particular. The mindset of the entire city needs to change. Case in point is a letter to the editor in today's Spec. The letter writer, an Ancaster resident, is decrying the bus only lane on King and the bike lanes on Cannon. The same people who want everyone and everything to get out of their way when driving in other people's neighbourhoods would never tolerate people drivng in their hoods the same way, let alone allow street design that even makes it possible.

I don't hear anyone in Ancaster carping about the design of Wilson Street. What is good enough for your neighbourhood is good enough for everyone else's too.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:06:08

Another problem with these lights is when approaching the intersection while cycling heading east. Since the contraflow bike lane ends at MacNab, you are required to turn across traffic - and there is no indicator from this direction whether the lights are green or red.

Hunter Pedestrian Lights

So, as a cyclist flying down the hill on Hunter, you have to make a quick judgement call on whether or not the cars will jump through the intersection while you are turning through their lane. Very dangerous.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 01:22:41 in reply to Comment 104977

I was wondering why folks were so up in arms about the city installing a stoplight and crosswalk. Even with the placebo button (which exist all over the place) it seems like a no brainer in that location. But this view is crazy. I guess planning just "forgot" there was a contra bike lane that ended in a steel grey box there. Seriously, this is terrible, I hope they plan on putting a big green box and a light for bikes there.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:47:00 in reply to Comment 104977

This picture is nuts. Why did they put in contra-flow traffic lights the rest of the route, then omit them when the route ends and you are forced across the street?

This GO station "obstacle" has really mangled this project. Worst bike lane terminus ever. It seems like it'd be less trouble to just finish the bike lanes past the GO station.

As for protecting the green wave (past the train station no less) ... picture Mr Spock with one eyebrow raised in confusion at the illogic ... that describes my reaction as well.

They've literally designed this to support the worst behaviors of everyone. Cars are acknowledged as running red lights if it interrupts the green wave. Pedestrians ignore lights and cross on a gap if the signal doesn't work. Bikes will just veer across all lanes the way it's setup now.

Very bizarre set of half-finished features at Hunter+McNab, for sure.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-09-30 09:57:24

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:09:45 in reply to Comment 104977

This is an excellent point. If you're going to establish contraflow traffic, it needs signalling. This is basic.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:28:14 in reply to Comment 104979

I found the same situation on the Cannon cycle track as well. None eastbound at Sherman on the Cannon lanes either and your only legal option is to go left...

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:08:13

This is unbelievable garbage from the traffic department. I hope Councillor Farr (it is he, correct?) calls them on the carpet. RESIDENTS COME FIRST.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:11:28

others may elect to run-the-red which would endanger pedestrians who are crossing the roadway.

In other words, Public Works is concerned that motorists are going to deliberately act in a manner that intimidates and threatens pedestrians, and instead of working to prevent such antisocial behaviour, Public Works is rewarding it.

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By shortskirt (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:12:47 in reply to Comment 104981

Victim blaming Hamilton style!

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:17:32

Good work to get the response from Public Works. It's interesting – albeit ironic – that they couch their actions in the interest of pedestrian safety. So if that really is the concern, it's surprising that city staff wouldn't make the much larger changes needed on our streets to make them safer.

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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted October 01, 2014 at 16:49:08 in reply to Comment 104983

After being heavily involved both years, Im convinced that Public Works is deliberately sabotaging Participatory Budgeting projects. The obviously object to the public making these decisions, and I don't think a single project has not had problems with implementation, in large part caused by PW foot dragging and misinformation.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:21:19 in reply to Comment 104983

It's reminiscent of the kneecapped design of Cannon west of Victoria, where they vetoed conversion of the north curb lane into a parking lane on the grounds that doing so would cause intolerable delays for the 3 Cannon bus. You know, the one that comes twice per hour and often comes three minutes early. Yeah, the city's really concerned about the performance of the Cannon bus; that's clearly what drives their decision-making.

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By typical (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:19:44 in reply to Comment 104983

Typical response. We're "protecting" pedestrians by controlling what they can do, instead of controlling what the dangerous drivers can do to them.

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By Coffee (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 09:28:14

What are the names of these people in the traffic department? Perhaps we can personally invite them to a coffee and a "what were you thinking?" type discussion.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 20:58:00 in reply to Comment 104987


This is the page for Hamilton's Traffic Operations and Engineering Services. I hope it's what you're looking for.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 10:17:07

Not sure if anyone's noticed this, but that section of road is a drag-race strip. Motorists take off like bats out of Hell, zipping up the stretch from James to Bay. The kicker is that -I believe- the speed limit here is 40K/h, something I've never, ever seen enforced. The 'expected' experience by motorists is to be able to gun it from Wellington to Queen without interruption. Both absurd and ridiculous.

On a connected topic, I was at the Ward 1 Candidates' Evening last night. And of course, the topic of converting (reverting) one-way streets came up. (As it did last week at the Ward 3 event.) It always saddens me when people have no discernible grasp of history, of the realities of traffic movement, or even the notion of positive change. Further, that they don't seem to have the ability to actually discuss this stuff.

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-09-30 10:18:18

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:29:31 in reply to Comment 104992

I think the problem is that on the topic of 1-way conversions we always get onto discussion of Main, King, and Cannon and that stops the progress dead because many commuters love those 1-ways.

Where we can keep conversation onto the Durand/Kirkendall grid, consensus can be achieved.

Not that I think Main/King/Cannon should never get a 2-way conversion. I'm just tired of seeing that political flamewar derail any possible improvement to the various side-streets and minor arterials.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 11:51:06 in reply to Comment 104992

They won't be able to speed everywhere though........once they end up on Burlington Street they'll incur the wrath of the HPS Speed Enforcement Program. But what if they don't make it to Hamilton's industrial heartland?

Oh well, who gives a hoot about public safety when the obvious goal is revenue generation anyway?

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By arienc (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 11:17:02

I still can't get over this...it's utterly unbelievable that staff in Hamilton's Traffic Services department has effectively sabotaged an initiative that was requested democratically by the residents.

Taxpayers voted to put their money towards infrastructure that has a specific funciton - allowing pedestrians to cross the street safely on request. The fact that Traffic Services would decide on their own to remove that functionality demonstrates a deep-seated disrespect for the taxpaying public and the principles of democracy.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 11:57:56 in reply to Comment 104995

I'm only shocked that people are shocked. Hamilton City Hall happily has it's head buried in the sand. I see zero change despite so called pedestrian initiatives etc. Unless of course you're in Dundas or Ancaster where slow moving Wilson and King are accepted because it's safe for the businesses, pedestrians and cyclists. But Hunter, York, King, Main?? Only poor people live there so keep them as freeways!

Comment edited by jason on 2014-09-30 11:58:41

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By durander (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:01:55

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 15:36:23 in reply to Comment 104999


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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:20:36 in reply to Comment 105015


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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:27:45 in reply to Comment 104999

You clearly haven't attempt to take advantage of the "good opportunity" for pedestrians to cross afforded by the platoons of fast moving cars accelerating up the hill, oblivious to the 40km/h speed limit.

Try it sometime when you're attempting to take your four year old from the daycare at the YWCA to Central School ... you'll find that it is just not safe to try to judge the speed of fast moving cars that will not stop for pedestrians when you're walking with a young child.

By the way, the YWCA also has a popular Senior's Centre. Do you think Seniors are happy to dart across gaps in traffic, or to carefully judge the speed of oncoming cars who will not stop for a pedestrian in the middle of the street?

The "gap" might work if motorists actually followed the law and yielded to crossing pedestrians, but Hamilton motorists have somehow forgotten this part of the Highway Traffic Act: pedestrians need to wait for a gap large enough that motorists can stop safely, and motorists must yield to crossing pedestrians. Surely you must have observed that in reality it just doesn't work like that here!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-09-30 12:28:20

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:30:29 in reply to Comment 105003

Not to mention that turns at cross streets are not restricted on reds. So once the wave passes cars can enter the raceway and play "catch-up".

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By durander (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 15:52:35 in reply to Comment 105003

You clearly didn't read my entire response, only got the gist of it, then decided to pounce. I think it's great that the signals are there...it INCREASES safety for pedestrians. But I agree that the signals should be timed with the flow of traffic as well. It's a balance.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:19:25 in reply to Comment 104999

At the very least you'd admit that putting a push-button to cross in such an environment is moronic and it only breeds contempt for traffic lights when a user pushes a button that does absolutely nothing.

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By Use just about any crosswalk in the city (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 19:41:51 in reply to Comment 105001

Use just about any crosswalk in the city. There's hardly a button in the city that actually speeds a light. I still am at a loss as to why we have any of these. If they don;t speed the light, don't put them in. It's that simple.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 22:04:40 in reply to Comment 105035

I can think of a few. Usually they're something like the one at McMaster innovation park - y'know, places where a parking-lot is connected to a building by a crosswalk.

note the theme.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:58:30 in reply to Comment 105001

It seems almost insulting somehow, to install a button that does nothing. I can’t guess why this would be done, and this is the part that confuses me most. Arguably a timed light serves some utility (although a lot less than one that only activates when it is actually needed), so why include the button at all?

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By arienc (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:47:01 in reply to Comment 105010

Yes...for what reason do you spend taxpayers' money on a push-button that has no effect?

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:56:04 in reply to Comment 105023

It can be designed so that in low pedestrian volume areas, the light does not change except when it is needed. So, the button tells the light to change in the next sequence.

Why do pedestrians think that they do not have to wait for alight like everyone else? It irks me when I walk because there are times when there is no traffic and I can easily walk across the street. That is why I don't like the lights at all.

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By deranger (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:16:17 in reply to Comment 104999

Durand's resident psychopath traffic engineer approves. Need I say more?

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By durander (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 15:53:49 in reply to Comment 105000

Psychopath...that's a tad harsh for someone that doesn't agree with you. If I used that argument, you're a psychopath...and that gets us nowhere.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:24:23

There are timed lights on Hunter??? If that's the case I for one have never been able to master the timing...

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By Same here (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 05:41:16 in reply to Comment 105007

I've never seen them as synchronized, ever. I drove regularly on those streets and don't think I ever caught a sequence like on King or Main.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 18:47:49

As a Participatory Budget Delegate, I can comment on the proposals that were made and supported by the community but were then arbitrarily killed - with no reason given - by city staff. So they never made it onto the ballot in the first place.

The power to kill proposals was only supposed to be used to eliminate non-feasible proposals such as "Let's build a rocket ship and travel to the moon." But staff used this power to kill proposals that they simply did not like.

Needless to say, these were common-sense proposals to do things like end rat-running "cut-through" car traffic as the Durand Neighbourhood Association has been asking for since 1976.

In my abundant spare time (...NOT...) I will write an article for RTH entitled "Reflections of a Participatory Budget Delegate." It is bad enough when bureaucrats sabotage proposals that made it onto the ballot and were approved by the voters. Then they appear to have figured out that it was much better to make sure that things they did not like never made it onto the ballot so the people never had any say in the first place.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-09-30 18:55:44

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By rednic (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 22:54:18

No doubt members of the traffic department use Hunter to drive to work every morning so they designed something that suited their needs. Obviously no staff from the traffic department use Cannon in their commute, because it is now fixed and that is something to be very happy about!

Remember Cannon is a pilot (3 year ) program ... without people lauding it they could kill it.
Since 'it's not good enough' doesn't work, How about using 'Look at the great things you did for Cannon, why can't you do that here as well?'

Just as we as citizen are sick of negative campaigning by politicians perhaps so too are bureaucrats. Perhaps highlighting the good stuff (now that there is some) would be a better approach.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 23:52:02 in reply to Comment 105041

I keep noticing that too. Anything connecting City hall to another neighborhood is inviolate. I've been told that traffic engineers actually reside in a completely different campus, but I can't shake the feeling that City Hall is taking care of its commuters with these decisions.

I mean, look at the Bus Lane. All the businesses between Queen and Bay with their "no bus lanes" signs are feeling the pain because of the loss of street-side parking on the north side of the street. Before you get to Bay, the Bus lane has a second lane - a parking lane for normal traffic. It would have cost city hall less to just continue that pattern to Queen - they could keep the north-side meters instead of installing those parking boxes on the south side. And it would have been a better simulation of traffic, since the LRT tracks are two lanes and not one.

But then they couldn't do no-rush-hour parking and keep the left lane free at rush hour. Most other commuters wouldn't have noticed. Half the traffic is coming off Queen from Cannon. Another big chunk of traffic is coming from the East, where 2 lanes of traffic and a little congestion is normal. The only people who are served by streamlining this little snippet of King Street? People coming from Bay and heading West.

The whole of Durand seems to be designed to expedite folks getting to and from City Hall (and St. Joes, the only other large building in the are). Who the heck needs Herkimer to be 1-way? Caroline? And yet any traffic calming east of Queen has been pulling teeth. West of queen they seem somehow more receptive.

And Bay Street itself is easily the most frustrating 1-way in the city, being one of the only routes that connects all the way from Barton into Durand - nobody can figure out how to get South from the North End without going all the freaking way to Queen. Not to mention the frustrating 1-way Queen North that seems to accomplish nothing but force all the westbound traffic coming off the escarpment access to cram onto poor little Aberdeen. But of course, if you're going a little bit Northeast of Queen/Aberdeen, you get the 1-way path up Bay.

The entire design of Durand makes zero sense until you consider how efficient and effective it is for shunting traffic to/from city hall from the West Mountain, the West End, and Burlington.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-09-30 23:54:51

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By Historic (registered) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 13:21:24

And yet, this is the same Public Works department that will be responsible for implementation and management of whatever rapid transit ends up in Hamilton. The department has subjected taxpayers to scandals, substandard design, substandard project execution, and mismanagement of resources.

So are we surprised about skepticism regarding this city's ability to effectively move to rapid transit within the constraints of the province's commitment to 100% capital funding? While I support the concept of LRT, it's clear that Public Works has got a lot of work to do to build confidence amongst the taxpayer base that they're capable of executing such a large scale project with limited cost overruns.

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