Special Report: Walkable Streets

City Fixes Broken-By-Design Crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab

Deciding that we can't design for walkability because it will disrupt our previous designs to optimize driving is a recipe for preserving the status quo indefinitely.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 03, 2014

The City has fixed the new signalized crosswalk at Hunter Street and MacNab. The new crosswalk, requested for years by local residents and the Durand Neighbourhood Association, was submitted to the Ward 2 Participatory Budget process, approved in a vote by ward 2 residents and funded through the Area Rating capital fund.

Button-activated crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab is now button-activated
Button-activated crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab is now button-activated

The proposal was for a pedestrian-activated crosswalk: the traffic signals would remain green for motorists unless a pedestrian pushed the button, at which point the traffic signals would transition to red and the Walk signal would appear for the pedestrian.

The Traffic Department decided to implement it differently. The traffic signals were synchronized with the traffic signals on Hunter at James so that they would cycle between green red to maintain a "green wave" of platooning cars on the one-way Hunter Street.

The crosswalk still had buttons, but the buttons were decoys that did not actually trigger the lights to change.

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

'Unexpected' Red Light

The Traffic Department issued an explanation for their decision:

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.

In other words, Traffic decided to sequence the crosswalk with the green wave because otherwise a driver might see a red light and not know what to do.

That design decision was inconvenient for both drivers and pedestrians. Drivers not part of the green wave platoon (e.g. anyone turning from James on to Hunter) would have to stop at red lights regardless of whether a pedestrian was trying to cross.

Meanwhile, pedestrians showing up would have to wait for the cycle to change regardless of whether any cars were coming by. Worse, the decoy buttons tend to encourage cynicism on the part of pedestrians, who lose confidence that walkability infrastructure will work for them.

Light Traffic on Hunter

It doesn't make sense to deform the crosswalk in order to preserve the green wave, since Hunter is not a traffic-heavy street to begin with. At its busiest point in front of the GO Station, it carries just 7,500 cars a day on two westbound lanes.

Sporadic traffic on Hunter Street just east of James on a weekday afternoon
Sporadic traffic on Hunter Street just east of James on a weekday afternoon

In addition, the whole point of adding pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is to rebalance the street so that it accommodates a variety of uses in addition to driving.

As long as walking and cycling facilities are constrained by the goal of maximizing automobile traffic flow, the goal of transforming Hunter from a traffic sewer into a complete street that meets everyone's needs will be thwarted.

Advocacy to Get Crosswalk Fixed

The Durand Neighbourhood Association immediately raised its concerns about how the crosswalk was implemented to ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr. This morning, Farr sent out an email to report that the crosswalk has been fixed.

RTH confirmed that it now works as intended: the traffic signals stay green unless someone pushes the button, at which point the lights immediately start cycling toward red, followed by a Walk signal to cross the street.

In addition, the Walk signal duration also provides plenty of time for someone walking slowly to get across the street. This is important, because a large number of young children and senior citizens use this crosswalk.

Pattern of Behaviour

This is not the first time the Traffic Department has taken it upon itself to change the design of a new crosswalk that was requested by residents.

When the crosswalk on Aberdeen at Kent was installed a couple of years ago after a local campaign and a petition with hundreds of signatures, it was programmed with a delay of up to two minutes before the traffic signals would actually change to let a pedestrian cross.

It took several months of follow-up advocacy before the Traffic Department came back and fixed it. The manager admitted that it had been programmed to have "minimum service level for pedestrians".

In September 2013, the city installed a new crosswalk on Herkimer at Caroline that had also been approved by the Participatory Budget process and funded by the Area Rating capital fund.

Like Hunter and MacNab, it was also programmed to work on a rotating cycle of red and green traffic signals, and also had decoy buttons that did not do anything when pushed.

Crosswalk button on Herkimer at Caroline (RTH file photo)
Crosswalk button on Herkimer at Caroline (RTH file photo)

That light was actually even worse than Hunter and MacNab, because the signals were on a cycle but it as not even synchronized with the other traffic signals on Herkimer.

It took three months of advocacy by the Durand Neighbourhood Association and the involvement of Councillor Farr to get that crosswalk fixed in December 2013.

Waste of Everyone's Time

I suppose we should consider it progress that the crosswalk on Hunter was fixed in three days instead of three months, but it should never have needed fixing in the first place.

It was an insult to the residents who submitted and voted for a pedestrian-activated crosswalk. It wasted the time of the resident volunteers who had to follow up and advocate for the crosswalk to be fixed. It also wasted scarce public resources by requiring staff to go back and fix a piece of infrastructure they had just built.

The Traffic Department needs to stop intervening in these designs to make them less usable to pedestrians. From their justification for the Hunter and MacNab design, it sounds like they are trying to establish a policy around crosswalks.

Here's a simple suggestion for a better guide to decision-making: Design the crosswalk to encourage walkability and discourage dangerous speeding.

Design Matters

Pedestrian design matters. When the intersection of Aberdeen and Kent went from having signs ordering pedestrians to walk 400 metres out of the way to having a button-activated crosswalk that actually works, the number of people crossing there more than tripled.

That's induced demand in action: when you make it easier to do something, more people will do it. For far too long we have made it very easy to drive in Hamilton and very difficult to walk, cycle or take transit. Our transportation modal split reflects this.

Deciding that we can't design for walkability because it will disrupt our previous designs to optimize driving is a recipe for preserving the status quo indefinitely.

If we want people to make different decisions in how they get around, we need to make different decisions in how we design our streets. It's that simple.

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 AP (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 08:31:18

Glad to hear it's been fixed. Thanks to RTH, the DNA and Jason Farr for making it happen. But, yes: Why? Why?! Why?!!!! ...was it designed to be broken in the first place?

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By johnny velvet (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 08:34:55

While I understand the concept, what I don't understand is...if cars can wait for a light to change green, why cannot pedestrians? As someone who walks to work and uses the above mentioned crosswalk, I noticed the cars stopped this morning. While this may seem great from an advocacy point of view, what about that car that is stuck in the intersection of Hunter and James due to the amount of cars stopped at the MacNab light? Yes, the volume may be low on Hunter, but was peak times ever taken into account? Stretches like Aberdeen and Kent make sense for pedestrian activated...but I still fail to see the usefulness of pedestrian activated light switches on Hunter.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 09:49:32

This crosswalk goes a little way to addressing the longstanding problem that many streets in Hamilton have many block stretches with no crosswalk or signalized intersection.

Since motorists have forgotten that they are required to stop for pedestrians crossing at a so-called "uncontrolled crosswalk" (and pedestrians must wait for a large enough gap so motorists can stop safely), it means pedestrians have to risk darting across traffic or wait (often a very long time) for a gap so large motorists don't even need to slow down. Or they have to walk (often many hundreds of metres) to the nearest crosswalk.

A good example is Dundurn street, which has no crosswalks or signalized intersections between Herkimer and Main, a distance of 750m!

A pedestrian activated light is great, but at $150k it is not a solution for most locations. We should move to a simple "painted lines and signs" crosswalk standard such as that used in western Canada or most other countries.

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 12:41:56 in reply to Comment 105188

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 13:22:03 in reply to Comment 105198

That's correct: at an uncontrolled crosswalk (i.e. an intersection without stop signs or traffic lights) a motorist does not have to stop for a pedestrian just standing on the sidewalk.

However, once a pedestrian is engaged in crossing (i.e. takes one foot off the sidewalk) the motorist must yield.

This was discussed in great detail here:


However, the pedestrian only has to wait for a gap large enough that the motorist has time to stop safely. This does not mean that the gap should be so large that the motorist should not have to slow down or stop.

As an example, for a motorist going at 50km/h a safe stopping distance on dry pavement is about 25m (including both reaction time and braking time). So if the motorist is about 25 m away, that should be a safe gap.

Unfortunately, anyone who has tried crossing at uncontrolled crosswalks in Hamilton knows that even when you are in the middle of the street most motorists won't take their foot off the accelerator, let alone brake and stop. You are expected to run if you don't want to be hit!

I had several experiences like that at this precise crosswalk, before the lights were installed. And Hunter isn't even a busy street like James or Main or King. Try asserting your right to cross those streets safely!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-10-03 13:30:50

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2014 at 09:31:35 in reply to Comment 105199

Drivers failing to slow down is a "feature" of Hamilton psychology.

When I lived in Woodstock, cars driving on Dundas Street downtown (i.e. Highway 2 & 59) would stop if they even saw me just approach the curb and stand there. Drivers were very polite to pedestrians and there were no "pedestrian signals" needed.

I don't know what you can do to change the mentality in Hamilton, other than perhaps demanding severe prison sentences for hitting pedestrians... which would probably still take years to have any effect on safety.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 10, 2014 at 10:55:37 in reply to Comment 105306

Slowing down the traffic is all that it takes. If I'm going over 50, it takes a lot more to convince me to stop than if I'm going 30. Especially since you'll be passed the pedestrian in an instant so they really don't have to wait long.

Once you slow down traffic, it won't feel like such an imposition to wait for somebody to cross and courtesy will come naturally over time. That's a reason why Hamilton's fast streets are more than just bad when you're on them, they screw up the psychology of driving when you get off of them too.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2014 at 11:26:03 in reply to Comment 105188

For local side-streets like Dundurn South, the "Yield to Pedestrians" median-line sign/knockdown-sticks we see on-campus at Mac could be the answer.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 12:07:21 in reply to Comment 105192

I'm not saying that this is not possible the appropriate solution, but I do have to point out that Dundurn at this point is not a local side-street. It's an arterial and traffic there is pretty steady at certain times of the day. It’s very common to see people waiting for breaks in traffic in order to cross.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 10:56:57 in reply to Comment 105188

Thank you for raising Dundurn- it is kind of odd that it has such a long stretch with no safe place to cross. I wouldn’t know if it a light is justified for that cost (I’m with you- it would be more efficient for people to simply yield to people crossing), but I’m curious about how that would be assessed on a stretch like this, and maybe someone can clarify.

When the Aberdeen-Kent light was installed, staff evidently went and counted how many people crossed there. Did they count specifically there, or over a wider spanse of Aberdeen? On Dundurn, people cross outside of crosswalks (because there are none) over 750 meters, as you say. If a crosswalk existed at Melbourne (or wherever on this stretch), they might well walk to that point to cross.

But if someone from the traffic department were to go and assess how many people currently cross at Melbourne, I presume it would be a low number if they do not capture the number of people who cross at Jackson, Hill, Chatham, in front of the beer store, or else wherever they happen to be when traffic allows them to. I’m curious as to whether they would say “a cross walk is not justified at Melbourne- only x pedestrians cross there per day” or “a cross walk is justified somewhere on Dundurn because x pedestrians cross somewhere in this 750 meter stretch.”

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2014 at 09:55:04

It's time for the City Manager to start taking names of people involved in this stuff. At this point it's just belligerence. City employees are being openly defiant of our elected representatives and democratic process. Who the hell do they think pays them?

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 15:09:03

I was in Niagara Falls yesterday (arguably a VERY pedestrian centric area) and came across a pedestrian activated crossing. After several presses of the button by people with no change in the light, they crossed when it was safe. Seems that they have the same concern for pedestrians there too.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 03, 2014 at 21:42:09

imagine if citizens weren't keeping up on every. single. thing? Imagine how much more could get done if we cleaned house at city hall and got staff/managers who actually traveled once in a while and learned to bring the worlds best practices back here instead of acting like the 50's-70's are going to come back in style someday?

While they are at it, how about finishing Hunter? We don't need two lanes from John to Bay. Finish the bike lanes and this will still allow for a right turn lane onto John, a left turn onto James and a right turn onto Bay. That's all that is needed.

And I would still love to see them move the parking to the south lane to act as protection for the bike lanes along Hunters entire length. Would become a very useful and safe piece of cycling infrastructure.

Speaking of which, I see the painting has begun on Charlton and to nobody's surprise, cyclists get the privilege of protecting the parking lane. Again.

Why do we continue to install out of date, dangerous bike lanes, when a simple shuffling of the parking/bike lane can bring some of the safest design possible. One of the reasons NYC beat out Portland as the #1 bike city in America this year is due to it's network of protected bike lanes.

We could be doing this on Charlton and Herkimer:


Instead of this:


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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted October 06, 2014 at 10:55:01 in reply to Comment 105204

"imagine if citizens weren't keeping up on every. single. thing?"

That's what citizens always have to do. At least in these times citizens have organizationa and institutions (like this one right here) to allow them to coordinate their engagement!

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted October 04, 2014 at 15:38:12 in reply to Comment 105204

Why do we continue to install out of date, dangerous bike lanes, when a simple shuffling of the parking/bike lane can bring some of the safest design possible.

I really don't understand why city staff can't get this thought their heads. Perhaps they're worried about dooring? It's simple, the same price and far better for both the bikes and the pedestrians to put the bike lane inside the parked cars. Hell, you might not even have to put bollards (which I think are an eyesore in neighbourhoods like Durand).

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted October 04, 2014 at 23:09:24 in reply to Comment 105215

I live in Durand. On Park Street near Durand Park.

In my opinion, the biggest eyesore in Durand is all the parked cars.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted October 05, 2014 at 01:25:59 in reply to Comment 105219

Fair enough. Sadly cars exist and the ability to park them has an impact on local livability. They're likely to continue existing in the foreseeable future, in some form or fashion, especially here in our sprawling country. So I think our best option is to figure out how to live together.

In my example here, I'm simply suggesting an easy win. Not a best case. The bollards are better than nothing but I'd prefer planters/medians. Cars would protect the sidewalks, look at the change in Locke Street once they allowed parking on the East side of the street. Opened up a whole series of businesses. Like that place that makes the cupcakes...Bitten?...mmmm..whoopie pies.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 04, 2014 at 21:25:59 in reply to Comment 105215

I've given up on expecting anything other than 1950's status quo from city staff. In fact, I was at city hall recently asking about a building development proposal and upon asking why so many variances were needed for a simple project, the response from behind the desk was "that's how the bylaws were written in the 50's". And no, he wasn't saying it while rolling his eyes like 99% of us would. He was saying with gusto and confidence as if it was a good answer. I don't think they care. They just do what the book says from 1950. Period.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted October 04, 2014 at 11:57:52 in reply to Comment 105204

No, actually. Charlton and Herkimer are residential streets. Cut-through traffic should be restricted to walking, cycling and public transit traffic. Cars should never be allowed to cut through residential streets.

This is very easy to do with security bollards, which can be make retractible to allow passage for HSR buses.

I will add that the Durand Neighbourhood Association has been asking for this since (sigh...) 1976!

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-10-04 11:58:14

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 04, 2014 at 14:30:33 in reply to Comment 105213

I still think most of Charlton/Herkimer's problems could be fixed with simple 2-way conversion - same as the rest of Durand's wider streets. As a cyclist I don't feel unsafe biking around Westdale's streets, most of which don't have dedicated bike-lanes, because they're slow 2-way mixed traffic local streets. Herkimer and Charlton could look like Longwood North.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted October 04, 2014 at 17:07:56 in reply to Comment 105214

That is exactly my point. Cut-through car driving has been eliminated from Longwood North. The Desjardins Trail is cycling and pedestrian only.

I agree with you. Herkimer and Charlton could look exactly like Longwood North if security bollards are used to eliminate cut-through car driving.

I also agree that bike lanes are not needed when cut-through car driving has been eliminated. Please see this video for details.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2014 at 09:24:48

Whats with the Steam Whistle bikerack/sign on Locke Street?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2014 at 11:00:54 in reply to Comment 105221

Permanent gift from the Steam Whistle company to encourage cycling. It's a bike rack and bike repair station apparently.

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2014 at 09:16:51

From reading the descriptions of improperly functioning crossings (eg PBs that don't work, poor cycle timings) above, it's obvious to me that the real problem is that there are too many people in the city's traffic department who have no clue how to program a traffic controller.

The city will never send someone out to fix a controller's timing program unless there are complaints, so make sure you keep their phone number handy. Don't worry, it's not a reflection of anti-pedestrian policy: it's just people at the city not having a clue how to do their jobs properly, no surprise there.

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By logonfire (registered) | Posted October 10, 2014 at 15:06:07

I wonder why no-one at City Hall has been fired or sent home for a few days for deliberately NOT installing the required traffic control systems. We'd have less of this going on if there were penalties attached to not doing the job you were asked to do.

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