As long as Main Street continues to be five lanes of roaring high-speed automobile traffic, none of the elements of a pleasant, human-friendly environment will be possible to achieve.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 07, 2015
My bike is in the shop getting repaired after my rear shifter cable snapped, so I had an occasion to walk along Main Street yesterday afternoon from downtown to Dundurn. It occurred to me that I haven't been on Main much lately - in fact, it's fair to say I tend to avoid it. The walk yesterday was a fresh reminder of why.
Main Street West: the calm before the storm
If your primary experience of Main Street is while riding in an automobile, you will have a particular perception of the street that will likely inform your thinking on it.
You probably experience Main as a busy arterial with lots of smooth-flowing automobile traffic all the time. As a driver, you may well enjoy the ability to drive across the city at a steady 50-60 km/h.
But the way drivers experience Main Street is not the way that people walking, cycling or living on Main Street experience it.
The traffic signals on Hamilton's one-way streets are all sequenced to bunch drivers together into large clusters, which traffic engineers call platoons. Those platoons of cars all drive down the street together at the same time, taking advantage of the timed green signals to progress at a steady high speed.
But platooning has a few side-effects that drivers don't experience: if you're a pedestrian walking along the sliver of pavement next to those five lanes, you are bombarded with periodic avalanches of cars and trucks all roaring along at high speed, interspersed with ghostly silences between the platoons.
Main Street looking west from Queen
Neither the rush nor the hush is an enjoyable experience if you have to bear witness to it from the sidewalk. The sheer visceral unpleasantness of the pedestrian experience tells us most of what we need to know about why the "Main West Esplanade" is not a thriving business district.
I saw only two or three other pedestrians along the entire 1.5 kilometre length of my walk along Main. That is seriously depressing for what is literally the city's main street.
The cold weather is no excuse, either: there were lots of people walking around on James Street, on King around Gore Park and on Locke Street.
I could go into a long (some might say long-winded) exploration of what the research says about streets like Main Street, but when it comes down to it, the best way to discover it will come to you directly from trying to walk along Main Street.
If you want to know what makes for a successful urban retail centre, simply ask yourself: what makes for a nice walk?
As long as Main Street continues to be five lanes of roaring high-speed automobile traffic, none of the elements of a pleasant, human-friendly environment will be possible to achieve. It's really that simple.
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