Don't Go with the Flow

Tragedy is avoidable if we demand that the failure in traffic engineering at Cootes and Main be altered to reflect the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.

By Randy Kay
Published February 15, 2006

On January 20, 2006, a few transportation activists from McMaster stood at the Cootes/Main intersection with city traffic staff and the ward councillor and suggested changes to improve pedestrian safety.

Our suggestions were met with apologetic head-shaking from the staff, who explained apologetically, "We can't do that. It would negatively impact traffic flow."

Part of me went along with their negative response at the time. "Yeah, well, I guess we can't expect to get our way," I told myself.

Less than a month later, on Monday, February 13, 2006, a 19 year-old McMaster student was struck and killed by a city truck as she was crossing Cootes Drive at the pedestrian lights just north of Main.

I want to re-open the discussion: I think McMaster students, staff and faculty should join in the debate to fix the traffic flow problems surrounding the University. Traffic flows too well, and that's the problem.

In January we told staff they needed to remove the existing on-ramp that funnels traffic from westbound Main onto Cootes, and replace it with a right turn lane.

We pointed out that a highway on-ramp at Cootes gives drivers the signal to speed up and merge, yet the close proximity of pedestrian crossing lights on Cootes then requires them to de-accelerate quickly and come to a stop.

We reasoned that making a right turn lane rather than an on-ramp would alleviate the highway mentality and make the Cootes crossing safer.

A report commissioned by the city prior to the installation of the pedestrian crossing lights on Cootes indicated, "Motorists were driving in excess of the speed limit and generally did not adjust their speed when pedestrians were observed waiting to cross Cootes Drive."

It also noted, "Measured speeds were significantly above the posted speed limits" at the location where the student was killed. "The 85th percentile speeds in the northbound lanes were between 84 and 76 km/h." It's posted for 60km/h.

Clearly, speed is a major factor. Yet the city put in a light system for pedestrians and did nothing to slow traffic heading into the area.

Our site visit with staff also included a walk over to the newly constructed McMaster Main Street entrance. Anyone crossing Main Street there on foot or on bicycles will have experience with how dangerous and threatening the intersection has become.

Again, city staff agreed that it was overbuilt to accommodate traffic at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists, and partly blamed McMaster for not building bike lanes into their part of the design. (McMaster ignored input from campus groups like TLC who argued against the new entrance design and called for amenities for cyclists and pedestrians.)

But just like the Cootes corner, city staff would not commit to making any meaningful changes to the poorly designed intersection.

We left with a vague idea that they might try and make the existing crosswalk more visible, but our requests for more significant changes met with the same head-shaking "no-can-do" response. I resigned myself to think, "well, something is better than nothing."

I now feel strongly that we should not let Hamilton or McMaster off the hook.

A pedestrian or cyclist is bound to get hit by a vehicle at the Main Street entrance. Watch for a few minutes and you will see close calls as cars turn out of McMaster and confront pedestrians in the cross-walk.

A tragedy is avoidable, but only if we demand that this latest failure in traffic engineering be altered to reflect the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.

With Cootes Drive I would go further and suggest a "road diet". The road is overbuilt (it was built in 1936 as a divided highway) and encourages speeding. Making it two lanes instead of four would retain capacity to carry the volume of traffic, but at slower speeds.

Traffic flow should not take precedence when it means more pedestrian deaths and injuries.

Mary Lou Tanner, strategic planning manager with the city's public works department, has called for "balanced transportation networks." She has said that "We will not build a road system that simply services cars. We are going to build a transportation system for all users."

How about starting at Mac?

Randy Kay is a volunteer with OPIRG McMaster's Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) working group. http://www.tlchamilton.org/


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