Special Report: Walkable Streets

Answering the Obstructionists: The Case for Traffic Calming on Aberdeen

We can take concrete steps to make it harder for people to drive at dangerous speeds on Aberdeen, while physically protecting the sidewalks.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 04, 2020

Aberdeen Avenue between Queen Street South and Longwood Road South is one hazardous stretch of urban roadway and has been for a very long time. Lined on both sides with people's homes, Aberdeen is four lanes wide, two lanes in each direction, with narrow ribbons of sidewalk just inches away from dangerously speeding vehicle traffic.

Aberdeen serves as a cut-through commuter shortcut for people who are travelling between the west mountain and west Hamilton but don't want to take the 400-series highway that was built for that purpose. In fact, close to 100 percent of the traffic on Aberdeen is cut-through commuters.

Aberdeen during PM rush hour on August 24, 2016, when Beckett Drive was closed for road work (RTH file photo)
Aberdeen during PM rush hour on August 24, 2016, when Beckett Drive was closed for road work (RTH file photo)

Kirkendall residents have been calling for traffic calming on Aberdeen for decades, and after many false starts, missed opportunities and piecemeal bandaids, we are finally on the cusp of a significant pilot project that will reduce traffic to two lanes by adding all-day curbside parking.

But this is Hamilton, and the reactionary forces of obstruction are already lining up to put a stop to the traffic calming pilot.

'Keep Aberdeen Moving'

After an op-ed was published in the Hamilton Spectator arguing against the need for traffic calming, the author organized a group calling itself "Keep Aberdeen Moving" to organize against the pilot project.

They produced a handout of arguments against the project that was based almost entirely on false and misleading claims, and delivered it door-to-door throughout the neighbourhood, soliciting signatures for their petition against the project.

Ward 1 Councillor Maureen Wilson, who is championing the traffic calming project, responded to the claims in a thoughtful way, acknowledging the fears that underlie the opposition and showing through the evidence that those fears are unfounded.

If the group is serious about wanting to find common ground in balancing safety for all road users with traffic flow, it is hard to tell from their messaging since they seem categorically opposed to the need for traffic calming and have offered no counter-proposals.

Indeed, their response to Wilson's argument amounts to a series of rhetorical questions they could easily answer themselves if they were honestly interested in the answers.

Nevertheless, let's go through their arguments point-by-point and respond to them.

Aberdeen is Dangerous

Their first point, bizarrely, is to claim that Aberdeen is not really that dangerous. They refer to a 2018 traffic study by Public Works that found Aberdeen is only the 559th most dangerous street in Hamilton. It took some time, but I was finally able to track down the study in question, thanks to the help of Public Works staff.

In 2018, a group of residents requested that Public Works provide a ranking of Hamilton streets by danger. I don't know who made the request, what the specific question was, or what terms of reference were agreed, but staff produced a ranked list of streets and included the formula they used.

The formula heavily weights fatalities while discounting injuries, so I'm not sure how useful it is as a general reference for determining collision risk. There are far more injuries than fatalities in urban vehicle collisions, so discounting them distorts the picture of risk.

Even so, the list ranks 2,740 street segments, so even by the narrow weighting criteria, Aberdeen is more dangerous than 80 percent of the streets in the ranking - important context that the anti-traffic calming group does not provide.

Further, the City conducted a formal traffic study on Aberdeen in 2019, and it concluded that Aberdeen has 4.7 times as many collisions as the industry threshold for an "area of concern".

The study also found that that 85th percentile speed on Aberdeen is 56 km/h during peak rush hour, meaning 15 percent of cars are driving faster than 56 km/h during rush hour. That works out to thousands of vehicles every day driving at dangerously high speeds.

Clearly, Aberdeen really is a dangerous street by any reasonable measure.

Yes, Traffic Calming is Needed

The group argues that with five crosswalks on Aberdeen across ten intersections, there are already enough places for pedestrians to cross and so further traffic calming is not needed.

First, only five crosswalks over ten intersections is actually quite low for an urban neighbourhood. (And most of those crosswalks only exist because of concerted advocacy by Kirkendall residents against the car-centric status quo that this group is fighting to preserve.)

Second, by slowing vehicle speeds, the pilot makes crossing the street safer regardless of how many crosswalks there are. In addition, protecting the curb lane with parked cars means the distance pedestrians have to walk across traffic lanes to get safely to the other side is cut in half, further reducing the risk of injury.

Perhaps more important, crosswalks aren't much use to people who need to walk along Aberdeen itself.

Woman walks with children on Aberdeen with cars passing right next to the sidewalk (RTH file photo)
Woman walks with children on Aberdeen with cars passing right next to the sidewalk (RTH file photo)

Curbside parking physically protects the sidewalk from vehicle traffic while also reducing vehicle speeds. While they argue that traffic calming will somehow put children and vulnerable citizens at risk, the reality is that they are at risk today from the status quo.

Reducing Lanes Won't Cause Gridlock

Underlying the group's arguments is the premise that changing Aberdeen from four lanes to two lanes will "back up traffic significantly". The numbers simply don't bear this out.

According to the City's 2019 traffic study, there will be some impact to vehicle travel times, but adjustments to traffic signals will mitigate this, and in any case, slowing traffic is expressly one of the goals of the pilot.

The staff report compares Aberdeen to Kenilworth Avenue between Main Street and Central Avenue, which has similar traffic volumes and had similar traffic calming measures implemented.

Staff measured an 8-12 km/h reduction in average peak rush hour speeds on Kenilworth, but they expect traffic calming on Aberdeen won't have the same impact. This is in part because Queen Street South is being converted to two-way, which will accommodate some of the traffic that is currently using Aberdeen.

And again, given the current rate of speeding, a modest reduction in average speeds is a welcome change.

The Driver Impact is Modest

Aberdeen Avenue between Longwood Road South and Queen Street South is 1.7 kilometres of distance. Driving at 50 km/h, it takes two minutes and two seconds to drive this distance, and the staff analysis indicates that the impact will be smaller than the 8-12 km/h reduction in average rush hour speeds on Kenilworth.

If we reduce the speed on Aberdeen by 10 km/h to 40 km/h, the driving time increases to two minutes and 33 seconds - or 31 seconds longer than the 50 km/h speed.

Even if we reduce the speed by 20 km/h to just 30 km/h, the driving time increases to three minutes and 24 seconds, or just 1 minute and 22 seconds longer than the 50 km/h speed.

This is what we are talking about: a very modest reduction in speed and equivalently modest increase in driving time during rush hour, in exchange for a significant increase in safety and comfort for all road users and especially pedestrians.

Aberdeen is a Minor Arterial

The group emphasizes that Aberdeen is an arterial road and a connector for commuters travelling between the west mountain and westdale, as if that means we can't do traffic calming. For some reason, they keep forgetting to mention that Aberdeen is a designated Minor Arterial, which means according to the City's policies it is appropriate for traffic calming.

Interestingly, the City's traffic study compared Aberdeen to Kenilworth Street, which is actually a Major Arterial and already had traffic calming measures similar to what is planned for Aberdeen.

The group countered by suggesting that Aberdeen is different because it connects to a highway, writing, "We are unaware of any arterial road, which provides a link between a 400 series highway and a major Mountain access road, being reduced to one lane in each direction."

I would point to the following counterexamples:

They seem determined not to notice that Beckett Drive, which is a Major Arterial as well as a major Mountain access road that connects directly to Aberdeen, already carries some 24,000 vehicle trips a day on one lane in each direction.

In addition:

These streets carry as much or more traffic than Aberdeen on just two lanes, and most of them have side streets and residential neighbourhoods adjacent similar to Aberdeen, so it's simply not true to claim that the same design won't work on Aberdeen.

Emergency Responders Won't Get Stuck

Traffic calming opponents often warn that slowing dangerous speeding will result in emergency response vehicles getting stuck in gridlock. As we've already seen, the traffic speed impacts will be modest even during rush hour. In addition, studies consistently show that traffic calming does not significantly impact EMS response times.

In fact, when traffic calming is done the normal way, with curbside bike lanes and a centre turn lane, EMS response times actually improve. This is pretty much exactly what was proposed for Aberdeen before the anti-traffic calming opponents blocked it, forcing Councillor Wilson to try this compromise pilot project instead.

If the group was really interested in finding solutions rather than obstruction, I'm sure they'd have no problem getting traffic calming supporters to agree to a centre turn lane.

Traffic Calming Reduces Air Pollution and GHG Emissions

The group also insists that traffic calming on Aberdeen will increase idling, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. This is another common argument that gets bandied about in the face of a traffic calming proposal, and it seems to make intuitive sense, but it turns out to be wrong.

The amount of greenhouse gases is a direct function of the number of cars and the speed of those cars (higher speeds produce more GHGs). To the extent that slowing traffic deters some trips, it will actually reduce GHG emissions. And to the extent that calming traffic makes the neighbourhood safer and more enjoyable for walking and cycling, even more car trips will be replaced.

More generally, cities that try to make it easy for traffic to flow freely have the most overall traffic and the most overall air pollution, while cities that commit to traffic calming have less overall traffic and less overall air pollution.

Rat-Running is a Manageable Problem

The closest this group comes to making a valid argument is when they warn that there may be people trying to short-cut down residential side streets. Of course, there are already people trying to short-cut down residential side streets, and the City has started taking some small steps to mitigate this with rush-hour restrictions or total prohibitions on turns from Queen onto certain side streets.

More interventions may be needed once the pilot is underway, and both Councillor Wilson and staff have confirmed that they will be watching how the pilot unfolds and adjusting as needed.

Again, this is a case where people of good faith who are concerned about negative community impacts would be willing to work toward making the plan better, rather than using the possibility of a negative impact that needs to be mitigated as an excuse to pull the plug altogether.

Enforcement is Not a Solution

The group argues that the best way to deal with speeding is with police enforcement. For a group that also claims to be concerned about fiscal responsibility, this is a bizarre stance.

There will never be enough police officers to enforce speed limits on every street that is designed for excessive speeding. It is far more cost effective and safe to redesign the street to be self-enforcing.

Yes, the City Has Studied This

Perhaps the weirdest recurring claim by the group is their insistence that the City hasn't done a traffic study before developing the pilot project. In their handout, they wrote, "The City of Hamilton has not conducted a study to determine the effects of the 4 to 2-lane change."

I've already linked the study they did in 2019, and it actually answers most of their questions.

The study has been cited to the group multiple times and they've even acknowledged this, but their communications continue to suggest they are not familiar with the study. In their response to Councillor Wilson's piece, which also links the 2019 traffic study, they write, "Where is the evidence (e.g. a traffic study) to support the reduction of lanes along Aberdeen Avenue?"

It's almost as if they don't want answers to their rhetorical questions.

Fear of Change

The story of progress in making Hamilton's streets safer and more inclusive is a story of not giving in to fear of change. Every time a traffic calming project is proposed, opponents react with predictions of gridlock, collisions, traffic pouring into side streets and chaos. None of the predictions of chaos and desolation came true.

But the same objections have been recycled for every traffic calming project since then, both large and small. From adding bike lanes on Herkimer and Charlton to installing a signalized crosswalk at Aberdeen and Kent to creating the Cannon Cycle Track to putting bike lanes on Dundurn, every single change is loudly opposed by people who are convinced that the change is a terrible idea that will make the street unusable.

When the Cannon Cycle Track was built, detractors said it would cause traffic chaos and no one would use it. Instead, the number of people choosing to ride a bike increased dramatically on the street and car traffic actually flows more smoothly and less dangerously.

When SoBi was first proposed, detractors said it would be a money-wasting boondoggle and no one would use it. Instead, it has become one of the best-performing systems in North America, with 27,000 active members and 350,000 trips a year. The City brags about bike share in its marketing materials.

The objectors are wrong every single time. But every time another traffic calming initiative comes forward, the exact same fear-of-change-based objections come up again and again. Far too often, those fear-based objections end up delaying, stalling, undermining or altogether derailing the change.

The push to make Aberdeen safer has been ongoing for decades, and it has been sustained by people living and working in the neighbourhood who experience the street daily - not from behind the windshield of a car but while clutching a child's hand to try and keep them safe from roaring traffic. Or hearing that horrible crunching noise yet again, followed by distant approaching sirens, and hoping no one was seriously hurt.

Opposition to the plan has already resulted in the traffic calming being downgraded from a full redesign to a compromise pilot project.

And the compromise plan is still being attacked. Ward 14 Councillor Terry Whitehead actually takes time out of his busy day as a city leader to post petty, mean-spirited comments on my posts about Aberdeen when he should be representing his constituents. You can't make this stuff up.

But notwithstanding our sometimes-toxic political culture, Hamilton is not some civic Bermuda Triangle where the laws of physics and human behaviour don't apply.

We can take concrete steps to make it harder for people to drive at dangerous speeds on Aberdeen, while physically protecting the sidewalks. We can tweak the surrounding network to deter rat-running on side streets. We can make our neighbourhood safer and more inclusive for everyone.

Every city that commits to making its streets safer becomes a safer place to live. For everyone. We can do this too. We merely have to stop being so afraid of change. Just because we're accustomed to the status quo, that doesn't mean we should accept it when we could make it so much better.

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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