I had the opportunity to talk about walkable streets at lunchtime today on the Scott Thompson show on AM 900 CHML. Here's a transcript of the interview.
Scott Thompson (ST): You know, it's kind of funny, once you think about it: once Ryan McGreal gets a wind of where I was last weekend, he's just going to shake his head at me.
Samantha Payne (SP): I'm doing that too.
ST: I'm hoarse and I'm deaf because I was at Charlotte, North Carolina on the weekend for a NASCAR race. He's giggling now, I can tell. We've got him on hold and he's giggling. Blogs are there, 900chml.com, Scott Thompson show page and blog, everything you want to know there, of course. Follow the link to the Hamilton Spectator today, where you will find today's column.
SP: Well done, by the way, I must just say.
ST: On the...
SP: On the column.
ST: Oh, thank you!
SP: Because I know you had said that you had already had it all planned out until we talked to Chris, and then once you talked to Chris, you said you went home and took about seven pages of notes down, and, you know, for having one opinion, and then after talking to him, I was very impressed with the way you explored both sides of that.
ST: People sometimes think I'm pig-headed, but because I'm pig-headed, or believe in something, it's because I'm passionate about it but it doesn't mean I can't change my mind.
SP: Well I was very impressed.
ST: So anyway, we'll talk more about that and the weekend in just a sec, because we've got Ryan on hold right now and we want to get him on. Ryan McGreal is with us. Editor, Raise the Hammer, raisethehammer.org if you want to find out more about what is going on there. "The City may soon be changing direction on its one-way thoroughfares. With a steady increase in public awareness of the social, health and economic value of walkable, complete streets, public and institutional momentum is building to revisit Hamilton's 50-year-old commitment to fast traffic flow through the core." And to talk more about this, editor of Raise the Hammer, Ryan McGreal is with us. Good afternoon, Ryan, how are you today?
Ryan McGreal (RM): Good afternoon Ryan [oops!], good afternoon Samantha. I'm great!
ST: [laughing] So, you know what, I was saying to Sam I was down in Charlotte for the NASCAR race, and before we get into burning rubber and fossil fuel and that sort of thing, here is one city that has really grasped on how to revamp its downtown core. We were down there and completely impressed with the city has done with thoroughfares and walkable streets and this sort of thing. The one thing I found most surprising when I first came to this city back in 1990 was the fact that they had one-way streets going in either direction to get you out of town as fast as Dodge. What's the difference between the thinking now and the thinking that happened 50 years ago that resulted in this?
RM: Well, the smart thing about what they did in Charlotte is that they figured out that NASCAR doesn't belong on Main Street.
ST: Good point!
RM: You know what I mean? 50 years ago - 56 years ago, I think it was - it was 1956, and the profession of traffic engineering had literally just been invented, and an American traffic engineer - actually from South Carolina - named Wilbur Smith was, he had started a business and he was going from city to city and he was extolling the virtues of creating sort of paired one-way streets running through, you know, kind of pre-automobile cities as a way of funneling large amounts of automobile traffic through the city at a very high speed. Now, he was extremely successful at that. I mean, literally, one-way streets are great at funneling large volumes of traffic. The problem is that they're terrible at all the other things that city streets are supposed to do. They're not good if you're local traffic. I don't know if you've experienced this, but every single time I have to go to a destination on King Street East -
ST: Oh, yeah.
RM: - I do one of two things: I either go five blocks too far -
RTM: - and end up missing it, or I go one block short and I have to circle the block again. This is endemic, and it's an issue that, I mean, every driver in Hamilton recognizes. Business owners along these streets recognize it as well. Aaron Newman from Newman's Menswear on King Street East wrote a really passionate essay just last week talking about, you know, how much of a struggle it is trying to keep a retail business open next to a four-lane thoroughfare.
ST: And this was happening back in 1956 when this first started, these businessmen were complaining, weren't they?
RM: Literally within months, I mean, business groups were coming to the Public Works Committee begging them to convert the streets back to two-way because their business plummeted, their sales were down, customers were calling, saying, 'I'm sorry, I can't go there any more, it's too scary to stand in front of your store.' I mean, we've known about this ever since the beginning, but for all of this time, our city has prioritized moving those fast volumes of through traffic over everybody else: over people walking, over people cycling, and even over people trying to drive to a destination in the city.
ST: Yeah, good point. And we all know the reason for that, obviously, because of the industrial core, moving those large of employees in and out. Obviously, that's not the issue that it used to be, either. Getting back to the mid-fifties, did they perhaps just take cities for granted, and just think, you know, even though we stick a hole in it, it'll hold air for a long time, we're not going to bleed it dry?
RM: You know what, I guess - I mean, obviously I wasn't there, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they really just didn't understand how important complete, functional streets are -
ST: Or where it was going, I mean, really, who could predict what has happened fifty years later.
RM: The difference is, now, it's 55, 56 years later: now we do know. And one of the big questions I've been, kind of trying to get to the bottom of this for awhile, is the question I'm starting to hear from people inside City Hall as well: there's a sense of, Who's in charge? Who's actually - I mean, every time, you know, for the last 15, 20 years since the early '90s, in 1996 there was a Downtown Ideas charette, in 1998 the city published I think it's called "Moving Forward" [it's called "Smart Moves"], kind of an overarching policy document. In 2001 we had Putting People First, which is the downtown master plan. So for about 20 years now, we have had a very clear sense that we need to tame our streets, we need to take control of them back, we need to make our streets places where people can walk, places where people can ride a bike, you know, places where a business has a chance of succeeding. But it's not happening. You know, you saw, just a couple - just a month ago, with the Longwood Road renovations.
RM: They built McMaster Innovation Park there. The whole concept is that it's supposed to be mixed use, you know, dense, walkable, cyclable, there's supposed to be lots of public places for creative professionals and academics to cross paths, share ideas and kind of come up with innovative solutions. And then the traffic engineers come along and go, Yeah, well that's all nice, but we need to have at least two lanes in each direction, and we need to have a turn lane, and I'm sorry we don't have room for all these other nice things. Who's making that decision? There doesn't even seem to be a traffic department any more.
ST: Obviously, the one-way street thing is a political hot potato here, and, you know, because it has been the way it has been for so long. But what is the solution here, because obviously it can't be a one extreme or the other thing. So, it obviously starts with two-way streets, which we have already converted some to two-way, but will that continue, and is not the city working on that?
RM: Well, the city is very much taking a go-slow approach. You know, we converted James and John North in 2002, we converted James and John South in 2005. Since then there's been a few others. We did a little bit of York and Wilson, a little bit of Park Street, a little bit here, a little bit there. but it's been small, hesitant baby steps, and, you know, and the major streets, like Main, King, Cannon, Bay Street, Wellington, Wentworth - these set of streets have been completely off the table. It hasn't even been up for discussion. And so that, first of all, has to change, this idea that maximizing traffic flow is our number one priority and nothing can get in that's way.
ST: Is traffic flow, do you think if we take these two streets and convert them to two-way traffic, that traffic flow will be greatly impeded, or do you think that perhaps the drop in employment in the industrial core, the mills aren't as big as they used to be, that it will all even out in the end?
RM: We don't have to guess. If you look right now, Main and King have some pretty severe lane restrictions, particularly in the west end and around the 403, you know, a lane's been taken off Main near Hess - or sorry, King - a couple of lanes have been taken off King going over the bridge, a couple of lanes taken off Main: there's no congestion. This is one of the biggest understandings or misnomers, is this idea that if we reduce lane capacity, the same number of cars are going to get congested. There's something that transportation engineers understand really well, and it's called induced demand. A lot of the traffic on a street, particularly a street that has lots of extra capacity, is called generated traffic: it's trips that people take only because it's so easy to drive. In Hamilton, this is endemic. We have so much generated traffic because we have way too much through lane capacity. We could cut the capacity in half and we would not have congestion.
ST: But you know, Ryan, as soon as you try to do that, you're going to get a lot of heat from people, and I've been one of the ones too, who have said, you know what, you can't really reduce traffic that much to where you're creating chaos. That being said, there has to be a happy medium, no?
RM: Absolutely, yeah. I don't think anyone is saying we need to eliminate our streets or eliminate through lanes, we just need to tame them and slow them down. We need to find a better balance between getting across the city in ten minutes, and actually being on the street or going to a place downtown.
ST: And you're not convinced that's happening fast enough?
RM: It's not happening at all. I mean, Main, King and Cannon, we've been told for years that it's not even up for discussion.
ST: Do you not think that with the change in these other streets that obviously that will keep it on the table and that, you know, you just can't say never say never.
RM: I mean, it's funny: just a few weeks ago, as a lark, I went back and read through the Spectator archives, and 2001 and 2002, when James and John North were converted, I read all the letters to the editor. And they're hilarious, because it was all, 'It's going to be gridlock, it's going to be chaos, it's going to be a disaster, the sky's going to fall, all the businesses are going to close, no one's going to - I, for one, will never go downtown again.' Of course, the exact opposite happened. The streets are still completely functional for cars, but now they're also functional for pedestrians. Business improved significantly on James North, a little bit less on John North. I know business has improved on James and John South as well, though it hasn't been quite as dramatic, but you've seen in the last seven or eight years lots of new restaurants opening, new businesses starting on those properties. The streets are in much better shape than they were a decade ago.
ST: And, you know, you bring up a valid point. I don't think this is about convincing people who will never change their mind that, you know, to come downtown, I think that's a lost cause. What you're doing is, you're getting the next entrepreneur, the next stage of downtown Hamiltonian resident to jump on board. And that's probably the better battle than trying to convince the other ones.
RM: And what will eventually happen is downtown will become so desirable that people who would never think about going down there now will be happy to jump on a bus or jump on a light rail and travel down there, and enjoy what downtown has to offer.
ST: Good point. Ryan McGreal has been with us. Editor, Raise the hammer. raisethehammer.org to find out more. Keeping us all honest, thanks Ryan for the time, great piece.
RM: Thanks, it's always a pleasure.
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