Can a city be driven to change?

This spring, Hamilton city council is expected to debate and pass a complete streets design manual to make roads friendlier and safer, especially for more vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists.

Under the program, walking, cycling, and public transit will have a higher priority. The 2021 city transportation master plan (unanimously adopted by city council) states that having more and more vehicles on the roads is not sustainable over the long haul.

In practice, a complete street is established on a street-by-street basis when an opportunity arises, such as sewer replacement, or major road work, says Brian Hollingworth, director of transportation planning and parking. “Every street is different; every street is evolving. Gradually we are seeing streets become more complete.”

Hollingworth agrees with me that the pedestrian friendly collector road of Locke Street with its variety of shops and eating places fits the complete street definition.

Hamilton Road Classifications.

In contrast, Ottawa Street North between Main and Barton, another retail corridor, fails the grade. It is currently classified by the city as an arterial road where priority is given to the movement of traffic.

Hollingworth also mentions Cannon St, especially between Sherman and James North, served by a protected bike track, as another complete street. Hmm …

As someone who cycles on Cannon regularly, I am glad the bike track exists but the thin line of bollards (many of which have been knocked down) separating bikes from large trucks and fast cars does not give one the full sense of protection and confidence that concrete blocks could provide. Even with the increase in bike lanes and the popularly of the SoBi rental bikes, our city is not as bike friendly a place as compared to Toronto, or other Canadian cities.

Living near Gage Park and not driving, Hamilton can be a difficult city to get around. I have my favourite bus routes (largely east-west), that help me visit places that matter to me, such as the supermarket, downtown, or the Westdale movie theatre. But large sections of Hamilton are either not well served by the HSR — whether whole communities such as Binbrook and Waterdown or attractions like the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) by the HSR (the RBG can be reached by transferring to a Burlington bus).

It is a five minute walk to West Harbour GO using the Barton bus. It is about three minutes total walking time from the 1 or 10 bus transferring at John.

Take the new West Harbour GO Station, as an example. The Barton bus does not stop at Barton and James where travelers lugging suitcases might want to get off and walk to the station. Rather they have to get off at a previous stop on Barton or the following stop on James.

Hamilton also is not a walking city. The sidewalks are often empty of people. In implementing complete streets, city hall faces the daunting challenge of the strength and resilience of Hamilton car culture.

The 2016 version of the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, which comes out every five years (the fall 2021 version is delayed because of the pandemic), confirms there are car culture differences between Hamilton and Toronto. Fifty-seven percent of trips were made by people in Toronto either as drivers or passengers in cars. In contrast, that number jumps to 82 per cent in Hamilton. The same study also shows that 14 per cent of men and 16 percent of women in Hamilton have transit passes; while in Toronto that jumps to 24 per cent and 26 per cent for men and women respectively.

Much is made about how younger people are less inclined to get a drivers license. There is less of an inter-generational difference in Hamilton, though, observes Shaila Jamal, a PhD candidate in urban geography at McMaster.

Jamal is one of three authors of a 2022 article in an academic journal Canadian Geographer. They posed a series of questions for 200 Hamiltonians, evenly split between 18-to-34-year-olds and 65-years of age and older for their attitudes and preferences towards different modes of travelling in the city.

One Hamilton finding is that in 2018, 74 per cent of 18-to-34-year-olds have drivers licenses while for those over 65 the percentage is a little higher at 79 per cent. Furthermore, 63 per cent of younger adults and 66 per cent of older adults use cars as their primary mode of transportation.

Both Locke Street, above, and Cannon, below, are regarded as complete streets.

Jamal says she and her colleagues find that younger adults do use public transit to a greater degree especially while going to school and until they find employment or have a family. Forty-five per cent of younger, non-car users in Hamilton prefer driving over transit while among older non-car users the number jumps to 63 per cent.

Since the Second World War, the transportation needs of automobiles and trucks dominated what was known as modernist urban planning. The ideal city functioned as an efficient and soul-less machine with little regard for pedestrians, the downtown, or older buildings.

All North American cities embraced this but some, like Hamilton, ventured further along the path of adopting a tough regime of one-way streets in the core. Starting in 1956, the mass conversion in the steel city was immediate, resulting in a number of accidents initially by drivers not prepared for the switch. Priority was given to the flow of fast-moving traffic carving its way across the downtown and the city.

Two influential figures, US consultant and civil engineer Wilbur Smith, and city hall traffic manager Ray Desjardins, played major roles in the implementation. One-ways were considered ideal for an industrial city where workers drove to and from work and the factories were serviced continuously by large trucks carrying materials.

Earlier in 1949, Hamilton had stopped using its streetcar and trolley system – unlike Toronto which kept and upgraded its fleet. Also starting in the 1950s, Hamilton took advantage of federal urban renewal funds to tear down old downtown structures — heritage buildings such as old movie theatres, retail outlets, and north end working class homes. In contrast, older neighbourhoods in the core of Toronto largely remained untouched as citizens activism and local progressive municipal politicians succeeded in stopping planned highway projects such as the Spadina Expressway.

By the end of the last century, traffic patterns were changing following the automation of the factories and fewer industrial workers arriving and leaving their shifts. The incremental conversions to two-way streets represented the first baby steps towards complete streets. John St North and James St North made the switch in 2002.

Currently, new development downtown, including new condos, shops, offices and entertainment venues, are being conceived and contain a potential pool of new customers for the LRT, which is slated to begin construction in 2024.

In addition, the city is finally acknowledging that cycling is more than just a recreational activity, fortified by the increase in the use of bikes during the COVID pandemic. There is an expansion of a cycling infrastructure including new bike lanes and the rental of SoBi bikes.

Hamilton’s one-way streets function as an “efficient and soul-less machine”.

Yet, Main and King continue as formidable multi-lane one-way thoroughfares with synchronized traffic lights designed to keep the cars moving noisily at steady speeds while pumping noxious and unsafe, climate changing fumes into the air. Pedestrians and cyclists largely avoid these roadways which continue to be popular among drivers and appear to be politically untouchable.

But if the Berlin Wall can fall why can’t the final chapter in the Hamilton’s one-way street regime?

The building of the east west LRT will likely make the one-ways on Main and King less tenable over the long run, argues Ward 3 city councillor Nrinder Nann. “I believe that Hamilton is primed and ready to have the conversation … this year, 2022, specifically because of the LRT. I think that two-way Main (and) all of those conversations about traffic rerouting are going to be on the table,” she said in an interview last fall.

Ian Borsuk, a climate campaign co-ordinator for Environment Hamilton argues the success of complete streets depend upon a renewal of an historically neglected public transit system and the building of the LRT.

The LRT can serve as a vital east west artery in the lower city and the spine for improved north south public transit connections (now substandard) that benefit residents on both sides of the escarpment.

Borsuk agrees that weaning local residents away from the sheer convenience of cars looks impossible at first glance. At the same time the greater openness of 18-to-34 years to public transit, as found by Shaila Jamal and her colleagues in Canadian Geographer, does augur possibilities for a new generation of committed HSR users.

He also describes the HSR as being better administered and managed in recent years.

Bus service in Hamilton is said to be better managed in recent years.

Federal and provincial financial assistance have been crucial in bringing back the LRT from near death as well as funding a long sought bus barn as part of HSR’s ten year strategy.

At the same time, the operation and maintenance of the buses and the salaries and benefits for the drivers come entirely from a combination of property taxes and fares (often paid by those working and living at lower incomes) for local public transit systems in Ontario, including the HSR.

“It is still a difficult situation that the city of Hamilton is in. Even if we were gung-ho about transit, 100 per cent across council, there would still be financial stresses on the system, for sure (without funds coming from either Ottawa or Queens Park),” says Borsuk.

One positive sign is that there is a better understanding by the majority on city council of the value of long-term investments to maintain and improve transit, the Environment Hamilton campaigner emphasizes.

“Ideally, if the city of Hamilton keeps up the trend, we are on right track now which is investing in transit that we should have been doing 20 years ago. We are making up for lost time and for the mistakes for the past,” he says.

Another plus is that the HSR has not suffered as much from the two-year pandemic.

A larger number of residents have been working or studying (as in the case of post-secondary students) at home, probably temporarily, because of the pandemic. This has resulted in a lower demand for transit and a curtailment of some HSR bus services. While the demand for transit has dropped by half in Hamilton, that still represents an improvement over what has occurred in other neighbouring municipalities where transit use is down as low as 20 or 30 percent, according to Borsuk

“During the peak of the pandemic when buses were running at lower capacity, the HSR was constantly bringing in new buses on Barton because so many people were using the Barton. We simply have a lot of front-line workers relying on transit to get to work,” he explains.

Things are still tentative. This is an election year and a few incumbents are not running again this time. The prospect of new faces on city council does generate some uncertainty about whether the same commitment at city hall can be maintained.

Finally, complete streets represent on paper an aspirational goal in Hamilton with no deadline insight.

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