One or two way streets in Hamilton: the debate rolls on

One way or two way? Hamilton seems sharply divided on the issue. Here's what Mayor Bob Bratina and Raise the Hammer editor Ryan McGreal had to say.

These arguments come courtesy Mayor Bob Bratina and Raise the Hammer editor Ryan McGreal

Hamiltonians are still sharply divided on the one or two way street debate. (Sheryl Nadler/CBC)

The debate over one-way versus two-way streets still rages on in Hamilton.

People seem to be sharply divided: some say one-way streets hurt businesses downtown, others say they help motorists get through the city quicker.

Here's a blog post on the issue from Mayor Bob Bratina, posted Sunday.

What is the vision for people and goods movement in Hamilton and how do we accommodate the various needs and interests? 

Traffic planning in the 21st Century can’t be compared to the conditions in 1956, when the one-way system was implemented in Hamilton. There were fewer automobiles per capita, thus very little need for two-car garages and driveways. 

The subsequent designs of new and especially suburban homes were often dominated by the prominence of the garage and the diminishing of the front entry door. Many people on my east end street, including my father, rode bicycles to work and a common  after-school job was delivering various goods such as groceries and newspapers using a bicycle with a large metal carrier over the front wheel. 

Public transit was combined with walking to move people around.  It was common to see well-dressed couples walking along Main Street headed for a night of dancing at the Wondergrove on Parkdale Avenue.  Even the musicians had to figure out how to get their instruments to the venue and often the determinant for "band leader" was the one who had a car. That was then; and now the picture has changed completely, so decisions on traffic management have to respond to current conditions. Let’s use the example of Charlton and Herkimer, which are opposing one way streets. 

Conversion to two way streets would seem to require removal of all parking along Charlton and on the north side of Herkimer.  How this change would impact the needs of residents and visitors is not clear. As well, pedestrians may find it more challenging to cross the street, as has been the case on John South. 

I have had to deal with many complaints, especially from seniors, who say they had an easier time with the larger and more predictable gap provided when one-way traffic was stopped at the Charlton and Young stoplights.

For these and many other reasons, we will have to plan carefully as we move away from the one-way system of the 1950s, which I believe is why Council wants to move cautiously with further changes to traffic management.

And here's a blog post from Raise the Hammer editor Ryan McGreal that was posted on Sept. 7:

Hamilton City Councillors were so afraid of their shadow at yesterday's General Issues Committee that they balked at establishing a team to implement the downtown transportation plan that was approved in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2008.

Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie's motion to create an implementation team that would actually carry out the City's long-standing commitment to converting lower city one-way streets back to two-way was too much for Councillors to bear.

Instead, they timidly approved a revised motion to "study and report" on the two-way transportation agenda Council approved four years ago but never scheduled or funded. Instead of an "implementation team", we will get a "committee" - lest anyone get the idea that we're actually going to implement our transportation plan any time soon.

If the past eleven years of endlessly studying and reporting on Hamilton's "Putting People First" plan are any indication, this looks to be yet another instance of the near-total disconnect between the city's progressive approach to top-level planning and its regressive, fear avoidance-based approach to on-the-ground implementation.

The only committee members who really seemed to understand what is at stake represent the lower city - Councillor Jason Farr in Ward 2, whose impassioned support for livable streets in the downtown core was inspiring, Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli, whose ward was added to the study area, and Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla.

Unfortunately, fear of change was the order of the day among the mountain and suburban councillors, who outnumbered the lower city councillors in a barrage of anecdotes and worries about constituent backlash.

Fear of Change

Ward 6 Councillor Tom Jackson said constituents ask him "if I've lost my marbles" whenever he supports a two-way street conversion. Yet none of the streets in Jackson's ward are one-way, either. Would those constituents ask if Jackson had "lost his marbles" if he were to propose converting Fennell or Upper Sherman to one-way?

Similarly, Stoney Creek Mountain Councillor Brad Clark, apparently the city's de facto spokesperson for "office CEOs", argued that they don't like two-way streets - except, presumably, on the streets where they live.

Just two months ago, Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson was "absolutely thrilled to unveil a newly-renovated Wilson Street, the main thoroughfare in Ancaster, which featured new bike lanes, sidewalks, pedestrian-friendly streetscaping, benches, trees, protected heritage buildings - and of course, two-way traffic flows along its full length.

Yet he could not bring himself to support the same kind of complete street design for the main thoroughfares of the old city of Hamilton, which have been sacrificed so that motorists can continue to flow through the city at high volumes and high speeds.

Ferguson insisted that Main, King, Cannon and Queen be excluded from any talk of two-way conversions.

Perhaps the most ridiculous objection came from west mountain Councillor Terry Whitehead, who complained that the motion focuses on lower-city streets. "We should all be included in the discussion." Of course, as a member of the GIC, all the councillors are included in the discussion, as evidenced by Whitehead's vote on whether the downtown deserves livable streets.

As for the focus on the lower-city, that's where the one-way streets are - unlike the streets in Whitehead's ward, which are predominantly two-way.

Whitehead argued against two-way conversion back in 2008 when Council was considering the Downtown Transportation Master Plan Five-Year Review, citing studies from the 1930s and 1940s. After a cheeky campaign and a lot of public discussion, including references to more recent studies finding that one-way streets are more dangerous, Whitehead changed his mind and supported the Five Year Review.

Passionate Support

Despite short notice before yesterday's meeting and with a long weekend in the way, 84 Hamilton residents wrote letters to be included as correspondence to the Councillors. Of the 84, only three were opposed to McHattie's motion and one offered qualified support.

These were full letters, independently written, and not form letters or poll results. They reflected a passionate, well-informed citizenry, many of whom live, work and own businesses in the lower city and experience its one-way streets first-hand as drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, as residents, business owners and employees.

Several neighbourhood associations also expressed support for complete streets and two-way conversion, including Durand, Central, Beasley, Corktown, North End Neighbours and Stinson. The Downtown BIA has expressed support for two-way streets after the success of James and John North, and Susan Braithwaite, the executive director of the International Village BIA, also supports two-way conversion.

Evidence for Conversion

Notably absent from the objections of the mountain and suburban councillors was any indication that they had actually reviewed the arguments and evidence supporting two-way conversion before concluding that they oppose it.

Since at least 1996, a steady stream of transportation engineers, architects, planners, economists and urban experts has come to Hamilton year after year and told us the same message: we need to tame and convert our urban streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly, more business-friendly, and more community-friendly.

A study published in 2000 using Hamilton collision data found that children are 2.5 times more likely to be killed on a one-way street than a two-way street. This is consistent with broader research finding that one-way streets are more dangerous for pedestrians, mainly due to a deadly combination of higher vehicle speeds and driver inattention on streets designed to feel like highways.

Similarly, the general consensus is that street retail is more successful on two-way streets, due to a combination of factors: slower traffic means pedestrians feel safer, drivers can actually see business signs as they pass, and it is much easier to drive to a destination on a two-way street because it does not require overshooting and backtracking to approach from the right direction.

A study published just this summer from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce concluded that walkable streets are "economic infrastructure that attract employment and should be invested in accordingly."

More generally, walkable two-way streets allow for more community cohesion than one-way streets, because they enable more interpersonal interactions between residents. In Hamilton, two-way conversion supports improved neighbourhood equity for the urban neighbourhoods that are home to most of our one-way streets.

Perhaps most important, dozens of other cities have already converted their streets back to two-way and are enjoying the benefits.

Those cities have not experienced the negative impacts that have suburban councillors so scared. This is due in part to the elastic nature of traffic: increased lane capacity induces more traffic, and reduced lane capacity causes some traffic to "disappear".

Transportation engineers clearly understand this phenomenon, but Hamilton's traffic modelling systems do not take it into account and our planners assume that traffic volumes will remain constant if lane capacity changes.

What do you think, Hamilton? Where do we go from here?