City to negotiate with tactical urbanists

A group of Hamilton citizens is trying to slice through municipal bureaucracy and implement short-term traffic flow solutions to improve the city's streets on their own.
These bumpout cones that were installed by regular citizens at Herkimer and Locke were removed by the city for being "illegal and potentially unsafe." (Courtesy Ryan McGreal/Raise the Hammer)

A group of Hamilton citizens is trying to slice through municipal bureaucracy and implement short-term traffic flow solutions to improve the city's streets on their own.

It's called tactical urbanism — an idea that has taken hold in cities around the world as a way to make roadways safer for pedestrians, says Graham McNally of the Hamilton/Burlington Society of Architects (HBSA). Essentially, people take it on themselves to make changes to traffic infrastructure by doing things like installing traffic signs or curb bumpouts without city oversight.

"Instead of being mired in this municipal backlog bureaucracy, you essentially just try to make it better quicker," McNally said. "So you get the short term benefit of what you've done, but you can also test it — and if it doesn't work for your city, you try something else."

It's an idea championed by Mike Lydon, the author of the free e-books Tactical Urbanism and Tactical Urbanism 2. The HBSA invited Lydon to Hamilton to talk about the idea earlier this month, and it took hold with some people.

Shortly thereafter, a crosswalk was painted at Cannon and Mary and screwed down bumpout pylons were installed at the corner of Herkimer and Locke to make the area safer for pedestrians, McNally says.

Illegal and unsafe

City crews quickly removed the alterations because they were "illegal and potentially unsafe," said public works general manager Gerry Davis in a May 7 email to councillors. But since then, the city has softened its stance on tactical urbanism and is looking to work with people to make effective changes to city roadways, says Geoff Lupton, the city's director of energy, fleet and traffic.

"Overall, we don't have any problem with it. We like the idea," Lupton said. "The only thing that we have a concern for is people going out and taking things into their own hands."

"We'd much rather go out and have an open dialogue with them, understand what they're looking for and see how we might be able to work with them to come up with new idea."

McNally says he understands the city's position when it comes to liability. "Nobody wants to be paying for causing an accident," he said. "But saying these pylons and things are liability issues leaves completely out of the discussion the danger of the street as it is."

Working together

So the city is looking to move forward and work in concert with the city's "tactical urbanists." On Tuesday, McNally and a few others are set to meet with Lupton and Coun. Brian McHattie to discuss a viable solution for Locke and Herkimer, where the impromptu bumpout cones had been installed.

The city is considering several options in the area, including a ladder crosswalk system, or a pilot project on temporary bumpouts, Lupton says. McNally says he's thrilled that the city is listening. "We couldn't be happier. To get the city onboard is just fantastic," he said.

Lupton just cautions people that traffic challenges aren't usually an easy fix.

"The challenge is that it involves time, money and knowledge. And when you're making changes with traffic, you have to consider not only impacts on the specific area that's being targeted, but the impacts of maybe the next street over or what's happening down the road," he said.

"But that's not to say that we shouldn't be looking for ways to improve things."