Are complete streets losing steam at Hamilton city hall?

Complete streets, with their focus on transit, bike lanes and walkability, were the buzzwords during the last term of council. But is next Wednesday's vote over the future of the King Street bus lane a sign that momentum is over and there is a backlash?

Next Wednesday, the councillors vote on whether to stop enforcing downtown transit lane violations

The City of Hamilton will not dedicated lanes for Pan Am Games traffic, but is outlining what routes they will be using so residents can plan ahead. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Complete streets were the buzzwords during the last term of council.

Councillors voted in favour of a transit lane running from Mary to Dundurn Streets in downtown Hamilton. They approved a $1.6-million, three-year pilot project to put bidirectional bicycle lanes on part of Cannon Street. They approved a pedestrian mobility plan pledging wider sidewalks, more shade trees and another amenities on new streets that would encourage more people to walk instead of drive.

But as almost the first order of business, several councillors are pushing a vote next Wednesday aimed at killing the downtown bus lane. Is that accelerated vote a sign the momentum toward complete streets has ended?

They said ‘This is crazy. What you guys are doing?'- Coun. Scott Duvall

At least one councillor says that tide seems to be turning, and election feedback is part of the sway. Others say they are hearing growing frustration at the focus and are getting pressure to act on that feedback. 

Coun. Chad Collins, one of the most vocal councillors on killing the lane, says he heard while campaigning in Ward 5 during this fall’s election that constituents were annoyed by the cost and inconvenience of downtown transit and bike lanes.

At least twice a day, he said, he heard from people who saw them as adding long minutes to their car commutes downtown, and taking precious dollars away from neighbourhood infrastructure projects.

Too irritating to keep

City council will vote on the lane next Wednesday. (It was originally going to vote on it this week.) Council will vote on whether to stop enforcing the downtown transit lane, a pilot project that was supposed to end in October. The municipal election delayed the project’s end.

Some councillors, such as Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8, say the lane is so irritating that they’d vote to scrap it without even seeing a staff report on its impact. That report is due in January.

Collins says it wouldn’t surprise him if the election sparked a change in tide away from so many complete streets initiatives, such as bicycle lanes on major streets.

“It’s a great question to pose to others because if my residents are anything like theirs, and I think they probably are, I’m certain those issues were talked about at the doors,” he said.

Coun. Tom Jackson of Ward 6 summed up the dynamic in April, when a committee voted 7-5 to establish a citizen panel on two-way street conversions. Council voted down the idea a week later.

I would say there’s a large appetite for complete streets and safe neighbourhoods.- Coun. Jason Farr

Jackson said he couldn't support any more traffic changes in the lower city right now. 

If changes happen "too hard and too fast in the downtown," he said, "you’re going to end up losing political and geographic support from this city. My intuition tells me that is already occurring."

New councillor would have voted against the Cannon bike lanes

Council gained a complete streets opponent in the fall. Coun. Doug Conley is the new representative for Ward 9. He replaces Brad Clark, who once said he’d like to see bicycle lanes like the one on Cannon throughout the city.

The Cannon bike lane pilot project passed unanimously. If Conley had been on council, he said, “it wouldn’t have been.”

Coun. Scott Duvall from Ward 7 on the Mountain says his residents had questions during the election too. They weren’t against complete streets exactly, he said. But they perceived it as being a downtown issue that took away from their own infrastructure needs.

On the bus lane in particular, he said, “They said ‘This is crazy. What you guys are doing?’”

But they even saw bicycle lanes as being a downtown issue. “I hear ‘It’s crazy on the bike lanes. It’s crazy on the bus lane. You’re spending money. When are you going to work on my road?’”

Coun. Jason Farr of Ward 2, which includes the downtown, hopes this isn't the case. Last term, he said, “was a true turning point in the way we think.”  

'Large appetite' for safe neighbourhoods, Farr says

Farr ran and won a second term this fall on his complete streets advocacy. The Cannon bike lanes passed unanimously, he said. And the pedestrian mobility plan was well received city-wide.

“Far and away, I would say there’s a large appetite for complete streets and safe neighbourhoods,” he said.

“We debated all through the last term. We researched it, and staff reports confirmed it. It is, from an economic development standpoint, good for our city to think in these ways.”

He accepts that fellow councillors are tired of the bus lane, although he wants to wait for the staff report, he said. He has "empirical data" from local businesses that deserves to be seen.

But the bus lane, he said, was “a year-long pilot project that ended.” But he doesn't foresee a turn away from complete streets.

The new councillor who wants more complete streets

“Other than this particular issue, where we have a few councillors asking to put the kibosh on a pilot that has already ended, I see no evidence.”

If there are other votes away from complete streets, he said, "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Coun. Aidan Johnson is a new councillor, elected on Oct. 27 to replace Brian McHattie. He said he plans to vote for complete streets at every turn.

“I have every confidence that council will support safe and green streets, and complete streets.”

In Ward 1 in west Hamilton, he said, "people are broadly in favour of safe and complete streets. People favour streets that are walkable first and foremost, and also bikeable and full of good, realistic options in terms of public transportation."

'Don't think I wasn't infuriated'

Coun. Maria Pearson of Ward 10 in upper Stoney Creek heard little from her residents. She won’t be swayed by any tide for or against complete streets.

“I look at every issue on a one-issue basis,” she said.

Like many councillors, however, she can’t wait to get rid of the transit lane.

“At peak times coming into city hall, don’t think I wasn’t infuriated that one lane is completely empty, and I’m sitting at three red lights before I can even go through an intersection."

Collins will present a resolution Wednesday to stop enforcing the transit lane. The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m.

CBC Hamilton reporter Jeff Green will tweet live during the bus lane debate. Follow his tweets in the window below, or at @jgreengo.


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