City councillors have wrong-way thinking on two-way streets

Why are downtown neighbourhoods uniquely expendable patches of the city fabric?

By Ryan McGreal

Posted July 19, 2008 in Essays (Last Updated July 19, 2008)

Published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on July 19, 2008

In an appalling move, Hamilton council has choked on the downtown master plan, which the city has been developing since 2001 with careful study and extensive public consultation.

At issue is the cost to convert several downtown streets to two-way. Some councillors still can't figure out why it's harmful to have an expressway running through one's neighbourhood.

Councillor Terry Whitehead doesn't see how investing in two-way conversion will pay for itself in increased vitality. He says the conversion won't earn the city any money.

The conceptual shift required to see streets as part of the essential public fabric of a community appears to be lost on them - despite the consistent message the city has been receiving from urban planners and architects for at least a decade.

A 1997 downtown ideas charrette sponsored by Architecture Hamilton came out with one recommendation: If you do nothing else, convert downtown streets back to two-way right away.

In 2001, the city started its downtown transportation master plan and began to look at the idea of street conversions.

This led ultimately to the hugely successful two-way conversions of James Street North and John Street North, followed by the conversions of James Street South and John Street South.

It spurred the city to look more seriously at converting other streets as well. The master plan recommends converting York, Wilson, Park, MacNab, Hughson, Hess, King William and Rebecca.

Donald Schmitt, the architect designing McMaster Innovation Park, said in 2005 that the city should convert its streets to two-way "overnight."

He later explained: "Two-way streets slow cars down. The environment on the sidewalk, particularly if (streets) are widened with parallel parking and street trees, becomes more protected from traffic and more conducive to window shopping ... and sidewalk life."

Councillor Whitehead, there's your return on investment.

Councillor Brad Clark says more research is required to determine whether the James and John conversions have been successful.

This is just mind-boggling. After seeing the transformation on James, Chamber of Commerce CEO John Dolbec acknowledged in 2006 that he was wrong to be "skeptical" about the plan.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger says the conversion "invigorated the businesses and offered a new view on what downtown looks like."

Former regional chair Terry Cooke laid the case bare in a February Spectator column: "Hamilton council should summon the political courage to simply eliminate our anachronistic system of one-way streets ...

"It's time to abandon an idea of the 1950s that serves only as a deterrent to restoring livable neighbourhoods in the heart of Hamilton."

Bravo to Councillor Bob Bratina, who decried the double standard that sacrifices downtown neighbourhoods on the altar of expedience. Calling downtown's one-way street system a "freeway," Bratina rhetorically suggested, "Let's make Upper James one way."

Why are downtown neighbourhoods uniquely expendable patches of the city fabric? With high-speed motorists mowing down pedestrians on an excruciatingly regular basis, can there be any question over what to do?

In 2008, why are we even still having this debate? Council has no excuse to remain so ignorant of the basic facts of street safety and vitality after all the evidence over the past decade.