Inaccessible Potential: Transit, Mobility, and Street Infrastructure in Hamilton

By: Layla Mashkoor (This is Hamilton)

Throughout the research process of creating this documentary, we have been searching for possible answers to the question “what barriers are holding Hamilton back from further development?” The answer to this question almost always drifts back to the transforming steel industry.

An issue receiving significant attention this summer from Hamilton media and citizens alike, is the large outcry for the transit infrastructure of the city to be overhauled.

Currently, Hamilton is notorious for its one-way streets, that have a reputation for confusing visitors and newcomers to the city. Although the immediate connection between our roads and the steel industry may not seem obvious, these one-way streets are remnants from a time in Hamilton’s history when steel was the largest employer in the city; and multilane one-way streets were necessary, to carry the traffic created by workers, through the downtown core quickly and into the steel factories.

Hamilton in 2012 no longer requires these highway-style roads that are outdated and holding back the potential of the city. By moving traffic through the downtown core rapidly, local merchants along one-way streets feel they are at an automatic disadvantage simply due to infrastructure.  “Why would you have the main street in your city as a highway?” Asked Nathan Ward, an architect and urban designer based in Edinburgh, Scotland (Paul Wilson for CBC). Ward was in town for the National Urban Renewal Conference earlier this year.

Urban revival is a very hotly discussed topic in Hamilton, and many residents will be quick to tell you that the city currently sits on the brink of something new; but it is being held back by its many transit and accessibility problems. The revitalization of Hamilton begins on the ground, quite literally, with our one way roads. Local alternative media outlets such as Raise the Hammer and Urbanicity have written greatly on this issue, from the inception of one-ways in Hamilton (which happened overnight), the risks associated with them, to the current movements for two-way streets throughout the downtown core.

We converted James and John North to two-way back in September 2002, to a great outcry.None of the dire predictions of doom came true: instead, James has undergone a remarkable transformation into a vibrant neighbourhood centre. Even John is seeing new  investment, despite a painful legacy of demolished buildings, vacant lots and surface parking.-Urbanicity, June 7, 2012.

Larger issues of globalization and harmful neoliberal policies at all levels of government have had a significant impact on Hamilton’s steel industry. Hamilton is currently undergoing the painful process of transforming its foundational industry; a process that has left the city economically unstable for many years. Considering the vast amount of research that highlights the benefits of converting one way streets to two ways, it should come as no surprise that the areas of the city that are currently thriving, are the converted two-way streets, such as James Street North, home of the monthly Art Crawl celebration in Hamilton.

In the decade since James and John were converted, only Hess, Caroline South, and York Boulevard/Wilson streets have been transformed from one-way to two-way streets.

The benefits of two way streets to a local economy, especially a struggling one, are evident when one realizes that some retail corporations have policies not to locate stores on one-way streets (Urbanicity). There is plenty of research to prove that one way streets are disadvantageous to a city, they create a higher risk to personal safety for both pedestrians and those operating a motor vehicle; as well as impairing further growth of the local economy, a critical factor for Hamilton’s overall development.

“No single action could do more to improve the lives of downtown citizens and businesses than the elimination of one-way streets.” – Previous Executive Director of the Hamilton International Village BIA, Mary Pocius.

The one way streets in Hamilton are only the tipping point of much larger issues concerning transit and accessibility. As Toronto approves a plan to expand its light rail transit, it is time for Hamilton to begin its transformation into the new age of transport technology. The inaccessibility of the Hamilton mountain to those without a vehicle, constrains many Hamiltonians to the downtown core. For example, leaving from McMaster, it would take approximately 50 minutes to reach Lime Ridge Mall on the mountain by public transit. It takes a few mere minutes longer on the bus to reach Mapleview Mall in Burlington and about the same amount of time, if not less, to reach Toronto. If Hamilton is not made accessible to its own residents, it should not be a surprise that individuals are taking their business to neighbouring cities, such as Burlington or Toronto, as opposed to investing in their local economy.

Transit experts, such as M. Bernick and R. Cervero, actively make the case for what they call “the transit village.” Creating places–built environments, social environments, and economic environments–that embrace and evolve around mass transit systems can create more attractive and sustainable communities.  The most important physical elements of the transit village are civic plazas near train entrances, pleasant walking environments, diversity in housing and compactness. By increasing mobility and sustainability within the city, it further contributes to the attainment of important public policy objectives, such as improving air quality, relieving traffic congestion, and rejuvenating inner-city neighbourhoods (Bernick and Cervero).

Some questions Nicole and I are left with when examining issues around one-way streets and transit in Hamilton are, what are some of the larger issues surrounding accessibility, environmental and physical safety for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and those using public transit? What current mind frames, if any, also stunt developments around more holistic discussions surrounding public transit and road safety?

While it is important to address the many economic factors surrounding one-way streets and transit, it also seems important to examine the greater social implications of these issues. What members of our community suffer the most from current urban planning and infrastructure designs? How does addressing the issue of one-way streets and accessibility fit into the larger picture of democratic, urban restructuring that the city of Hamilton faces?

©All photos taken by Tiger in a Suit Productions.

One Response to “Inaccessible Potential: Transit, Mobility, and Street Infrastructure in Hamilton”
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