The men and women elected to govern the city of Hamilton did something rather extraordinary this month: They decided to cancel a one-way street.
Main Street cuts through the heart of Hamilton, carrying traffic from west to east. Though it has intersections and traffic lights like any other urban roadway, it functions much like an expressway. In fact, with stretches that are five lanes wide, it has room for more cars going one direction than Toronto’s Don Valley Expressway, which has only three lanes each way for much of its length.
At rush hour, motorists eager to get home or to work turn Main into a rushing river of traffic. Many take advantage of the synchronized traffic lights to get through town in one straight shot. Every time in the past that talk turned to making Main a two-way street, they complained bitterly. Reluctant to anger such a powerful voting bloc, the city kept putting off a decision.
But feelings began to change after a rash of traffic deaths this year. Three pedestrians were killed in March when a stolen car jumped the curb on Main, smashed into a concrete hydro pole and burst into flames. A 49-year-old transit driver was killed early this month when a car mounted the sidewalk on another stretch of Main and struck her as she was picking up a passenger.
The Hamilton Spectator says “four of the 10 worst intersections for crashes that result in injury or death are found on Main Street West or East.” The road “also hosts two of the worst five intersections for crashes that kill or injure pedestrians.”
Spurred into action, Hamilton city council voted overwhelmingly to ask city staff to come up with a plan to convert Main to two ways. Council wants a “complete-streets” design that “will enable safer use for all people who need to use the streets, including public transit riders, pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.”
The main aim is to improve safety, but it’s also a good omen for the future of the city. One-way streets have had their day. Forward-looking cities all over are abandoning them and Hamilton is wise to follow.
North American cities started converting downtown streets from two ways to one in the booming postwar era. Hamilton’s system of one-way streets was born in the mid-fifties. More and more people were leaving central cities to live in neat, green suburbs. One-way thoroughfares would help whisk them into their city jobs in the morning and back to their bungalows at night. Urban freeways were carved through many cities on the same principle.
But the side effect was often to kill the street life that makes cities vital. Downtowns like Hamilton’s became places you wanted to escape, not inhabit or enjoy. With all those lanes of traffic roaring by, streets like Main are a forbidding environment for anyone on foot. Try to imagine sipping coffee at an outdoor patio next to one.
Hamilton started realizing that a couple of decades ago when it switched a couple of streets, James and John, back to two ways. Other conversions followed. The city has been working hard to re-urbanize its downtown, adding bike lanes and street furniture and better lighting. A 14-kilometre light-rail line is coming. That will require the city to convert one-way parts of another big downtown street, King.
So converting Main to two ways is part of an evolution, and a welcome one. Hamilton’s downtown was hollowed out during its bad years, with many businesses and residents moving out, leaving behind boarded up buildings and bleak streets. Now it is in the midst of a modest renaissance, with thousands of new residents coming down the road from Greater Toronto in search of more affordable housing. New condos are rising and trendy shops moving in. The arts are flourishing.
Broad, one-way Main Street looks more and more like a throwback to the days when the car was king and urban design was all about moving motor vehicles from place to place.
Some motorists still pine for those days. They like Main just as it is. One city councillor who voted against converting the street said he expected to be “clobbered” by suburban residents who consider the Main corridor key to an efficient commute.
But Hamilton made the right call. More cities should follow its example.
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