I’m going to give it to you straight, not going to lie. When it first happened, when the changes were initially made, I was skeptical. In truth, I was ticked off. It was, I knew, going to be brutally inconvenient, a waste of time, and probably what was going to happen after ALL OF THAT hassle was that it was all going to be changed BACK to the way it was, after those in charge realized the error of their ways. Oh yes, I was smug back then, thinking I knew best and all.
I am speaking of course, about the changes to James and John streets in Hamilton. For years – decades, really – they had been one way streets. James ran north/south and John ran south/north. It’s just the way things were. Hamilton is known for its one way streets, and I don’t know how many times over the years I have had to try to defend this fact to visitors, tourists, and yes, even my husband. The Genealogist is a transplant. He grew up in a small northerly town with a 3-way stop intersection. One 3-way stop intersection. He has told me the story of searching for student accommodation with a friend, where they would have an address, and then have to drive blocks and blocks out of their way in order to find said address – because 9 times out of 10 the address they needed was on the wrong side of the block they had turned down, and wouldn’t you know they couldn’t just pull a u-turn and go back the way they came because they were on a one way street. And I guess I feel their pain, as well as the pain of every other newcomer to the city, because it IS inconvenient and it IS a pain to have to navigate one way streets when you aren’t sure exactly where you are going.
I say that I feel their pain, but that empathetic pain feeling is pretty recent in the heart of the UIG. There was a time when I would do that eye rolling thing and tell people “Well, that’s the way it is, and once you get used to it, it’s easy!” Which I suppose is born-and-raised-Hamiltonian code for “Don’t be such a baby, get a map and/or a clue and figure it out”. *ahem* (the current UIG is a much more tolerant individual overall now, in case you were planning to stop reading right there. I get even nicer, I promise!)
It’s been about 10 years (give or take) since the city switched John and James and made them both two way streets. As I said, I was ticked off. I may have mentioned along the way in this blog that I fear change, and for this big change in particular, I was rather fearful. And annoyed, as I also said. Fearful because I would drive east on Barton St., heading home from my parents’ house, and I would turn up James St….into oncoming traffic. Crap! Move over quickly and continue on. This happened multiple times before I got smart, and in fact one time I made it all the way to Cannon St. before I even noticed I was driving south in the northbound lane. (obviously there was no oncoming traffic this time) That is how ingrained one way streets can be when they’ve been that way your whole life.
The annoying factor crept in slowly. I would be sitting on a bus that was trying to turn left into Gore Park – against the traffic coming UP John Street – and we would often sit in that middle section of the intersection for 2 or 3 lights before traffic had thinned enough to turn. Oh boo hoo, UIG big deal, right? Well, when you’re trying to make a bus connection, sometimes those 2 minutes can make all the difference. So, agreed, not an earth shattering reason to be anti-two way street, just an annoyance. And a bit of fear there too, as I witnessed the occasional driver throw caution to the wind and just make the turn, hoping that the traffic heading south would get the hint.
So there was all of that.
And what is the story with Hamilton’s one way streets anyway? My dad explained to me one time that it had to do with easing the flow of traffic to and from the steel companies. Heading to work from the west end? Take Main St. with its sweet, sweet synchronized traffic light system, and you can be there in minutes! Heading home that way at the end of the day? Do the exact same thing in reverse on King St. I have no idea if that’s the exact reason, but it seemed to make some sense, particularly when this steel town was booming. If the majority of the traffic at certain times of the day is going in the same direction to the same location? Then why not expedite it? Why not be able to streak through the downtown core without congestion to get to your destination? Why not?
I think, if you take a hard look at Hamilton’s downtown core and its decline since the 1970s you’ll get a really good idea of “why not”.
So here’s what I was missing in my sad attempts to justify the existence of one way streets: if you turn the main streets that bring people into your city into expressways, these same people are going to leave your city as quickly as they arrived in it.
That realization was pretty humbling, I fully admit it. And maybe because I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve shopped downtown all my life, I was oblivious to the fact that all that traffic zipping through the core just wasn’t stopping or slowing down to check things out. I was hearing all the “oh there’s nowhere to park” or “it’s so expensive to park!” or “downtown is so empty” complaints, but I wasn’t really hearing them, you know? Because hey, it’s all still good for me to either willingly pay for parking or take transit and get what I need in the core. What I couldn’t ignore was the emptying of the downtown area. Did it start with the demise of Eaton’s? Did it start when a brand new Eaton’s opened up at Lime Ridge Mall, where the parking lot is massive and free? I have a feeling it started much earlier than that.
I don’t think one way streets are the ONLY thing that caused Hamilton’s downtown decline, I don’t think any one thing can possibly be entirely responsible. But I do believe that converting our one ways to two can have a positive effect on the neighbourhoods they run through.
Nowhere is this more evident than James St., probably the most up and coming area in the city. Is its growth popularity due entirely to the switch from one way? Again, probably not, there are a lot of issues at work that help create a developing neighbourhood. But there’s no doubt that it has been a contributing factor.
So, here I am, a reformed one way street advocate preaching the importance of the two way street. I used to think one way streets defined Hamilton. Sure it was quirky to have so many – especially so many of the major arteries – but wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t it something to be known for? And if people don’t like it, they don’t have to come, right? No. I was wrong. Two way streets are where it’s at, and I look forward to the day when King and Main both run east/west. Will people finally get out of their vehicles and look around? They might. And if they do, they’ll get to see what Hamiltonians have always been able to see – that there’s some pretty amazing stuff if you slow down and take a look.
Now, let’s talk about that Sherman Cut with the upward bound and downward bound time restrictions, because THAT is probably the most confusing thing about this city, hands down. Can I get a witness?