An Opportunity for Safe Cycling in Downtown Hamilton
From the Nest, Issue 4
by Chris Ritsma
When the pandemic seemed to stall during the summer of 2020, I decided to explore something, or some place, I had recently been reading about — Toronto.
Toronto decided to jump on the wagon and follow the worldwide trend of accelerating cycling infrastructure; to give transit riders somewhere to commute, and people somewhere to cycle to and from. And it has the side benefit of more spending at local businesses, as cyclists are likely to spend more on a trip than car drivers.
So on a warm day in August, I woke up earlier than I normally would for work, as GO train service during the pandemic had been reduced, and headed up the QEW to see what Toronto was up to.
I arrived at Union Station ready to explore, hopped on my bike, and started my trip. I began on Bay Street, which has nothing but a sign above the right most lane indicating its use for bicycles, buses, and taxis. This wasn’t well followed and didn’t feel safe.
Along Richmond Street, which had newly installed bigger concrete barriers, it felt much more comfortable. These are the kind of barriers that can add a lot of safety and comfort for cyclists and ensure drivers cannot park in the lanes.
Bloor is where the space given to cyclists shines. Buffers big enough to fit barriers, and a single lane of traffic both ways. Along Bloor you can see the beginnings of proper infrastructure. It was very well used, and I was reminded of my visit to Amsterdam and how busy the cycling lanes can be. Bloor connects with a rail trail that stretches along the GO Transit corridor, bringing people between stations to the Bloor GO Station.
I travelled back to the eastern edge of the downtown and crossed the Don Valley. This is where the quickly erected infrastructure was truly beautiful. There were protected lanes, through the entirety of Danforth Village. I saw markets and artists showing their food and creations along the sidewalk; patios on the street with the cycling lane following the edge. I stopped for a drink and spoke to none other than a former Toronto City Councillor (who supported bicycle lanes). We spoke about cycling infrastructure and the benefits it can bring.
The Danforth bicycle lanes were still being installed while I visited, but it was mostly complete. The road was painted beautifully with the colours representing the communities who made the village what it is today.
This was not before I sought out and spoke to Cycle Toronto‘s Ry Shissler about the current infrastructure work being done, their advocacy work, and the future plans for Toronto’s cycling network.
We talked about how the infrastructure needed the most help in lower income neighbourhoods and how it was difficult to get because some Toronto city councillors didn’t support it, even though the community did, and the realities of affluent neighbourhoods getting safe and comfortable infrastructure first.
I finally travelled back down Sherbourne Street, where infrastructure existed before the pandemic cycling improvements were made. It showed me that Toronto has been making slow but solid investments in cycling even before the current acceleration.
I returned to Hamilton, physically exhausted from hours of riding but excited by all that I had seen, only to be reminded that when I arrived home, there would be no new infrastructure to see, no painted roads, and no lanes traversing patios with bustling sidewalks.
The City of Hamilton had decided it would do very little to improve cycling and sidewalks during this time of physical distancing. I was reminded I would be cycling home along John Street, which meant without a large detour I would be cycling among transport trucks, cars, and pickup trucks that would pass me incredibly close.
It made me realize that Hamilton has failed to see the potential of cycling in its downtown, and throughout the entire city. I was reminded that our City Council nearly shut down one of the most successful bicycle share systems in North America during a marathon meeting that lasted until 1 in the morning.
But those past decisions do not mean that the City cannot still put forward more projects, more pilots, and use underutilized streets to provide safe space for cyclists of all ages and abilities.
It matters. Kids should be able to cycle to school in our urban area, seniors should be able to visit friends via bike safely. We should not have roads designed solely for cars, especially in our downtown where the community is meant to congregate. Hamilton’s centre and urban commercial streets were meant to be a meeting place, a place to show off the best our city has to offer.
We can learn from other cities, and do even better. Hamilton needs to stop being only ambitious, and to start leading the way. Hamilton should be the city that other cities around North America point to as the example for shifting people away from automobiles and onto bicycles. Hamilton has declared a climate emergency, and aims to be the best place to raise a child and age successfully. It must be willing to fulfil both those declarations.
We should see the cycle track on John Street, north of the CN rail tracks, extended southbound to the Hamilton GO Centre. We should see physical protection extend to all areas of the city. We should see streets with too many car lanes get bicycle tracks, like Main Street and Wellington Street. We should have one way side streets turned two way or get an opposite flow bicycle lane to ensure connectivity. Hamilton needs to think bigger if it wants to be a successful city, and cycling will be a part of that success.
Chris Ritsma moved to Hamilton 3 years ago after both he and his partner started working in the city and prefers to use active transportation to get around rather than car; he participates with Hamilton Bike Share, United Way, an advisory committee, and in his community