A confession: the better part of a year ago, I promised Ryan of Raise the Hammer a photo-essay on Hamilton’s “Ghost Crosswalks”. Though I took plenty of pictures, I got caught up in other projects and never got around to it, something that’s been bugging me ever since. When, this past week, the issue of crosswalks came up in a big way, it seemed like time to make these pictures public.
“Ghost crosswalks” are the last remains of old painted crosswalks which have been left to fade by the city. It’s an ironic term with particular meaning in Hamilton after they became de-facto city policy. It’s rumoured that Hamilton’s long-standing head of traffic engineering, Hart Solomon (now retired), felt crossings without signals were a liability. Signs were removed and lines were allowed to fade. Even last summer I had trouble finding remaining examples which would still show up in photographs.
Solomon’s rein has a lot to do with why we have such and overbuilt road network today. He’s long been criticized for prioritizing automobile traffic above all else, leaving us with “urban highways” like Main and Cannon and treating bikes and pedestrians as an afterthought. These five-lane roads carve the city into blocks, making travel on foot an arduous, toxic and dangerous affair, especially for those with strollers or mobility issues.
There have been some recent successful efforts to reverse this process, like the battle for a stop-light at Aberdeen and Kent where the first requests only gained a sign telling pedestrians to “cross at the lights” (a 400m detour to Queen or Locke). The downside is that it took a long and sustained effort from some of the most influential neighbourhoods in the lower city. With hundreds more crossings, often in very poor neighbourhoods who’re only now seeing our lead pipes replaced, it’s hard to imagine more than a hand-full seeing lights installed before the end of the decade, especially where they’re needed most.
Long-standing frustration boiled over last week when a group of residents inspired by a recent speech on “Tactical Urbanism” decided to take a little initiative of their own. At Locke and Herkimer they used a few traffic pylons (their adopted symbol) to create “bump-outs” in an attempt to calm traffic and give kids from the nearby school more space to stand. Then, in an even more daring act of guerilla civic planning, somebody installed a crosswalk at Cannon & Mary (I’m told they “painted” it with cornstarch). Cheeky and poignant, it was direct action at its finest, albeit pretty tame by even the standards of teenage pranks.
Then the city found out.
Public Works General Manager Gerry Davis freaked out. They contacted police, sent a memo to council and declared the work of Tactical Urbanism supporters to be “illegal, potentially unsafe and adding to the city’s cost of maintenance and repair”. The ad-hoc crosswalk was painted over with black and the cones vanished.
After years of letting cross-walks fade, they’re now seeking to criminalize the very act of painting crosswalks. Not surprising, I suppose, after their crackdown on jaywalking, it’s pretty clear that they’re more interested in punishment and blame than addressing their own shortcomings as traffic engineers. Beyond that, there’s the matter of control. Authority never likes being challenged and can often be prone to ‘overreact’ when it feels that’s happening. City bureaucracies operate on the premise of total control over their domain. Residents taking this kind of initiative can be a terrifying prospect for staffers, threatening their already tenuous hold on chaotic city life.
The Public Works department, of course, is already having a rough week. The ongoing “time-theft” scandal, which saw 29 front-line workers fired for severe slacking last January, has now focused its attention a little further up the ladder. Of 28 supervisors, 16 found themselves under investigation – of those, four have now taken early retirement and a fifth quit outright. Others may be facing suspensions. This only confirms a long-standing image of the department’s work-ethic (or lack thereof), provoking another firestorm of public criticism, which I have no doubt is contributing to a bit of a siege mentality down at 77 James North.
In the face of years all this embarrassing inaction, it isn’t surprising that a few vigilantes have taken it upon themselves. Gerry Davis may feel this is dangerous, but letting crosswalks fade has consequences of its own. In 2007 an elderly couple was struck and killed at a notorious “ghost crosswalk” in Stoney Creek. As one neighbour complained, it had been a school crossing before the city removed the signs and crossing guard then left the painted lines to fade. One has to wonder how many more have been hurt or killed over the years at these crossings, or if it’s ever even been studied.
In this case, as in too many others, bad traffic engineering can kill. Focusing on the free and easy flow of automobile traffic to the exclusion of all other road users has not produced a safer or more prosperous city. The neglect shown for pedestrians revels a whole host of prejudices: classism, sexism, ageism and ableism, which suggest that some road users just aren’t as “important” as others. In spite of this, people still need to travel the city, even those with walkers, wheelchairs, strollers or scooters. They will cross streets wherever they can, because the only other option is turning around and going back home. If this means a regular risk of injury or death, that’s just something we’ve come to accept as part of modern urban life.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Making a trip to the doctor, day care or convenience store doesn’t need to mean a pulse-pounding, real-life game of Frogger. Neighbourhood planning must first reflect those who live and spend time along those streets, and only then give though to matters like the efficient flow of traffic to and from suburban bedroom communities. Through acts like Intersection Repair, which helped inspire Tactical Urbanism, neighbourhoods have had amazing success redesigning and repainting their own streets, going so far as to install benches and bookshelves along the sides of elaborate road-murals. Most inspiring of all, city departments learned to live with it. Let’s hope that recent actions mark the beginning, not the end, of ‘autonomous civic engineering’ around our city, or at least spark a little serious soul-searching amongst those who do it for a living. After all, there’s little point making a city an easy place to drive at the price of making it a safe place to walk.