Starved for funding, limited to select streets and subject to councillor vetoes, the Shifting Gears plan hasn’t gone far enough to build a real citywide cycling network.

By Ryan Mcgreal

The City of Hamilton is undertaking a sweeping review of the overarching Transportation Master Plan, which was first approved in 2007. Part of that plan is the Cycling Master Plan, “Shifting Gears”, which was approved in 2009. We’re only eight years into the Shifting Gears plan, but it’s already clear the plan is overdue for revision.

Courtesy of City of Hamilton

We have seen some remarkable new pieces of cycling infrastructure, including the Hamilton Bike Share network and the protected Cannon Cycle Track, but Bike Share was funded entirely by Metrolinx and Cannon happened as a result of broad community advocacy beyond the scope of the Shifting Gears plan. Similarly, a planned cycle track on Bay Street this year is getting half of its funding from the Province.

Our current Cycling Master Plan has three serious flaws that need to be resolved if Hamilton is going to achieve a truly functional cycling network: it is limited to specific streets, it is not adequately funded, and Councillors can veto projects in their wards.

The City’s Pedestrian Mobility Plan follows a principle called “routine accommodation” – the idea is that every street being built or rebuilt should be designed to support walking. In contrast, Shifting Gears prescribes a defined network of cycling routes on specific streets. There is no consideration for cycling infrastructure on streets that are not already specifically identified in the plan.

As a result, streets all over the city have been repaved or reconstructed over the past eight years with no cycling infrastructure even considered for addition. Each of these is a missed opportunity to add cycling routes for a very low marginal cost: if a street is being resurfaced anyway, it’s no more expensive to resurface it with bike lanes than to reinstall the status quo.

And Shifting Gears needs all the financial help it can get. When Councillors approved Shifting Gears, the idea was to spend $2.5 million a year over 20 years to build out the network. This would have represented about 2.5 percent of the annual roads budget for the past eight years, which is actually conservative given that walking and cycling already make up more than 10 percent of commuting trips.

Yet even that stingy target did not survive Council’s annual budget process. Since 2009, actual annual spending has averaged less than $900,000. At this rate, it will take 63 years to finish building out the Cycling Plan. It doesn’t matter how ambitious a plan is if Council doesn’t supply an implementation budget.

But that’s not the only way City Councillors have been able to undercut the plan. Councillors are also entitled to veto cycling projects in their own wards at their own discretion. A transportation network only works if routes and destinations connect to each other, so each vetoed segment is a broken connection resulting in fragmentation and reduced utility.

It’s interesting to look at why some cycling projects got the axe. Some were victims of budgetary shortfalls during road reconstruction projects, like planned lanes on Mohawk Road from McNiven to Filman and paved shoulders on Trinity Church Road south of the existing bike lanes.

Those streets are now locked in for the next 20-30 years.

When Concession Street was completely reconstructed in 2015, the absence of bike lanes was a glaring oversight on this lively urban retail corridor. Perhaps things might have gone differently with strong leadership from the local Councillors, but it was not listed in the Plan so the bike lanes were not included.

Other projects were vetoed by the Ward councillor. In 2010, Ward 6 Councillor Tom Jackson vetoed bike lanes on Queensdale Avenue, a wide residential side street that runs east-west across the north Mountain from Upper Ottawa to a block west of Upper James. At the time, Jackson said he opposed the lanes because he didn’t think people would use them.

Queensdale also extends into Ward 7, and in 2013, the City installed painted bike lanes between Upper Wellington and Upper Wentworth. Scott Duvall, then Councillor for Ward 7, said the 850 metre lane was a pilot project that he would evaluate “based on complaints”. He must have received some, because the road was resurfaced in 2015 and the lanes were not replaced.

Instead, the City painted bike stencils on the road reminding drivers that cycling is allowed. Called “shared lane markings” or “sharrows”, these stencils are not real cycling infrastructure, since cyclists are already allowed to use regular streets. (And evidence from other cities indicates they may actually be more dangerous than nothing.)

Likewise, in 2015, Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins vetoed bike lanes on Greenhill Avenue after some local residents complained. It’s interesting to note here that this argument never works the other way. When lower city residents complain about the postwar legacy of dangerous, high-speed one-way streets, they are invariably told that city streets are for everyone and commuter traffic should take precedence over what local residents want.

Bike lanes are transportation infrastructure, and we need to start treating them as first-class components in the city’s transportation plan. Every street that is due for reconstruction should receive consideration for added cycling infrastructure, and the cost of adding bike lanes should be evaluated against the benefits of reduced roadway wear-and-tear, reduced air pollution and improved public health.

Given that our transportation network is city-wide, it should not be easy for ward-heeling Councillors to pander to NIMBYism and veto local projects that connect neighbourhoods with the broader community. Wards are not walled gardens, and in any case, bike lanes make streets safer and more inclusive for everyone – including drivers.

Shifting Gears was an important first step in Hamilton’s move toward a more integrated transportation system, but its limitations need to be resolved so we can really move confidently into a more multi-modal future.