There was a story in the Hamilton Spectator today about the potential changes to traffic in Hamilton if we went ahead with a proposed light rail transit system. Businesses in the city seem concerned about the impact that light rail will have. In my opinion, there will be an impact, but it will be positive.

The thing that excites me most about the proposal is that there will be a pedestrian mall created in the centre of the city. Traffic will be routed around this area, and only the light rail and people on foot will be allowed in. Although this seems radical in our car-centric world, it makes a lot of sense on a human scale, and I think the city will benefit greatly from it. I don’t just say this off the top of my head. I’ve experienced these pedestrian malls in every city in China that I visited, and I found them to be a real eye-opener. In every case, pedestrian malls were the most vibrant hubs of commercial and tourist activity in the city. There were no vacant store-fronts or derelict buildings that are the norm in our North American downtown cores. Businesses were thriving because tens of thousands of people crowd these areas every single day and night to shop, eat and socialize. In each and every city, the real estate in these pedestrian mall areas was the most highly prized… and priced. Pedestrian malls have the potential to become economic engines that drive a city’s economy. Moreover, they can be cultural centres and icons that exemplify a city. Hamilton’s creation of this type of zone would go a long way to erasing its grimy lunch-bucket image.

Having experienced it, it simply makes sense to me now. Pedestrian malls are places where people love to shop because they are not beset on all sides by cars. They’re not choking on diesel fumes and worried about being run over by trucks. They can just relax and enjoy themselves. The result is that people want to be there. When people want to be there, business will want to be there too.

I really hope that Hamiltonians can overcome their fear of change, because the status quo here just does not work. It seems unfair that change is often painted in a negative light in this city. It’s as if people think we’re living in some kind of utopia where milk and honey rain from the skies. We could stand some improvement, and need to look at other places in the world for inspiration. It’s not just China that has had success with traffic restriction in its cities. I’ve heard success stories from London, Copenhagen and other European cities too. I hope Hamilton recognizes that this is a wonderful opportunity to become a leader in North America by embracing this emerging model of urban living.

Here are a couple of photos of pedestrian mall areas in China. After a few cities, I stopped photographing them because it just became such a normal sight. Maybe it will become a normal sight here in Canada too?