Exceptionalism is as tempting as it is precisely because it provides an excuse not to go through the effort of changing.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 21, 2010
Dare I write this? Hamilton is nothing special.
We're a medium-sized industrial city among many such cities around the world. Like other cities, we have some new building stock and some old; some new public infrastructure and some old. We have some declining industries and some growing industries.
Like everywhere on earth, we have both weather and geography. It's true.
We have contemporary dynamics, over which history casts a long shadow. We have politics and political fault lines that sometimes come under strain. We have old grudges and new conflicts. We have manifold interests that sometimes align and sometimes compete and sometimes tug orthogonally at the body politic.
We have people who are afraid of change and people who are afraid of stagnation - and those categories cut across both ideological and partisan lines. We have agencies of conservation and agencies of disruption. We have people who benefit from the status quo and people who chafe under the status quo. We have business leaders and community leaders - and sometimes they're the same people, but not always.
We have legacies that hold sway over us and various forms of network lock-in that raise the cost of change. We are susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy. We have people who want to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. And we have people who want to take where we are as a starting point and pivot in a new direction.
Am I making myself clear enough? We are a geographic area in which many people are trying to coexist. It has its challenges, as 10,000 years of recorded history will attest.
We are by no means unique insofar as the basic human principles of exchange, urban development, land use, people and goods movement apply here as much as anywhere else. People here still respond to incentives in general, and to price signals in particular. If it's cheaper and easier to drive, more people will drive longer distances more frequently; if it's cheaper and easier to take transit, more people will take transit more frequently.
Similarly, if it's more pleasant to walk on the sidewalk of a street, more people will walk longer distances more frequently. If there is a continuous network of bike lanes, people will ride their bikes. This stuff is by no means remarkable - what's remarkable is that anyone should believe differently.
Yet whether it's transit, or walking, or cycling, there's no shortage of people in Hamilton who insist that these things couldn't possibly work here due to some peculiarity of our local environment or culture that renders such transformations impossible.
Of course no other place is precisely like Hamilton in all respects; but a multitude of other places are like Hamilton in a variety of ways that we consider significant.
Cities with many combinations of these ostensible deal-breakers for livability manage to do just fine at promoting walking, cycling, transit and lively urban living. Every city has unique features that local squelchers will insist renders proven economic development strategies inapplicable. Even the cities that we hold up as impossible-to-reach utopias encountered stiff resistance from their squelchers when they launched the trajectories that made them so enviable.
There's simply no excuse for Hamilton to claim that these qualities make us so different that the principles that apply all over the world somehow don't apply here.
In the past I've been skeptical of bike lanes due to the counter-intuitive situation at intersections (bicycle on the right goes straight while automobile to the left turns right), but I've had to concede that they seem to work very well in practice. It appears that the positive effect of carving out a space for cyclists on the road and creating continuous bike-friendly routes through the city more than makes up for any negative effect of the intersection problem.
I expect part of it is simply the familiarization process. As the rate of cycling and the visibility of bike lanes increases, motorists learn to expect cyclists and are conscious to share the road. In any case, it's certainly what we observe when watching cities that commit to creating continuous bicycle infrastructure.
We have a very strong tendency toward exceptionalism when looking at impressively bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but they are bike-friendly precisely because they committed to encourage cycling. We see the same thing happening right before our eyes in Portland, which is transforming itself rapidly into a bike-friendly city and seeing steady increases in the cycling rate as a direct result.
Hamilton, by contrast, has been committed for decades to optimizing our roads for motorists, and we have a city street infrastructure that caters excessively to automobiles while alienating pedestrians and cyclists.
There's a certain circularity of causality in that motorists who are accustomed to easy driving tend to push for more roads and wider lanes, but the underlying reason most people drive most of the time is that it's very easy to drive.
If we start to make it very easy to ride a bike, more people will ride bikes more of the time, and that will feed back into still more political pressure to make it easier and safer to ride a bike. Eventually, people will scratch their heads and wonder why they took so long to build it in the first place.
The vehement insistence springs from all corners that North America is in the unshakable grip of "car culture" and drivers are somehow exceptional in that they don't obey any laws of supply and demand. While it's true that demand for transportation fuel is somewhat inflexible over the short to medium term, it turns out not to be true that people will keep on driving no matter what.
The role of "culture" is overrated. What we call "culture" is as much the cumulative effect of our individual decisions as the cause. Regardless of "culture", if you make it easier to drive, more people will drive longer distances more often. Conversely, if you make it harder to drive and easier to use other modes, people will drive less.
Consider the average per capita distance driven by Americans over the past decade, which slowed steadily each year as oil prices rose, flattened in 2007 and then actually started dropping in 2008 when oil prices peaked well over $100 per barrel. That happened entirely as a result of fuel price signals.
Imagine the shift if higher gas prices were coupled with other financial, regulatory and structural incentives. In fact, cities that build light rail systems in the past decade saw per capita driving fall significantly more steeply than cities that did not. In other words, if you simultaneously disincentivize driving and incentivize transit by making it more available and convenient, people will shift from automobiles to transit.
We can't afford to fall into the trap of assuming the future will be exactly like the past, only more so. The economic framework in which people make living arrangements is changing permanently, and now is a great time to incentivize alternatives to driving.
Remember, North Americans don't live an "average" distance from each other. Rather, we live clustered together in dense geopolitical agglomerations called cities. There's no reason, aside from political will, why North American cities can't be just as walkable / cyclable / transitable as European cities. Those North American cities that buck the trend clearly demonstrate this. Portland is dense, walkable, transit friendly and vibrant because its citizens decided a few decades ago to transform its urban land use and transportation patterns.
Watch how the per capita indicators change over time: distance driven, fuel consumption, GHG emissions, distance walked, distance cycled, transit use, etc. More importantly, visit Portland, walk around and take a look at the city, as RTH contributor Jason Leach did and documented in a photo tour. Unless you're dogmatically and incorrigibly opposed to transit improvements, it's hard not to come away convinced.
Another common excuse is that cycling isn't practical for Hamilton because we have cold, snowy winters. It turns out that snow isn't really a big deterrent in a city that is committed to cycling.
I commute by bicycle year-round and have done so for many years. There's a lot to be said for a waterproof coat and overpants, a pair of wooly mittens and a warm tuque.
By the way: nor is rain a notable deterrent in a bicycle-friendly city.
But perhaps cycling couldn't work in Hamilton because we have a lower city and an upper city. Yet Trondheim - a sub-arctic city also afflicted with cold weather - manages just fine with its long, steep hills.
Exceptionalism is as tempting as it is precisely because it provides an excuse not to go through the effort of changing. That couldn't possibly work here, because of some fundamental property of this place and its people that is exceptional, i.e. different from everyone else in every other place on earth. Therefore we shouldn't even bother trying.
It is generally based on some combination of fear (of the failure and/or the unknown), laziness (change is hard), and old-fashioned CYA (particularly on the part of those who benefit from the status quo). It takes the form of overt post-hoc reasoning and crude determinism. Exceptionalists reason backwards from the way things are to some arbitrary collection of local properties (Escarpment! Winter! Car Culture!) that are either proven to be irrelevant elsewhere or actually follow from the very social and physical policy decisions that are up for debate.
Human nature does not change from one city to the next, and there is no reason why basic principles of good transportation design that work in every other city around the world where they are adopted would not work in Hamilton. Incidentally, in every city that has successfully created large cycling cultures, there were initially large numbers of naysayers insisting that those proposals might work elsewhere but THINGS ARE DIFFERENT HERE.
In every single case, the naysayers were wrong.