Editorial

Exceptionalism

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 Not Unique

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.

Bike Lanes and Car Lanes

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.

Car Culture

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.

Weather and Geography

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.

Why Exceptionalism?

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his essays have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on twitter.

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By Seth Bullock (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 00:46:59

I hope not to be confused with a naysayer despite my conversational detours in the previous thread. Like many on this blog, I dream of a more evolved city and argue for these sorts of human-forward changes on a regular basis with friends, peers, business associates and the occasional stranger. I often wish there was a local political candidate capable of making this case to a broader audience. And, more than that, putting the theory into practice.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 08:05:27

If we wait around for politicians to fix this stuff for us we'll still be waiting with our bare skulls grinning into the darkness.

Nope, if we want a city that really works we're going to have to do it ourselves one fight at a time.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 08:19:57

"This isn't Copenhagen, kids." I mean look at those videos of people biking there. They obviously have on shorts and are riding in perfect sunny tropical weather. It was also brave of them to ride like that with all the giant trucks zooming past....

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 08:28:16

It's funny, I had this exact discussion over Father's Day. It's like you're telling people from the middle ages that the Earth isn't the centre of the universe. To borrow from Fight Club, Hamilton is not a beautiful or unique snowflake.

The other problem (in my opinion) isn't just the exceptionalism, its the "all-or-nothing" attitude. If you don't want to bike or walk to work in winter or if it's pouring down rain, so what? Do it the rest of the time!

If we wait around for politicians to fix this stuff for us we'll still be waiting with our bare skulls grinning into the darkness.

You said it z jones! (Also is it weird that this conjured a mental image of the opening scene from Terminator 2?)

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 08:57:29

Mr. McGreal, things ARE different here. Netherlanders pay the highest price per litre of fuel in all of Europe at about a euro and a half ($1.90 CA), compared to Hamilton's 90 cents. Don't you find that exceptional Ryan?

Our per capita income is not exceptionally different however: Canada $29,740 vs Netherlands $28,600.

I have no problem imagining the "shift" if higher gas prices were coupled with other financial, regulatory and structural "deterents", Ryan. "Incentives" on the other hand are an exception to the rule. I find another statistic quite exceptional by comparison: unemployment rates, which in the Netherlands is 5% and in Canada 8.5%. Yet the percentages of our populations living in poverty is not all that different: Canada 10.8% vs Netherlands 10.5%

IT seems to me that more folks in the Netherlands are working, earning about the same per capita but paying twice as much for their fuel. The desired shift therefore, will require a doubling of fuel costs here in Canada. Is this conclusion overtly post-hoc or simply a crude de-termination?

There is a huge difference between deterents and incentives Ryan and our governments seldom if ever offer us the latter, although we will experience a shift for the better when peak oil determines we're all in this together. So relax, be patient, pedal to the greens for playing around in the gulf, try to enjoy the good weather! Creating cyclists from a car culture is vanity even though IT's a worthy endeavor.

BTW - UrbanRenaissance presented an excellent image of a future built upon deterences. Ryan, have you ever considered being the leader of the Human Resistance?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:14:13

Mr. McGreal, things ARE different here. Netherlanders pay the highest price per litre of fuel in all of Europe at about a euro and a half ($1.90 CA), compared to Hamilton's 90 cents.

Why do you think that is?

Back in the 1970s, after the first and then second Oil Crisis, European countries realized that they produced very little oil (North Sea notwithstanding) and were at the mercy of the countries from which they had to import it.

They responded by jacking up oil prices to reduce local dependence on oil, increase alternatives and incentivize a more urban, compact land use arrangement based around proximity rather than speed.

And what do you know, it worked! But it's important to point out that higher gas prices were only one piece of the puzzle.

Before the post-oil shock commitment to increased walking, cycling and transit, cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Utrecht, Trondheim, and so on were just as car-dependent as their North American counterparts.

After the oil shock, some European cities committed to cycling and have seen massive growth in cycling trips - from ~1% of the total to 30% and 40% - while other European cities did not commit to cycling infrastructure and did not see significant increases in cycling.

Take Paris, a city that just a decade ago was extremely hostile to cycling. When the city government started adding bike lanes to its famously labyrinthine medieval street network and rolling out Velib stations, people scoffed. That might work up in the bike-happy Netherlands but this is Paris! The drivers are rude and aggressive and will never tolerate having to share the road.

Lo and behold, Paris is now considered a bicycle-friendly city, and cycling has grown by leaps and bounds there.

This is also a good time to note that Europeans drive about as much as North Americans - 17,000 km per person per year to our 18,000 km per person per year - only European cars tend to be a lot smaller.

Likewise, Canadians drive about as much as Americans, but our gas prices are only a little bit higher than American gas prices and so our cars are only a little bit smaller.

Amazingly, people really do respond to a judicious mix of incentives and price signals. Is this really so hard to accept?

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-06-22 08:16:08

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:30:01

Jacking up prices is a tough sell Ryan when wages do not keep pace with them. For most of us who must commute, that usually means slashing the grocery bill when the alternative modes of transportation are not yet in place. Thus the need for counter-balanced "incentives" like cutting income and property taxes. Hello! Show me a meaningful tax cut in recent years Mr. McGreal, which off-sets the rising price of everything else! Please explain to me the stagnant wages in the private sector in lieu of stories like this!

I have to commute to work now, have a nice day;-)

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:46:18

Nope, if we want a city that really works we're going to have to do it ourselves one fight at a time. z jones

Very true Z!

Detroit is taking the bottom up approach.

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By Cycle (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:49:11

I wish we were more of a cycling culture, not to replace cars, cause that won't happen, but to complement them as a healthier and cheaper mode of transportation, even though there are risks.

Here is an interesting link provided by the authorities in the Netherlands.

http://www.swov.nl/rapport/Factsheets/UK/FS_Cyclists.pdf

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By Amalily Day (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:49:51

As a car-ist who drives on roads with bike lanes everyday, I agree that my consciousness of sharing the road with bicycles increases the more bike lanes there are. It's the spandex shorts, padded crotches and guys with shaved legs that I find hard to get used to.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:52:25

Jacking up prices is a tough sell Ryan when wages do not keep pace with them.

A revenue-neutral carbon tax will accomplish the same thing. You can offset the higher cost of energy by making choices that reduce your energy consumption, and you get to keep the difference through lower income tax.

There's a reason we "must" commute today: our land use and transportation system has built-in incentives to invest around cheap land and highway access. We'll never change the structure of our options until we change the structure of our incentives.

There's no such thing as a free lunch - a high quality of life costs money no matter how you slice it - but today's system of extreme car dependence is more expensive than we can afford to maintain, let alone expand.

Jim Kunstler calls it the greatest mis-allocation of capital in the history of the world, and he's pretty much bang-on.

Another thing: if we stop trying to optimize subsystems in a way that increases the externalized costs borne by the system as a whole, we can realize significant savings through transformative changes.

I've turned down promotions that would have resulted in my having to commute out of the city, because I took a whole-system approach to the decision. A job that pays an extra $10,000 a year doesn't do me much good if I have to buy a car that costs $10,000 a year to own and operate and also increases my commuting time by 2-3 hours a day.

If we stopped subsidizing high-speed commuting and invested more into in situ quality of life, we would have a lot more local employment opportunities because companies would have to move closer to their customers and employees.

We already know that people tend to over-value the benefits of suburban living and under-value the costs of commuting, and the perverse price signals communicated by cheap gas, "free" highways and "free" parking at every destination just exacerbate this tendency.

So: suburban living doesn't make people happy; commuting does make people miserable; driving subsidies allow companies to locate far from where people live; a lot of the costs of driving are externalized and borne by society as a whole (including our rising health care costs); and we have lots of examples in both Europe and North America of cities that are thriving because they decided in various ways to reverse the perverse system of incentives in which their residents make living, transportation, investment and land use decisions.

What on earth are we waiting for?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:58:04

It's the spandex shorts, padded crotches and guys with shaved legs that I find hard to get used to.

Don't worry, the more people that start riding bikes, the less a proportion of the bike riders will be spandex wearing road warriors.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:26:53

I'm finding synchronicity in my morning reads today.

An interesting and I believe relevant article from a somewhat different source, (job related reading). Can Hamilton be a "fast second"?

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-06-22 09:27:12

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By Ester (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:31:25

This is a silly argument.
You are looking at two completely different cultures.
You cannot compare one city to another.
You need to look at the greater whole...North American vs. Europe.

That one city, much less a city as unprogressive as Hamilton, would break the mould and go against the dominant is naive.

Changes like that do not happen over night. While several progressive cities may take the lead, the issue is not as simple as presented. The North American mindset is drastically different from those in other parts of the world.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:36:15

^Wow. That's such a brilliant encapsulation of the closed-mindedness Ryan is talking about that I can't even bring myself to downvote it. It's like performance art.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:37:05

^No, no, no, no, no, Ester! Your self defeating squelcher mentality is exactly what the OP is talking about.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:41:33

If being "naive" means supporting progressive change because no one told me it couldn't be done, then put me down for a double helping of naivete!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 10:45:03

You are looking at two completely different cultures... Changes like that do not happen over night. While several progressive cities may take the lead, the issue is not as simple as presented. The North American mindset is drastically different from those in other parts of the world.

Culture may frame the debate on "How we make changes" but it is not an excuse for not changing at all.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:13:56

Culture may frame the debate on "How we make changes" but it is not an excuse for not changing at all.

Perfectly said Kiely.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:49:20

Thanks Urban.

That mindset bugs me.

I understand different cultures, I deal with having to install uniform practices in to vastly different cultures. You absolutely need to consider the culture when implementing these changes/practices but it still gets done… the change happens and culture shifts.

Saying "it is our culture we'll never change" is self defeating. What would have happened to the society who viewed eating dodo birds as part of their culture??? That may seem like a ridiculous example but we have a few potential "dodo bird dependencies" of our own now don't we? The "race to the bottom" may be our culture but that is unsustainable, we either change despite our culture or our society will eventually collapse. To say we aren't going to change because of our culture is admitting defeat and will lead to our ultimate demise.

The culture of our children cannot be the culture of our parents.

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By hollander (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 12:27:10

i definitely agree that the city needs more bike lanes. but should point out, that as someone who has been to holland and utrecht numerous times in the winter, there is absolutely no comparison to our winter conditions and theirs. our winters are vastly colder and icier.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 12:29:22

How about Montreal's winters? But they have lots of cycling and 300 Bixi stations (like Velib in Paris).

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By race_to_the_bottom (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 12:30:36

Last winter it snowed twice in Hamilton and was above zero for most of the season. With Global Warming this is only going to be more common.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 13:35:32

I understand different cultures, I deal with having to install uniform practices in to vastly different cultures. You absolutely need to consider the culture when implementing these changes/practices but it still gets done… the change happens and culture shifts.

I assume you're talking about differences in corporate cultures, which might actually bear some relevance to how we approach change in Hamilton. But when we hear nonsense like this:

You are looking at two completely different cultures. You cannot compare one city to another. You need to look at the greater whole...North American vs. Europe.

what we're really seeing is the narcissism of small differences. The way the squelchers talk, you'd think we were comparing Hamilton to Beijing, instead of other industrialized Western cities.

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-06-22 12:45:11

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 14:05:21

Mr. McGreal, things ARE different here. Netherlanders pay the highest price per litre of fuel in all of Europe at about a euro and a half ($1.90 CA), compared to Hamilton's 90 cents. Don't you find that exceptional Ryan?

Tell that to Portland and Montreal.

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By trevorlikesbikes (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 14:35:06

I think the real problem is that Ryan is trying to compare Hamilton to pure awesomeness!

Hamilton: striving to be mediocre, so long as it doesn't rock the status quo.

Any day that i can't ride my bike to work just doesn't seem to be worth it.

Hup Holland Hup!

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 15:15:07

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By PortlandMontrealAmsterdam (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 17:38:16

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 21:53:19

What are we waiting for?

Austerity

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 21:55:24

our winters are vastly colder and icier [than Holland's or Utrecht's].

Granted. But as long as the roads are cleared (which generally happens within a day or two of a snowfall) I'd rather cycle in dry, cold sunshine than dark drizzle (keep in mind that we are far South of the Netherlands).

When it's cold and I want to bike, I do the same thing that I do when it's cold and I want to walk: I wear a long coat, scarf, gloves and a fur hat or toque. Not exactly revolutionary.

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-06-22 20:55:36

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By ester (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 22:17:10

For the record, I never once said in my earlier comment that we should not strive for change. I'm perplexed how people took that away from my comment.

What I was objecting to was the basis of this article and the arguments presented.
If that makes me a naysayer - so be it.

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By Graefe (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2010 at 22:56:41

I lived a decade in Montreal before moving to the Hammer circa 2002. Montreal was already a slightly more bike friendly city than Hamilton (at least outside of winter) at that point, but not hugely so. If there were more cyclists, certainly part of the explanation was the greater density.

In the past 8 years, though, Montreal has made significant and deliberate investments in bike infrastructure, both big things like separate bike lanes and the bixi, and small things like pavement markings and signage. When I have visited Montreal the past few years, one notices a striking elevation in the role of the bicycle as a means of transportation. It is a huge shift for less than a decade.

Hamilton is a smaller city with less density and a higher rate of automobility. But I agree with Ryan than significant and deliberate investments would spark similar shifts in transportation culture here.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2010 at 23:21:25

I biked to work for years but drove more in the soccer dad period. Am now wondering if them newfangled electric bikes might be a good fit, especially for trips going up the escarpment thingy some call a mountain. Not sure what the rules are and if it is practical.

Incentives matter and will soon come to the fore naturally as oil peaks. But its time for bikes anyway since the pioneering has been done and folks are ready for this enjoyable, healthy alternative. Time to elect a politician who is also ready - to remove obstacles and set a good example. Make haste slowly though and experiment as to how best to deal with snow and other logistics. That bike elevator is cool and perhaps doable in Hamilton, how many is the question -- which relates to the cost vs city density issue. Do something unique and people will flock to the city.

If you're wondering if I suddenly became a different person, a booster even, fear not. Same old curmudgeon teabagger skinflint scrooge that always looks for a cheaper way of doing things so the city can save money and lower taxes/ get out of debt. Bikes R it. Next step - one of those bike swarm things one sees in Toronto some weekends, ta hell with politicians, no?

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By Mike Lane (anonymous) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 07:21:23

BobInnes: "Next step - one of those bike swarm things one sees in Toronto some weekends, ta hell with politicians, no?"

"Critical Mass" rides take place on the Friday of the month, with a 5:30pm start at Hess and George and taking a leisurely lap around downtown. The last ride marked the protest/celebration's 12th anniversary.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 23, 2010 at 09:28:34

Same old curmudgeon teabagger skinflint scrooge that always looks for a cheaper way of doing things so the city can save money and lower taxes/ get out of debt.

Well stated. It amazes me to see conservatives oppose community- and transit-friendly public policies.

After all, what's more conservative than the freedom and self-reliance of human-powered transport; or the proven utility of transportation technologies invented over a century ago and in continuous use and incremental improvement ever since?

What's more conservative than wanting to conserve traditional neighbourhoods? The mass demolitions and utility construction of grim housing projects during the mid-20th century was an appalling negation of proven traditional living arrangements. Their abject failure as livable environments shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

Yet we find ourselves in a bizarro-world political situation in which progressive urbanists are fighting to preserve and adaptively reuse classical buildings that have proven their fitness by surviving a century or longer of use, abuse and neglect, while conservatives dismiss them as "ugly eyesores" and call for utopian wipe-the-slate demolition.

I particularly enjoy William Lind's approach to rail transit:

What happened is we forced that industry to compete against a government subsidized competitor, namely highways. As early as 1920, government was pouring a billion dollars a year into the highways. Well, every conservative knows what happens when you tax one competitor and subsidize the other: the subsidized competitor wins.

I still come across conservatives defending our massive system of subsidies for roads, highways and "free" parking requirements on "free-market" grounds. The mind boggles.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 10:09:48

It amazes me to see conservatives oppose community - Ryan

What is a "conservative" anymore? It is like ordering a coffee at Starbucks…

Customer: I'll take a conservative please.

Server: Will that be a small "c" or large "C"? Do you want a social or fiscal conservative? A neo-con, tea bagger, old school GOP conservative or perhaps a nice Libertarian blend? And would you care for a sprinkle of constitutional or compassionate conservatism on top?

Customer: I'll take a small "c", fiscal conservative, with a shot of libertarianism and a sprinkle of compassionate conservatism... oh and can you make that low fat please?

: )

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:26:10

Z Zones. Awesome comment. I agree 100%. Council has a million other things on their minds. If we want to see the changes we invivsion, we need to share that vision. Otherwise, they will just ponder over it for a few moments and do what a few people think works, instead of a collective who knows more about a certian topic, showing them what would work better.

If we want change, we all need to get involved to invoke that change.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 12:10:07

Now I am totally confused Ryan. According to this article in today's Spec, we already subsidize transit big time, what the heck?

The transit system's overall budget for 2010 is $85 million, $43 million of which is paid by Hamilton taxpayers.

Seems to me that it would be prudent to route big rigs off city streets and then toll the big roads to pay for our system of transit, rather than making me pay twice to use IT and wouldn't IT be wise to make our streets safer first before loading them up with vulnerable cyclists?

Invoke change through Tolls not Taxes TODAY. Convert the one-way's back to two-way and install light rail now and without further delay!!!

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 12:17:00

Funny how we call it "investment" if it's roads but we call it "subsidies" if it's transit.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 12:38:52

What I was objecting to was the basis of this article and the arguments presented. If that makes me a naysayer - so be it.

But you objected by making unsubstantiated assertions about supposed 'differences' between various industrialized, Western cities, and presenting no arguments of your own to counter the arguments presented in this article. That doesn't make you a 'naysayer', that makes you a bloviator. If you disagree with the premise of this article, and have evidence that counters the facts presented here, please share.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted June 23, 2010 at 21:44:16

Downtown Hamilton is a compact 3X3km rectangle and you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes on bicycle. The 1 way streets are so wide that putting in a bike lane would have virtually no effect on car traffic. And if they don't want to convert more 1-way streets to 2-way then screw them, put in 2-way bike lanes like they already have crossing the highway bridge on King St.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 00:16:41

the next time my children hava a soccer game, i will strap the soccer balls and 20 water bottles to my bike and ride 11 kms sharing the road with the friendly black suv vehicles, to the game field with my children.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 01:20:35

Say what you want about bikes and parenting, but virutally every new parent I know these days has a Chariot or other high-priced bike trailer.

And as for gas prices, why bother regulating? They're already rising (and stabalizing) at a rate well above that of crude oil prices, and as more shocks come, we're going to have to expect them to push us up to new norms of $1.25, $1.50 or more per litre (with price shocks well above those).

And as for cycling, there's the issue of bikes, too, which really needs to be addressed. For the last decade or so the cycling industry has focused mainly on high-end sporting bikes (or substandard imitations of them) and it's made commuter-grade bikes into something of a toy rather than a vehicle. Getting some basic tune-ups done on an old Ralleigh mountain bike cost a guy I knew enough to buy the thing new at Pierk's. And while I love Recyclecycles and Bike Hounds, they're pretty much at-capacity as it is. A very modest investment in basic supplies like inner tubes and brake cables could go a long way to making a lot of older bikes more functional. Given the $50 million-ish per kilometre we're paying for roads like read hill, what's a few thousand free inner tubes at a dollar or so a peice?

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By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 08:27:14

and this is why Bike hounds is looking at a new and larger space. Demand is definitely there and Sean and his crew fill a niche not currently being filled at those other bike shops. Like a lot of things in Hamilton - we could use 3 or 4 more places like Bike Hounds.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 08:29:57

the next time my children hava a soccer game, i will strap the soccer balls and 20 water bottles to my bike and ride 11 kms sharing the road with the friendly black suv vehicles, to the game field with my children.

I realize that TreyS is being sarcastic, but ...

  • a decent sized basket or rack could take a bag of soccer balls and 20 bottles of water with no problem
  • 11 km for a kids soccer game? That's the distance from Westdale to Eastgate. I'd hate to think that most people are going clear across town for anything but serious rep kids soccer

Undustrial's hit on a related pet peeve of mine. The short version: 35 years of having sport bikes and related equipment foisted on us when most of us just ride to school or to the store. I'll spare you the long version, since it comes with the frothing evangelical zeal of the recent convert :)

For those who might be interested, here is a thousand-word version.

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-06-24 07:41:56

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 08:30:52

not sure why Trey's comment is being downvoted. Are we really disagreeing with a comment that states how dangerous Hamilton's roads are for kids to bike on?? I'll upvote that till the cows come home....or until Hamilton actually gives a rip about quality of life and safe transportation options.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 08:37:38

virutally every new parent I know these days has a Chariot or other high-priced bike trailer.

I've had this Trail-A-Bike for over ten years now. After we used it with our older son, it went through three children of friends of ours, until we got it back just in time for our younger son.

For children from age four to around age eight, Trail-A-Bikes are great. Kids can help power the bike by pedaling, it helps them learn how to balance on a bicycle, and it provides great mobility for families.

The best part is that they're pretty cheap - around $200 - compared to Chariots, which can run to $6-700 with bike attachment.

And as for gas prices, why bother regulating?

The problem with letting the market set the price is that you get extreme price volatility when demand crams up against the limits of supply, the price goes into a super-spike triggering a recession, and then the price collapses and pulls the rug out from under investments into alternatives.

Consider that the oil price rose from $100/bbl in January 2008 to $147/bbl, crashed back to $40/bbl before climbing back up to $80/bbl this year. Economists are already worrying that rising oil prices could stall the current economic recovery once demand growth again starts to crowd up against the limits to supply.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-06-24 07:39:10

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 08:56:04

@TreyS You live 11 kms from a soccer field? I think I figured out you're problem.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 09:44:10

We have a trail-a-bike and a chariot. The trail-a-bike is great for all the reasons Ryan notes, but it's no substitute for a chariot. Ours is ten years old now (I don't recall paying more than a few hundred dollars), has been through 3 kids and two dogs, and I have no plans to get rid of it any time soon. Our youngest has more or less outgrown it, but it comes in awfully handy for soccer balls and water bottles, dogs, paint, groceries, gardening tools for community gardening, you name it. Sometimes I even take it downtown empty. It keeps me stable enough to do a standing stop at stop signs, and cars and trucks give me a wider berth. They'll have to pry it from my cold, dead, frumpy mom-bike.

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-06-24 08:48:32

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 10:41:15

the next time my children hava a soccer game, i will strap the soccer balls and 20 water bottles to my bike and ride 11 kms sharing the road with the friendly black suv vehicles, to the game field with my children.

I'd say the 11km are your biggest problem.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 11:09:01

When I was a teen buying a bike with my Dad, the guy at the bike shop was appalled that we were going to do something as vile as add a kickstand to the wonderful piece of sporting machinery they were selling me. Over a decade later, it now has panniers and a rear-view mirror to boot... but I've still got the old damnable offroad tires on it. I really need to pick up some slicks. It has no guard on the gears for some inexplicable high-performance reason... something else I keep putting-off fixing.

The biggest tragedy is selling kids bikes with shocks. I'm sorry, unless you're going down the escarpment by the as-the-crow-flies route, a pair of cheap shocks are going to be a waste of pedal energy.

I always looked with confusion at my Dad's old bike he gave me - the fact that it was a step-through frame (for a man?) roped-on leather seat cover, the stranger shape, the swept back handle bars, the insanely heavy steel frame... and the hideous granny fenders.

I tried it last winter. Holy crap is it comfy to sit upright and stroll on your bike.

Yeah, it's ludicrous that, for the past decades we've been selling sport bikes (well, cheap knock-offs of sport bikes) to kids who will never use the bikes to go trailriding or racing. They don't have cars, why the hell do you think they're buying a bike?

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:35:34

Yeah, it's ludicrous that, for the past decades we've been selling sport bikes (well, cheap knock-offs of sport bikes) to kids who will never use the bikes to go trailriding or racing.

Amen, Brother Pxtl. Amen. That is the crux of my aforementioned, long-winded sport-bike rant.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:55:12

@adam2

As much as I'd love lanes on the 1-way streets given away to 2-way bike lanes like the QEW King/Main bridges, I tend to think that'd be a safety hazard. The "Principle of Least Surprise" is vitally important to cyclist survival - drivers travelling on the 1-way King/Main streets wouldn't expect a lone lane of oncoming bike traffic. The king/main bridges work because there are no intersections.

Does anyone know if it's been attempted anywhere? 1-way downtown streets augmented with 2-way bike lanes?

But either way, the central argument is sound: 1 way streets in Hamilton move smoothly even at rush-hour. They've got room for a bike-lane, easily.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 13:31:39

There are contra flow bike lanes on some smaller one way streets (Markland comes to mind) and two-way bike lanes on King West across the Highway 403 bridge.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 15:04:24

The 403 bridge isn't really a good example because it starts at one intersection and ends before the next - there's no case of a person arriving at an intersection against the flow of traffic, which is where I'd be expecting an accident to happen as somebody turns right across the bike lane and hits an oncoming cyclist.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 15:09:11

Maissoneuve in Montreal is one way and has two-way bike lanes on one side - see google street view.

Note that ..

  • the bike lane is separated by a good-size curb
  • this only went in last year, IIRC

I've not used the Maisonneuve lanes. Though I have used the similar two-way bike lane on Rachel, a two-way street - see google street view. They felt really nice.

And I note, too, that even in anarchic Montreal, most of my fellow cyclists actually stopped for stop signs and red lights: another bit of anecdata which has brought me to believe that if cycling is treated as a form of traffic deserving of infrastructure that cyclists will see themselves as part of traffic rather than contending with traffic.

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-06-24 14:17:26

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 24, 2010 at 22:37:24

I sincerely wish the roads were safer, quieter, more people friendly and with less smog as a result. I think registered users are hammering me with downvotes because of the way I say things and not so much that what I say is without merit. In fact I've noticed I've gotten more upvotes than many others just by doing the math.

The bottom line is you cannot force or even entice folks onto the roadways with their unarmoured people-powered vehicles if they're going to feel at risk of severe bodily injury or death. The majority of roads in this city whether they have dedicated bike lanes or not have treacherous storm water catch basins along the curb exactly where bikes are expected to ride, and consequently avoid.

TreyS also makes a very valid argument and I dare say I cannot even imagine how I could possibly operate a bicycle with the bare minimum of tools/materials necessary for the plumbing trade. I can understand that many folks have jobs which only require their warm bodies present in the workplace and they are the fortunate few who may take full advantage of this type of commute. But, I will caution that mere act of exerting oneself on a bike in heavy traffic ensures a higher intake of polluted air deeper into the lungs.

Properly manicured bike lanes are good start though and reconsidering truck routes as well is certainly going to help achieve safer roads. In addition, the mindset that high speed, timed-light, one-way race tracts through the heart of our city is somehow convenient or environmentally friendly is purely illogical and must cease to exist.

I recently acquired a used bike for my daughter who is considering using this as an alternative commute to McMaster, an alternative to taking the bus. And I think what scares her the most is having to compete with those very same buses close to the curb and having to swerve around storm sewers and parked cars during the chaos of rush hour. Perhaps that's why she hasn't used it yet. Oh well, IT's the thought that counts EH?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 24, 2010 at 23:43:30

After almost breaking a truck's window with my face the other day, and being told it was my fault "because there was no bike lane there" (apparantly riding on King St in front of Jackson Square is somehow prohibited, even though the cops are currently running a ticket blitz on the sidewalks). A few death threats and a little screaming, and I know exactly why people don't want their kids on the streets. I cycle virtually every day, and my kid has a chariot (beautiful machines), I've only ever walked him in it because I'm all to familiar with the danger of our roads.

If I took a shotgun downtown and started waving it around, firing it off and threatening people I would be locked up. Yet I can take my car down there, and run at high speed careening around cyclists, screaming "get the $&%=! off the road or I'll run you down" and nothing comes of it. In nearly a decade of serious cycling as my primary mode of transportation I've regularly had to fend off screaming motorists and death threats (sometimes a few times a week, or even a day), and I have never once seen anybody stopped by the police for it. It's the wild west, it claims very real fatalities (and many more injuries, most of which are never reported because the driver flees the scene, and it's happening all around us every day.

What terrifies me the most is that many of these dangerous driving practices (like rolling through blind corners) can kill far more than cyclists. Though I always seem to get yelled at for being on a bike, had I been pushing a stroller, my son would be dead. And if I'd been driving my car, their car would be T-boned right in the driver's side door. For gawd's sake people, if you must drive (and some of us occasionally must), be careful.

I would accept that this is just the work of a few bad apples if it weren't how strongly I feel the same emotions when driving - it's one of the main reasons I gave up driving for cycling in the first place. Biking burns energy, which calms you down a lot faster than sitting in a car festering. And should things get rough, and one is forced to chase an offending motorist, it works even faster. For this and a thousand other reasons, cycling just makes more sense as a mass means of transportation than cars.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 25, 2010 at 07:44:04

I feel your pain Undustrial especially when we compare IT to this:

Hamilton Spectator JPEG Image

Some of you may recognize the image from today's Spec. But there is some good news too, because the mid-peninsula highway from Niagara to Hamilton has been dropped from plans.

The dramatic shift in provincial government plans was unveiled this week at public information centres on the Niagara to GTA Corridor (NGTA) study, and appears to weaken arguments for the city-planned aerotropolis...The mid-pen was expected to pass just south of Hamilton airport, and has been one of the key justifications for converting area farmland to industrial uses.

I wonder if this is this a sign of the "shift" Ryan was refering to:

Imagine the shift if higher gas prices were coupled with other financial, regulatory and structural incentives.

I think so...

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2010-06-25 06:47:19

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 25, 2010 at 10:12:19

The bottom line is you cannot force or even entice folks onto the roadways with their unarmoured people-powered vehicles if they're going to feel at risk of severe bodily injury or death.

No one's "forcing" anyone to ride a bike. I know you added "or even entice" but the word "force" does not belong anywhere in your otherwise fair and thoughtful comment. It is utterly baseless and plays into the nonsensical "war on drivers" that the mainstream media have been stoking here and in Toronto.

Adding bike lanes to our oversized roads will not "force" anyone to do anything, but it will give people another option if they want to get somewhere and don't want to drive. Please don't underestimate the value of dedicated space on the road!

I've been cycling regularly in Hamilton for over a decade in mixed traffic, and while the lack of bike lanes deters most people from cycling on the street, it never stopped me. Having written that, I absolutely love riding on the Dundurn South bike lanes. They really do make a difference - and Dundurn already sports a lot more cyclists than it did before the lanes were installed.

They'd sport more cyclists still if they actually connected to the bike lanes on York.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 25, 2010 at 18:15:39

Please Ryan, do not use the word baseless to describe anything I've ever written. I was listening when you said this:

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.

Pod to base, come in base. Over.

We're reading you loud and clear WRCU2, over.

Captain McGreal, the Russians have successfully docked with the mothership but they say they will not accept the US currency we have in petty cash, they say they will swap Undustrial's gold watch for fifty litres of avgas but you know we'll require at least 100 for a safe landing in the Atlantic. Damn-IT Captain, we're talking about re-entry here, do you want to have to recover us in the Gulf of Mexico?!!! Over.

We're terribly sorry WRCU2, the province once again short changed us on the gas revenue, but the good news is Mr. Joyce and the Queen herself have dispatched their persnal yachts to the gulf with
a squadron of volunteer scrubbers and a hectare of straw. Mr. Hayward unfortunatly sends his regrets, you know what happened to him. Over and Out!

Aye, aye Captain. Once again, I guess IT's, It's, it's sink or skim, Sir. Over and ouch...

Now the president is repackaging cap-and-trade -- again -- as a long-term solution to the oil spill. But it's the same old agenda, a huge energy tax that will raise the cost of gasoline and electricity high enough so that we're forced to use less.

Please notice the word "forced" Ryan, even though we both know, IT is austerity plain& simple, bro. We are not unique, in fact, WE are alot alike, no? We are gonna get used to those fine bicyclist lanes somehow, I just don't think we'll appreciate them incentive's price-signalling pains, just now.

PS - Your pages are becoming incredibly tedious to load; Is raisethehammer actually suffering from traffic congestion as a result of a bike lane discussion or is this simply a hosting bandwidth problem? Your site was never lickety-split but IT was never this slow. Thought you might like to know;-)

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2010-06-25 17:18:56

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 25, 2010 at 20:27:43

is WRCU2 actually Mahesh?

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By pastorBob (anonymous) | Posted June 26, 2010 at 14:55:28

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Jason (registered) | Posted June 26, 2010 at 23:10:32

Sigh. Internet humour. Never works. I certainly know who they are. It was a playful poke at some of maheshs recent posts, as I know him personally. It's just not funny when you have to explain it eh?

By the way, I didn't found RTH if that's what you were referring to. You may have me confused with someone else.

Back to the discussion. Sorry for my lame attempt at being funny.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 27, 2010 at 17:28:09

Sigh. I think it's time to come clean. I, along with A Smith and the Easter Bunny, are all multiple personalities of Bob Bratina.

And as far as forcing people into any particular mode of transportation goes, I'm against it, even with bikes, which I generally adore. The question is, which form or transportation are people being most forced into?

When I buy something at Meadowlands or Limeridge Mall (something I'm not prone to), I am being forced to subsidize enormous parking facilities which are almost never full. Many of these parking spaces are legally mandated by zoning laws. Yet many have no bike parking whatsoever, and won't allow them to be brought inside. And when bike parking is provided (like the few racks at Limeridge or outside Jackson Square), what percentage is borne by the city's tiny cycling budget?

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By Unfunny (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2010 at 08:38:32

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 28, 2010 at 08:42:34

Please notice the word "forced" Ryan, even though we both know, IT is austerity plain& simple, bro.

WRCU2, we are going to have higher gas prices, whether we like it or not. The world's peak oil production rate is around 85 million barrels per day. As the economy recovers and demand starts to crowd up against that production limit, the spare capacity in the industry will shrink down to nothing and the marginal cost to produce an additional barrel will spike, as it did during the first half of 2008.

Because the cost of oil is a factor in the cost of everything our economy produces, a super-spike in the price of oil means a spike in the price of everything (though products that are more dependent on oil will be more affected.) When the price of everything goes up, aggregate demand crumbles and we go into another recession - at which point the price of oil falls again and spurs another short-lived recovery followed by another oil price spike.

Schizophrenic price signals for oil make it very difficult for alternatives to get the steady funding they need to reach maturity and go mainstream. We end up lurching from crisis to crisis without making any of the structural changes necessary to reduce our dependence on oil.

Personally, I would rather have stable high oil prices than volatile high oil prices. A stable high price sends a steady price signal to the economy to produce viable alternatives to today's vulnerable activities - like millions of people commuting out of the city in personal vehicles to work.

Artificially cheap oil that does not cover the negative externalities of an automobile-centred economy is the real limiting factor here. If anything forces us into a certain lifestyle, it's this.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 09:13:57

I couldn't mistake WRCU2's comments for Mahesh's. WRCU2s comments are insanely clever. Even tho I don't necessarily agree they definitely make me smile. Not saying that Mahesh isn't smart, it's just that I usually have to read his responses a couple times to understand what he's trying to say.

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-29 08:50:46

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted July 10, 2010 at 12:58:33

When we lived in Rotterdam I commuted to my job in Delft every single day, for 4 1/2 years, except one (when it was snowing heavily). Here, I am bit afraid of riding my bike (except for the loop I take by Princes Point). I love cycling. I just don't want to die doing it.

Living in the Netherlands can drive you crazy. What I found was that on those crazy days I would just need to get on my bike and everything started looking a whole lot better - the instant I got in the saddle. Cycling was the best mental health support system I could imagine. I have heard the same thing from several ex-pats in Holland: the absolute best times in that country for them were when they were riding their bike. It was an essential part of their coping strategy.

Where I work on Emerald and Main I see a lot of people living in group homes. Many appear not to be that happy. I bet safe cycling would have the same effect on them as it did for me. We just need to build more bike paths to make this a reality.

Cycling around on stress-free bike paths is a life-affirming, happiness-promoting act. Rent a bike from any Dutch train station and I'm sure you would agree.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 13, 2010 at 21:53:07

well if there is to be cycling in the snow we'd better double the snow clearing budget. Thats the number one reason I don't cycle in the winter. The roads aren't passable

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2010 at 06:01:38

The roads aren't passable

For the past few months my schedule has changed and I've been walking everywhere, but before that I commuted by bicycle year-round for nearly a decade. I never had a problem with impassable roads. If anything, it's been getting progressively easier over the past few years as our winters have gotten warmer and less snowy.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 14, 2010 at 13:51:10

Well since I have already said I won't ride on main thoroughfares without a physical barrier I'm sure you can understand its the sidestreets that I use almost exclusively except areas like crossing the RHV where there are only 3 main thoroughfare options. I stand by my statement that the streets are impassible during much of the winter. When I lived in a small town as a kid I rode all winter but in the city its not possible.

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By Nord Blanc (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2011 at 16:38:04

Municipal government is more creative, resourceful and visionary in other parts of the world. Developers in cities around the world are inspiring by example, choosing undeniable praxis over high-minded theory. There's no real reason those people can't be found here, but if for some reason they are absent or in short supply, we have only ourselves to blame for not forcing institutional reforms from the grassroots. The only thing missing is collective will.

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