Special Report: Climate Change

Clean Air Hamilton Annual Report

Automobile exhaust remains a major contributor to air pollution. The biggest thing City Council can do to reduce air pollution is to support walkable streets and improved transit.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 29, 2011

Air quality watchdog Clean Air Hamilton has published their annual Air Quality Progress Report for 2010.

The report documents steady improvement in Hamilton's air quality over the past ten years, mostly due to reductions in industrial emissions.

However, it also reminds us that automobile exhaust remains the single biggest local soure of air pollution and that areas far from industry but close to major highways and arterial roads have significantly elevated pollution levels.

Vehicles remain the major source of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in Hamilton.

The main health effect from air pollution is cardiovascular disease, but it also causes respiratory illness, including difficulty breathing.

Over 100 Hamiltonians die prematurely every year, and another 620 are admitted to hospital, because of air pollution.

GHG Emissions

Motor vehicles also produce 8 percent of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas output in Hamilton. While industrial output of CO2-e fell 11 percent between 2006 and 2008 and waste management dropped by 18 percent, residential, commercial and transportation output of CO2-e all increased modestly.

CO2-e output from transportation increased slightly from 964,590 tonnes in 2006 to 992,562 tonnes in 2008. Similarly, residential output of CO2-e equivalent increased from 793,635 tonnes in 2006 to 886,530 tonnes in 2008, and commercial output increased from 1,134,666 tonnes in 2006 to 1,298,469 tonnes in 2008.

This, of course, is exactly what one would expect from a city land use and transportation system that continues to emphasize the low-density suburban development of automobile-dependent single family home subdivisions and big box stores.

Transportation Planning

The report sketches a history of transportation planning in Hamilton, starting with the original proposal to remove Hamilton's electric rail transit facilities "in order to enable more efficient automobile traffic." A transportation master plan completed in 1963 "affirmed the primacy of the automobile and truck traffic as major transportation modes."

Commenting on the disastrous late-mid-century effort to separate downtown pedestrians from streets on rooftop plazas and elevated walkways, the report concludes, "Not every plan works! Costly and difficult changes have been and are needed to retrofit this innovation, work that remains incomplete."

Today, best practices of land use design are understood to mean creating a "sustainable and safe pedestrian environment" through mixed-use buildings fronting onto streets, shade trees, pedestrian plazas, reducing traffic volumes and speeds, cycling facilities, integrated transit, and access to parks.

Conclusion

The report recommends the city to take the health impacts of transportation decisions into consideration when planning. It notes that Hamilton's transportation system is overwhelmingly automobile-based, resulting in higher levels of vehicle emissions.

The roads in and around Hamilton are heavily used by local citizens, commuters passing through Hamilton and long-distance traffic. As a consequence, the air quality is adversely impacted by the mobile emissions generated by gasoline-powered vehicles and diesel-powered transport trucks.

Among its conclusions, the report cites a need for the city to "Recognize the health impacts of transportation-based pollutants near major traffic corridors and take steps to implement this recognition into their transportation planning and urban design practices. A balance needs to be found between active transportation, vehicular and goods movement".

The city must also "Support and encourage Hamiltonians to reduce their transportation-based emissions through the use of transportation alternatives including public transit, bicycles, walking, hybrid vehicles, etc."

In his report to to the June 13 General Issues Committee (fomerly the Committee of the Whole), Clean Air Hamilton Chair Dr. Brian McCarry told councillors, "When you say we're putting in a subdivision here, that subdivision is going to be there in 50 years.

The kind of walkable cities that have been talked about in the economic summit is the kind of thing we've been talking about for some time and we think this is a critical issue and an opportunity for this city to step forward.

McCarry said, "The primary thing we can do is reduce transportation emissions." He mentioned light rail transit, citing Portland, Oregon as a city that reportedly was able to "reduce emissions from vehicles by 25 percent" through investment in LRT.

"So people will use those kinds of systems and you can make reductions. So that's the kind of things you can see. So if you want to make reductions, and there's a direct health benefit."

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. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By sigh (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2011 at 14:35:22

Oh look, yet another study telling us what we already knew.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 29, 2011 at 20:57:34

Over 100 Hamiltonians die prematurely every year, and another 620 are admitted to hospital, because of air pollution.

That's pretty frightening. Another grave every three days, and that isn't counting car accidents.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:20:00 in reply to Comment 65358

Could you imagine the outrage if Hamilton's murder rate vaulted to 100 per year? It simply wouldn't be accepted. Perhaps there's a communication insight there.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:19:41

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

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted July 03, 2011 at 10:02:25 in reply to Comment 65376

Except that in practice we would invest it in building more highways, thereby exacerbating the problem.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:33:52 in reply to Comment 65376

So instead of investing in better air quality and preventing early deaths, you would rather do nothing and spend money on more treatment and palliative care for people who have become ill?

I'm speechless.

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:02:43 in reply to Comment 65376

So your solution is: Don't fix the problems, just treat the symptoms and the problems will go away eventually...

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:20:52 in reply to Comment 65383

LOL! That's exactly what I was thinking.

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By fedup (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:52:49 in reply to Comment 65376

While I'm not sure if light rail is the magical solution to this problem, we can't afford to wait any longer to make this city more walkable, bikeable, and make public transit a convenient alternative to driving so that people will actually choose to use it not out of mere necessity but because it's a better option than driving, spending money on gas and parking. If our buses were more frequent and reliable, bike lanes were not broken up at random, and construction did not obstruct pedestrians and cyclists from getting around, far fewer cars would be on the roads and we could all breathe a little easier, that simple.

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