The Core Issue of Transportation

We need to recognize that we have pushed automobiles into roles for which they are ill-suited, simply because we have lost sight of what transportation is all about.

By Alasdair Rathbone
Published June 11, 2010

Transportation may be the hottest topic in Hamilton lately. Certainly the majority of recent articles on this website have been directly or tangentially related to the issue.

Yet it feels as if we've never stopped and asked ourselves: what are the core issues this is all about?

Transportation is the movement of goods and people.

Sounds simple, right? But consider this: how often do you hear that roads are built for cars? Roads existed thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of a horseless carriage. Why, then, do our professional transportation engineers seem stuck on personal automobiles and transport trucks as the solutions for moving us and our things respectively?

Just like a computer program, it's garbage in, garbage out. Our transportation engineers see smooth, quick auto traffic as their goal because that is what we've instructed them to do.

Similarly, we find truck routes cutting through residential neighbourhoods on narrow streets with narrow sidewalks, simply because we are stuck on an overly simplistic definition of a truck, as Daniel Rodrigues pointed out in his RTH article.

Perhaps it's time we change what goes in.

You'll have a hard time finding a will for that in Hamilton, of course. Bill Kelly, for example, seems to be on a mission to prove that people of all political stripes can be auto centric to the point of absurdity.

The screams of outrage from the peanut gallery will be immense: "Two minutes added to my commute? That's a lifetime! And who doesn't drive, anyway? If you don't own a car, you're a loser and a degenerate."

It's hard to answer that last question, isn't it? It seems like that the only people in Hamilton who don't own a car can't afford one, or are unable to drive due to reasons beyond their control.

Perhaps a fairer and more accurate question would ask, "Who doesn't want to have to drive everywhere?" The response might be a lot different.

Our local political culture is stuck on a treadmill, the pavement over which it travels repeating over and over to the point where someone who tried to watch it would get nauseated. "We're too dependent on cars. We should improve alternate transportation. But that would inconvenience car use and we're too dependent on cars," and so forth and so forth.

It would be interesting to live in a city where the natural form of transportation to which humans are well adapted was not referred to as "alternate transportation".

I was not entirely arbitrary in choosing a treadmill to represent the cycle we're stuck in, hoping that it might remind us of the crazy quest we're on to replace the exercise we've eliminated by extensive use of motorized transportation.

I'm not out to tell anyone that cars and trucks are bad. Indeed, they add valuable links in our transportation network. But we need to recognize that we have pushed them into roles for which they are ill-suited, simply because we have lost sight of what transportation is all about.

Until we focus on building our city to accommodate cycling, pedestrian and transit usage where it would naturally hold an advantage over cars, we will not have an end to the transportation debates.

The only question left is who has the courage to address the core issue and to run for office. Ultimately this will determine whether or not we are mired in these debates for yet another four years.

Alasdair Rathbone is a first year McMaster University Kinesiology student. Although he lives on the Mountain he still maintains an interest in the lower city where he spent his early years. He follows politics at all levels and likes to comment to anyone that will listen.


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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2010 at 08:07:54

You have described accurately a fundamental problem we face. It's obvious our economic, social, and physical health depend on this problem being addressed.

Political culture includes more than leadership. Courage is required, but won't get far without voter support. What is required for the majority of our population to want to change their minds?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 12, 2010 at 13:25:17

I agree with ya J Morse, courage is crucially important. But after a decade and change of political organizing, it seems to me that it's not the voting majority that has trouble with it. What I've witnessed looks more like mortal terror on behalf of leaders to tell the public what they really think. The NDP is perhaps the best example of this there's a virtually pathological fear inside the party that if they ever took a truly "radical" stand that they'd be chased out of town with pitchforks and torches. And so while they work hard to "moderate" their platform, the Liberals simply take their pick of catchy looking progressive politics, promise pretty much the same thing, and forget virtually all of it once they win the election. Why would people vote for a "radical" party with little in their platform which is any more progressive or radical than the default centrist party (Liberals)?

If Preston Manning and Stephen Harper prove anything, it's that the Canadian voting public is more than willing to sign up for ideas which were considered for generations well outside our polite Canadian political spectrum. Everyone's tired of the status quo. But when faced with alternatives like the NDP or Communist parties, it's easy to see why most people don't just run out and sign up to fight the man. But if they were presented with something that looked like it actually might work, it would be a totally different story.

Preston Manning and the Reform Party got where they did because of his populist policies. Referendums, recall votes, abolishing the senate etc - all badly needed reforms of our colonial-era parliamentary system. Predictably, it's now all been lost in the American-style conservatism of Stephen Harper and his other Albertan-oil-sheik buddies, but it does point to some very real desires for democratic democratic reform among Canadians. One really wonders what would happen if a sustainably-minded, socially conscious populist party hit the ballots, one could see the parliamentary landscape changing pretty quick.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted June 13, 2010 at 00:26:37

Sorry undustrial, it will take more then just a social conscious party to change things. I just watched a very interesting video, which depicts what is going on in this country for those who dare to stand up in a peaceful manner.

Dont you know cameras are now weapons, the police can assault you for no reason, handcuffed you so tight that cuts appear on your wrists. I could just imagine wht type of real nasty abuse could of happened if there were no cameras recording.

An elected official can close down their office, which is paid for by the taxpayer. It is no longer a public space but a private business, operated by a poltical party. That means to me that the people no longer are represented, it is no different that what so many fellow Canadians fought and died for in two world wars.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2010 at 19:13:36


Great article, brother, and it really gets to the point of what the problem really is. I particularly liked your statement about the fact that our natural method of transportation is considered 'alternative' in our car-centric society.


I'm not entirely sure what you mean by your last statement. I know that, in terms of specific political party work, it must be done on the MP or assistant's own time, and during an election campaign, absolutely no campaigning of any kind can occur in the constituency office of an elected official. But you may have meant something else, so correct me if I'm wrong...

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted June 13, 2010 at 19:35:50

C Erl: This had nothing to do with campaigning.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2010 at 23:21:11

If we sit and wait for politicians to change things we'll be here forever. We have to start with small changes in our everyday lives. Ride a bike to work, Walk to the store. If we are going to get politicians involved, we have to tell them what we want. Example: I want a crosswalk at the intersection near my house because I pay property taxes and I voted you in, etc.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 14, 2010 at 02:08:16

I would never dare to say that parliamentary changes would cause much (positive) change in the real world. It would be fun to watch, though.

Grassroots organization is the only way we'll ever achieve lasting change. Not only is it the only arena where ordinary people stand a chance against elites (unlike courts, elections, business, property markets etc), but it's by far the hardest to co-opt. It educates and interrelates everyone involved, instead of delegating it. And the more of it that goes on, the less specialized centralized power is needed.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 09:59:47

Great post... Exactly what I've been trying to say... The client asks for garbage, the client gets garbage! Time for the City design standards to be modified and fully utilized to reflect new priorities...

Adam2...not necessarily. If we start electing politicians who will stand up and say that the status quo isn't good enough and start getting a grip on the REAL direction of the city as a whole we could actually effect a great amount of change.

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-14 09:01:13

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 11:54:03

I'm not out to tell anyone that cars and trucks are bad. Indeed, they add valuable links in our transportation network. But we need to recognize that we have pushed them into roles for which they are ill-suited, simply because we have lost sight of what transportation is all about.

Well said!

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 12:43:10 what we need then is both. Grassroots movements and politicians that listen to them. Also...the majority of opposition is from the city themselves. They're the ones with ancient design policies and stubborn figureheads that need to be replaced...

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-14 11:44:53

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 14:10:14

I'm a car driver and a commuter -- I would love to be able to leave my car at home. For a number of years, I lived in downtown Hamilton and Oakville and took the GO Train to work. Going almost weeks without driving a car.

A political agenda the caters to the pedestrian is going to be a challenge. Generally, the business/ industrial sector that holds some clout is going to favour the movement of goods -- and resist restrictions. However, I think the more liveable we make our downtown, the more organically the car-less (or car-lesser) resident will develop.

Think for a moment if GO Transit (rail) offered regular stops into Hamilton -- something relatively comparable to Toronto. All of a sudden, employers could potentially draw from the same talent as Toronto but locate in Hamilton -- for incredibly less overhead. That could result in a great deal more carless commuters in our core -- and likely, more people interested in taking up residence.

A lot of 'coulds' and 'ifs', but I really do think that Hamilton has an opportunity to capitalize on a resurging downtown, decent proximity to Toronto and the corridor and, of course, current and improving connectedness to transit. If a few of these chips fall into place, the car-centricness will be smothered out. The non-car options and lifestyle will just seem better.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 14, 2010 at 15:18:38


Look at Mississauga's endless office parks in the middle of high-traffic sprawl. Employers don't appear to give two craps about being accessible to their employees... they don't have to pay for commuting costs.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 15:38:11

the majority of opposition is from the city themselves. - frank

I'm not sure if it is true opposition or simple confusion. The city doesn't seem to know what it wants to do or be. Are we going to be the best place to raise a child? Not good, not okay... BEST.

To me that doesn't include almost every major street being a truck route and two active steel mills.

The city may have come up with that because it was easy to get everyone to agree with. Who wouldn't agree with the goal of being the best place to raise a child? The problem is does council agree on what that even means. If you are going to have a mission statement it has to be attached to an action plan not just a wish list (e.g., Best place to raise a child). If all they can agree on is the wish list part and not the action plan than the mission statement becomes meaningless and the direction is lost. I believe that's where we are now.

We have a goal but we can't agree on how to get there or may be even where "there" is. I also don't think this city has truly found a leader that can create the necessary environment for the change we need, whether that's through consensus or force (at this point I'll take either as long as the results are good). Mayor Eisenberger has been okay, he's toyed with force (e.g., "full steam ahead") but he hasn't quite got it right yet (maybe another term will help???).

When a bus has no driver the kids will fight in the back while the bus careens of the road.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 15:55:22

Look at Mississauga's endless office parks in the middle of high-traffic sprawl. Employers don't appear to give two craps about being accessible to their employees... they don't have to pay for commuting costs. - Pxtl

That may be changing and frankly will have to change.

Our governments could also be trying to get businesses to allow more telecommuting, flex shifts, 4 day work weeks, etc…

Why should an employee drive 1+ hours to work to sit in a cubicle answering emails or making phone calls for 8 hours and then drive home? It is asinine. If your employees don't need to be in the office why do they have to be? Besides the "easier to manage" reasons. There are many innovative, simple and effective ideas that we could put in place to help us cope but we don't.

If the different levels of government can tell an individual they can't water their lawn, or idle their car, or throw out more than one bag of garbage, surely they can craft legislation that eliminates or limits the number of useless commutes for purely corporate reasons. We could even consider tax incentives to businesses (but I'd rather beat them with a big stick : ).

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-06-14 14:57:14

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 14, 2010 at 16:09:47

@Pxtl - Good point. To me, that's a function of poor planning and, in fairness, lightning fast growth. What I'd like to see are developments like the Undermount cropping up in and around downtown. They suit the needs of the young professionals and families, while being conducive to foot traffic and public transpo.

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