Hamilton, Car Junkie

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 25, 2008

A Statistics Canada study published this week, titled Dependence on cars in urban neighbourhoods, compared driving rates across different municipalities in Canada and grouping the results by city size.

Among its many observations, the study noted that overall, traveling by car is becoming more common, not less; and that use of a car is correlated with city size, neighbourhood density, and to a lesser extent, distance from city centre.

As much as they want to do something, many people probably feel helpless when confronted with such suggestions. One of the underlying reasons for these feelings may lie in the fact that the types of neighbourhoods and municipalities in which people live simply do not lend themselves to modes of travel other than the automobile – in part because businesses, places of work and residences are located in different areas.

In fact, neighbourhood density is "stongly associated with car dependence, even when other factors like income, age and presence of children are accounted for", as documented in this table.

Housing density has no effect at all on car use for neighbourhoods ten kilometres or more from the city centre.

The Hamilton Spectator carried a report on the study, titled Hamiltonians like their cars, that looked more closely at how Hamilton fares compared to other medium sized cities.

The report found that Hamilton has a higher rate of car use than other similarly sized cities. This is not surprising, given Hamilton's longstanding predilection for sacrificing everything else to accommodate traffic flow, reflected in its low density, use separation and growth of road capacity that far outstrips population growth.

According to Randy Kay of Transportation for Liveable Communities, quoted in the article:

Kay said it's "depressingly accurate" to depict Hamilton as a city of car drivers. The city's design focuses on moving cars efficiently, with little attention to pedestrians and cyclists, he said.

"In Hamilton we have to do politically scary things. You have to take things away from cars and give it to cyclists and pedestrians. You can't just have huge roadways funnelling cars around, like a hangover from the 1930s road-building craze."

Then we have today's column by Andrew Dreschel, Hamilton's tireless apologist for the status quo. Dreschel acknowledges the role of sprawl development in encouraging car use but smugly points an accusatory finger directly at the public for this sorry state of affairs.

People make choices where they want to live. And, obviously, living in the suburbs away from the city centre and its greater access to public transit is a choice freely and happily made by many.

Blaming people for their own decisions in a free market is tempting but misleading. When Dreschel writes, "People make choices where they want to live," he ignores the role of public policy in shaping those choices.

Sprawl is produced not by the free market but by government policies: single-use zoning, urban boundary expansions, setback rules, density limits, mandatory parking requirements, road and highway construction, and so on. They produce a land use arrangement that makes driving necessary because destinations are beyond walking distance and the density is too low to support a robust transit system.

These constraints and incentives make sprawl not merely possible, but inevitable and predictable by framing consumer choices in such a way that they have no real alternatives.

While chiding us for our bad choices, he conveniently fails to notice that sprawl is a direct, predictable result of the very policies he, and the political status quo in this city, continue to support.

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted January 25, 2008 at 15:45:29

not to mention the massive public money that has been used to subsidize these sprawl developments. Some researchers have called suburban sprawl the "largest social program in the history of Western civilization". Yep - the "free market" at it's best.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted January 25, 2008 at 16:11:02

Ha ha :P Dreshel ends up with "It's always easier to talk things up than to turn them around." The funny part is that he spends half his time trying to smear Brian Mchattie--one of the only politicans in this city whos actually trying to "turn things around" instead of just "talk them up".

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By Leisha (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2008 at 18:33:50

Hamilton Council and the surrounding regional governments need to become more like the Niagara region. Niagara protects its valuable agricultural lands by only letting a small precentage (I believe it is about 3% in total) to be developed for new development (residential and commercial). Niagara recognizes the value of proper land stewardship because it is the fruit belt of Ontario.

Forcing redevelopment in older areas has so many benefits: infrastructure is already present, reduced environmental effects and reduced political tensions.

Hamilton and the surrounding regions need to recognize that they are part of the green belt and need to become better land stewards.

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By Alex Patterson (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2008 at 19:36:14

Do you have a source for that "greatest social program" quote? That's gold.

As for sprawl, there are plenty of villains to go around...look up a list of DiIanni's illegal contributors, for starters, then ask yourself: why is it in the interests of successful businessmen to give away amounts of money so large they are actually illegal, unless they're getting something in return for it?

Hamilton has some of the lowest development charges in the region. Want a way to cut our property tax burden? Stop subsidizing sprawl.

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