Plugging the Leaks

Hamilton can make significant improvements to transportation sustainability without massive capital outlays, simply by leveraging the infrastructure we already have.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted April 30, 2005 in Essays (Last Updated April 30, 2005)

This op-ed was published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on April 30, 2005

When we bought our creaky Edwardian house, we knew it needed work. The place radiated heat in cold weather; breezes blew in from closed windows and the roof cleared itself to a glassy sheen within hours of a snowfall. We could see outside through cracks around the doors.

We started with small changes that cost little but made a big difference. About $20 in caulking and weather-stripping helped to plug the more glaring leaks.

Another $20 bought those plastic sheets that cover the windows. We found a bunch of old storms in the basement; most were still serviceable, and a bead of caulking set them in place.

These simple actions paid for themselves in the first month or two. They certainly paid for themselves in added comfort.

The second year, we splurged: $500 for an insulated screen door. Now we can sit in the living room without blankets.

Planned major investments, like a new furnace and new windows, will take years to pay for themselves. In the meantime, we have been happy to pluck the low-lying fruit of low-tech renovations.

As I shift focus, now, to downtown revitalization, bear in mind that I'm still thinking about weather-stripping and caulking - the cheap and cheerful ways we can make Hamilton more comfortable and efficient.

By comfortable, I mean comfortable for people - streets that welcome visiting, window watching, shopping, strolling, chance meetings, and general goodwill.

Jane Jacobs demonstrated almost 45 years ago that a city's essence is in its streets or it's nowhere, and planners are finally starting to catch on.

By efficient, I mean able to make the best use of available systems to move people and goods around in a convenient and healthy manner. No, that doesn't mean more roads.

Recent reports by such diverse groups as the Ontario College of Family Physicians, The Heart & Stroke Foundation, Clean Air Hamilton, The United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Statistics Canada, the American Planning Association, Simmons & Company International, Goldman-Sachs Global Investment Research, and The U.S. Department of Energy point overwhelmingly to a gathering "perfect storm" of public health, environmental, economic, and global repercussions arising from our addiction to cars.

In other words, the windows are all open and the furnace is about to blow up.

The province is giving Hamilton $15 million in gas tax. City Council doesn't want to invest it in new buses, citing ongoing maintenance and inflationary pressures on fuel costs.

Fair enough. Instead of new buses, the following steps can improve both comfort and efficiency without tying the city into new spending commitments.

  • Lower speed limits to 40 km/h on main streets and 25 km/h on side streets. This will cost nothing, level the playing field for cyclists, and make the streets quieter, safer, and more welcoming to pedestrians. There's no question: as speeds go up, the risk of serious injury and death from collisions rises exponentially.

  • Make main streets two-way, with curbside parking. The city already plans to do this eventually, but in the meantime, today's roaring thoroughfares are uninhabitable to pedestrians.

  • Replace Hamilton's labyrinthine zoning regulations with the following simple rules: build to the sidewalk, make buildings compatible with their neighbours, open directly onto the street, and place parking in the rear, if at all. This will lower the bar for investors and free building owners to use their properties the ways they want. The aggregate result will be a rich, diverse tapestry of homes and businesses at a human scale.

  • Eliminate all parking requirements from zoning regulations, and install "smart" meters at curbsides and municipal lots that charge market rates based on time of day. As Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA explains, "free" parking actually amounts to a massive hidden subsidy for driving that undercuts other modes of transportation.

In addition to covering the landscape in half-empty lots, "free" parking encourages drivers to "cruise" for curbside spaces during peak times, adding to traffic congestion and air pollution.

The meter price should be high enough to maintain 15 percent vacancy, which is considered optimal for entry and exit. All new money collected by these meters should go to local BIAs and neighbourhood associations to spend on local improvements.

Most of these initiatives will cost nothing. The few expenses can be paid out of the gas tax with no lingering obligations.

These steps will serve simultaneously to impose market forces on driving and make it easier to choose alternatives. This will help downtown businesses, improve air quality, and encourage more people to use alternative transportation without new investments.

More transit riders make the system more cost effective and less draining to the city budget. The savings can be reinvested in more pedestrian-friendly public infrastructure.

By bootstrapping from inexpensive changes instead of betting the bank on a mega-project, Hamilton can start to tilt the scales toward sustainability. In the meantime, everybody benefits from a more comfortable, more efficient city.