City File: Stuck in Neutral

Master plans sound nice, but annual budgets tell the truth about our priorities.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted January 01, 2017 in Essays (Last Updated 00, 0000)

Hamilton City Council is great at approving visionary plans, but not so good at implementing those plans at budget time.

Back in 2001, as part of the ambitious-sounding Putting People First Downtown Land Use Plan, Council adopted a Downtown Transportation Master Plan calling for two-way traffic conversions and a shift to more walking- and cycling-friendly streets.

The plan was timid but at least it pointed the way forward. Council started strong with the conversion of James and John Streets, controversial initiatives that were greeted with frantic predictions of disaster.

The conversions were an unqualified success, yet Council’s sense of urgency evaporated and the other projects slipped from annual capital budgets.

A review in 2008 found public demand for pedestrian improvements continuing to grow despite the modest progress. A few streets were added to the conversion list, while Bay, Hunter, Main and King were removed.

Sixteen years later, there is some progress in completing the plan: at least partial conversions on York, Park, Caroline, Hess, Rebecca, Bold, and Duke; bike lanes on York and Hunter; streetscaping on King William, the transit terminal on MacNab; and Gore Park pedestrianization.

But other projects remain outstanding to this day: two-way conversions on Hess, Park, Caroline north of King, and Rebecca west of John; pedestrian improvements on Main; and bike lanes on Hunter between Catharine and MacNab.

The Downtown Transportation Master Plan was rolled into the City-Wide Transportation Master Plan, which Council adopted in 2007. Its goal is the transition to a more integrated, multi-modal network that emphasizes walking and cycling, encourages intensification, and improves neighbourhood vitality.

The citywide plan stipulated annual increases in transit service and a network of rapid transit lines across the city, combined with streets rebalanced to be more inclusive and accessible. Its objectives include reducing total annual kilometres driven from 4.8 million to 3.8 million, doubling annual per capita transit rides to 80, and raising the share of walking/cycling trips from 6% to 15%.

That plan has been under comprehensive review for the past two years, with a summary report expected this June. It’s not going to be pretty.

Despite its lofty goals, our streets and neighbourhoods are still overwhelmingly designed for driving. We still spend tens of millions of dollars a year building streets to feed sprawling, car-oriented developments, instead of investing in more location-efficient land use.

Transit spending has remained flat, and so ridership remains stagnant. Right now we’re two years into a Ten Year Transit Strategy that was supposed to get us back on track. Absurdly, it aims to increase ridership by squeezing steep annual fare increases out of riders without any corresponding increase in public investment. Ridership and overall revenue actually declined last year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The City receives $33 million a year in a Federal gas tax transfer that is supposed to be for transit. Comparator cities spend all or most of their gas tax transfers this way, but Hamilton shovels it into roads.

We also get a Provincial gas tax transfer for transit. It’s calculated using a formula that takes ridership growth into account, so our annual share of that money is actually shrinking.

Council’s failure, year after year, to invest in transit is not just bad for transit. It’s bad for the entire transportation system.

Consultants warned in 2007 that if Council failed to grow transit service in the upper city, the Lincoln Alexander/Red Hill Parkway would soon become overwhelmed with additional traffic. Council ignored the warning and, sure enough, the highway is already experiencing peak-hour congestion it wasn’t supposed to see for another decade or two.

Council still doesn’t get it: they’re talking about spending $100 million to widen the highway further, rather than simply catching up on the missing transit investment.

And it’s not just transit where Council’s actual spending priorities have failed to serve the goals it adopted in the Transportation Plan.

In 2009, Council approved a cycling strategy that would invest $2.5 million a year over 20 years or $1.25 million a year over 40 years to build out a basic citywide network of bike lanes.

Actual spending since then has averaged less than $900,000 a year. At this rate, it will take 63 years to complete the network. Several Councillors have already vetoed planned cycling projects in their wards, resulting in an even more fragmentary network.

Like transit, cycling investment saves the City money overall. Consider wear-and-tear, a major component of a road’s lifecycle cost.

Potholes form when heavy objects roll over the street, compressing the asphalt and causing it to crack. Water seeps into the cracks and expands when it freezes. When the ice melts, the asphalt collapses into the space created by the ice.

That wear-and-tear damage is a fourth-power exponential function of the vehicle’s axle weight. That means it would take 30,000 people on bikes to do as much damage to the road as one person in a small car, and a staggering 800,000 people on bikes to do as much damage as one person in an SUV. Every bike trip that replaces a car trip extends the life of the street.

Ultimately, you get the city you build. Master plans sound nice, but annual budgets tell the truth about our priorities. The Transportation Master Plan Review should be a wake-up call to Council that they can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

First published in Hamilton Magazine in winter 2017.