Thursday, March 29, 2001



BY SCOTT NEIGH, March 29, 2001

In an event that combined carnival with mobile traffic calming, last Thursday members and supporters of Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) held a memorial procession through the downtown to remember pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars in Hamilton.

The collection of more than forty citizens, with ages ranging from a few months to seven decades, occupied the leftmost lane of King Street between Wellington Street and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

They moved at a leisurely pace, distributing leaflets and sharing grim statistics over a megaphone.

"In Hamilton, between 1990 and 1998, 289 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, 77 of whom were pedestrians," announced Andrew Curran of TLC. "Cars are the leading killer of North American children aged zero to 14 years."

While creating a moving blockade of one lane on King Street, the group received some supportive calls from sidewalk-bound pedestrians, and was the target of little or no obvious anger from drivers. The group, which was riding bikes, walking, and even skateboarding, blocked the intersection of King and James Streets for about one and a half cycles of the traffic lights, to observe a moment of silence. A chorus of horns signalled driver anger at this brief but complete interruption of traffic flow.

The group travelled through the walkway by the Art Gallery, and across Main Street to the open area in front of city hall. They blocked Main Street for about half of a cycle of lights during this time, and were treated to a string of profanities by an irate driver.

"We'll probably anger a lot of motorists, but that's fine, that's par for the course," said TLC member Jeff Santa Barbara, before the procession started. "But occasionally you find a supportive motorist, and we're hoping to turn the angry motorists into more of the supportive motorists. We have a bit of literature to hand out that hopefully will change peoples' minds a little bit."

One member of the diverse crowd that made the symbolic journey was Tooker Gomberg, the candidate that placed second in the race to be Toronto's mayor last November, behind Mel Lastman. Gomberg is a former Edmonton city councillor, and a long time environmental and social activist.

He observed, "If I could wave my magic wand and make these cars disappear, we'd have a really nice scene, here, in downtown Hamilton. But we're infested with cars."

Senior citizen Sally Tabuns joined the event "to protest the drivers killing so many pedestrians." She is also "really mad" about recent anti-pedestrian rhetoric in the media, particularly that targeted at seniors.

"As far as having a video of tips for seniors on how to cross the road--are you kidding? I've lived long enough, I know how to cross the road. The drivers ought to learn how to drive, and have some patience."

The procession was met at city hall by Ward 2 Councillor Andrea Horwath, to whom they presented a list of pedestrian and cyclist demands. The list included that the annual $300,000 budget for cycling initiatives be maintained; that snow clearance on frequently used sidewalks be made higher priority than that for roads, in residential areas; that the city deveop a pedestrian plan, and implement the cycling plan originally brought forward in 1999; and that a city-wide transportation demand management plan be developed and implemented, to provide incentives for walking and cycling, and deterrence for single occupancy vehicle use.

In addition, says Erica Oberndorfer, "Speed reduction is a huge thing. We're hoping for a 30 kilometre per hour zone in the downtown."

Horwath complimented the organizers of the event, calling it "a really successful and educational rally," and promised to present the demands to council.

She was cautiously optimistic about what the reaction of her colleagues might be. "I don't think it has been tested with the new council, yet...I don't think a wholesale change is going to happen, but if we keep pushing pieces and pieces and pieces, we can get somewhere."

In speaking at the event, and at a teach-in at the public library later that day, Gomberg encouraged TLC and other citizens to continue with their efforts to "conspire to transform our cities."

He pointed out that, although more than twice as many people on the planet depend on cycling for transportation as use the automobile, developing countries like India and China seem keen to adopt North America's car culture. He suggests that "the only way we can say to those people, with any integrity, 'Don't drive, don't make the same mistake we did,' is if we in the industrialized world say, enough is enough...[and] in our cities, enthusiastically embrace the alternative modes of transportation."
As far as public policy goes, his main question is "how can we make some of these alternatives more attractive, so that, little by little, people start choosing other alternatives?"

Gomberg warns that what he calls the "transportation mess" did not just happen by accident, and will require deliberate effort to escape. "This is the greatest conspiracy story I've ever heard, and it's true."
He says that in the 1930s and 1940s, the streetcar was a very popular mode of transportation in North America, that "people were riding it in a very big way, and the system was expanding." It has been documented in an investigation by the United States Senate, published as the "Snell Report", that the streetcar networks in 30 or 40 cities around the continent were bought up and destroyed by a front company for Standard Oil (now Exxon, parent company of Esso), the Firestone tire company, General Motors, and a few smaller players.

"We didn't get into this mess by happenstance," Gomberg observes. "And now we've designed our cities in such a way that it is very difficult for many people not to drive."

He cites academic Jane Jacobs, who has described how cities have been shifted gradually, over time, to automobile related uses, by a road expansion here, a parking lot there, a paved driveway somewhere else. However, Gomberg has confidence that cities can be won back from the car.

He advocates creative, public action to try and reclaim some of that urban space, such as the Reclaim The Streets parties that were popular in England in the 1990s, and strong lobbying action to oppose road consruction and expand public transit.

Another option, he suggests, is depaving. He and some friends converted a paved alley in Montreal to a "pocket park" in one afternoon.

"It's easier than you might think. On a hot day, it peels up like toffee. You just need some pick axes, some shovels, some beer."

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