Thursday, July 19, 2001

parking meter noise

Car culture killing us, activists say

By MIRA OBERMAN, The Hamilton Spectator
A12, Thursday, July 19, 2001

Trying to convince Hamiltonians to leave their cars at home is about as easy as convincing them to skip Tim Hortons in the morning.

It just goes against the grain.

Kind of like playing chess on a blanket of sod spread out over a King Street East parking spot.

About 30 people created a "car-free space" in front of Jackson Square Monday afternoon in an attempt to raise awareness about the destructive side of a North American obsession.

Beatrice Ekwa-Ekoko, 32, can't fit everything she dislikes about cars into one breath.

Cars harm the environment, kill children, isolate people from their community, gobble up half of the city with parking lots and roads, and frighten cyclists off the streets.

It sounds wonky, but the mother of three has a lot of solid facts to back her up. According to Statistics Canada, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of hospitalization among Canadians aged 15-35.
More than 40 pedestrians have died in traffic accidents in Hamilton in the past six years while 470 more were hit by cars last year.

And motor vehicles are the leading cause of smog pollutants in North America.

"We're in an environmental crisis -- we've had more smog days this year than ever before," Ekwa-Ekoko said as dozens of cars sped past the parking spot filled with lawn chairs, bikes and protesters sitting on green grass.

"People actually cannot breath the air it's so bad."

As a solution, Ekwa-Ekoko would like to see city hall do more to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

She'd like to see big improvement for the HSR and GO transit, She'd like to see more bike lanes so cyclists can get downtown safely. She'd like to see a city-wide educational campaign that would include closing downtown streets to cars on World Car Free Day, "It's about quality of life --slow down and take a breath of clean air," she said.

Ward 2 councillor Andrea Horwath stopped by the parking meter party yesterday and said Ekwa-Ekoko might be able to get some of what she wants.

"Out city will be totally connected with trails in the next couple of years," she said. "Bike racks (on HSR buses) are a great idea since we're also having issues around strollers and walkers."

But major changes, like reworking traffic flows to make Hamilton feel less like an expressway, are going to take a lot more time. If they happen at all, Horwath said.



For a few short hours, last week, the uniform grey of downtown Hamilton's concrete was disrupted by a splash of vibrant green. Members of Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) held a "parking metre party". They reclaimed a parking space on King Street, in front of Jackson Square, putting a layer of sod on top of the asphalt, blasting out music, dancing, playing chess, and placing phone calls to their municipal councillors.

"Cars kill community," says TLC spokesperson Beatrice Ekwa-Ekoko. "We're claiming a piece of public space that's usually destined for the car...where community can be encouraged."

The group was demanding that city hall increase funding for new bike lanes and public transit service, put bike racks on HSR buses, and lobby for expanded GO service to Toronto. In addition, they were asking that city council close downtown Hamilton to cars on September 20, 2001, which is World Car Free Day.

Ekwa-Ekoko points to countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where 20% and 33%, respectively, of all trips are made by bike, not car. Some Latin American cities, most notably Bogota, Colombia, have taken steps to restrict automobile use in their downtown areas, and Bogota's mayor hopes for a complete ban on cars in urban core areas by 2015. Bordeaux, France, will soon have 50% of its streets reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.

For TLC member Seth Sazant, the imagery of the plot of grass in the parking space was a "representation of how crazy things are...My mode of transportation is bicycle. I feel angry as well as threatened a lot of the time by cars." This action was important, he says, becasuse it is "bordering on useless to be writing to my councillor, when the city has not done much to make streets safer for bikes, for example. I'm pretty frustrated."

The reaction from passers-by was mixed. William Davy, aged 13, stopped as he was biking past the party, and after brief discussion, joined in the fun. He says, "I'm really hoping that they'll make it so bikes can go on buses."

Ralph Ellis was more skeptical. "Getting rid of cars is a lost cause. It's a good idea, but it's a lost cause." Even intermediate measures, like a significant increase in bike lanes, he sees as unlikely. "You'd have to take up a certain amount of road space...[and] then you'd have drivers getting mad."

City councillor Andrea Horwath, who represents the downtown ward, paid the party a visit. She described the event as "great", and herself as "frustrated" with the speed of progress in the city on sustainable transportation measures. "The focus of our transportation department and the focus of our council is asphalt expansion programs." She wants to see "equal investment in other modes of transportation."

Marvin Caplan, who represents Ward 1, also dropped by. He expressed general support for TLC's demands, and said everyone should "act locally by reducing the use of single occupancy vehicles." However, he said the demand for a ban on autos downtown during World Car Free Day "would be a problem," and he was skeptical of the direct action methods chosen by TLC. "Not that I have a problem with them. They just won't work."

One of the participants in the action was Euan Gibb, an auto worker. Though it might appear that he would have a lot to lose if there was a cultural shift to more sustainable means of transportation, he doesn't agree. "I don't accept the premise that we need to perpetuate a huge auto market." He believes that auto workers would "not necessarily be adversely affected." He advocates changes like reducing opportunities for overtime, and having a shorter standard work week, to allow more people to benefit from a given demand for labour. He points to the success of France's recent reduction of the length of its work week.

TLC's next action will take its struggle on the road, to the corporate headquarters of Ontario Power Generation (OPG) in Toronto, on August 20. OPG operates the Nanticoke coal power electiricity generation plant, the largest single source of air pollution in Canada. The group will be joining people from across the province in a civil disobedience action to demand greater action to improve air quality. Back in Hamilton, the group will be taking part in Gaia-Fest 2001, a radical eco/political gathering and festival, in Gore Park on September 9.

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