Saturday, June 20, 2009

cycling: the new kid on the block?

Bike paths: Heed the younger generation

, The Hamilton Spectator, (Jun 20, 2009)

They built the Great Pyramid in ancient Egypt in 20 years. But in Hamilton it's going to take us 40 years to construct a network of bicycle paths. Maybe we should be just a little more ambitious.

Or perhaps our city councillors should ask any randomly selected group of younger Hamiltonians what they think about encouraging the use of alternative forms of transportation to the private automobile.

Because young people just get it. They have figured out that our political future looks very different than the recent past on a bunch of different issues. Take gay marriage for instance, about which people of my generation remain deeply divided. Yet everybody I've talked to under 30 believes it's a no-brainer -- live and let live.

Just as young people know successful urban areas have to move away from planning that focuses exclusively on moving large numbers of vehicles quickly through the heart of our cities.

I guarantee that a city council comprised of 25-year-olds would jump at the opportunity to convert a five-lane urban expressway such as Main Street into something that actually nurtures local neighbourhoods and businesses while encouraging people to cycle and walk along it.

But in Hamilton, the car remains king and political change never seems to happen easily.

I learned that lesson the hard way as a political novice when I initiated the creation of a regionwide system of bicycle paths in the late 1980s.

We formed a committee to oversee the process, hired technical experts to design a plan (including both on-street bike lanes and rail trails) and got council to approve a capital budget. So far so good, I thought.

But when we actually converted one of the five lanes on Main and King streets to dedicated bicycle paths in 1993, all hell broke loose. Angry drivers who experienced some minor delays due to the changes literally lit up the switchboard at City Hall. The Spectator then piled on with front-page coverage of an accident in which a cyclist was hit on Main Street.

Regional council quickly caved to the pressure and abandoned the project. That political debacle remains seared in the memory of veteran councillors, explaining in part their trepidation about moving too aggressively now on bike lanes.

It's too bad because had we stayed the course Hamilton today would have a cycling network that would be the envy of mid-sized cities in North America.

Meanwhile, places like Portland, Ore., and Montreal have managed to get up to 15 per cent of their commuter traffic out of cars and onto bikes, helping the environment while reducing the demand for new road construction.

Thankfully much has changed in Hamilton in the last 15 years. Both our civic attitudes and our infrastructure are better equipped to support a fundamental shift in favour of neighbourhoods, transit, pedestrians and cyclists.

Not the least of these changes is the opening of the Linc and Red Hill expressways which provide a better way for drivers interested only in getting across town quickly.

There are political champions for change such as downtown Councillor Bob Bratina and Mayor Fred Eisenberger who are pushing for a more aggressive approach to building the cycling network in perhaps five or 10 years rather than 40.

Let's hope council considers not only the wisdom of Bratina and Eisenberger on this issue, but also takes the time to listen to our next generation of leaders in trying to figure out the future.

Terry Cooke is a director of the Canadian Urban Institute. He is president of Cooke Capital Corp. and former Hamilton-Wentworth chair.

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