Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What I learned in Europe

I recently had the good fortune to have taken part in a school trip to Europe.  We visited six countries in 10 days.  It was a whirlwind tour and an experience of a lifetime for the students who took part.  Having said that, it was also a fantastic experience for me, personally, even though I was technically "on the clock" and not in full relaxation mode.

But I learned a lot in the countries we visited, including Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and France.  There were places I liked more than others.  For example, I was amazed by both the physical and architectural splendour of Prague, the Czech capital, a place I would certainly return to, if only to avail myself of a missed opportunity to visit the Franz Kafka Museum.  And who isn't blown away by the splendour of Paris visiting it for the first time?  After fifteen years in the business, I finally threw off the yoke of being the only French teacher who has never visited France.  Bucket list checked.

There were some smaller centres which were also amazing in their own ways.  Dresden, Germany comes to mind if for no other reason than that one must be impressed by how there is no evidence today that the city was essentially flattened by allied bombing during the Second World War.  Cool it was, as well, to have visited the city of Innsbruck, Austria who have twice hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976, when Denver, USA returned the bid originally awarded to them.

However there were a couple of things that all of these European cities have in common.  The first is the incidence of massive cathedrals erected over the past millennium.  Every city has one, and it made me reflect and marvel at the extent to which so much human ingenuity, architecture, creativity and labour have been invested in these colossal mausoleums built in homage to a god that probably doesn't even exist.

But there was something else that struck me.  Each and every city visited in the following order: Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, Prague, Regensburg, Munich, Innsbruck, Vaduz, Lucerne, Basel and Paris,  without fail had both higher order transit and public bicycle share.  Berlin, being the first city we visited, has an underground metro, electric trams and Light Rail Transit (LRT) running through its city centre.  The same held true in Prague where the system of public transit was so extensive that maps of it were difficult to understand!  The same tracks and overhead wires were also present in Munich and Lucerne.  And, we arrived in Paris to the following news:  because a pollution alert had been issued on the Friday, all public transit was declared free for the entire weekend.  Imagine that happening in a North American city, where pollution alerts are also a common thing.  If public transit had been declared free in my own city of Hamilton, I doubt it would make the slightest difference to our car-addicted culture.

And the phenomenon of public transit was not exclusive to the larger cities visited, it was everywhere to be found in the smaller centres of Dresden, Regensburg and Innsbruck.  LRT sharing the roads with cars, which seemed to move no more slowly than they do in Hamilton in spite of a conspicuous lack of one-way streets, right alongside racks full of publicly shared bicycles.

It made me feel that Europe is getting it right, far more so than we are in North America, where transit if too often perceived as something only the lower classes take, or something only begrudgingly used in large metropolises where car travel is something economically prohibitive or simply impossible as a function of congestion.

What is it about North American culture that is so hostile to public transit?  Is it a frontier mentality that constantly dictates that nature, right down to the very roadscape, is something to be conquered and tamed for individual convenience, ecological consequences be damned?  Is our sense of entitlement so ingrained that we won't even get out of our cars and onto shared busses or, heaven forbid, bicycles when to do so is so blatantly in our self-interest economically, environmentally and for the sake of one's individual health?  Perhaps it isn't so mysterious why rates of obesity are lower in France than Canada and the United States in spite of the former's stereotypically rich diet; in between baguettes and cheese, the French are running to and between the metro and trams.

In fairness to Hamilton, we seem to be progressing on the cycling front as evidenced by the recently rolled-out Social Bicycles (SoBi) sharing program.  But will we avail ourselves of the historic opportunity being presented to get the other half of the equation, higher order transit?  The European example shows that it can work in every type of city, large or small.

The trip to Europe was life-changing experience culturally and educationally.  But it has also increased my resolve to make a difference in the promotion of transit, bikes and busses right here at home.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

My piece in Raise the Hammer

My bit that appeared in Raise the Hammer, an "alternative" on-line publication here in Hamilton, February 25th, 2014.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My recent trip to City Council

I recently attended a meeting of the Strategy and Policy Committee of Hamilton City Council to make a delegation on the 2015 budget.  My specific interest was the enhancement of transit infrastructure in the city.  Here is what I said:

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to address Council about the budget for 2015. I will state up front that I am here in defence and promotion of public transit and will try to keep my comments relevant to budgetary issues. But I am passionate about public transit, although not a regular user. I prefer the bicycle. Yes, even in this weather, but I have a relatively short commute.
At the outset, let me clarify a few things. I live in Ward 13, known to us locals as Dundas, and have for 17 years. I am employed. Gainfully. I am a secondary school teacher, which I believe even qualifies me as a professional. I have children. Two, in fact. I apologize to those who might be confused by the fact I don’t fit the profile of the average “bus nut”.
I firmly believe that the state of public transit is a barometer for how we are as a city. There are many who feel as I do, that we need a viable system of public transit as we aim to reach our mission as the best city in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens and provide diverse economic activities. Our system, as it stands, is reasonable. Yes, reasonable is the best adjective I can conjure to describe the Hamilton Street Railway. Indeed, there is room - nay an imperative for improvement to public transit in our city. We are fortunate to have a blueprint for transit in the form of the 10 year plan. Whether it’s enhanced rapid transit corridors, new busses, or working with Metrolinx and the province towards Light Rail Transit, the time to invest is now.
Esteemed councillors, transit matters. It matters not only for those who have no choice but to take the bus, as a function of economic reality, but also in the creation of a vibrant and sustainable city. Because we are falling behind in Hamilton. Car travel is still seen as the default option for getting to work and getting around the city. This in a world where finite resources are a reality and climate change constantly looms.
I see this every day as I make my daily 4 kilometer bicycle commute westbound up Governor’s Road in Dundas. In the opposite direction is a mass of traffic, most of which is comprised of single occupant vehicles. Up close, I taste first hand the fumes of a city crying out for better transit. Because there are alternatives.
And make no mistake, Council, there is a need for transit even in Dundas. If our Councillor would take up the challenge and ride transit to City Hall for even a week, she would see that the morning busses are packed. Packed with people heading to jobs in the core. Packed with students heading out of Dundas towards programs of choice in high schools across the city. Packed with people making a difference in choosing a mode of transport other than the private vehicle.
But transit remains an essential, even life or death reality for many people right across the region, and not just to a few urbanites in the lower city. We have an aging population that needs to access medical appointments. We have those students who school boards on increasingly limited budgets are insisting take public transit if they want equitable access to programs of choice, such as French immersion. We have people with disabilities for whom DARTS isn’t always the most available or even the best alternative.
And, yet, public transit in Hamilton, in particular, suffers from a stigma. At what point did using public transit become déclassé? It is a way of getting around in not only larger cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where gridlock is ever present, but cities similar in size to Hamilton. As an example, we are light years behind Ottawa, where light rail transit has been present for a decade and is being expanded as we speak. Why is there the perception that transit is for poorer, lower class people in the lower, urban part of the city?
And at what point did public transit become unsafe for young people? Why do parents go so far as to forbid their adolescent children from traveling to parts of our great city using public transit? This is completely foreign to my own experience growing up in Stoney Creek, where the King 1 and, later, the Beeline, became my lifelines to the public golf course at the other end of the city, the athletic facilities where I trained at McMaster University and even the now-extinct downtown movie theatres.
This is a backward vision for a city that fashions itself as ambitious. A failure to invest in transit infrastructure is the opposite of a city that is the best place in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens and provide diverse economic activities. Friends, please embrace the 10 year plan, starting with the 2015 budget year! Enthusiastically seize every opportunity that the province and Metrolinx provide for modernizing public transit in Hamilton. Be the agents of progress that commuters in this city so desperately need and richly deserve.
Members of Council, thank you for the opportunity of hijacking the budget process - for five minutes at least.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Councillor Arlene Vanderbeek, you have failed Dundas

Dear Councillor Arlene Vanderbeek:

In your first test as Councillor for Ward 13, you failed.  You failed the people of Dundas.  Miserably.

In spite of some spirited lip service to the importance of public transit to the long-term interests of Hamilton, which includes Dundas, in voting to suspend the King Street bus lane, you have set back the cause by a decade or more.

We, as a city, are already lagging behind similar-sized communities in our transit infrastructure.  Ridership is increasing at exponential rates in centres such as Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines.  And the progress that Ottawa has made - and continues to make - on light rail transit makes us look like an embarrassment by comparison.

You and your Council colleagues failed to recognize that the bus lane is a harbinger for larger transit issues, not least of which is light rail transit.   We are on trial in Hamilton, Councillor Vanderbeek.  There are people and entities watching and gauging a perception of the city's receptiveness to a viable transit system.  These are entities like the Province and Metrolinx, who have the resources to make Hamilton a livable city via enhanced public transit.  In the pursuit of parochial interests, you and your colleagues have failed the city as a whole.

And, make no mistake about it, you have failed Dundas.  Have you asked the people you purport to represent about why transit may not be a priority for them?  You needn't bother, because clearly you haven't, but I will tell you any way.  It is because the levels of service are presently inadequate, as they are in other "peripheral" parts of the city.  

What is going to make public transit work in Dundas?  The answer is simple; it needs to be viable city-wide and, critically, in the core.  Do you think people are taking transit just to get around Dundas?  Guess again - people have jobs, appointments, family and friends across the region.  It's an adage that was heard frequently throughout the 2014 municipal campaign - what's good for Hamilton is good for Dundas.    Good transit attracts ridership.  Ridership promotes expansion.  By crippling transit in the core, you have jeopardized the future of decent transit in your own ward.

Transit, more than ever, is becoming a quality of life issue.  We all breathe the same air.  In a city where air quality is a constant concern, viable public transit is the best option we have to curtail the amount of emissions coming out of the only option people have in the absence of decent transit - the private car.  We talk a good game about making our communities more livable and walkable.  But do we put our money where our mouths are?

You have not heard the last from me, or the growing numbers of those who are committed to the betterment of the whole city in part owing to our insistence on a transit system that is worthy of us.

Dundas deserves better.

Rich Gelder