Automobile exhaust remains a major contributor to air pollution. The biggest thing City Council can do to reduce air pollution is to support walkable streets and improved transit.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 29, 2011
The report documents steady improvement in Hamilton's air quality over the past ten years, mostly due to reductions in industrial emissions.
However, it also reminds us that automobile exhaust remains the single biggest local soure of air pollution and that areas far from industry but close to major highways and arterial roads have significantly elevated pollution levels.
Vehicles remain the major source of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in Hamilton.
The main health effect from air pollution is cardiovascular disease, but it also causes respiratory illness, including difficulty breathing.
Over 100 Hamiltonians die prematurely every year, and another 620 are admitted to hospital, because of air pollution.
Motor vehicles also produce 8 percent of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas output in Hamilton. While industrial output of CO2-e fell 11 percent between 2006 and 2008 and waste management dropped by 18 percent, residential, commercial and transportation output of CO2-e all increased modestly.
CO2-e output from transportation increased slightly from 964,590 tonnes in 2006 to 992,562 tonnes in 2008. Similarly, residential output of CO2-e equivalent increased from 793,635 tonnes in 2006 to 886,530 tonnes in 2008, and commercial output increased from 1,134,666 tonnes in 2006 to 1,298,469 tonnes in 2008.
This, of course, is exactly what one would expect from a city land use and transportation system that continues to emphasize the low-density suburban development of automobile-dependent single family home subdivisions and big box stores.
The report sketches a history of transportation planning in Hamilton, starting with the original proposal to remove Hamilton's electric rail transit facilities "in order to enable more efficient automobile traffic." A transportation master plan completed in 1963 "affirmed the primacy of the automobile and truck traffic as major transportation modes."
Commenting on the disastrous late-mid-century effort to separate downtown pedestrians from streets on rooftop plazas and elevated walkways, the report concludes, "Not every plan works! Costly and difficult changes have been and are needed to retrofit this innovation, work that remains incomplete."
Today, best practices of land use design are understood to mean creating a "sustainable and safe pedestrian environment" through mixed-use buildings fronting onto streets, shade trees, pedestrian plazas, reducing traffic volumes and speeds, cycling facilities, integrated transit, and access to parks.
The report recommends the city to take the health impacts of transportation decisions into consideration when planning. It notes that Hamilton's transportation system is overwhelmingly automobile-based, resulting in higher levels of vehicle emissions.
The roads in and around Hamilton are heavily used by local citizens, commuters passing through Hamilton and long-distance traffic. As a consequence, the air quality is adversely impacted by the mobile emissions generated by gasoline-powered vehicles and diesel-powered transport trucks.
Among its conclusions, the report cites a need for the city to "Recognize the health impacts of transportation-based pollutants near major traffic corridors and take steps to implement this recognition into their transportation planning and urban design practices. A balance needs to be found between active transportation, vehicular and goods movement".
The city must also "Support and encourage Hamiltonians to reduce their transportation-based emissions through the use of transportation alternatives including public transit, bicycles, walking, hybrid vehicles, etc."
In his report to to the June 13 General Issues Committee (fomerly the Committee of the Whole), Clean Air Hamilton Chair Dr. Brian McCarry told councillors, "When you say we're putting in a subdivision here, that subdivision is going to be there in 50 years.
The kind of walkable cities that have been talked about in the economic summit is the kind of thing we've been talking about for some time and we think this is a critical issue and an opportunity for this city to step forward.
McCarry said, "The primary thing we can do is reduce transportation emissions." He mentioned light rail transit, citing Portland, Oregon as a city that reportedly was able to "reduce emissions from vehicles by 25 percent" through investment in LRT.
"So people will use those kinds of systems and you can make reductions. So that's the kind of things you can see. So if you want to make reductions, and there's a direct health benefit."