The Chamber of Commerce President and west mountain Councillor exchanged strong words over motions that undermine the goal of a more balanced transportation system.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 30, 2016
Yesterday's Light Rail Transit Sub-Committee meeting included a sharp and revealing exchange between Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President Keanin Loomis and Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead. You can watch a video of the exchange on Joey Coleman's Facebook page.
Loomis addressed Councillor Whitehead's cute war against safer streets by noting the clear pattern in Whitehead's recent motions, specifically his proposal last December to declare a moratorium on all new street safety initiatives across the lower city and his more recent motion asking staff to study changing the City's traffic Level of Service target from LOS D to LOS C.
Loomis submitted a letter on behalf of the Chamber as correspondence to the Sub-Committee (we can't link directly to the letter because the City's agenda website is unusable-by-design, but it's item 8.1 under "Discussion Items"), but he was also on hand to speak to the concerns raised in the letter.
Loomis: I don't know what the status of the December moratorium motion is, but we have since received a notice of a motion put to Public Works on February 29, 2016 requesting Transportation planning staff to study changing the Level of Service on our arterial road network from Level D to Level C, in effect making our streets even more car-friendly, if that is even possible.
And these motions, I believe, are a very disturbing pattern. There seems to be a troubling attempt to undermine the professionals in the city as they look to plan for LRT using best practices and look to bring Hamilton finally into the 21st century - just when we are finally awakening to the need to rebalance our streets to build them for people and the businesses on them, not just cars.
We have to be vigilant as a task force against these types of efforts, which are anti-science, anti-progress, anti-everything we know about placemaking and city-building in the modern age. These efforts fly in the face of all the citizen engagement that has been done with Our Future Hamilton and with the Citizens' Jury [on Transit], which is real evidence, not just anecdote. And it flies in the face of our obligations as a City in our agreement with Metrolinx and could dangerously undermine the City's efforts to build this project and to reach its full potential. I just thought it was important to bring that to the Committee's attention.
The Citizens' Jury on Transit recent presented their final report to the City, making several recommendations to ensure the success of the Provincial LRT investment. The recommendations include starting now to prepare Hamiltonians for the changes that are coming by nudging people to change their transportation habits before construction starts.
Whitehead's moratorium proposal would do the opposite, desperately holding the line on the status quo for as long as possible instead of embracing the transformation and reconfiguring our transportation system to maximize the benefits.
Whitehead was the next speaker and he responded to Loomis' sharp words by defending his moratorium proposal.
Whitehead: Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's surprising, in fact it's really surprising the Chamber of Commerce doesn't get it. When you are going to build an LRT that is going to disrupt over 10,000 vehicles a day, then our staff are doing their due diligence to try and figure out in a predictable way how you will mitigate that traffic flow, especially during the construction phase.
When I talk to staff the issue is, if you continue changing capacity on roadworks during the period where they're trying to provide a solution to mitigate the impacts of the construction phase, they wanna work with predictability. And the only way you can get predictability is to freeze out any changes during this phase until they determine what those alternative transportation routes are to mitigate the transportation - sorry, the traffic that are impacted.
Anyone that can't figure that one out and doesn't understand that when you shut down a major corridor that's gonna have major implications, and that staff need to be able to predict what roads are gonna have what capacities through that construction phase, I just, I just, it's naive.
Just to be clear, Whitehead is suggesting that we put a hold on any changes to the lower city transportation system until after the LRT construction phase - in other words, between now and 2024.
But the question was regarding the current status of the moratorium proposal after Whitehead opted to table the motion instead of introducing it. He responded:
I still plan on working with staff, I think it's about staff sitting down and articulating the same message I'm articulating now. This is not about a permanent, this is not a permanent issue, this is temporary issue just to accommodate the construction phase. So if everyone, anyone thought the moratorium was expanded beyond the LRT, no. You go right back to business as usual, and then what roads need to be converted, or can be converted, will be converted.
"Business as usual", of course, is the depressing state of suspended animation in which even very modest street conversions that were approved 15 years ago pass by uncompleted year after year - in large part because of the steady opposition of councillors like Whitehead himself.
But right now we are in a sensitive stage in planning and this is an issue of predict- again, predictability to ensure that our staff have had the ability to move car traffic around knowing what the capacity of the road network is without it changing every month, every three months, etc etera. So it's about predictability, it's about good planning and you know it's unfortunate that anyone thinks it's an attack otherwise.
Again, Whitehead wants to put a freeze on any new traffic calming project for the next nine years, but you shouldn't worry because it's only a temporary measure and then we'll be back to "business as usual". Feeling reassured yet?
Next, Whitehead defended his motion calling on staff to look at the implications of moving from a Level of Service D to a Level of Service C.
So the second piece is, Mr. Chair, if you look at Toronto, Vancouver and so forth at the designation or the threshold they look at, let's be clear that C still has congestion, no question about that.
This is only true if you define "congestion" as anything short of totally free traffic flow 24 hours a day. Level of Service is a scale of traffic flow with Level A - free flow with low volume - as the highest level of traffic flow and Level F - traffic jam - as the lowest level.
Currently, Hamilton's Transportation Master Plan has Level D as its goal. For vehicle traffic, Level D means that during rush hour, vehicle speeds decrease slightly due to heavy peak traffic volume. There are slight delays of 25-55 seconds at intersections, and a collision can be expected to cause a backup.
Whitehead wants to change the city's goal to Level C. At Level C, traffic is at or near free-flow speeds at all hours of the day. Delays at intersections are limited to 15-35 seconds during rush hour.
But in a city where some people cry "gridlock" with a straight face after getting stopped at a red light, Whitehead's hyperbole likely has some political currency even if it is sharply at odds with reality.
Then he went into a dance between two contradictory conclusions:
What staff explained to me is that if you want to push more people off into - and I think [Ward 4] Councillor [Sam] Merulla heard the same explanation - want to push off more traffic to bicycling, pedestrian traffic and the whole bit, it would actually create a process in which to alleviate the congestion that you would utilize more that alternative transportation network to do that. So actually it's not a negative thing, it's actually a positive thing.
What Whitehead is suggesting here is that staff may come back and argue that the only feasible way to improve transportation level of service is precisely to create more space for walking, cycling and transit so that people have more choices in how to get around and some vehicle trips are replaced with other modes.
This is actually correct, given that it is fiscally and even technically impossible for the City to build enough lane capacity to eliminate congestion. However, I do not believe for one minute that Whitehead will really embrace a staff report telling him the only way to improve traffic flow is to invest more in walking, cycling and transit connections.
So for all those urbanist [sic] that wants these more cycling lanes, more, more pedestrian walks, then the real issue is: how do we push that envelope to ensure that we are pushing that alternative form of transportation, whether it's public transit, cycling or pedestrian, and still have an adequate flow of traffic.
There were a lot of words in that sentence, but the only ones that really matter to Whitehead are the last seven.
So the way you get adequate flow of traffic doesn't mean you necessarily have to change anything other than ensuring that you're providing reasonable alternative forms of transportation that people will go to. So to jump to a conclusion again, the way it's been suggested, when the Traffic department clearly indicated to me, no, this is not necessarily a negative thing.
Except that the very next thing Whitehead did was to reiterate his routine absurd claim that Garth Street has a serious congestion problem.
And I also want to address, Mr. Chair, that currently on Garth Street it's a parking lot nine times out of ten, especially at peak hours.
Even if we're generous and allow for some dramatic hyperbole, this claim is straight-up ridiculous. Barring a major highway collision, the only time Garth Street has any congestion is at peak hours. The rest of the day, the biggest problem on Garth is dangerous speeding, not traffic.
Google Maps includes a Traffic layer, which determines vehicle flow on streets based on how fast Google Maps-enabled mobile devices are moving down the street. It provides both a Live and Typical Traffic view. A look at typical traffic on Garth at various times of the day - including during AM and PM peaks - shows that Whitehead's claim is nonsensical.
Animation: Typical Traffic on Garth on a weekday at various times (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Here is a photo I took of PM rush hour traffic on Garth Street last November:
PM rush hour traffic on Garth Street, November 2015
That is one empty parking lot!
A recent comparative study by mapping company TomTom found that Hamilton has among the lowest congestion levels of Canadian cities. Along with that, we are the second-most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians, we have long-stagnant transit investment and ridership, and we are looking down a $2 billion unfunded road infrastructure maintenance backlog - all while spending another $17 million this year to build new roads.
It's almost as if these disparate facts were somehow connected...
Not content with how he left things at yesterday's meeting, Whitehead went on the Bill Kelly Show on AM 900 CHML this morning to expand. You can listen to the clip on CHML's Soundcloud. Kelly opened the issue diplomatically, suggesting there was a "difference in philosophies" but Whitehead was having none of it.
I don't think it's a difference in philosophy. Honestly, I think it's a complete naive misunderstanding by somebody that's anti-democratic, anti-car, anti-good planning, bridge-burning, naive, self-serving.
He even went on to red-bait RTH, referring to us as "Raise the Hammer and Sickle". Given that he was in the context of a debate with the head of the Chamber of Commerce, this seems even sillier than usual.
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