Strategy only makes sense if we're all trying to build on our common values and interests, and the zero-sum politics of resentment are antithetical to common values.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 28, 2020
With 1,000 bikes, 26,000 active members and 350,000 passenger trips a year, Hamilton Bike Share is a bargain at a gross annual operating cost of $700,000. But Hamilton City Council cannot resist the atavistic urge to put identity politics ahead of strategic planning.
Hamilton Bike Share hub at Chedoke Golf Course
After yet another ultramarathon session of ocean-boiling hyperbolic bikeshedding over a project with utterly miniscule costs - we are talking, after all, about 0.02 percent of the city's annual budget - Council deadlocked on whether to fund the continued operation of Hamilton Bike Share for the rest of the year.
Instead, Councillors voted to spend an unknown amount of money to warehouse the bikes once the system shuts down on June 1. Amazingly, the motion by Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann would have funded the system using money already earmarked for local spending in wards 1, 2 and 3.
That is to say, the councillors opposed to this motion voted to overrule the wards 1-3 councillors spending money from their own dedicated ward capital reserves to keep the program running.
This is a gross double standard and the kind of anti-urban hypocrisy that has been drearily common over the past two decades since amalgamation.
The most vocal anti-urban sentiment has been from angry suburban leaders who never wanted to get bolted onto Hamilton through amalgamation (but were happy to have Hamilton subsidize their infrastructure through regional government, of course).
But amalgamation - which was imposed on all of us by the Conservative Mike Harris government - has left the old city subject to the one-way whims and caprices of anti-urban resentment and grievance, which suburban councillors openly embody and shamelessly encourage to this day.
The framing of every issue in us-vs-them terms is deliberate and debilitating for a city trying to build common ground and move forward.
In the face of such grievance-based identity politics, strategic plans don't matter. Strategy only makes sense if we're all trying to build on our common values and interests, and the zero-sum politics of resentment are antithetical to common values.
Likewise, the facts don't matter. This decision isn't about making the most cost-effective use of scarce resources, it's about driving a wedge into the body politic and pandering for rhetorical points against the 'other', no matter the actual cost.
Nor is consistency a factor. Many of the councillors complaining that bike share doesn't serve their wards are the same councillors who only agreed to allow it in the first place as long as it didn't go in their wards.
Facts and arguments need to take root in a worldview to influence our decisions. The angry, anti-urban worldview that drives Hamilton's identity politics is stony ground indeed. It is the place where so many transformative ideas go to die.
Anti-urban resentment is a failing strategy for Hamilton as a whole, but it works well for the cynical politicians who stoke it. Keeping their constituents misinformed and bitter keeps them employed even as it harms the city as a whole - including their constituents, who deserve better.
On the rare occasion where an inclusive urban project actually goes ahead and is successful, that just makes the aggrieved anti-urban haters even more bitter and resentful. It certainly doesn't inspire them to reconsider their opposition to it.
For example, how many lower-city one-way dead zones do we need to convert into vibrant two-way people places before the haters finally acknowledge that city streets work better when they are more inclusive?
How many new protected two-way cycle tracks have to fill up with cyclists before we are willing to acknowledge that there is a huge latent demand for safe cycling infrastructure?
Bike Share was widely (by the haters) expected to be a total failure. Instead, pound for pound it has been one of the most successful systems in North America: built and operated on a shoestring budget, it achieved 26,000 active members and 350,000 trips a year.
Far from mollifying the critics, its success just made them hate it even more. Bike Share has had a target on its back since the day it launched.
How do you reason with bad faith? How do you negotiate with malice? How do you build on a foundation of cynicism, grievance and deliberate misinformation? After close to two decades of caring about what happens in this city, I am no closer to a workable answer now than I was in 2003.
This city is broken. I have no idea how we can fix it. But until we do, every new project faces a hurricane of resistance, every existing project lives in existential jeopardy and each tiny step we take upward is on a slurry of unstable land that is itself inexorably sliding backwards.
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