I care about a healthy city from Dundas, where I live, right across to Stoney Creek and up and down the mountain. That apparently makes me an 'activist'.
By Rich Gelder
Published February 25, 2015
this article has been updated
I never saw myself as an activist. But apparently I am ... and always have been. And I have City of Hamilton Ward 8 Councillor, Terry Whitehead, to thank for outing me - even to myself.
Here's how it happened. I recently had the occasion to make a submission as a "delegation" to the Strategy and Policy Committee of Hamilton City Council, who were receiving in-person submissions on the 2015 city budget.
For those not following the news in Hamilton, transit has been front and centre on the public agenda. Recently, a one-year experiment with the transit-dedicated lane, known as the King Street Bus Lane, was cut short by City Council in spite of a staff recommendation that it be continued.
Further, the province of Ontario has recently announced that it is committed to fully funding the capital costs of rapid transit, in some form, in the city.
I came to be interested in transit issues in Hamilton - well, I'm not sure how.
Although I am the owner of a family automobile (a nice one, too), I have chosen to commute to my job as a secondary school teacher by bicycle for the better part of fifteen years.
Although I occasionally used transit in recent years when my job was downtown Hamilton, I can only call myself an occasional user at this point. Having said that, I lived on the Hamilton Street Railway as a youth growing up in Stoney Creek.
Upset at the ending of the bus lane, I banded together with a group of like-minded individuals from across the city with the aim of keeping public transit on Council's radar. We genuinely believe that healthy cities need good transit.
This should have been the first clue that I had descended into the realm of active activism. But I feel strongly about transit. I care about a healthy city from Dundas, where I live, right across to Stoney Creek and up and down the mountain.
We decided it would be a good idea for some of us to avail ourselves of the opportunity to present at Council, an opportunity I jumped at.
I prepared some remarks, expressing my firm belief that transit matters, not only for economically marginalized people in Hamilton but also for those who want an alternative to private vehicles.
I also made a point of explaining that I have a family with two children and that I am gainfully employed as a teacher. This was because rumour had it that transit activists fit a certain profile of being largely urban, unemployed and without family.
I made that presentation. And I nailed it! Or so I thought.
Upon leaving the Council podium to return to my seat in the gallery, I was met with an icy, nay steely, glare from Councillor Whitehead, who hissed quite audibly: "You're an activist."
Now, one might receive this as either a compliment or an insult, but observing the hostility with which it appeared to be directed, I tended toward the latter.
I tried to defend myself, all the while respecting the meeting that was still going on, by saying I was a resident with a family. Again he sneered, "You're an activist."
We metaphorically "took it outside" and engaged in a brief exchange on Twitter, wherein the Councillor suggested that, as an activist, I am "driven to a greater degree by ideology and less open..", a thought he never finished.
@rgelder you are an activist, as I have said nothing wrong with that. Activist are driven to a greater degree by ideology and less open ..— Terry Whitehead (@terrywhitehead) February 24, 2015
I was left perplexed and could not understand why the Councillor would be so hostile to engaged citizenship, which is what I honestly thought I was undertaking.
Because the truth is, I care about this city and the people who live in it. The disappearance of public transit would have very little personal consequence for me and my family, but would be disastrous for the city.
I don't know if Councillor Whitehead's "accusation" suggests that I am acting in mere self-interest, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Is this activism and, if so, is it such a bad thing? Taking a public stance an participating in your democracy for issues you feel are important for the health of your city?
If so, I have been an activist for some time. I have been involved with amateur track and field in this city for almost twenty years, coaching, coordinating and administrating. Does that make me a track and field activist, and would this too earn me the scorn of Councillor Whitehead?
As a final note, I saw my own Ward 13 Councillor, Arlene VanderBeek, in the foyer of the meeting as I left. My Councillor regrettably voted to scrap the bus lane, as well, and I have been vocal in social media in an attempt to ensure that transit remains on her conscience.
I approached her, extending my hand as a courtesy and to suggest there are no hard feelings, in the hope that she might make some better decisions in the future regarding transit.
I will not soon forget the look of horror on her face as she very reluctantly accepted my handshake as she shrunk back into the Council chamber. It was almost as though I had ebola on my palms.
I guess being an activist has a certain stigma attached to it.
Update: here is the text of my presentation to Council.
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.
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