By Ryan McGreal
Published March 22, 2011
This should by rights be filed under both walkability and open public data. It's a story of a neighbourhood struggling to convince the city to prioritize community needs above through traffic on local streets, but it's also a story of city staff coming to terms with the reasonable request of local residents to access public data collected about their own neighbourhood.
Last year, when the City was going through the process of updating its city wide truck route master plan, the Strathcona Community Council (SCC) advocated to have Dundurn Street North removed from the truck route.
Dundurn Street North is two lanes northbound and one lane southbound with no curbside parking and anemic 4'10" sidewalks right next to the street. It is residential on both sides, connects to Strathcona School and Victoria Park, and has no signalized pedestrian crossings for the entire 700 metre length between King Street West and York Blvd (though crosswalks are painted on the road at Hunt St and at Lamoreaux St).
In what has become depressingly common in Hamilton, the final staff recommendations dismissed the community input into the truck route study, sacrificing neighbourhood livibility to the goal of maximizing traffic flow.
The SCC knew anecdotally that truck traffic on Dundurn was heavy, but they wanted hard data to present to staff and councillors. To get it, volunteers monitored traffic on Dundurn at King St. over a ten-day period and collected 24 hours of round-the-clock data. You can see their presentation (in PPT format).
In brief: 424 trucks were observed during that time, 313 (65%) of them southbound and the other 111 (35%) northbound. 371 trucks, or 88% of the total, passed between 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM. On average, during that 12 hour period, a truck passed every 1 minute and 57 seconds. The volunteers also observed that 70% of the trucks heading south on Dundurn did not continue on Dundurn Street South past Main Street.
The SCC launched a cheeky campaign titled Tell them to Truck Off! to raise public awareness of the issue and put pressure on the public works committee and council to reject the staff recommendation and put the neighbourhood's community needs above the convenience of through truck traffic.
Against the objections of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, which decried the "political influence" of the Strathcona residents, Council voted to remove Dundurn from the truck route for an 18-month pilot project.
As part of the project, staff conducted their own truck traffic data collection prior to implementing the change so they would have a baseline for later comparison when the change came up for review. SCC volunteers contacted the city and asked to see the data and to understand the methodology the city used to collect the data.
The request was forwarded to Hart Solomon, the city's manager of traffic engineering and operations. He replied, "The data has not yet been compiled in a format that is suitable for distribution." He stated that city staff did not intend to publish the data but would publish a summary report once the "after" data had been collected and compiled at the end of the 18 month study.
Solomon added that the data was collected through "a combinatiion of manual short-term and automated longet term counts." A later email from Bob Butrym, a truck route technologist with the city, specified that the data was collected from 6:00 AM - 9:00 AM and from 2:00 PM - 6:00 PM.
After follow-up requests from SCC asking to see the data, Butrym released a summary comparing the "before" results with an "after" snapshot taken four months after the street was removed from the truck route and signage on the street was updated.
Two "before" snapshots were taken near York Blvd and near King St., and one "after" snapshot was taken mid-block. The studies excluded heavy vehicles that were exempt from the restriction.
|Study||York Blvd||King St||Mid-Block|
Butrym concluded that the 32 illegal heavy vehicles observed in the four-month snapshot was "a 70% decrease from the volume sample taken when Dundurn St. N. was still a designated truck route."
After multiple requests and several months, public works staff finally released a summary of the data they had collected on truck traffic on Dundurn Street North - but not the data itself.
To be clear, there's absolutely nothing controversial about this information. It's not embarrassing or incendiary. There are no privacy implications that might warrant keeping it out of the public view. It's merely a count of trucks driving on a street.
Why were staff so reluctant to share it? Why are they still so reluctant to share the underlying line-level data? Solomon's original response may hint at an answer: "The data has not yet been compiled in a format that is suitable for distribution."
Is it a technical limitation? Hamilton Police Service, for example, has been using a proprietary crime database using non-standard formats that do not provide the capacity to export data, meaning police officers must manually count crimes in the system to provide summaries. (The new police system will at least have the potential to export data, though no resources have been earmarked to do this.)
Is it a fear that the general public will get confused by line-level data that has not been compiled and summarized, as Larry Di Ianni recently suggested?
It is simply a corporate silo-mentality of playing things close to the chest? Over the years I've heard off-the-record from a number of city staffers who feel real frustration at their own inability to get information out of other departments.
In any case, this culture needs to change if Hamilton is ever to move up the ladder of citizen participation from the tokenism that prevails today.
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