21/04/05. Chasing One Big Idea to improve the city (Hamilton, Canada)

Editor’s note: Here you have the first — and certainly not the last — grassroots campaign to see what they can do to put the 20/20 concept to work in their community. By way of background, Hamilton is a city of more than half a million, Canada‘s ninth largest (more at http://www.city.hamilton.on.ca/), and thus not by any means a trivial target for a 20/20 demonstration. We shall do what we can to support their project, their success or otherwise will be the fruit of their own hard work and abilities to mobilize the community around their “one big idea”. In the meantime to follow their progress, your reference is http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog.asp?id=59.

Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge
Posted 2005/04/21 12:12:04 PM | By: Ryan McGreal



The Commons Open Society Sustainability Initiative (Ecoplan) points out that while 157 countries have signed the Kyoto Accord, no cities have done so. Since 70 percent of all people live in cities, and traffic accounts for over half of air pollution, cities have a unique role to play in meeting the Kyoto targets.

The Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge is simple and ambitious: cities commit to reducing overall CO2 emissions by 20 percent over 20 months. (CO2 was picked because it is a good indicator of air quality as a whole, and reductions in CO2 will tend to be accompanied by reductions in other forms of air pollution.)

This goal may seem ludicrous, but the International Advisory Council, which includes a global cross-section of world-renowned engineers, professors of economics, geography, and political science, physicists, architects, planners, transport policy analysts, and activists (including Jane Jacobs), has determined that a coordinated policy can achieve these results without major capital expenditures.

Developing a Plan

The organization has identified a number of factors that should go into any effort to implement the 20/20 Challenge:

Local Action

The idea is to engage a local base of volunteers to develop a city-specific plan that takes local factors into account, engages local stakeholders (including those inclined to oppose it), and implements a made-at-home solution that can be measured.


The enormous costs associated with car-based transportation are both observable and measurable. To be successful implementing the 20/20 Challenge, the city must understand the costs – both long-term and immediate – of maintaining the status quo.

Public Health

Car dependence is a public health catastrophe in slow motion. Discussing the issue in mere technical or even environmental terms does not get to the bottom and will probably not engage many people’s interest. A more complete look at the costs must result in a more complete presentation of the far-reaching effects.

Car-Like Mobility

People won’t give up transportation convenience. The initiative should provide what Ecoplan calls “car-like mobility” – i.e. the ability to get around a city quickly and conveniently on one’s own terms. In fact, a sustainable transport system can be better than its car-based counterpart, as every city cyclist already knows.


The initiative should consist of actions the city can perform right away that will make a big, immediate difference.


In addition to being timely, the initiative should be affordable. Instead of mega-projects, it should entail more effective use of existing facilities.

Hamilton is fortunate in that the province is giving us $15 million in gas tax money.

City Council doesn’t want to invest it in new buses, citing ongoing maintenance and inflationary pressures on fuel costs. Fair enough. Transit investments are hugely expensive and take a long time to recoup their costs.

At the outset, the money can be spent more effectively elsewhere on one-time changes that will reap quick rewards and create ongoing savings that can be re-invested rather than ongoing costs that must be carried.

Initial Proposal

With the Ecoplan’s recommendations in mind, here are a list of proposals that Hamilton can implement immediately without major new expenditures. There are surely more good ideas that meet these criteria, and all are welcome. This list is intended to start the discussion, not to end it.

1. Speed Limits

There’s no question: as driving speeds go up, the risk of serious injury and death from collisions rises exponentially.

Lower speed limits to 40 km/h on main streets and 25 km/h on side streets. This will cost very little, level the playing field for cyclists without having to install bike lanes, and make the streets quieter, safer, and more welcoming to pedestrians, particularly children, who spend a lot of time playing outside.

Note on Bike Lanes: Bike lanes can cause mayhem at intersections where cyclists are riding straight through and motorists to their left are trying to turn right. Also, confining bikes to narrow lanes wastes road space where cyclists are absent at the same time that it ghettoizes cycling in general. It’s much better to slow the cars and integrate the bikes onto the road so there’s one set of rules.

2. Two-Way Streets

Make all major streets two-way, with curbside parking. The city already plans to do this eventually, but in the meantime, today’s roaring thoroughfares are uninhabitable to pedestrians. Making the streets two-way will also slow traffic, making it easier for cyclists to keep up.

In particular, James St. and John St. should be made two way, with two lanes in each direction and market-priced curbside parking (see #5) where applicable.

3. Gore Park Buses

Remove the buses from the south side of Gore Park. With James St. and John St. two-way, this cross-over will no longer be necessary. Ideally, the lane should be closed to automobile traffic, which will allow for bigger patio areas for King St. businesses during summer months.

4. Zoning Regulations

Replace Hamilton’s labyrinthine zoning regulations with the following simple rules: build to the sidewalk, make buildings compatible with their neighbours, open directly onto the street, and place parking in the rear, if at all.

This will lower the bar for smaller investors and allow building owners to use their properties the ways they want. The aggregate result will be a richer, more diverse tapestry of homes and businesses that are built at a human scale and offer more reasons to be on the street at all times.

5. “Free” Parking

Eliminate all parking requirements from zoning regulations, and install “smart” meters at curbsides and municipal lots that charge market rates based on time of day. As Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA explains, “free” parking actually amounts to a massive hidden subsidy for driving that undercuts other modes of transportation. The per-kilometre subsidy is highest for the shortest trips, meaning “free” parking does the most to discourage exactly those trips that can most easily be made without a car.

In addition to covering the landscape in half-empty lots, “free” parking encourages drivers to “cruise” for curbside spaces during peak times, adding to traffic congestion and air pollution.

The meter price should be high enough to maintain 15 percent vacancy, which is considered optimal for entry and exit. All new money collected by these meters should go to local BIAs and neighbourhood associations to spend on local improvements.

6. Anti-Idling

Establish an anti-idling by-law based on public health rather than noise and couple it with a moratorium on new drive-through commercial facilities. Ideally, this should also entail the power to ban existing drive-through facilities and small engine tools (e.g. lawn mowers) on days when the Ministry of the Environment has issued a Smog Advisory or a Poor air quality forecast (an AQI of 50 or higher).

7. Property Tax

Property tax should reflect the real cost of providing public infrastructure. Under current laws, lower density properties are under-taxed and higher density properties are over-taxed. This amounts to a hidden public subsidy for sprawl, which increases demand for low density developments.

8. Lister Block

The only part of Hamilton that already enjoys a compact public environment is the downtown core. City Council can support downtown redevelopment without incurring additional costs by agreeing to relocate city staff into the Lister Block while City Hall is being renovated. The city will have to pay to house the staff somewhere, and LIUNA, the owner of the Lister Block, has agreed to restore the building as long as it can be guaranteed a tenant.

This is mutually beneficial: a landmark downtown building is restored, the city obtains a temporary location for staff, and the daytime population of the core is increased significantly, which will help local businesses and facilitate alternate transportation choices.

Paying the Cost

Most of these initiatives will cost nothing. The few expenses can be paid out of the gas tax with no lingering obligations.

These steps will serve simultaneously to impose market forces on driving and make it easier to choose alternatives. This will help downtown businesses, improve air quality, and encourage more people to use alternative transportation without new investments.

More transit riders make the system more efficient so the city has to contribute less to the total cost. The savings can be reinvested in more pedestrian-friendly public infrastructure.

By bootstrapping from inexpensive changes instead of betting the bank on a mega-project, Hamilton can start to tilt the scales toward sustainability. In the meantime, everybody benefits from a more comfortable city and air pollution starts to improve.


Naturally, this initiative will make some individuals and groups uncomfortable. The best strategy is to engage these groups early, take their concerns into account, and demonstrate that the 20/20 Challenge actually benefits everyone, including many of those groups most likely to oppose it.


Some Business organizations may be expected to oppose a general move toward sustainability out of fear that it will be bad for the economy. Several important factors should help to convince Hamilton businesses to support this initiative:

  1. It makes significant use of market forces, rather than “Draconian” government power, to effect change.
  2. It will deliver money back to BIAs and neighbourhood associations to invest in local redevelopment.
  3. It will benefit the downtown economy by encouraging more development and attracting more people.
  4. Alleviating congestion will save money in shipping and transportation costs.
  5. Market-based pricing for parking ensures that drivers will find a spot.


Hamilton Developers, more than most other groups, will have to move out of their current “comfort zone” to embrace the 20/20 Challenge and sustainable development in general. They will have to learn new ways of designing building projects to replace the low-density sprawl that predominates today.

However, attitudes are changing. Developers who have “taken the leap” into building compact, mixed developments are enjoying their high popularity among buyers. Developers can enjoy many benefits:

  • More saleable lots for a given area.
  • Simpler building regulations, including no parking requirements, mean lower design and administrative costs.
  • Higher resale values (demonstrated in numerous studies).
  • Less public opposition and faster approval.

Municipal Government

City Council may be attracted to these initiatives for a number of reasons:

  • Huge boost to city’s image.
  • No significant new costs to the budget.
  • Savings and new revenue will accrue to the city over time.
  • Steadily growing tax base as city densifies.
  • Less costs due to congestion.
  • Better public health indicators.
  • More accurate pricing for public infrastructure.
  • Less downtown crime and a reduced need for policing, due to more citizen “eyes” on the streets. (Also, compact development means more “beat” and bicycle police, saving fleet costs.)

Next Steps

Raise the Hammer is prepared to help develop and support the 20/20 Challenge in Hamilton, but we need the participation and help of as many individuals and groups as possible to a) develop a comprehensive proposal that can be adopted quickly, b) raise public awareness and generate wider discussion, and c) encourage City Council to adopt it.

If you are interested, please email 2020@raisethehammer.org. To share ideas on-line, create a user account on the RTH website and post comments using the form at the bottom of this document.

Ryan lives in Hamilton with his family and works as an analyst, web application developer, writer and journal editor. He is the editor of Raise the Hammer. Ryan also helps to edit Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness, writes occasionally for CanadianContent.Net, and maintains a personal website.

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