If you compare a ten-year-old map of any urban city in North America with a recent one, you’ll notice that almost all of our major cities are getting bigger. That means more suburbs, more cars, and according to traditional ways of thinking, the need for more roads. But is road building the solution? Or is it part of the problem? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Victoria Fenner takes us to a place where the debate has been going on for half a century. As she reports, not everybody agrees that the debate is settled:
If you compare a ten year old map of any urban city in North America with a recent one,
you’ll notice that almost all of our major cities are getting bigger. That means more
suburbs, more cars, and according to traditional ways of thinking, the need for more roads.
But is road building the solution? Or is it part of the problem? Victoria Fenner takes us to
a place where the debate has been going on for half a century. As she reports, not everybody
agrees that the debate is settled:
On this sunny morning, a hawk sits in watch high atop a power line in the Red Hill Valley in
Hamilton. It gazes down over the valley – 1600 acres in the middle of this gritty industrial
steel town on the western tip of Lake Ontario. And soon, if the current city council has its
way, the hawk will be looking down on an expressway.
This is a story that happens over and over again in communities throughout North America.
This expressway plan in Hamilton has been on and off again for fifty years. It has polarized
the community, and with a municipal election happening soon, decision day for the valley is
looming. If a pro-expressway council is elected, it will go ahead.
Don McLean is with the Friends of Red Hill Valley, an organization that has been mobilizing
opposition to the freeway plan since 1991. He explains why he doesn’t want the expressway.
“The Red Hill Valley is potentially the largest urban park in Canada, and the expressway proposal
comes right down the middle of it, takes down twenty five percent of its forest and so on. There is
a large creek running through it that drains half the urban area of Hamilton. It has twenty four
species of fish that have been recorded since 1995. It’s quite an interesting place because it’s
completely surrounded, really, by urban area.”
But other people say there are also good arguments why the freeway should be built. Larry
Dianni is running for mayor and is building his whole campaign around this single issue. He
says he sees no other options, especially since parts of the freeway have already been built.
“This has been a project that has been fifty plus years in the making, and of course people have
now turned it around to say this is a fifty year old solution to current problems. Wrong. This is an
overdue solution to problems that manifested themselves fifty-four years ago, and by virtue of
ignoring them, the problems have gotten worse.”
The problems Larry Dianni is referring to are all about economic growth. His arguments for
the expressway are not a lot different from other cities across North America. He says as
more people and businesses move into the area, the road is necessary to accommodate
But Don McLean says this is outmoded thinking.
“There are good studies now in the U.S., and this has been understood in Europe for a long time,
that building more roads mainly results in generating more traffic. It does not address congestion
issues, it actually increases them because it encourages more driving and it encourages people to
move further and further away from their destinations.”
Don McLean’s position is one shared by the Sierra Club of Canada. The Sierra Club
recently published a major report called “Sprawl Hurts Us All.” Janet Pelley, the report’s
author, has heard the full range of the debate on both sides of the border. She is an
environmental journalist who recently moved to Canada from the U.S.
“The fact that you see on both sides of the border that there are these battles over freeways that
have been going on for fifty years just shows it’s an outmoded way of thinking, that the
government hasn’t caught up with the new smart growth initiatives and the new ways people are
looking at cities.”
The bottom line, Janet Pelley says, is we’re too dependent on motorized traffic. She says we
have to find ways of reducing our dependency on our cars.
“If you’re assuming people have to have cars, then you’re going to be sucked into that whole “car
junkie” habit of “we have to have more freeways to get people to move around. It’s really key
how you build your city. If you build your city for pedestrians and for public transit then you don’t
have to worry about the car traffic.”
It’s a story that is repeated over and over again as communities such as Hamilton try to
balance economic growth with environmental responsibility. In Hamilton, it’s still not a
foregone conclusion whether or not the freeway will proceed. November’s municipal
election is shaping up to be a single issue campaign, with pro-expressway and anti-
expressway candidates staking their political future on the issue. Whether or not this will
settle the matter is another question. With many sides to this story, this is an issue that
many communities will be wrestling with for a long time to come.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Victoria Fenner.