Worth Repeating: The region needs to get on the commuter train

Here is my final contribution to my one-year (2010) term on the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed December 17th. Quick note on the headline: contributors don’t write them – so yes, I know that LRT is not a commuter train. Of course, feel free to get on the GO trains as well. Thanks to everyone who tweeted this about on the day it was published. Apparently I saved the best for last. I certainly enjoyed the time on the CEB, and wish all the best to this year’s contributors!

(http://www.therecord.com/opinion/article/301276)

“The region needs to get on the commuter train

Standing with hundreds of my fellow citizens on a chilly afternoon in Uptown Waterloo, I found myself startled by the need for a Rally for Rails in our community. How did the so-called “debate” on this issue manage to get derailed?

It doesn’t matter how often we hear that light rail transit is too expensive; repetition won’t make it true. Are the costs high? Absolutely. The project will demand investments in the hundreds of millions. It would be foolhardy to forget that this price tag pales in comparison to the billions we would otherwise pay to accommodate new and widened arterial roads, or a bus rapid transit system that would need to be replaced with rail not long after the cut ribbon hits the ground.

It doesn’t matter how loudly it is asserted that the system will just run between two malls. Could it be said that the Conestoga Parkway just runs between St. Jacobs and New Hamburg? It seems those of us living in between those points find some use for that indispensable piece of infrastructure. The new light rail stations will be within walking distance of a great portion of existing jobs and residences, and will further concentrate development in our core areas.

It doesn’t matter that the arguments against light rail are simple, and the arguments for it are more complex. It may be easier to attack the proposal, but I’d rather take a few minutes to hear the complicated and accurate side of the story.

What matters is that we have a serious and rare opportunity to shape our community in ways that will protect and enhance quality of life for many years and even generations to come. We cannot pay for an endless supply of roads and sprawling suburban form that stretches our civic services to the limit. We cannot afford to lose the local farmland and watershed that sustain us.

What matters is that light rail transit, and the urban form it inspires, is just the kind of boost our economy needs. It will be less costly than the alternatives, keeping our related tax increases in check. It will provide real attraction to developers who are able to invest billions of dollars, creating vibrant spaces for our homes and workplaces. With it, we will be the kind of community that can attract and retain the best talent, and their employers.

What matters most is that we have allowed our discussions on the issue to be guided by the frequent, loud, and simple arguments instead of the truth.

With light rail transit, life in our region will be less costly, more convenient, and less polluting. Light rail will provide a desperately needed core for a revolutionized bus system. Fed by higher frequency bus service, and additional express routes, many of which are already budgeted for outside of the rapid transit program, light rail will finally allow us to graduate to a fast and linear transit system we can all be proud of and imagine ourselves using.

After a multi-year public engagement process, careful analysis by respected professionals inside our municipal staff and beyond, and with more funding from senior governments than we would normally enjoy, we have an excellent plan. If anything, it is a first step of many on the path to a responsible vision for sustainable transportation in our community. It should not need a rally; it is strong enough to stand in the spotlight of honest evaluation, if we have the desire to seek and hear the facts on the matter. The train is coming, and we should all be on board.”

Worth Repeating: The region has to be ready for the green economy

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed August 16th:

(http://news.therecord.com/article/761197)

“The region has to be ready for the green economy

August 16, 2010

By Jason Hammond

At least once a year, I try to get a canoe in the water and put in some quality time paddling. I had the pleasure of doing so recently, keeping it local with a few hours on the Grand River. While I enjoyed the chance to see fish, herons and countless geese, the wildlife that got me thinking most were the cyclists and golfers.

You see, I’ve become a fan of Richard Florida and his popular series of books about what he calls the creative class. I’m sure that in his mind, the ability to stay in the city while cycling on a long-distance trail, golfing beside or paddling down a major river, or taking in an afternoon of downhill skiing is just the kind of amenity that attracts the creative class. These activities, as well as the presence of three leading post-secondary educational institutions, the planned light rail transit, and so many other quality-of-life enhancers, encourage people who can live and work anywhere to happily make their home right here. This is fundamental to keeping our community prosperous.

That prosperity has taken a few hits lately. This newspaper has recently reported that while more people are at work in the region than ever before, there are still some 20,000 or more who are struggling to find employment. While many local businesses are creating jobs, the talents offered by these job seekers simply don’t match up. I’ve heard just such a scenario predicted by distinguished University of Waterloo economist Larry Smith: the dreaded skills gap.

Of course, the current economic bruising is also an opportunity for us to reinvent our community as we recover. In Florida’s most recent book, The Great Reset, he shows that previous significant downturns have been “the eras that ushered in new economic and social models and whole new ways of living and working.”

For example, his first chapter notes the recent surge in car-sharing. In our own local experience, Grand River CarShare has certainly felt the effects of a shifting economy. While we provided just one permanent full-time position two years ago, recent growth allows us to employ three dedicated staff today. With hundreds of members saving thousands of dollars, the urgency of financial relief for households has joined with the original social and environmental goals to create a whole new motivation for change.

As our community struggles to create employment for so many jobless citizens, I believe that the power of green enterprise is ready to be harnessed. After all, waste is the enemy of ecologist and capitalist alike. We know that many of our neighbours are highly skilled at the manufacturing work that built our local thriving cities. While some may want to retrain for new careers, we should also attract the manufacturers of the next economy: the green economy.

We already have the beginnings of a green employment cluster, with several solar technology firms as just a small sample. When one of them, ARISE, opened a new factory a few years ago, the necessary incentives were not available here, and Germany was rewarded with the investment. By doing more to make our region the best choice for green manufacturers, we can regain our pride in making what is needed most.

Once it was leather for our soldiers in the trenches of the Great War. Tomorrow it could be solar cells, wind turbines, smart meters, and other efficiency tools. If we are to enjoy a green and prosperous future, many such things must be made. We have thousands of people desperate to be making them. Let’s get to work.

Jason Hammond of Kitchener is the president of Grand River CarShare.”

Worth Repeating: Driving to work may cause planning problems

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed June 18th:

(http://news.therecord.com/article/730072)

“Driving to work may cause planning problems

June 18, 2010

By Jason Hammond

When my friends and I pass a major construction site, one of us will often remark, “Oh look, they’re installing a mess!”

Development is messy. Bring in heavy equipment, and before long all sorts of dirt and dust end up floating away on the breeze and choking passersby. Sometimes, as in the recent dispute over the Lang Tannery demolition proposal, it is the politics of development that is messiest of all.

The debate at Kitchener city council meetings and in this newspaper has had the positive effect of bringing many citizens, including myself, to a deeper engagement with our urban heritage. We learned about the past of the Lang Tannery, the present of the adaptive reuse being implemented by the developers, and the future of both parking provision and the pedestrian experience in our downtown.

It appeared at first to be a simple issue of heritage versus parking. We would knock down historical buildings, put up a gravel parking lot, and lose our recent momentum toward a more vibrant, sustainable and dynamic downtown. Of course, projects guided by public policy and millions of dollars are rarely so simple, and assignment of blame for the situation quickly became hard to pin down.

The first suspect was the developer, Cadan Inc, who has transformed the first site of the Tannery from a dilapidated complex of factory buildings to a rediscovered space that will focus the working lives of hundreds into a key area along the region’s central corridor. The tragedy is that they believe, likely in concert with many of their prospective tenants, that a lack of immediately available free parking would be the automatic termination of success for the project. So, the result is that the second site is sacrificed to bring the first site a better outlook for survival.

Of course, I wouldn’t be excited about knocking the buildings of the second site down in favour of parking if I owned the property, but I do not. It appears that the necessary steps have been taken to satisfy the official processes that would guide the development, so we are introduced to the second suspect: the city.

After extended public engagement to develop the official plan, we have a document that captures a common vision for the evolution of our community. Our neighbours have given their opinion, with the hope that the end product will prevent our urban changes from heading in the wrong direction. Among the assertions available in the document: protect heritage buildings, and avoid surface parking. Whoops!

Unfortunately, it is not this citizen-driven vision that directs staff as they process requests for such projects. The “applicable law,” as it is known, is the zoning bylaw. These bylaws do not always reflect the official plan, a consistency challenge that is likely unmet by a great number of communities across the province.

What to do? It seems that everyone is just doing their job. Perhaps a core problem is how we get to those jobs. Most of us drive to work alone, and much like the development approval system, it just seems to be the way things went yesterday and will likely go tomorrow.

Municipal staff, elected officials, developers and employers all have key roles in shaping our community. By combining their efforts with adherence to new priorities, we can allow the latent radical shift in commuting behaviour that awaits improved options. As the dominance of parking demand in the Tannery project has shown, how we are able to find our way into a neighbourhood has one of the greatest impacts on how it looks when we get there.

Jason Hammond of Kitchener is the president of Grand River CarShare.”

Worth Repeating: We should make Earth Day a daily routine

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed April 19th:

(http://news.therecord.com/article/698555)

“We should make Earth Day a daily routine

April 19, 2010
By Jason Hammond

Here we are again, getting ready to celebrate Earth Day on Thursday as well as Earth Week. A few short weeks ago, we enjoyed another successful Earth Hour. In this time of focus on environmental challenges, perhaps we can take a moment to express heartfelt thanks to the people who are, effectively, celebrating Earth Year. There are those who take action for 52 solid weeks, and it is time more of us joined them. After all, this is one of the times of the year when we are all reminded of our common dependence on the natural systems that make our lives possible. That dependence extends to the results gained by dedicated folks who protect and promote those systems every day.

We are all familiar with the demands that we change our light bulbs, send a full blue box to the curb, and ensure our tires are at the most efficient pressure. Certainly, those of us who have not done so already may find Earth Week a suitable motivation to get started. For many, however, especially in such a green and progressive region as this, some of the events and exhortations seem stuck in the groove of basic action taken long ago. If that perception fits, the time has come for a deeper engagement where an inspired vision of a truly green community can be fulfilled.

By all means, take time to celebrate a healthier, more vibrant, and truly sustainable future. Gain new knowledge, and connect with providers of solutions, as well as fellow travellers on the road (or bike trail) to sustainability. Above all, have fun with it — eat, think and be merry. One great series of local events is the Living Earth Festival. Others include the Procession of the Species, the Bloomin Earth market, litter campaigns and local tree plantings.

After a wonderful week of engagement, we must not simply look forward to next year and another set of activities. In the weeks and months that follow, it is our responsibility to extend and deepen our excitement by remaining involved. For some, it is enough of a challenge to keep an eye on the amount of meat in our meals, the distance we travel alone in a car, or whether our thermostat can be set a degree higher in the summer heat. In this community, though, so many have taken these steps years ago.

If you are longing for a way to do more, you are not alone. Once we have each addressed the basic improvements in our own lives, there is a simple choice. We simply maintain our achievements, or reach out to contribute the most valuable thing of all: our time. As the gardens of our neighbourhoods come to life, it is an ideal time to revive our own bright ideas and make things a little more exciting.

There is an endless supply of meaningful work to be done, often constricted resources that can be applied, and an extensive network of worthy organizations ready to receive a new volunteer. Whatever the time available in each of our lives, there is a home for our efforts. Why wonder who will look after the kids when they can come along to help? Why worry about how work doesn’t leave much room in the day when a team to green the workplace can be joined, or started?

If we are seeking the single most powerful action to take for Earth Week, it may be to simply refuse to leave the ongoing efforts to the current group of dedicated activists.

That is the real power of Earth Day: to make it one of many.

Jason Hammond of Kitchener is the president of Grand River CarShare.”

Worth Repeating: End of the Oil Age

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed February 22nd:

(news.therecord.com/article/673100)

“End of the oil age is clearly on the horizon

February 22, 2010

Jason Hammond

Transportation makes up an enormous portion of both our household expenses and our collective carbon footprint. The way we navigate our way across Waterloo Region today is so comically inefficient it has to be considered the low hanging fruit as we struggle with the dual economic and climate crises.

We all remember the gas price increases that made news before the recession set in 18 months ago. Data from MJ Ervin & Associates, a London-based consulting firm that tracks gas prices, provide a wealth of information about what Ontarians have paid for a litre of regular unleaded fuel. From 2001 to 2008, prices increased an average of 7.5 per cent each year. The basic reason is simple: global demand is through the roof. Of course, as demand crashed in the recession, so went the price.

If we look forward to a strong economic recovery, we can also look forward to returning to that path of high fuel prices. By 2014, with business as usual, we would be paying $1.70 per litre. Considering that the global supply of oil is peaking, prices could rapidly go much higher. For our climate stability and air quality, the true cost is disastrous.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out in the New York Times a few years ago, Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani had a habit of noting that the stone age did not end because we ran out of stone. Likewise, Friedman adds, the oil age will not end because we run out of oil. It is clear that we are already in the transition to cheaper, greener alternatives. The best route to success for our local economy today is to navigate this major shift in an exemplary fashion, and as early as we can muster.

Waterloo Region is positioned to move beyond total dependence on such increasingly expensive fossil fuel energy, but there is a long way to go. A report by the University of Waterloo and the Region of Waterloo states that more than 80 per cent of area commuters drive to work alone. That leaves plenty of room for improvement.

There are a number of helpful and necessary infrastructure improvements on the way. In the next few years, we can expect more intercity train service, and a major shuffle of local Grand River Transit bus service as a rapid transit spine redefines our transit experience. However, not all shifts take years, massive investment, or new technology. All too often, the necessary shift is one of political will and reform of our collective habits.

Whether we are concerned about transit service frequency, access to cycling trails and lanes, a vibrant and welcoming pedestrian environment, or any other sustainable transportation solution, there is a universally effective response. We must heartily use what we already have. Even once a week at first, we can take the time for an evening walk through the neighbourhood, a transit ride to work, or planning a meal with local, organic, and seasonal food. Only by voting with our feet can we prove both the need and the benefits to our neighbours and elected officials.

More than that, we can all take the opportunity to add our own morsel of change to the menu. As our lives become healthier, less expensive, and less impactful on the natural systems that sustain us, we owe it to our community to share our secrets of success with our family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and decision makers. Together, we can respond to the end of cheap energy with the end of our total dependence on it.

Jason Hammond is the president of Grand River CarShare.”