The McMaster & Hamilton communities should do more to support SoBi

By: Adeola Egbeyemi, Brittany Williams and Christy Au-Yeung, Contributors

This article is written by members of the MSU Sustainability Committee, who are in the midst of their virtual SoBi campaign.

They’re blue, built with a thick Dutch frame and basket. Though you may have been around Hamilton, you may have not even noticed their presence swarming the McMaster University campus. We’re talking about Social Bicycles.

SoBi is a bike-sharing company. The Hamilton-specific SoBi fleet has bikes located in approximately 130 hubs across the city. Users can purchase a specific level of membership online and once registered, are ready to ride anywhere. Bike-sharing systems like SoBi Hamilton allow users to take one-way trips on publicly accessible bikes and create a network of efficient, affordable and sustainable transportation.

This efficient, affordable and sustainable mode of transportation nearly ended this past summer and is not yet out of its narrow bike lane. Back in May, SoBi was operated by Uber, although still city-owned. On May 15, Uber unexpectedly notified the Hamilton City Council that they would stop operating SoBi in June due to COVID-19 considerations, even though ridership had increased in the hundreds since the pandemic began.

Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann attempted to save SoBi by using taxes collected from areas where SoBi operates, but the motion narrowly lost at City Council. The very next day, Hamilton Bike Share Inc., a not-for-profit bike-share operator, started a GoFundMe to try to continue operating the bikes at no cost to the city.

In a last-minute save, a reconsideration motion for SoBi passed unanimously at the next council meeting. Presently, SoBi is operating as normal through Hamilton Bike Share Inc., but the city is still in search of a stable long-term operator.

As the city searches, SoBi has become a notable transportation alternative for individuals who want to avoid public transportation. SoBi also provides users with the convenience of locking their bikes to a non-SoBi rack for a one-dollar fee.

In addition, the bike-share service maintains user accessibility through their subsidized Everyone Rides Initiative, which provides both a discounted pass and an opportunity for users to earn SoBi credits by relocating any out-of-hub bikes. If you’re a McMaster student, you can also access a discounted membership. So if you want to reduce your carbon footprint or you want to support this community program, this affordable option is for you.

Just as small actions can produce larger change, bike-share programs not only provide benefits to individuals as previously outlined but to the community as a whole. It is at this level that bike share programs have been proven to decrease car usage and reduce traffic congestion, which consequently reduces pollution, leading to community health benefits and allowing for economic expansion.

These environmental benefits are particularly relevant given that the transportation sector emits the second most greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. To date, SoBi bike-sharing is estimated to have reduced nearly 1 million kilograms of CO2 emissions. As a community, we have the vital responsibility to be environmental stewards; we need to make the necessary efforts required to protect the natural environs that have provided us with so much.

McMaster has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable transportation practices at an institutional level through its April 2017 Master Campus Plan Update, which outlines infrastructural changes for a vehicle-free core campus. A key aspect of this is not merely accommodating cycling on campus but actively encouraging it.

In the 2017 update, McMaster planned to expand SoBi to the GO Bus station and west campus. Evidently, the support and facilitation of bike-sharing services like SoBi align closely with McMaster's culture and priorities of sustainability.

The McMaster Students Union has also shown its commitment to supporting sustainable transportation through the MACycle service, an on-campus do-it-yourself bike repair shop. Unfortunately, due to low engagement and alternative services in the Westdale area, the service was de-ratified last year.

This exemplifies the importance of making conscious decisions to support these sustainable programs otherwise these options may become defunct. We are only able to keep these programs running through our community efforts.

SoBi is a valuable and accessible program that provides benefits individually, institutionally and municipally; as a result, they have received support at all of these levels. Since the future of SoBi remains undetermined, we as a community can find our footing as environmental stewards by supporting the bike share program while it is still here.

Graphic by Elisabetta Paiano/ Production Editor

The threat of climate change was made clear by the fires that spread across Australia earlier this year. Heat waves and drought caused bush fires that permanently altered the country’s landscape, which were made at least 30 per cent worse by the impacts of climate change.

Australia’s devastating fires are only an early example of the consequences of the climate crisis. Although, across the world, Hamilton has its own possibilities for disaster. In November it came to light that 24 billion litres of sewage spilled into Chedoke Creek from 2014 to 2018, which the city kept hidden despite possible impacts on the local environment and residents. 

In addition to the Chedoke Creek contamination, the city was charged in late 2019 to clean up toxic chemicals that had been seeping into local waterways. The city-owned John C. Munro International Airport had years-old chemicals in surrounding soil which leached into nearby water during wet weather. The spills make it clear that Hamilton needs to be prepared for the environmental impacts of climate change, especially flooding, which will become the city’s main concern along with extreme heat. 

Rising temperatures bring the possibility for droughts. Conversely, increased precipitation could lead to flooding, rising lake levels and could negatively impact shoreline erosion. 

Hamilton also has to worry about greenhouse gases, which are largely produced in the city by burning fossil fuels, transportation and industry. In 2018 the city committed to five points of action which include creating a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and an emissions reduction target. 

In March 2019 Hamilton declared a climate emergency along with hundreds of other municipalities across Canada. Along with the declaration, the city committed to a climate vulnerability and risk assessment, which has yet to be completed. In December 2019 city councillors approved a climate action plan, but they have yet to include any deadlines or costs associated with the project.

One important change is that the city will try to apply a climate lens to future actions. According to Kate Flynn, the acting director at the centre for climate change management at Mohawk College, the city is using a climate lens to prevent some of the worst effects of climate change and adapt to impacts we can’t avoid. For example, when the city makes an infrastructure improvement, they must consider the future environmental impact of chosen supplies and processes. 

Flynn also pointed out that infrastructure changes are necessary to prepare for climate change, specifically in transportation and public works. She noted that over time Hamilton will be at risk for increased precipitation which would lead to flooding and harm water quality, so updates to city infrastructure and residential homes are necessary to avoid damages. 

“I think one of the things that's really important to dispel is this myth that Canadians are going to be okay,” said Flynn, “the thing about climate change is that it's a global issue, but the effects of it are going to be hyperlocalized.”

“I think one of the things that's really important to dispel is this myth that Canadians are going to be okay [. . .] the thing about climate change is that it's a global issue, but the effects of it are going to be hyperlocalized.”

While the economic and physical effects of climate change are becoming more of a concern for the city, the social impacts are still largely overlooked. Caitlin Thompson and Joann Varickanickal, volunteers with Climate Ready Hamilton, a community organization, stressed the importance of social cohesion for disaster preparedness. 

Thompson and Varickanickal suggested that students get to know their fellow community members and think about how vulnerable populations, like elderly, homeless and low-income community members, will be disproportionately impacted in times of climate crisis. One project CRH worked on sought to map out spaces open to the public for food and shelter in times of disaster. If a heat wave occurred, vulnerable residents without air conditioning could find a place to cool down through the community-sourced resource hub. 

Beyond cases of climate disaster, CRH also works to help communities improve the environmental conditions brought on by local pollution.

“Look at communities that are in the industrial core . . . we know that they have poor air quality, but a lot of people in those neighborhoods don't know that they can work together and you can report those things to the government . . . part of this project now can be going into neighborhoods and supporting neighborhoods and understanding their rights,” said Thompson. 

Thompson and Varickanickal also noted the importance of preparing a 72 hour kit

“If there's a massive emergency . . . aid will begin [about] 72 hours after,” said Thompson. “Basically you need to be able to be prepared and stay okay by yourself for 72 hours because you may not get help.”

According to the city of Hamilton website, residents should prepare a 72 hour supply of food and water, along with a “go bag” with items like a first aid kit, blankets and more. 

Preparing for 72 hours only works in case of an emergency, but we have to prepare for a future where climate disaster is a regular part of our lives. According to the Centre for Climate and Emergency Solutions, climate resilience is a framework for thinking about climate change and our ability to prepare for, and bounce back from, climate-related disaster. Climate resilience accounts for the irreversible damage already done to our climate, along with possibilities for mitigating some of the worst effects we could see in the future. Flynn noted that climate resilience isn’t only about infrastructure, but also how we can improve our social systems to better support one another through the impacts of climate change. 

“If you're talking about climate resilience, well we should be talking about resilience in other ways too? Like making sure . . . everyone has access to good food no matter what happens, right? So it's kind of a framework for thinking through solutions through the lens of equity,” said Flynn. 

Despite possibilities for climate resilience, the state of climate change is dire and sometimes frightening. Flynn reflected on how she continues to work in climate change management despite the cataclysmic effects on the climate. 

“I think why people are like, how do you get out of bed every day and think about climate change? And I'm like, because believe it or not, there's so many opportunities within climate change to just like do all the things that we've always thought about doing, but never really prioritized. There's no more excuses,” said Flynn.

"There's so many opportunities within climate change to just like do all the things that we've always thought about doing, but never really prioritized. There's no more excuses."

Hamilton will face unique challenges from climate change that the city will have to manage. To create a climate resilient city, community members will have to come together to care for one another. Whether it’s creating a 72 hour kit or a map of resources, knowing who needs help in your community and how will be integral. 

Graphics by Sukaina Imam

Hamilton city council recently declared a climate emergency and pledged to substantially reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the declaration carries symbolic weight, the ambitious emission reduction targets can only be met if city council commits significant resources towards climate change measures. Climate activists and city councilors weigh in on what this will mean for the city.

On March 27, Hamilton city council finalized the decision to declare a climate emergency in the city of Hamilton.

The decision comes as a result of a report from the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change released in October 2018. The report found that, unless humanity limits global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there will be a risk of long lasting and irreversible changes that will result in major loss of life.

The report found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would mean reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 45 per cent of 2010 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” stated the report.

Hamilton city council has joined a number other Canadian cities, including Kingston, Vancouver and Halifax, who have pledged to reduce emissions to meet these targets.

The declaration instructs the city manager to put together a multi departmental task force and present an emission reduction plan within 120 days.


A climate emergency

According to the 2018 vital signs report released by the Hamilton community foundation, Hamilton has double the per capita GHG emissions compared to other greater Toronto and Hamilton area cities.

The 2015 community action plan set the goals of reducing GHG emissions by 20 per cent of 2006 levels by 2020, 50 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. The new goals, however, are more ambitious.

By declaring a climate emergency, the city aims to communicate the degree of risk to the public and demonstrate that the city is taking the issues seriously. During the board of health meeting, environment Hamilton climate campaign coordinator Ian Borsuk noted that it is important to show the public that the city understands the severity of the issue.

Additionally, a major goal of the declaration is to coordinate municipal action to develop a centralized strategy for dealing with climate change. This will take the form of a multi departmental task force across city departments.

“This isn’t something that can be left as a side project, this isn’t something that can be left as another file, this is something that needs to be part of what the city does every single day,” stated Borsuk during the presentation.


Charting a Course

At the March 18 board of health meeting, presenters from environment Hamilton made suggestions to the city about ways to reduce emission levels by the target dates, noting that the city has already taken significant measures to reduce GHG emissions, but can do more.

One suggestion was to expand and improve public transit. Currently, Hamilton street rail ridership falls short of projections by about 10 per cent. The city is currently working towards a 10 year plan to improve HSR service, which includes improving service and adding capacity.

After industry, transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in Hamilton. According to Hamilton 350 coordinator Don McLean, transportation is one of the areas that the city can make the biggest difference. By extending bus service and making transit more affordable, McLean sees potential for large increases in ridership.

McLean also notes that Hamilton charges some of the lowest parking fees in Canada. The city owns some parking facilities, and has the ability to tax parking lots separately in order to drive pricing. In order to incentivize people to take public transit, McLean says, the parking rate has to be considerably higher than bus fare.

“Why switch to a bus if I can park downtown all day for $4?" he asked.

Another suggestion that environment Hamilton made to the board of health was to develop a “green standard” for new public and private buildings. By mandating energy use limits, the city can make a substantial difference in emissions.

Environment Hamilton executive director Lynda Lukasik also noted during the presentation that enhancing green infrastructure would help the city meet its emission targets. This includes measures such as bio soils, better managed storm water, and planting an urban forest.

Urban canopy currently sits at about 18 per cent, which is 12 per cent below the official target. Expanding the urban forest would help draw down emissions, reduce stormwater flows, and mediate heat effects.

In order to meet these goals, multiple environmental organizations across Hamilton have suggested that the city commits to applying a climate lens to all of its decisions. Similarly to the equity, diversity and inclusion lens equity, diversity and inclusion lens announced in March, the climate lens would evaluate all city actions in terms of their climate impact.


Unprecedented Changes

One of the main challenges for meeting the emission reduction targets is resource availability. During the board of health meeting, ward 3 councilor Nrinder Nann pointed out that achieving the commitments would likely involve retrofitting almost every building across Hamilton and switching to electric or hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Implementing these measures would require substantial investments of time and money.

Currently, the community climate change action plan receives provincial funding from the proceeds of the cap and trade program. However, the province scrapped the cap and trade program in October 2018 and has pulled funding from other environmental initiatives. Therefore funding for the emissions reduction plan would likely have to come from other sources.

Ward 4 councilor Sam Merulla noted that the challenge will become clear once staff reports the budget to city council within 120 days. If people hear that their taxes will increase, they may be resistant to implementing the plan.

However, Nann pointed out that even though dealing with climate change requires immediate spending, it will generate revenue in the long term. Additionally, inaction will incur high remedial costs.

Another challenge for meeting the emission reduction targets is industry. Industry accounts for 83 per cent of Hamilton's emissions, a large percentage of which comes from steel mills. However, steel mills are under provincial and federal jurisdiction, meaning that the city does not have direct control over their emissions.

Despite this, notes McLean, the city can work towards offsetting emissions through agricultural practices and reforestation.


Is it enough?

Even if the city manages to reach the emission reduction targets in time, McLean worries that it will be too little, too late.

Climate change is a cumulative problem, meaning that all GHGs currently in the atmosphere will continue to contribute to warming, even if emissions stop.

“The kinds of things that are being talked about now are the kinds of things that should have been very actively implemented 30 years ago,” he stated. “ If you've got a cumulative problem then setting any date in the future as to when we should stop is too late.”

In order to make the climate change emergency more than a symbolic gesture, the city will have to dedicate significant resources and implement regular checkpoints to reduce emissions. The true weight of this declaration will become clear once the task force presents the emission reduction plan to city council. To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the city has to implement unprecedented changes across all aspects of decision-making.


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