Current business owners don't understand LRT beyond its narrow role as transit. Worse, as survivors of the status quo they misrepresent the lost potential for transformation.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 17, 2010
Of course, we don't know whether the business owners quoted in today's Spectator on the choices facing Hamilton's rapid transit initiative are representative of the majority or were cherry-picked for the article. Either way, it adds up to a dispiriting but perhaps inevitable lack of imagination and a fundamental lack of understanding on how light rail transit is transformative.
At issue are the three options presented in the Metrolinx Business Case Analysis for the east-west B-Line route:
I'll start with Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, only because he understands intimately the challenges his ward faces and he's already an outspoken transit supporter. Talking about the phased LRT option:
It's a bold initiative and one I support strongly, but I think it is incremental rather than overly radical, which ... I think is in everyone's best interest.
Sorry, Councillor Merulla, but Hamilton needs radical, transformative change. Incrementing the status quo has not served us well - particularly Ward 4, which contains some of the city's poorest, most despairing neighbourhoods.
Option 3 costs more overall, delivers less, and passes on 15 years of transit-oriented development from Ottawa Street out to Centennial Parkway.
It also reduces the positive network effect of the LRT segment that is built.
The distance from Ottawa St to Centennial Pkwy is about one-third the total length of the line, but the net lost opportunity from building a truncated LRT may well be more than one-third of the total, due to lost critical mass in new density along the corridor.
Remember, LRT doesn't just carry more people more quickly. It transforms the transit corridor by attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment, drawing many more people to live and work in the area, frequent its businesses, generate market demand for new businesses, and interact creatively and productively.
LRT doesn't just mean more bums in transit seats. It means a higher order of urban activity, which is proven to deliver both a boost in infrastructure productivity and a boost in the rate of creative economic output.
LRT triggers the four basic elements of urban advantage: economies of density, scale, association and extension. When cities intensify, energy and infrastructure costs grow more slowly than population, but the rate of innovation grows more quickly than population.
In our struggle to carry the burden of decades of expensive, economically unproductive sprawl development, we need a lot more density in our existing built area. As it is, Hamilton's lower city has a population density well over an order of magnitude lower than even medium-density cities with lively economies.
Unfortunately, Merulla isn't the only person who seems okay with keeping things as they are. While the Ottawa Street BIA seems to get it, the business owners interviewed didn't seem to understand just what LRT actually means.
Cecilia Chung, owner of Peter's Variety, is "happy with the status quo" (I'm quoting the reporter who is paraphrasing, not Ms. Chung herself).
Tim Belliveau, owner of A-1 BBQ Family Restaurant on Main near Kenilworth, says: "Buses are fine."
Bernie White, owner of Trinket Finder, sees LRT as a way to move people around rather than a way to increase the density - and market - of people around his business. Tyson Meloche, owner of Brooklyn's Bar and Bistro, shares Mr. White's misapprehension: "I think it's just going to bring people through quicker."
Gerald ASA, vice-president of Effort Trust, a property management company that owns some 20 properties, is more concerned about compensation for adversely affected business than in the tremendous potential for LRT to increase the value of its assets.
I wish the city would organize a fact-finding trip with these business owners to the King-Spadina area in Toronto. Once a manufacturing centre, King-Spadina was a wasteland of abandoned factories and empty buildings in the 1990s, when a group of visionary urbanists came together to develop a new plan for the district.
Through a combination of new planning rules that encourage mixed-use investment and a new anchoring streetcar line, King-Spadina has been profoundly transformed over the past decade and a half, with an impressive influx of new condominium developments, offices, and entertainment/nightclub businesses created through both adaptive reuse and new construction.
The rules of the King-Spadina Secondary Plan are simple and powerful:
When the plan was unveiled, skeptics scoffed that it would be a disaster because people had nowhere to park. "But how will anyone get there?" they wailed. The answer, of course, is that the people moved there, and in droves.
The population has quadrupled since 1996, and the biggest cohort has been educated, well-paid young professionals looking for an urban lifestyle close to employment and social amenities.
The amount of new development is impressive. In just a 45 hectare (112 acre) area, King-Spadina attracted (PDF link) $55.6 million in new investment between 2000 and 2007, creating 700 new jobs and 230,000 square feet of property.
Ironically, existing business owners may not be the best people to talk to when determining whether and how to transform a neighbourhood. When the economic system is failing most people, does it really make sense to base planning decisions around the few people who manage to thrive (or at least survive)?
The risk of owning a business and the fact that the current system works for them makes such business owners inherently conservative. Transormation may well bring huge benefits - particularly for property owners, who will enjoy the windfall of rising property values - but it also means that the rules for success change.
The tried-and-true business strategies that work in a poor, failing economic and social environment might not transfer to a booming, thriving environment. As a result, business owners feel they have a lot to lose.
Compound the fact that many owners don't actually seem to understand that LRT is qualitatively different from buses, and it's a recipe for fear and skepticism.
But for every business owner worried that LRT might "adversely" affect their business, how many potential businesses locate elsewhere or simply never start up at all? How many potential customers never materialize because they chose to live elsewhere?
In the case of a transformative initiative like LRT, there's a real danger that survivorship bias will lead us horribly astray.
An anecdote shared by business writer Jason Cohen serves to illustrate what Survivorship Bias means:
During World War II the English sent daily bombing raids into Germany. Many planes never returned; those that did were often riddled with bullet holes from anti-air machine guns and German fighters.
Wanting to improve the odds of getting a crew home alive, English engineers studied the locations of the bullet holes. Where the planes were hit most, they reasoned, is where they should attach heavy armor plating. Sure enough, a pattern emerged: Bullets clustered on the wings, tail, and rear gunner's station. Few bullets were found in the main cockpit or fuel tanks.
The logical conclusion is that they should add armour plating to the spots that get hit most often by bullets. But that's wrong.
Planes with bullets in the cockpit or fuel tanks didn't make it home; the bullet holes in returning planes were "found" in places that were by definition relatively benign.
The real data is in the planes that were shot down, not the ones that survived.
The business owners along the B-Line are the survivors of the economic battle that has been downtown Hamilton over the past half-century.
How many businesses were 'shot down' because of Hamilton's low quality transit, low population densities, and pedestrian-repellent one-way streets?
And how can we get interview quotes reflecting those data points into inflammatory newspaper articles to balance out the bias?