A number of common myths about LRT and Hamilton continue to surface in the public debate over the City's proposed east-west LRT line.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 04, 2011
this article has been updated
Despite all the information available 'out there' on light rail transit (LRT) in general and Hamilton's proposed east-west LRT line in particular, a number of myths continue to resurface in public debates. It seemed prudent to gather all the myths in one place and address them in turn. If I have missed any, please let me know in the comments or via email.
Myth: The B-Line doesn't have the ridership for LRT.
Fact: According to a March 2010 HSR Operational Review, buses operating on the east-west LRT route already carry 13,000 passengers a day. We have more than enough ridership to justify LRT right now.
Myth: LRT won't attract ridership.
Fact: LRT systems consistently outperform even optimistic ridership growth projections. Charlotte's Lynx line, which opened in 2007, was supposed to start at 9,100 daily passengers and reach 18,000 daily riders by 2025; but by Q1 2008 it already reached 18,600 daily passengers and has since increased to 21,000 as of 2010. A 2009 survey found that nearly three quarters of Lynx passengers were new to public transit.
This popularity has been repeated in all the recent LRT systems in Europe and North America. In city after city that has built LRT, the consistent pattern is that it attracts significant numbers of new riders who previously did not ride buses but choose to ride LRT for its higher quality of comfort and convenience.
Myth: Developers aren't interested in LRT.
Fact: A number of developers inside and outside the city have expressed support for LRT, but do not want to invest until the city commits to building it. City staff have been consulting with developers and organized a workshop earlier this year to discuss what policy changes are required to ensure transit oriented development is successful.
Myth: There isn't a business case for LRT.
Fact: Both the City and the Province have completed cost benefit analyses on LRT and concluded that it generates a large net benefit to the city in increased tax assessment, as well as improved neighbourhood vitality and air quality.
The City's feasibility study analyzed the economic development potential of LRT, including fact-finding trips to Calgary, Portland and Charlotte, and recommended building LRT, starting with the east-west line and integrating community and economic development policies for the biggest success. Concil unanimously endorsed the recommendation.
The Provincial Benefits Case Analysis included all the costs and benefits, but the city would only pay a small part of the costs and enjoy nearly all the benefits.
Myth: We can't afford to build LRT.
Fact: We can't afford not to build LRT. If we don't build it and continue with the current model of suburban expansion, we will spend more money overall on expensive new public infrastructure to support all that sprawl, and we will not collect enough money in development charges and new tax assessments to pay for it.
This is why Waterloo Region recently voted to build LRT. They discovered that it will be cheaper to build it and focus new investment around the transit corridor than to continue building outward.
Myth: LRT is more expensive to operate.
Fact: On a per-passenger basis, LRT is much cheaper to operate - generally significantly cheaper - than buses. Drivers are the biggest operating cost, and each LRT driver can carry many more passengers than a bus driver. In addition, while LRT vehicles are more expensive to buy, the last about three times as long as buses and have lower maintenance costs.
Calgary's C-Train costs only $0.27 per passenger to operate, whereas Hamilton's HSR costs around $5.00 per passenger, of which fares cover about half. This is one of the facts that convinced Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson to support the idea of LRT in Hamilton.
Myth: Hamilton is too small for LRT.
Fact: Many cities that have successful LRT systems, like Calgary and Edmonton, built them when they had populations of around 500,000 - the same as Hamilton has today. Similarly, a number of mid-sized European cities, like Grenoble and Nantes, with populations around half a million, have implemented successful LRT system.
Myth: Hamilton is too low-density for LRT.
Fact: Population densities along the B-Line are already much higher than the average across the city, which includes large swaths of rural land and low-density suburbs. In addition, the LRT itself will attract private investment that will further increase the density of land use around the line. That higher density development will, in turn, increase the city's tax revenues while simultaneously reducing the city's per-person infrastructure costs.
Calgary is an excellent case study of a low-density, automobile dependent city that nevertheless invested in LRT rather than more highways and has one of the most successful rapid transit systems in North America. Some 50% of commuters into downtown Calgary take the train to work instead of driving.
Myth: Hamilton is a bedroom community; we'll never be an economic centre.
Fact: Hamilton is an economic centre today. 70% of Hamiltonians work in Hamilton. Nearly 40,000 people commute into the city to work. Downtown Hamilton is the single biggest employment cluster in the city. Given that most Hamiltonians work in Hamilton, it makes sense that our transportation priority should be improving the speed, reliability and quality of commuter transportation within the city.
Myth: LRT will cause traffic congestion by reducing vehicle lanes.
Fact: LRT uses street capacity much more efficiently than automobiles. By taking cars off the street, LRT will actually increase its capacity to move people. At the same time, LRT attracts significant new investment along the transit corridor, which increases density and activity on the street, so overall it is difficult to predict the net effect on congestion.
Myth: LRT will get stuck in traffic.
Fact: LRT will run on dedicated lanes with signal priority. That means the streetlights will automatically turn green for the LRT vehicle as it approaches an intersection.
Myth: Bus Rapid Transit is just as good as LRT but costs a lot less.
Fact: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) often has lower capital costs than LRT, but it has much higher per-passenger operating costs. At the same time, it does almost nothing to attract new private investment that increases tax assessments and public infrastructure productivity. In addition, an existing BRT system makes it more difficult to upgrade to LRT in the future,
Ottawa decided in the 1980s to build BRT (called Transitways) instead of LRT. Capital costs for Ottawa's Transitways were nearly as high as Calgary's C-Train, which carries more passengers at a lower operating cost. The Transitways also did a poor job of attracting new transit oriented development. Now the system is at capacity and the city faces an expensive - and highly disruptive - upgrade to LRT.
Myth: LRT is an old-fashioned technology.
Fact: Streetcars and automobiles were invented around the same time. In the same way that cars have advanced technologically, modern LRT systems are technologically sophisticated and engineered for speed, reliability, comfort, accessibility and smooth ride.
Myth: The city has not engaged the public on LRT.
Fact: The city has undertaken more extensive, broad and in-depth public engagement on LRT than any other project in memory. Literally thousands of citizens have participated in public information centres, focus groups, workshops, design charettes, stakeholder meetings, surveys, and presentations to neighbourhood associations, community councils, business improvement areas (BIAs), service clubs and and community groups. In addition, city staff have published a number of studies on the Hamilton Rapid Transit website and the Nodes and Corridors website.
Myth: LRT didn't work in Buffalo, and it won't work here.
Fact: Buffalo lost half its population between 1960 and today, an astonishing collapse of population that no LRT system can single-handedly fix. In any case, Buffalo's system is more like a subway than an LRT, as it runs mostly underground. In addition, Buffalo planners did not establish a transit-oriented development corridor along the route. As a result, developers had to contend with a miasma of arbitrary, suburban-oriented postwar zoning and development regulations that have deterred urban reinvestment.
Myth: LRT will not go up the Mountain.
Fact: LRT can handle grades up to 10 or 12 percent, which is much steeper than the grade of the Claremont Access.
Myth: LRT will not survive in the winter.
Fact: LRT systems operate in all kinds of weather, including cities with winters that are even colder and more severe than Hamilton - including Calgary, Edmonton and Minneapolis.
Update: This article originally stated that LRT is "25-75% cheaper" to operate than BRT, but I can no longer find the citation for this. I changed the text to "significantly cheaper". You can jump to the changed paragraph.