A new study by McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics concludes that LRT needs sound, long-term land use planning and strong political leadership to be successful.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 31, 2012
Hamilton's B-Line LRT will have difficulty attracting new transit-oriented development as long as Hamilton's downtown streets remain one-way, fast thoroughfares, according to a new study by McMaster's Institute for Transportation and Logistics.
The study by geographers Christopher Higgins and Mark Ferguson, titled The North American Light Rail Experience: Insights for Hamilton [PDF], reviews 30 light rail transit systems established in North America since 1975 for lessons on how Hamilton can help ensure that its LRT investment is successful.
It focuses more closely on Calgary, San Diego, Minneapolis and Buffalo - the first three as case studies in what works, and the latter as a warning for what can happen when LRT construction is divorced from regional economics and effective land use planning.
The research emphasizes the essential role of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) policies in ensuring that LRT rail investment will deliver expected gains in ridership and private sector development around the line.
TOD refers to a land use and development model based around access to higher-order transit: a dense, mixed-use, walkable urban built form that is compatible with transit and has a reduced reliance on driving. It emphasizes "place-making" by locating stations in areas of high activity and encouraging "attractive, memorable and human-scale environs" with high-quality designs.
Along with TOD is a necessary relaxation of traditional minimum parking requirements to "avoid the construction of costly parking structures and save residents thousands of dollars" when developers are forced to construct parking based on an auto-centric land use.
Successful LRT systems also focus on the long term, partnering with developers and investors to reduce the perceived risk of mixed-use infill development compared to single-use suburban greenfield development. Success for an LRT program is measured in decades, not years, as the line and associated land use policies slowly transform investment flows and population movements in the city.
The study notes the importance of "strong political leadership" as "a critical element in the success of any rapid transit and TOD project.
A political champion can help to realize success by marshaling resources, building coalitions, and resolving disputes. Coordinating institutions, streamlining processes, and minimizing red tape are seen as crucial in implementing TOD projects and are dependent on strong political leadership.
The study summarizes what all this means for Hamilton, concluding that LRT "has the potential to succeed in Hamilton under the right set of circumstances" but will be long and expensive to achieve.
One issue Hamilton faces is that the east-west B-Line route does not suffer traffic congestion and has cheap, abundant parking. "The system of one-way streets along the prospective corridor, while good for auto commuting, is not ideal for LRT or for encouraging TOD."
If Hamilton's LRT is to be successful at attracting people out of cars, it should follow the example of Calgary, which combined its LRT with changes to its road structure that "have made it more challenging to commute downtown by car."
The study also finds that traffic speed reductions and two-way conversion "can reduce traffic accident risk and result in an improved environment for transit users, pedestrians, and cyclists."
This conclusion reinforces the Metrolinx Benefits Case Analysis, which states that converting Main and King Streets to two-way will increase the benefits of LRT and support the City's goal of a "healthy, more pedestrian-friendly downtown".