Special Report: Transit

Ending Transit Area Rating Not a Panacea

Eliminating area rating has a role to play in in increasing funding for transit in Hamilton, but it is by no means the only solution to expanding transit to the suburbs.

By Jason Allen
Published November 09, 2018

There was a lot of talk in the recent municipal election about removing area rating for transit as a solution to improving the HSR in Hamilton. This was partly encouraged by Environment Hamilton and various online forums.

HSR articulated bus (Image Credit: Chris Whitfield)
HSR articulated bus (Image Credit: Chris Whitfield)

While these sources certainly had a good understanding of area rating and its impact on transit funding, there seemed to be less understanding of the intricacies of transit planning, and how seemingly obvious solutions can some times cause more problems than they solve.

Area rating is the process by which certain parts of Hamilton pay more or less of a property tax levy based on the services they receive. Some of the more suburban parts of our city receive different levels of service than the more urban ones, and in an effort to more fairly reflect that, they pay different amounts of tax.

This makes sense if delivering downtown levels of service to an area is prohibitively expensive, or logistically impossible. However, the HSR shouldn't fall into this category. After all, extending routes to the edges of our city doesn't require major infrastructure upgrades or digging up roads and sidewalks to lay water or sewer lines. It just requires buses, drivers and a bit of planning.

In the past, suburban parts of Hamilton have chosen, or their elected councillors have chosen, not to contribute to the HSR, which has been considered their right due to area rating. This means that those areas don't receive much, if any, transit service.

Environmental advocates insist, however, that increasing transit ridership is a key part of the solution to solving climate change, and they're right. They seem to have taken up the cause of eliminating area rating to ensure that suburban Hamilton pays for and receives transit service.

While the goal is noble, getting transit to the edges of the city isn't that straightforward. Transit planners know that they have a number of masters when it comes to building and designing systems. Not only do they have riders - who should be their main concern - but they also have politicians, and the general public. It's this public who is funding the lions share of the cost of most trips in many cities.

Transit Planning a Complex Field

Planning and designing a transit system is also not something that can be done by armchair quarterbacks. It's a complex field involving a lot of fairly complicated math, which is why it should be approached with caution by those who haven't studied it in depth.

To get a good grounding in schedule design requires over 140 hours of instruction just on the fundamentals of system design and the process called Run Cutting. In many cases, a minor tweak to one route can cause havoc down the road with missed connections, traffic delays, and either overcrowding or empty vehicles.

In Hamilton, City Councillors have a long history of asking for just these kinds of tweaks to routes in their wards, at the request of their constituents, with predictable results.

The art of balancing these various stakeholders is usually the focus of the first day of most transit planning courses. During that time, the instructor usually tells the class an anecdote about members of the public calling their councillor to scream at him or her over the 'empty buses' they see plying routes all day, burning through their hard-earned tax dollars.

Indeed, when I was door-knocking in the last election, this was one of the most common objections I heard to LRT. A homeowner had seen a bus go by off-peak with only a few people on it more than once, and on that evidence had decided a rapid transit solution was neither desirable nor necessary.

Working around this type of objection, rather than removing area rating, will be key to ensuring that suburban transit service in Hamilton doesn't meet the same fate as the ill-fated King Street bus lane.

With area rating removed, but without a major change in how the HSR delivers service, the system would likely end up running those full-length, 40-foot buses largely empty along low-density suburban routes.

Growing Ridership Takes Time

The theory is that with enough service offered, that ridership would slowly grow until the routes are well-traveled and closer to self-sustaining. This is a process, however, that takes time, and politically that time can be hard to come by.

Just ask the poor people who set the original pricing structure for the Union-Pearson Express train service. After a few weeks of news stories about abysmal ridership, there was a political reversal on years of decision making, and the price was slashed to a point where the service will never be self-sustaining.

Politicians and the public generally want immediate results, and the problem with the 'if you build it they will come' model is that it takes time to develop the ridership needed to support the cost of running a service.

This also requires offering service levels that are attractive enough that people consider transit as a viable transportation option, which means buses running frequently enough that people can get to the stop and not have to wait for 55 minutes in bad weather for service to work or school. Frequency and proximity of stops are the two biggest drivers of both ridership and cost of a transit system.

There is another model, which I like to call "If you build it before they come, they won't buy a second car."

Brampton has done this to great effect, running transit routes at a good frequency to barely completed new subdivisions such that when homeowners take possession, their transit options are so good that they don't bother buying a second car.

This has been responsible for both the astronomical growth of transit in Brampton and the relatively slow growth in congestion in a city that has been plowing up green fields for tract housing at a record pace for years.

Build it Before they Come

In Hamilton, the challenge is in expanding service to existing exurban locations, without a flurry of angry calls to the councillors' offices killing the project before it even has a chance to grow. For that, we need to get creative.

The answer likely lies in the form of some kind of on-demand micro transit solution that allows people to indicate their desire to ride as they're about to leave for the bus, and have that (much smaller-sized) bus show up shortly afterwards. Many cities are doing this in North America.

Arlington, Texas is about the size of London, Ontario, and has no conventional transit system whatsoever. Instead, ride hailing company VIA operates a fleet of eight passenger Mercedes mini-buses that are hailed on demand by passengers who indicate their origin and destination on an app. The routing software takes care of planning the most efficient route for the driver while they are driving, feeding it to their GPS software automatically.

Closer to home, cities like Airdrie, Alberta and Sudbury, Ontario, which are much lower-density than Hamilton, are using similar applications. This has all been done without the usual criticism of "empty buses" appearing on low-density streets that tends to derail efforts at transit expansion. This is not a radical idea, in fact it appears as one of the recommendations (at least for study) in the city's newly released Transportation Master Plan.

Eliminating area rating has a role to play in in increasing funding for transit in Hamilton, but it is by no means the only solution to expanding transit to the suburbs. The city needs to apply creative solutions to the problem of supplying transit to low-density areas, or any efforts to expand will meet the same fate as the King Street bus lane.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.

7 Comments

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted November 10, 2018 at 18:49:31

Thanks Jason.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted November 12, 2018 at 21:56:23

I have no problem with an area rating, but I think it should be done for all City of Hamilton services. The City of Halifax found that the average cost per household for City services was $1,416 for urban households, but $3,462 for suburban households. Over twice as much! See:

https://usa.streetsblog.org/2015/03/05/s...

So in Hamilton, a proper area rating system would have suburban property tax rates at well over twice the downtown tax rates.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted November 14, 2018 at 18:26:33

Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker has a fascinating series of posts on his blog "Human Transit" on the subject of micro transit.

You will find a summary at the following link:

https://humantransit.org/2018/02/is-micr...

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By cyberfarer (registered) | Posted November 16, 2018 at 13:37:08

I think this article, while insightful, misses the essential argument for eliminating area ratings for transit. It is not specifically about expanding transit to suburbs, although that would be a benefit, but expanding service at all.

For example, CATCH Hamilton reported that Rymal Road service was not increased because Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson objected that a more frequent service would increase the property taxes of his constituents. That is the impact of Area Ratings. It stunts ALL transit expansion outside of the non-Area Rated wards and that includes services that cross into those wards. Area Ratings also place an unfair tax burden on pre-amalgamation Hamilton ratepayers.

The costs of expanding the BLAST network, for example, would fall disproportionately upon those wards. On top of that, though, councillors who routinely pay lip service to public transit may actively oppose implementing BLAST if it means higher taxes for their residents.

Eliminating area ratings may not be a panacea, but it is necessary for transit to be viable in Hamilton.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted November 16, 2018 at 15:52:23

Great article about the long uphill battle with area rating --

I kept seeing many people elsewhere bringing up Union-Pearson Express (UPX) as an excuse not to build Hamilton LRT, I think it's worth commenting:

UPX ridership has grown 4x-5x what it was originally -- so a ridership success to point out to people who think UPX is a failure. While it'll never be profitable, it's now roughly in-line with the rough ballpark of TTC and GO, unlike most North American transit systems where the farebox recovery is abysmal.

The reversal in how UPX fares -- and that it is money losing -- also applies to TTC, HSR, and GO, as is the typical transit agency to require a farebox subsidy.

Although that was not originally the goal of UPX to lose money operationally, it is now. However, not everyone realizes that it's how municipal transit service works. Based on quick math, the UPX farebox recovery for the five-figure ridership is in a trajectory that appears to be stabilizing into the same ballpark of TTC/GO -- between 50% and 75%.

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