Transportation Summit: Tension Between Sustainability Language and Status Quo Priorities

A significant shift in the city's thinking is that a focus on moving people and goods efficiently, not moving vehicles efficiently; yet staff highlighted the fact that decisions are still constrained by the need to maximize traffic flow.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published April 28, 2009

I attended the City of Hamilton Transportation Summit on 27 April 2009. This was the second in what is intended to be an annual series of meetings updating stakeholders on the Hamilton's transportation plans, and progress towards meeting past goals.

One feature of these meetings is a 'workshop' session where participants identify specific goals and suggest ways of achieving goals selected by the City.

Most of the meeting consisted of presentations on specific issues, and the major emphasis of this year's meeting was the Transportation implications of the draft official plan (the first update since amalgamation).

A significant shift in thinking is that the focus is on moving people and goods efficiently, not moving vehicles efficiently. This clearly benefits transit in general and LRT in particular.

Air Pollution from Vehicles

Denis Corr (of McMaster) gave a presentation on air quality in Hamilton which demonstrated that air quality in residential areas is generally very good and that industry contributes on 10-15% of total pollutants (contrary to public perception).

However, near major roads and intersections pollution is 20 times that of residential areas, and on freeways such as the 403 or QEW air pollution is 60 times residential levels. The pollution remains high within 200 m of freeways.

On both city streets and highways, trucks are by far the biggest polluters, equal to about 20 times a car. Since motor vehicle traffic is the most significant source of air pollution, LRT should significantly reduce air pollution by taking reducing traffic volumes.

This is especially important on streets like Main and King which have high pollution levels and are adjacent to residential and commercial areas. Corr also suggested that transit vehicles be fitted with filters to reduce the pollutant exposure for passengers.

LRT: Hamilton's Strong Position

Lisa Zinkewitch of the Public Works department's Rapid Transit office gave a light rail transit update, emphasizing Hamilton's strong planning position (only municipality to get study funding from Metrolinx) and how the benefits case analysis (BCA) will work.

She spent much of the presentation talking about the B-line alignment study: two-way on King (with two-way motor vehicle traffic) vs one-way. Two-way on King seemed slightly more favourable, because of lower costs and higher economic benefit (split may provide only 2/3 economic benefit of one-way). The Metrolinx representative in attendance seemed to be nodding in agreement!

Zinkewich finished with a one-page overview of the "Made in Hamilton" initiative.

The day ended with a series of "focus groups" discussing how to achieve various transportation oriented goals. LRT was given a high priority by several groups.

Priorities Haven't Really Changed

Outside LRT, however, while the City appeared to be saying all the right "sustainable" and community building things, when you drilled down it's clear they haven't really changed their priorities.

For example, when the Official Plan was being presented, they made a big deal about the fact the plan would make new communities mixed use, so that you would see houses, commercial, entertainment and work opportunities all in the same area.

However, when Don McLean asked whether this meant developers would no longer be able to put up a development of 500 houses and nothing else the response was very weak: mixed uses would simply be "permitted", not mandated.

It's incredible that mixed use is not permitted today, but simply allowing it is not going to make it happen among developers comfortable with single use construction.

Maximize Traffic Flow

Similarly, in both the Cycle Plan and LRT presentations, staff highlighted the fact that decisions were constrained by the need to maximize traffic flow.

This was completely at odds with other presentations that showed how high traffic volumes have all sorts of deleterious effects (pollution, high social costs due to accidents, expressways like King/Main killing commerce), but staff just can't seem to accept that maximizing traffic flow should not be a primary goal (perhaps, not even a goal at all).

They left the impression that improved service for pedestrians, cyclists and transit should be allowed only if they don't significantly impact traffic. This is both self-contradictory (it is, at least partly, a zero sum game), and unfair (why aren't the interests of all road users given equal consideration?).

Finally, Richard Gilbert's Electric City report was never mentioned by the City, despite the fact that the presenter from the the Canadian Urban Transportation Association (UTA) from Peel Region highlighted the need to plan for the changes coming with Peak Oil.

However, we're not alone. The UTA presenter discussed data showing that on every sustainability indicator but one (more work opportunities), Peel is still moving in the wrong direction.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By In Shock (anonymous) | Posted April 28, 2009 at 23:50:37

I still can't believe it. Can we really get two-way streets downtown _and_ LRT all in one shot? Here's to hoping that the rest of Hamilton nods their heads as well.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 07:33:06

very good report. Is there anyway to see the city's research showing a greater economic benefit with two-way LRT?
If that's really the case, it sure needs to be looked at.

And if they do start to lean towards two-way, they need to come up with a better two-way conversion plan for Main St, then they currently have on their website.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 13:07:03

Jason >> Is there anyway to see the city's research showing a greater economic benefit with two-way LRT?

LRT is FAR less effective at promoting economic growth than is capping government spending. Boston had rail transit for decades, but it took a cap on city spending to actually bring the city's economy back to life. It also resulted in much lower tax rates (from over 2% in 1985 to 1.11 in 2008) and stopped the population exodus that occurred while the city had lots of rail transit.

If LRT is so effective at promoting economic growth, how do you explain it's failure in Boston? Perhaps Ryan would also like to take a shot at this question, seeing that he has been completely silent on this point. If I didn't know better, I might think he is avoiding the Boston example because he doesn't have an explanation. :)

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 14:53:06

Ryan >> What happened in the mid-1980s is that the economy as a whole started to grow rapidly after the stagflation of the 1970s and crushingly high inflation of 1981-2 finally gave way to low inflation and economic reinvestment.

Real GDP growth from 1970-79 averaged 3.26%, from 1980-89 it averaged 3.07%. During the seventies, before Prop 2 1/2, Boston enjoyed lots of rail transit, yet it still had high tax rates and a shrinking population. Explain this.

>> One benefit of all this new growth is that cities could afford to start cutting tax rates

Economic growth in the eighties was slower than the seventies, therefore your argument is invalid.

Ryan >> Correlation != causality.

Most reasonable people will settle for strong correlations if 100% proof is unavailable. Unfortunately, you can't even provide weak positive correlations between LRT and economic growth, let alone 100% proof.

Ryan >> Cities enjoying economic growth can afford to cut tax *rates*

Cities like Boston, that discipline their politicians with spending restrictions, enjoy greater economic growth because they give the taxpayers more say in how their money is spent (much more democratic). Prior to 1982, Boston taxpayers lived through high tax rates, imposed upon them by politicians and the result was a shrinking population and economic malaise. Only after explicit limits were imposed on government spending, did tax rates begin to drop and the city's population increase.

If LRT truly was a positive for economic growth, why were tax rates over 2% even though LRT had existed for decades? That's just a HUGE flaw in your theory.

Ryan >> What cities need to function is a given *total amount of revenue*

If cities were actually productive and not wasteful, they could provide a stable level of public services with tax increases that match inflation and population growth, which happens to be around 2.5%, like Boston. Furthermore, this spending discipline has not hurt Boston, but actually helped increase their assessment base much faster than Hamilton, where politicians are much less accountable for how they spend taxpayers money and therefore more likely to waste it.

Politicians are like kids with their parents credit card. If a parent is smart, they place limits on that card and only allow large purchases if they agree to the expenditure.

>> city interested in continued growth will cut rates accordingly to maintain some kind of revenue homeostasis.

Therefore, you accept that lower tax rates help promote economic growth. If this is the case, what is wrong with allowing voters to decide how fast government should spend their money. Boston has done this in a reasonable manner, giving government enough flexibility to take care of the basics (2.5% increase a year), but forcing other spending to be decided upon by the people. How is this a bad thing, increasing thew amount of accountability?

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 16:37:17

before another thread turns into an unreadable pile of crap, can anyone answer my question posted above?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 18:13:49

Jason >> Is there anyway to see the city's research showing a greater economic benefit with two-way LRT?

You're question is flawed. Government has an inherent interest in promoting more government spending, whether that is LRT or any other investment that can't be measured in dollars and cents. If your question was actually about economic development, it would not focus solely on government spending of taxpayers money, but on what actually promotes investment and brings tax rates down.

The fact that you fail to recognize the success of capping spending and the abysmal failure of transit in Boston, tells me you're not serious about improving Hamilton's economy, you simply want LRT, regardless of what it costs the taxpayers of Hamilton.

How can someone who claims to love the truth, keep promoting LRT , when even a blind man can recognize it's complete failure to do anything to improve Boston's economy, declining population or high tax rates. Jason, your not a Jimmy Swaggart type of preacher are you? Do what I say, not what I do. I am really starting to wonder.

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By TwoWaysAboutIt (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 20:40:06

jason, try this:
(pages 54-56)

Also mentioned in the summary and conclusions of this:

but at first glance I couldn't find where it's mentioned in the preceding pages.

In my opinion, a two-way Main even with no train would see significant improvements over its current state. From a transit perspective, I agree with the studies that two-way on one corridor would make transit less confusing for riders than a one-way solution.

Our confusing bus system is such because of its dependence on the as-built road system. Remove the pre-conceived restrictions of "main must go east, King must go west" from the planning of transit and you are free to develop a system that actually works for riders rather than cars.

As for A Smith, they might do well from reading the Economic Impact Study above.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 20:40:08

Here's some reading for you if you're interested in educating yourself about light rail: - you should like this one. So far, $8.8 billion has been invested along Portlands LRT and Streetcar lines. I'm sad that you don't want to see that happen in Hamilton, but the fact is, some of us do.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 20:42:00

excellent, two ways about it. I'll check those reports out.

If two-way LRT is the way to go, I absolutely agree that it should go on King, and not Main. King has so much more retail/streetlife potential along it's entire length.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 23:51:33

Jason, this is from the first consultation link Q and A session on page 74...

Q: What other things will need to be done to ensure the City achieves its full economic benefit? Implementing the LRT
alone will not achieve the highest potential without developer incentives.
A: Increased density will need to be realized to achieve full economic potential. Developer incentives are also
important, such as permissive zoning.

If LRT needs higher density to work, doesn't it make sense to promote policies to encourage this taking place BEFORE spending taxpayers money? Height restrictions and tax incentives for building up would be cost free ways of increasing the population downtown, thereby decreasing the risks associated with low ridership.

If the goal truly is about increasing investment and population downtown, why isn't the city doing all the things that are cost-free first, before being so willing to risk millions (billions?) on an LRT line that may not have enough ridership to come close to breaking even?

Businesses don't build stores first and then hope people will come to their city, they make sure that the demand is there first and only then do they deploy capital. In this way, risk is minimized and less capital is wasted on depreciating assets. It's also why you shouldn't take your investment advice from people who have a vested interest in promoting their cause, like the link you provided by the American Public Transit Association.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 30, 2009 at 07:16:50

that's exactly what the city has been doing in recent years with the residential loan program, and BIA grant money. Hundreds of new residential units have been built and many more are on the way. The return on investment from this program has been astonishing. Probably the most successful program the city has ever implemented. Of course, new restaurant investments and reno's have also taken place during this time throughout the downtown core. LRT will only help increase the construction/renovation activity to a much greater level by providing a key piece of infrastructure that is essential in urban living. That of course, draws more people, which allows builders to build more buldings.

Again, just read the links provided above if you're truly interested in learning about how to develop a successful LRT system. Our own city reports talk about doing all the necessary things with zoning and increased density rules like other cities have done.

I provided quite a bit of reading for you to help you out. Enjoy.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 30, 2009 at 15:02:33

Jason, the residential loan program is a great example of how lower tax rates stimulate investment. However, if we know it works, why not roll it out city wide? All that would happen would be that Hamilton would see a massive influx of investment and growth. Is that so bad?

As for LRT, take a look at this...

Ryan >> we advocate it as the centrepiece of a comprehensive strategy to revitalize the downtown, including: two-way street conversions, pedestrian improvements

Yet no mention of lowering tax rates. You talk about how people respond to incentives and yet when it comes to taxes, you selectively forget this lesson. But somehow pedestrian improvements are more important to stimulating investment than tax reductions. Let me repeat, Ryan McGreal believes that PEDESTRIAN IMPROVEMENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN LOWER TAX RATES for stimulating investment. Wow.

Ryan >> it is also proven to attract investors in droves

Proof, really? This is from one of Jason's links...

To realize the development benefits, Cervero said, other things must be in place. Those include land-use policies supporting transit; a strong economy; a population that's inclined to use transit; and a transit system that's effective and inviting in both service and design.

So without a good economy and a population willing to embrace giving up their cars, development won't succeed. Currently Hamilton has a poor economy and a love affair with cars, so according to Robert Cervero, chairman of the city and regional planning department at the University of California, Berkeley, it won't do much to help this Hamilton's development.

A quote from the same article...

But not all light rail projects have been economic development success stories.

"One thing that can happen is nothing," said Robert Dunphy, of the Urban Land Institute. "Transit advocates will claim if you put rail in, all of a sudden you'll have this money flowing. It's just not true.

That doesn't sound good.

Ryan >> The city's 'BRT-Lite' B-Line buses are operating way over capacity

And yet we still have high tax rates. If we get LRT and lots of ridership, will that lower tax rates? It didn't in Boston. Only a hard cap on spending did that. Furthermore, population only started increasing after this cap was enacted. Rail transit by itself did NOTHING to slow the exodus of people form Boston during the 50's to the 70's. That's a fact.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 30, 2009 at 18:18:21

ASmith said: "A quote from the same article...

But not all light rail projects have been economic development success stories.

"One thing that can happen is nothing," said Robert Dunphy, of the Urban Land Institute. "Transit advocates will claim if you put rail in, all of a sudden you'll have this money flowing. It's just not true.

That doesn't sound good."

No, it doesn't sound good. Anyone stupid enough to make comments like 'money will start flowing' just because a rail line is put in should be called on it.

Also, for future reference, please don't send any info my way that cites 'Las Vegas' as their example whether good or bad. The place is a fake city that I have zero interest in examining in the real world.

However, you could have used Buffalo. They really botched up their LRT project and even though real estate values are higher near stations than further away, they haven't leveraged the potential economic impact of LRT.
Not to mention, their economy has been screwed up for decades now.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 30, 2009 at 23:44:52

Jason >> please don't send any info my way that cites 'Las Vegas

It sounds as if you lost a lot of money there. My point was simply that there are ways to provide things like rail transit, while also keeping taxpayers protected.

>> you could have used Buffalo.

Buffalo has rail transit and residential tax rates around 2.3%. So even though rail might attract people, when government takes such a large percentage of their net worth, the net effect is still extremely negative on attracting investment. People do not like paying high taxes and they vote with their feet.

Furthermore, property taxes are a regressive tax and so they hit average and poor people disproportionately. If these rates were brought down, the people who that would help the most would be Joe Worker and his family. Strange that a working class town like Hamilton would tax the worker more than Oakville or Burlington.

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By Broker (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 13:37:22

Too bad you don't like Vegas, Jason. Every city is false, in the sense of being man-made environments. Vegas reflects some of biggest, basest dreams of western culture and it is interesting to visit if only to see what those might be. The latest, for instance, appears to be the architectural fantasies of people like Liebeskind, etc. Nothing gets built in Vegas unless its appeal is already proven elsewhere over and over again.

But they botched the LRT thingee. It's short, disjointed and, running through casino backlots, separates riders from pedestrians. Like most dream factories, Vegas, where the pedestrians are, is all front. You ride the thing and wonder how the people who built Vegas can get so much right in regard to commercial appeal, and get this so wrong. The dream not base enough, perhaps. An example of the marketplace not automatically delivering quality of life, or doing so only long enough to empty pockets.

Like anyplace, you gotta love it for what it is. Met some nice folks. Wish I hadn't lost all my pics of the town.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 17:26:57

I wonder if it was purposefully botched up in order to keep the parking revenue's streaming into the hotels/casino's?

Good point though - you'd think they could build an insanely awesome LRT system there with all the money and expertise available.

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