Convince Me to Be Car Free

Some simple ideas on how we can achieve the City's goal of 100 rides per person per year by 2020 (or at least in my lifetime).

By Alasdair Rathbone
Published August 30, 2009

Imagine a Hamilton where, for the average family, the question wasn't "Whose car should be a take to dinner?" but rather "Do we really need to drive to the restaurant?"

Now imagine a Hamilton joined together with Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit and much improved city bus service, with connections to the region and the world by electric commuter and high speed rail. Could this be the future in store for us?

I'm not going to lie: I think for the foreseeable future that the majority of households will own a car. But wouldn't it be nice if transit were enough of an option so that an average family make do with only one vehicle?

That's why a recent article in the Hamilton Spectator caught my attention. In it I found out about a visioning process being lead by the Hamilton Transit Users Group that (distilled to its basic premise) asks: "How can we increase transit usage in Hamilton?"

While I don't pretend to be a transit expert, I do have some simple ideas on how we can achieve the City's goal of 100 rides per person per year by 2020 (or at least in my lifetime).

1. Implement the BLAST Rapid Transit System

2020 is a long time before anyone expects the full build-out of the city's planned BLAST rapid transit web, which will connect Waterdown, Dundas, Stoney Creek, Ancaster, John C. Munro Airport and many points in between. Yet we need to start implementing pre-rapid transit service on this core network as well as building the lines which have current Metrolinx commitments, as soon as possible.

Our goal by 2020 should be to have the A (Airport to Waterfront) and B (Dundas to Eastgate) Lines operating as Light Rail, and the other 3 lines to be operating 24/7 express buses with a minimum of 7.5 minutes headways in rush hour.

Potential Rapid Transit System - 'BLAST'
Potential Rapid Transit System - "BLAST" (Image Source: City of Hamilton)

2. Make Full Use Of The Presto Smart Card Technology

The Presto Smart Transit Card system is expected to be rolled out in Hamilton next fall and will be used on almost every public transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, with the notable exception of VIA Rail, TTC surface routes and some Toronto Subway stations.

This smart card system, which will likely replace all fare media except cash, will increase boarding speeds, and make using transit across the region simple by automatically calculating the lowest possible fare for a journey when the care is "tapped-in" on boarding.

Obviously this has huge potential benefits. The first key to successfully implementing the Presto card is switching to a proof of payment system. While the remaining cash users can use timed transfers for Proof, a scanner can check the cards. This could lead to much faster boarding with card users tapping in at any door, and cash users on rapid transit lines making their transaction off-board at ticket vending machines at stations, where debit and credit cards could also be used.

The second key to a successful implementation is making sure Presto is used, a trickier but not insurmountable task. One measure that could be taken is simply to shift the University-Pass system to Presto, and to aggressively expand this program attempting to reach all post-secondary campuses in the city. Not only will this increase usage during the school year, but also in the summer and in the future as the student (or ex-student) will now be a presto card owner.

This program could be paralleled with employee transit allowances paid on a Presto card. This would benefit both employers, as the city could offer a reduced parking requirement, and employees as they have the convenience of a Presto pass.

I would propose also another more radical measure: Every current taxpayer and all future tax payers in urban areas will have twenty-five dollars extra charged to their tax bill, one time only, to provide individuals with a Presto card loaded with the minimum twenty dollars. I would think if every household had a Presto card, they would not all sit there gathering dust.

3. Create a Well Connected, Frequent, Fast Bus Service

While the HSR's BLAST system will form the backbone of Hamilton's transit system, it will be short of customers if regular buses do not extend its reach. We need a bus network that while not overlapping rapid transit routes provides intersecting and parallel feeder service.

However, a well-connected system that covers the city is not enough; it needs to be both frequent and fast to make it usable. The HSR should establish Grade A and Grade B frequency routes with 24/7 service and a 10 minute minimum rush hour headway for Grade A routes and daytime seven days a week service and a 15 minute minimum rush hour headway for Grade B routes. Not quite "a bus is always in sight" service but it's close enough for your average joe.

The HSR also needs to be proactive in increasing speeds through merging stops that are too close together, and implementing transit priority measures, such as transit priority at traffic lights, in transit bottlenecks, such as Concession and John Streets.

Even more simple than this, though, the HSR needs to negotiate with the Unions to move operator breaks to the ends of the routes so that users are not inordinately delayed by the driver's bladder!

While what I have written is by no means a comprehensive plan for transit, it is what I personally envision as part of the path forward for our city. But like it or lump it, don't let my comments be the only received by the Transit Users Group, so submit your comments at, and look out for their upcoming public presentation in late October.

Alasdair Rathbone is a first year McMaster University Kinesiology student. Although he lives on the Mountain he still maintains an interest in the lower city where he spent his early years. He follows politics at all levels and likes to comment to anyone that will listen.


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By jason (registered) | Posted August 30, 2009 at 21:36:00

Great piece. I was just talking about this to a friend this weekend. It's a shame that Hamilton has allowed this mindset to take over that believes giving people no real option other than a car to get around is somehow democratic or 'free market' driven. I use transit regularly and would a heck of a lot more if I knew my schedule wouldn't get ruined by an hour after being passed by full buses that only come every 20 minutes to begin with. As much as I hate the BLAST name, I'll love it if we can actually see it come to pass. I can see room for a few LRT lines, a few BRT lines and some streetcar routes along streets like Barton, Ottawa, Kenilworth, Locke, Dundurn etc.....

Again, thanks for posting. Great article.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 30, 2009 at 23:06:36

also, BRT vehicles can be quite comfortable and more modern and appealing than a normal bus. Our new fleet of buses are the best we've had in some time, but I hope we continue to move forward and improve the technology and attractiveness of our bus fleet.

Some photo examples:

Level boarding:

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By frank (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 10:48:51

What's wrong with BLAST? I love it. But then again, I'm an explosive kinda guy :)

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By frank (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 10:51:57

One problem I have is that it seems all transit proposals stop at Centennial. There are people who live in Stoney Creek... and what about Dundas? Hopefully an improved bus or BRT network will be developed to service these areas, allowing others to use the LRT system. I'm also not sure about the feasibility of running an LRT line up to the airport. What's the frequency of bus trips being made there? Perhaps something allowing future expansion to the airport if it's needed would be better?

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 11:30:30

I just hope 'BLAST' --agreed, terrible name-- doesn't end up like Vision2020 and/or GRIDS, etc.

Great Plan! I just hope the 'T-Line' --which should be the 'C Line' if we're going by alphabetical order-- should run from Meadowlands to Mohawk Sports Park as LRT rather than going down to Centre Mall. A new, more frequent, bus route can connect the Centre Mall area to the East Mtn/Mohawk Sports Park/C-Line.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2009 at 12:17:05

Frank, the strange borders of comprehensive bus service are artifacts of Hamilton's unique area rating system: different parts of the city pay different tax rates toward transit. For example, the old city of hamilton pays five times the transit tax rate as Ancaster. Hamilton is the only municipality in Ontario with such a transit tax system.

Most cities regard transit as a public good, i.e. beneficial to the city as a whole and therefore worth funding by the city as a whole. In constrast, Hamilton's transit funding formula is parochial and sectarian and is itself an artifact of the forced manner in which Hamilton was amalgamated with its neighbouring communities - a decision that was made, perhaps ironically, so that the amalgamated city would have a big enough tax base to support the downloading of social services.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 15:20:59

Frank - an explosive kind of guy eh?? Lol

I just don't see the acronym working. In Chicago they say 'lets ride the L' In Portland it's the MAX.

Are we going to say "lets hop on the blast"??

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By frank (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 15:43:23

Jason, one of these days you'll be able to attend one of my pyro shows :) BLAST is as good or better the L in my opinion. BLAST across Hamilton on the new LRT! Ah well, maybe with a few more lines we can call it EXPLODE or less and we can call it BOOM! Just havin fun is all!

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 16:50:08

I think our LRT's 'brand' should reflect the HSR (Hamilton Street Rail)'s history.

I'm sure the City would implement some sort of Public Contest, much like how the B-Line got it's updated look.

Market the HSR logo much like TTC logos mark Subway Stns. People understand Brands, not acronyms like 'BLAST'. "I'm going to BLAST to work!" Hmmmm... Not so much. "I'm taking the Hamilton Street Rail [or simply 'HSR' for locals] from the Airport, Downtown" Hmmm... iffy... or simply, "Just jumpin on the LRT... see you in 10!" (works in Edm & Cgy!?)

All in all, BLAST is ok for primary naming purposes, but needs to change for Branding Purposes. And what better brand for the HSR's Light Rail then it's tradition in providing Street Rail transit!?

I say let the Hamilton Rapid Transit Newtwork Naming Convention begin!

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By scorby (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 18:02:55

I'm moving in Oct for the first time to Hamilton from Oakville, though Toronto is where I'm from. We'd call the various transit options what they were, e.g. "I'm taking the streetcar" or bus, or subway. If taking more than one, we'd say "I'm takin' the TTC". When the Hamilton system is actually running, names will be made up for it, and one will stick. It surely won't be BLAST. I doubt most people would say it, I won't!

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 21:47:16

very true scorby. something local and unique will stick once the system is more used and talked about. right now we say 'the bus'.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 03:02:32

For a city without any rapid transit, I'm very impressed with Victoria, BC's bus system. They have modern, comfortable double decker buses that serve the outlying areas on a semi-express basis. While people love their cars here, as is universal, it seems to me a good example of how a city can change its transportation patterns through efficient bus service, even while true rapid transit is the ultimate goal.

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By Rush (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2009 at 13:31:00

Yep, I'm with those who think we need to move more quickly to establish rapid transit service further afield to effectively step away from the car culture. If that means using big articulated buses instead of rails, well, the rails can come later. I know the concern is that fixed rails help anchor development nodes, but they do not if building nodes follow rather than lead the developers. Have to get out in front and the initial savings using buses can be used to build more and bigger stations in Dundas, Stoney Creek, east and west Mountain, Waterdown and (drum roll please) central Burlington. And build them sooner rather than later.

When it's built the rest of you may be getting a Blast, but I'll be RIDING THE HAMMER. If you must have an acronym, it'll mean Hamilton Area Municipal Mobilization Express Routes (or any damned thing, HSR still the service provider, of course) but locals will know what came first: the HAMMER or the nail. Of course, dogs chasing the wheels of these big buses will be out to nail the HAMMER, politicos debating what and what not to do will be hitting their heads with the HAMMER because they don't know when to stop. Folks who don't see the sense of rapid transit will have to get HAMMERed, or proponents will have dropped the HAMMER. Even newspaper sports writers will be able to follow the action.

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By madmanmike13 (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2009 at 05:05:15

what about a mall route, eastgate to limeridge. to many buses to get from one mall to another, and i would much rather take one bus versus driving through the hell of mall traffic.

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