By Ryan McGreal
Published October 28, 2009
[W]hat's the ideal result of public transit in this city? Ryan, what kind of scenario would put a smile on your face? I'm not going to get into the facts and figures, the revenue or ridership numbers; I'm talking basics here
I spent enough time working on a response that it seemed worthwhile to post my reply as a blog entry, hence this post.
I see high quality transit as first and foremost an engine of economic development, and only incidentally a transportation mode per se.
Hamilton Light Rail advocated for electric rapid transit on the evidence-based case that light rail generates billions of dollars in new economic development. But I don't just mean new condos and office towers on the transit corridor - I mean something more basic.
High quality transit allows a city to grow more densely around transit nodes so that it can leverage its intrinsic urban efficiencies - its economies of density, scale, association, and extension - to produce innovation and generate wealth.
Cities do not generate ideas in themselves, but they do bring creative people into contact: cross-fertilizing ideas from one intellectual domain to another; asking open-ended questions; challenging orthodoxy; forking a project into separate groups that progress independently; and merging forked developments to integrate their best features.
Creativity leads to invention - producing something new. Invention leads to innovation - putting the invention into practice. Innovations that generate value survive and reproduce, feeding the next wave of invention.
Cities that foster the chain of creativity-invention-innovation produce better tools for growing and responding to challenges. To the extent that high-quality transit supports dense, mixed urban development - and we know that it does - it also supports economic growth and development.
Strong evidence suggests that increasing population density and mixing destinations more closely confers measurable economies. When cities intensify, energy and infrastructure costs grow more slowly than population, but the innovation rate grows more quickly than population.
Scale up a city and you get both an infrastructure productivity boost and a boost in the rate of creative output.
Hamilton is a city spread so thin that it no longer commands the urban efficiencies. For example:
The density of most of the city is so low that people have very little casual contact with each other, not only because few people are in a given area at a given time but also because the big distances between destinations mean people have to drive everywhere and don't cross paths.
Because of the low density of our land use, our public infrastructure has very low productivity and a correspondingly high per capita cost. We've already seen the city studies finding that every new house built in Hamilton is actually a net loss to the city's revenue base. Suburbs do not generate wealth.
The aggressive separation of uses also conspires to prevent cross-fertilization of ideas and productive land use alike. Even our dense, mixed-use zoning for downtown is far too unambitious in its goals.
As a result of all these colliding factors, Hamilton is an unfriendly place to start a business, and so few Hamiltonians do. I know technical business owners who live in Hamilton but launched their startups elsewhere, citing the absence of a fertile environment in Hamilton - the lack of that indigenous soup of inventors, entrepreneurs, investors and skilled workers from which successful businesses have a better chance of emerging.
Sadly, our political leaders are committed not to growing Hamilton's own economic capacity but in luring a foreign white knight to swoop in and save us with hundreds of jobs. Instead of competing on quality, we try to compete on cost; and the result is that we attract the low-value bottom feeders of industry - dirty, low-skilled, low paid work for which we should be "grateful".
Now, obviously high quality transit will not, by itself, magically fix all that ails Hamilton - not even light rail transit! However, it is a necessary part of any viable solution.
As long as our transit remains a neglected stepchild in both funding support and transportation planning priority, it will be impossible for Hamilton to develop the kind of density and vibrancy that would allow people to start trading automobile commutes for urban engagement.
Remember: cars take up a staggering amount of space, not only in lane capacity but also in abundant "free" parking at every conceivable destination. A city in which every family needs two cars is a city that can never bring destinations close enough together to leverage density and proximity as economic efficiencies.
Try to imagine a great city that doesn't have high quality transit. It's impossible - they're inextricably entwined. In great cities - New York, Boston, London, Paris, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Portland, and so on - people with enough money to have options choose to take transit because it is fast, convenient, and affords them a distinctly urban quality of life.