Is LRT Really Worth It?

An alternative perspective on the future of rapid transit in Hamilton.

By Ray Lawlor
Published August 31, 2010

If you are one of the many Hamiltonians who cannot wait to see light rail vehicles swooshing down Main Street in Hamilton like Dublin's Luas, Calgary's C-train or Portland's MAX, I hope you'll bear with me for the duration of this article. I'm going to play devil's advocate and suggest that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the light rail system currently envisioned might not be the best investment we could make.

If you're on the fence on the issue of LRT, I hope to be able to provide you with an alternative perspective to the increasingly pro-LRT political discourse in Hamilton.

If you're a strong proponent of an LRT system (as I know some RTH readers and contributors are), I hope that you will look at this piece as an opportunity for you to reflect on and refine your vision, and not an attack (because that's not what its intended to be).

The prospect of significant federal and provincial government investments in mass transit in Hamilton has been a source of great excitement of late. Given that a large majority of Hamiltonians supported the idea of LRT versus BRT in a number of recent polls, it's safe to say most RTH readers probably come down in favour of a rail option over a tired option, as I initially did.

It's clear that the idea of an LRT system is gaining a lot of traction and in some ways, that's great. Mass transit in Hamilton has certainly seen better days and the level of civic engagement around this issue is very promising.

Unfortunately, in other ways it's not so great, because the idea of an LRT network seems to be also generating a lot of hype. Despite the fact that there have been no funding commitments from any level of government aside from $3 million for a feasibility study on the B-line, all sorts of predictions and visions are being tossed around in public forums.

Predictions are being made about appreciations in real estate values in proximity to the LRT lines, and the phrase "urban renewal" is being used more and more. The possibility of the A & B LRT lines has been used as justification for the West Harbour site of the Pan Am Games stadium, even though according to current schedules the A line would not be built until long after the games were complete.

With a price tag of almost $800 million for the first phase of the B-line alone, there is no way the city of Hamilton could finance the cost of the system by itself - meaning that without very substantial commitments from Queen's Park and Ottawa our system will remain a set of lines drawn on a map.

All of this calls into question the wisdom of the current buzz around LRT, and I cannot help but feel that we are rushing into something without fully vetting it out.

$800 million is a lot of money. If you were handed that much money and told that your mandate was to do as much as you could with it to improve the city of Hamilton, would you use every penny to build the B-line LRT?

I'm sure there are some people who would say yes, but I would not. Consider that the BCA case presented by Metrolinx states quite clearly that the cost-benefit ratio of a BRT system is 27% higher than for an LRT system (1.4 versus 1.1) as it costs only $220 million dollars to implement. Put another way, we could buy three and a half lines of BRT for the cost of one LRT line!

Does this mean I think we should definitely be building a BRT and not an LRT network? No. Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro's blog has a very detailed analysis of why Metrolinx's BCA analyses can be deceiving and I do not believe our decision should be based largely on their numbers.

There are also qualitative concerns not directly addressed by the BCA analysis that are relevant to this debate. I raise this point to emphasize that the important choice we are facing deserves careful consideration, including all alternative options, before we commit to an expensive LRT network.

Toronto's Network 2011 Debacle

My fear is that by committing to a network that will need major investment by other levels of government, Hamilton will be hamstrung for a generation by political machinations over which we have little control. I submit the case of Toronto's Network 2011 plan as evidence of what can go wrong.

Transit Toronto covers the history of the now-defunct subway expansion plan in detail here, here and here.

In brief, Toronto committed to a massive rapid transit infrastructure program that was contingent on the Provincial government for support, and saw the entire program collapse (even though the shovels were already in the ground!) when Mike Harris' Tories pulled their funding in the mid 1990s.

Even if the commitment from a Provincial level was a guaranteed reality, there are still good reasons to be skeptical. Some transit projects involving LRT lines have been large successes, but others have been abject failures. Some projects held up as examples of successes are not universally regarded as such (i.e. Portland's MAX).

For example, several comments have been made recently in various media outlets about Hamilton's decision to pass up an ALRT system in the 1980s. The decision is usually painted as a failure given the success of Vancouver's ALRT SkyTrain. Rarely mentioned is the disastrous and under-used Scarborough RT right down the road in Toronto, using the same ALRT technology.

Buffalo is another nearby example of an LRT failure, although for many complex reasons beyond the design of the project. Edmonton's LRT, although now undergoing expansion, struggled with low ridership for the early years of its existence.

The point is that LRT in and of itself will not and cannot "rescue" Hamilton. There are many other fundamentals that we must heed if a mass transit system is to succeed, and many of them have not been addressed as of yet.

Other ways to spend $800 million

I'd like to step back for a minute and ask a simple question: why are we considering building a light rail system in Hamilton?

Is it because we like the idea of an LRT system (i.e. all those photos of trams gliding down boulevards in their exclusive rights of way in cities like Calgary, or through a Strasbourg-like pedestrian mall)?

Is it to accomplish goals like increased transit ridership and mobility for Hamiltonians?

Is it to spark "urban renewal" and increase real estate values?

I suspect the answer for many people is "all of the above" and that they believe an LRT system could do so. However, there are other means of accomplishing the same goals, and some of them may be more cost-effective at doing so.

We must ask ourselves what our vision for Hamilton's future is and, to borrow a phrase from Order of Canada recipient and Hamilton resident Dr. Gary Warner, who will benefit from our expenditures.

$800 Million dollars would buy several Pan Am stadiums. It would go a long way to eliminate our backlog of road repairs and sewage infrastructure upgrades (not to mention pay for a level 3 water treatment facility). It would clean up more than a few brownfields.

It would allow us to properly enhance the flood control system of the Red Hill Valley Parkway so that we would not need to compensate east end residents for their flooded basements.

It might allow us to give businesses tax breaks or incentives to occupy the vacant space in our core, and pay for the two-way conversion of Main St. and King St.

If we limit ourselves to the realm of public transit projects, it might allow us to pay for upgraded railway infrastructure to allow better GO connections.

There are many other possible enhancements for our transit that we could initiate to improve mobility and accessibility in the city.

Big Questions

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this debate for me is the fact that a lot of discourse is happening without a good background understanding of transit issues. Some commentators and stakeholders have clearly done their homework, while others clearly have not.

Consider the city of Hamilton's public surveys about a potential rapid transit line. It is really no surprise that most Hamiltonians preferred LRT to BRT in the survey - given the choice between a train and a bus that will get you where you want to go at exactly the same time, most people prefer the train's superior aesthetic.

The questions that need to be asked deal with how much more we value an LRT versus other options. If we rolled the capital costs of an LRT or BRT rapid transit line into its fares, would it be economical for us to build?

How much more would you be willing to spend to take a more comfortable but more expensive train versus a bus, if the two would get you to your destination at the same time?

Likewise, if you could take a bus or a train but one would get you there faster, how much more would you be willing to pay for the extra speed? If the bus would get you to your destination slightly faster than a train, which would you take? How much faster would the bus (or train) need to be for you to change your mind?

If we install an LRT line on Main St, what will that do to other bus routes that use the corridor?

Marge versus the Monorail

You might ask what sparked this change of heart. Why did someone who supported an LRT system for Hamilton at first suddenly become such a skeptic? In part it had to do with watching other transit debates I have been following unfold, and reflecting on what I saw. In part it came from doing a lot of reading and research to understand transit issues better.

Strangely enough, though, the proverbial straw came when I caught a re-run of The Simpsons several weeks ago. In the episode "Marge versus the Monorail," Springfield ignores Marge's advice to use a budget windfall to repair decaying city infrastructure and decides to build a flashy monorail instead, with predictably disastrous consequences.

I could not help but worry we are falling for the same sentiments. Obviously I do not have an entirely pessimistic view of an LRT system, but I found the episode very appropriate because it captured many aspects of the issue here. I encourage readers to watch it (if you can find it), as there is a valuable lesson on top of a generous serving of humour.

Hamilton has a lot of careful thinking to do surrounding a potential rapid transit system. I continue to question whether it is worth the expense and whether there could be better uses for the money and energy we are being asked to invest.

If we choose to invest in an LRT system, it should not simply be because the provincial government has hung a carrot in front of our noses. Neither should it be purely based on the aesthetic of riding a train or tram instead of a bus.

We should be prepared to carry through with the project with full understanding of its financial and social ramifications, and be aware of the weight our decision will carry.

Ray Lawlor is a professional student living in downtown Toronto who follows urban and particularly transit issues in his free time. He is also an avid cyclist, environmentalist, reader and film fan.


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By JMorse (registered) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 21:26:42

Some good points. I have also, by default, supported LRT because I love trains. Freight trains, subways, streetcars, if it runs on rails it really turns my crank. If I think about it though, even with tangible LRT benefits considered, there are certainly better ways to spend the first $800 mil we come across. First up, regional rail transit infrastructure. GO and VIA trains should be fully serving this city before local transit is upgraded. This will reduce the necessity of car trips and even car ownership. Correcting the one way system would be another great investment that would encourage people to choose walking, biking, and transit over a car trip. LRT would be great, but it may not be the next thing this city needs.

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By Francis (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 21:45:28

What you have to remember is that we're not being given $800 million "to do with as we want". Similarly we are not receiving money from the feds and the province to "do as we want" for the Pan Am Stadium. The money is contingent on certain uses. You seem to realize this towards the end of your article, but in the beginning you talk as if we could spend it on whatever we wanted.

I don't think Hamilton is rushing into this blindly. Hamilton staff, as well as Metrolinx staff, have prepared reports, engaged the citizens, and the citizens have spoken with a much more unanimous voice than the recent stadium debate. People want LRT, they think the time is right, and they are happy to take provincial money towards it.

You have a valid point in being worried about what it will cost the city. At this point though, I think any argument is really premature, because we don't know how much, if anything the province will sponsor, how mcuh the city will have to kick in, who will pay operating costs, etc. etc. We also need to see what will happen to revenues with the new line. Will more people take the LRT? Will people be wooed by the more efficient service? We'll have to wait and see.

I'd also like to note that the surveys city staff did included questions regarding what residents thought of the costs being borne 50% by the city, 25% by the city, and other questions along those lines. That should give them a sense of when people prefer LRT to BRT, and when people lose their appetite for LRT and BRT as the proportion of costs escalate. So wasn't just a question of LRT v. BRT that had Hamiltonians voting for the aesthetic, and I seriously doubt that city staff, or councillors for that matter, are so naive that they would not consider the difference in cost to the city, especially given city finances. So your caution is welcome, but I think ultimately unnecessary. This thing WILL be studied to death.

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By demosthenes (registered) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 21:57:18

Thanks for your comment Francis, I hope that you're right when you say more studies will be conducted. My concern is that they ask the right questions and are framed in a way that fairly evaluates the pros and cons of a rapid transit system, rather than seeking ways to justify the idea of a system.

You're also right in that the money up for grabs is not strictly ours to do what we'd like with - I had meant to use those numbers as a sort of thought experiment, to put the costs of the system in context.

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By lovefprever (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 22:08:00

I use the Go-Train couple times a week and I love it. Car drivers got stuck on the busy highway, when our train just moving smoothly ahead while user can relax..., plus it not release lot of toxic into the air.

I love to use LRT in Hamilton to connect to other cities ...PLEASE GO GREEN !!!

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By Robert in Calgary (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 22:25:09

Hello from Calgary,

My question would be, are you going to run LRT as rapid transit or a fancy streetcar? LRT as rapid transit is quite superior to BRT.

Calgary has built one the most successful LRT systems in North America because we run it as rapid transit. Three car trains every five minutes during peak periods. We're currently expanding stations (slowly) to run four car trains and the fourth LRT line is under construction while the proposed construction of the fifth line is being bandied about more frequently with civic elections coming up and money available. In Portland, most MAX trains are only two cars and most lines are at 15 minutes during peak periods. Dallas spent two or three billion on its system and now, to save five or six -million- will reduce peak service from 10 to 15 minutes.

Calgary's LRT runs in it's own separate right-of-way. As few level crossings as you can manage! The one exception is downtown where it runs on the 7th Avenue Transit Mall. Currently it's the bottleneck in the system because all the routes converge onto 7th Avenue. That's the tradeoff we made. We went on the surface downtown and built more lines creating more ridership. Edmonton started off building underground and then expansion money dried up so their one line produced less ridership.

Portland's streetcar system is different from MAX and it is SLOW!

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By arienc (registered) | Posted August 31, 2010 at 22:41:43

I think what you're saying makes sense, in the context of setting priorities for spending.

Personally, I believe that spending $50 million on improving the cycling network is the most cost-effective method to deliver transportation improvements and remove excess cars from the road. The only drawback is we don;t have sufficient evidence that bike lanes create incentive for development along the cycling network, which LRT has shown to generate.

We also know that transportation investments generally precede private decision making. By investing hundreds of millions in suburban highways, people have flocked to the outer reaches of the city and development has continued on the fringes. When you subsidize something, people naturally want more of it. By subsidizing LRT, we in effect incentivize compact urban form development, which requires far less public money to service than the autocentric model.

Some very interesting reading...from within the American Conservative movement, on why investing in public transit makes sense from the right wing point of view:


Comment edited by arienc on 2010-08-31 21:42:34

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2010 at 23:12:31

Fascinating article. Really enjoyed it.

I've long been an advocate of BRT, and feel it's gotten a bit of a raw deal in this case. Without a massive offer of 90% Federal/Provincial funding, LRT just would not be possible for Hamilton any time in the near future. But with a little creativity, BRT could be done without a single new vehicle.

It doesn't have to be an either/or thing. We spent over half a billion on the Linc and Red Hill - transportation just isn't cheap. The lower city clearly needs a major cleanup of its east/west routes. We clearly have the ridership for it, and there's already huge grooves carved right across town. The mountain routes are a different story - getting LRT up the mountain is going to be complicated (one of the main issues which killed the 80s plan), and the ridership really isn't there for many of the routes. Also, there's some really clear development interests at work suggesting routes like Rymal Rd. or out to the Airport. The first of these barely supports a bus route, and the second has failed repeatedly to keep one going. Spending hundreds of millions running trains out there is clearly a big waste of money. It's just as dumb as putting a stadium there.

What makes sense to me is a B-Line LRT (the first priority, LRT-wise), with a heavily serviced A-line LRT or BRT evolving as soon as possible. From there, run BRT routes east/west across the mountain, to test the waters for LRT expansion there (I suspect Mohawk or Fennel would be much better than Rymal). Beyond that, another north/south route in the east end would make a lot more sense than going further south in the west.

Whichever choices we make must be based on facts, not magical thinking. Ridership statistics, population density, demographics, economics etc. Not a blind hope that the project will simply bring good fortune wherever we put it.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2010 at 23:23:12

Good work. Nicely worded too. Downvoting usually follows any anti-anything sentiment expressed here. But as you suggest, cheerleading with other people's money is irresponsible to say the least.

Personally, I think the whole thing should be shelved, along with all the other boondoggles being proposed until a couple of elephants are contended with that nobody seems to want to talk about.

  1. Hamilton has no business calling itself a city. It is a suburb, plain and simple and until folks accept the consequences of lack of density, no debate will make any sense. Density changes everything but NIMBYs prevail.

  2. Senior gummerments are essentially broke and the boomers are about to start retiring and drawing from soon to be exposed Ponzi pension plans. Dalton McGuilty still thinks he can replace all the coal plants with nukes. Fiat currency is about to have a run on the bank.

  3. I can't understand how we can ask residents of Moosonee to help pay for our LRT. When the time is right, the money will come easily.

  4. Hamilton is essentially on borrowed time. People think a credit card binge will stop businesses from closing. This is because people here are clueless sports fanatics who pay no attention to what is going on south of the border or the rest of the world and how they are being manipulated by those who seek profit. Proper sailors batten down the hatches when storm clouds brew but Titanic captains, Hamiltonians and RTHers say full steam ahead, party PanAm.

With apparently no candidate acknowledging these and other elephants and getting us mentally prepared, (correction welcome) I have little faith left in this city, its leaders or the sheeple. That could change if folks would replicate the thoughtfulness presented in this article.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 00:35:46

Transit investment of this kind is made for two main purposes: as an element of a transit network, and as a guide for development. It also is not enough to consider the transit benefits of a system relative to its costs -- you have to consider the effect on the transportation system as a whole and the city as a whole.

If you only bought and ran more buses instead of infrastructure upgrades, or built a mixed-traffic streetcar instead of LRT, what would the growth of the city look like? What road and highway investments would be "needed" to deal with the form of the growth? Conversely, if you built light rail, how much investment in road infrastructure can you avoid making?

Transit-wise, the absolutely biggest factor is whether the vehicle has its own lane and signal priority. (Next is fast boarding and exit.) Unfortunately, in many cases BRT is the "cheap" option, and is compromised to a standard nowhere near LRT. It tends not to be a way of upgrading more routes, but a way to simply spend less money on transit, period. Properly built BRT is not all that much less expensive than LRT, and certainly not if you need serious capacity -- for which you need passing lanes. With labour being the primary operating expense (at least in North America), it can easily be much more expensive to operate a well-used BRT.

BRT's main advantage is the ability to have an "open" system - where you have a dedicated busway that can be used by vehicles that then leave the system to travel other corridors.

But if you're looking for good transit along a corridor, want this transit to attract development as a primary purpose, and want it to be easy to add capacity, LRT is likely to be the better choice.

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By geoff's two cents (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 01:23:04

I might add, from a user's perspective, that BRT (assuming people mean a system like Ottawa's) is considerably less pleasant to use than LRT.

For starters, waiting for a bus is unpleasant. The buses are noisy and the smell of exhaust is very strong (this latter point might be avoided with electric trolley-style BRT).

Secondly, the buses themselves are less pleasant to ride; rails are much smoother, and make activities like reading much easier.

Aesthetics, finally, should not be dismissed out of hand. While some may see LRT as a "fancy" waste of money, others may see it as a pleasurable way of getting around, particularly vis a vis private automobiles.

I appreciate Ray's comments, and don't interpret them as an attack on the "pro-LRT" side. I would likewise agree that basing a city like Hamilton's transit decisions solely on the admittedly fuzzy prospect of a subsequent wave of private investment following LRT is not (at least for me) by itself satisfactory.

That said, for the reasons I've listed (and those commonly expressed on RTH), I want to see Hamilton get an LRT, not a BRT.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 08:15:13

On the financial merits of LRT, its knock-on effects, I've always deferred to those who clearly have a better grasp on the issues than I. Such as Editor Ryan. What I can proffer is an opinion as a lifelong mass transit/public transit user who's had the chance to use various cities' systems in various countries around the world. (As a resident, I feel the need to add, and not as a tourist/traveller, which is a different experience altogether.)

BRT is another animal entirely from LRT. Both in perception and in experience. I throw my lot in with those who are able to appreciate the differences, and understand that if we're going to accomplish a shift away from a car-centric culture, we need to be thinking if not in a wholesale paradigm-shift, then at the very least in an appreciable one.

Migration from cars to transit (the underpinnings of which form a contentious discussion unto itself) falls in the 'provide something 'sexier' category of what I believe needs to happen for substantive change to occur, and I do not believe that BRT provides this.

Maybe this notion cannot be quantified easily, maybe it's tough to put a dollar value on the advantages of LRT. But if you are realistic and acknowledge the enormity of the task attached to reinventing people's mindsets, then I believe that when it comes down to it, there really is only one choice...and it ain't buses.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2010-09-01 07:42:11

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By renegauthier (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:07:16

An LRT is not a bad idea. The only drawback is that it is still tied to roads and traffic. A system similar to India's SkyBus would have no road trouble since it is above the roads and therefore not subjected to traffic. We know one thing for sure: a subway is definitely too expensive of a proposition and fraught with too many unknowns.

Good points. Let's talk some more about it.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:36:45

While it might be true that 800 million could be in the pockets of better causes, we all know that it's not incredibly easy to get anyone to agree on anything. Not to mention getting a majority of councilor support behind any one idea.

For me, if it provides a great service, increased quality of life and we're ensuring the implementation quality is top-shelf I don't care where the 800 million goes.

Since we have a sustainable plan with a great deal of focus in place let's focus on this and then discuss the next 800 million.

I regress, Hamilton has A.D.D. when it comes to committing to a project of any scale.

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By Brioski8 (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 09:40:04

Just want to add a few points. I recall that the original plan over 25 - 30yrs was to implement BRT in the 2010 - 2020 time frame and then convert the Right of Way to Rail sometime in the future while building A-Line BRT to the airport.

I think it's essential that everyone be aware of inertia. I'm not sure if I'll be able to explain this concept very well. Basicaly, it's very hard to change how a large funcitoning piece of infrastructure operates. Once something is built, enthusiasm for changing that thing wanes very quickly, the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' mentality kicks in and its very hard to build a case for making expensive improvements.

I am 30 years old right now and I think that if BRT were to be built by 2015 I would expect that we would still be using a BRT system when I retire at 65. I think most of us underestimate how difficult it will be to drum up the political will and public support in 2025 to change a rapid transit line that is functioning just fine especially considering we just spent ~300 Million building the damn thing 10 years before.

If you support building a BRT line with a phase-in of LRT in the future, I hope you will consider that you will most likely not live long enought to ride that train in the future.

For this reason alone, I still support building LRT instead of BRT.

Comment edited by Brioski8 on 2010-09-01 08:41:08

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By kevin (registered) | Posted September 01, 2010 at 10:01:48

My 2 cents, too: growing up in the boonies, I learned to hate buses. They were constantly late, especially in winter. Some of the drivers would play God didn't stop for us when we young. My mom got frostbite waiting for a bus and had to have her wedding ring cut off at a hospital. I think of buses as noisy, smelly and unappealing, so I avoid them. I realize that's my own prejudice, but it's the reality. Whenever I've lived in a community with a train, I looked for ways to use it.

Nice piece, Ray; not at all an attack, just points to consider.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2010 at 11:37:35

The reason I like BRT systems is for situations like Curitiba Brazil, where the money for an LRT is not likely to come forward. They run what is essentially a train with busses, because it was easier to set up.

In our context, I think BRT needs to be a tier between LRT and smaller regional bus routes. It makes no sense to wait forty minutes for a dedicated Deleware/Greenhill bus at McMaster when the bus you get on will share a route with 10 or so other east/west busses will pass you during that time, and the actual Greenhill neighbourhood could have been circled six times. Waiting for a bus or train is a very serious psychological barrier, and thanks to Hamilton's infrequent long-distance bus routes, it often means transferring even once results in over an hour of wait time overall (plus walking and riding).

We don't stop building or maintaining side streets because we build a highway, or vice versa. Both are part of a transportation network, and both are appropriate to different situations. We need to see these transit routes like highways - an LRT being the equivalent of a sixteen-lane chunk of Toronto's 401, and a BRT being the equal to, perhaps, Highway 5 or 6. It's much better for moving lots of people a long distance than side streets or local bus routes, but it lags seriously in capacity when compared to a rail system. I agree there's a huge problem here with the games we're playing to get this approved, and how unlikely it is to get and upgrade any time soon. But bad planning won't solve that.

Oh, and having experienced Vancouver's Skytrain, I must say I'm not convinced. It's really neat, but I can't think of many places where it doesn't actually take up much more space on the ground than a dedicated lane of traffic would. Instead, there's huge swaths of land cutting across the city with nothing but weeds and cement pillars. And Vancouver also has a lot of electric-assist buses (with overhead wires), like the UBC line, which are de-facto BRT routes.

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By renegauthier (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 11:01:12

The problem I still have with an LRT is that it still can be blocked by traffic in an intersection. An unimpeded right of way is the best way to go.

I think that the city could do something even more imaginative.


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By CBC (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 11:02:02

Stayed tuned CBC mornings they are doing a series on Transit in Toronto, which they also talk about the role of Buses to integrate the city. There are some interesting studies done on work force divisions.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 11:56:02

An unimpeded right of way is the best way to go.

Hamilton's LRT proposal does have an unimpeded right of way.

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By renegauthier (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:13:14

For there to be an unimpeded right of way, there cannot be any intersections involved. The potential is there in the event of a collision in an intersection. Ground level LRT's are also as fast as the traffic lights will allow them to go. Subways do not have this problem. Above ground is still a better solution.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:15:36

The potential is there in the event of a collision in an intersection.

It's very rare that a collision at an intersection will hold up LRT for more than a few minutes.

Ground level LRT's are also as fast as the traffic lights will allow them to go.

LRT will get signal priority - light turns green when LRT approaches it.

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By race_to_the_bottom (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 12:16:43

"I think that the city could do something even more imaginative." Yeah, for 100 times the cost per mile.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 15:24:28

Do a life cycle cost analysis of the LRT equipment you want and do one for the BRT equipment you want add the lifecycle costs of building and maintaining the required infrastructure and voila, one will be cheaper than the other. Ignore the ridership increase and offsetting cost creative-accountant mumbo-jumbo. Which one is cheaper to implement, build and maintain? That is what matters.

Without even knowing what equipment is going to be purchased this debate amounts to nothing but biased speculation on both sides. So the on-going debate about this tells me one of two things:

1) No one knows what the hell they're talking about.

2) This is about politics and money more than it is transit.

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By demosthenes (registered) | Posted September 02, 2010 at 17:57:13

One of the things I was hoping to avoid with this article was a devolution into rampant technical speculation about LRT vs BRT vs subways vs sky buses etc. I'm not a transit engineer and don't pretend to be, just a guy who has done a lot of reading in his spare time. If we're already talking about BRT vs LRT vs some kind of Schwebebahn (look it up, its a fascinating but impractical system in Wuppertal, Germany) we're already begging the question of installing a mass transit system. Let's step back and ask ourselves if a monumental investment like this is even called for, or if simply increasing the frequency of HSR routes (most of which run at worse than 20 minute headways and even less in off-peak hours) would do more? Why isn't there a bus from McMaster to Ancaster on weekends (Westdale/Dundas residents and Mac students wanting to climb the Ancaster hill have to travel far out of their way and make two transfers)? If we reserved one lane in each direction for buses only on Main and King (a bargain-basement solution but very effective that works in many cities), how much would we improve transit times? How about focusing on (comparatively much cheaper) cycling infrastructure to encourage bike commuting and local trips (recent Spec article about Bixie coming to Hamilton makes this even more intriguing)?

If anyone would like a really, really great education on a lot of contemporary transit issues and concepts, I highly recommend Jared Walker's blog Human Transit ... it influenced many of my points in this article and has really opened my eyes. If you're really keen on the LRT vs BRT debate Jared has covered it in great detail; he has an entire page devoted to Trams (in every sense of the word) at http://www.humantransit.org/streetcars-t...

Comment edited by demosthenes on 2010-09-02 17:08:57

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 04, 2010 at 10:11:53

I'm with demosthenes.

LRT, in the long run, is cheaper. But in the short run, is unbelievably expensive. If the Pan-Am stadium could physically jump around town the way it is now doing so politically, it would be a fraction of the cost.

I'm not saying we shouldn't build LRT. We should. But it's something we have to get right. Moving a line that wasn't drawn properly will be next to impossible, unlike BRT where shifting a few stops would be simple. We have busses already, but an LRT would have to be built from scratch. And if we go with some of the suggested routes (eg: Rymal Rd. and the Airport), there is a very good chance that large parts of the system will become a national joke and turn politicians off any further LRT support.

BRT, as a substitute for LRT, would be a bad idea. But so would throwing out the idea of BRT because some people use it that way in arguments against transit spending. It isn't a contest between bikes, busses and trains. It' a contest between all three of those and cars.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 04, 2010 at 17:07:06

Why would you do that? Increasing ridership (to double the current level) is a principal city objective, and increased tax assessments due to new investment and rising property values adjacent to the LRT corridor are real revenues that need to be taken into account.

By the way, every study I've seen shows that the lifecycle cost per passenger of LRT vehicles is significantly lower than the lifecycle cost per passenger of buses. - Ryan

Because the numbers will be skewed and speculative.

If what we want to know is "Is it worth it", that will depend on what you're buying. I'm sure there are LRT systems which could be more expensive than buses over their lifetime. But if you can't even tell me what is being bought how can you tell me which is cheaper and whether it is worth it?

Corporations buy large fleets of expensive equipment by comparing real cost (maintenance, warranty, operational) of the competing makes and models of equipment they intend to buy. If you want to know what is cheaper and what will give you the most ROI, tender the contract to both BRT and LRT... if done right the proof will be in those numbers, not generalities about the type of systems themselves. Those numbers tend to just serve advocates of one side or the other.

I happen to support LRT, if the right equipment is purchased and the system is built properly the lifecycle cost should be lower than BRT. But the numbers being thrown around by the advocates of all sides are at best incomplete and at worst simply BS because they do not mention what is being purchased. Without that information we cannot accurately predict what the actual running cost of the system will be. Sorry, but that is the truth.

For example:

If you just talk to sales guy A and B for their sales numbers (which often include price per hour of operation numbers, etc…). Their respective equipment will always be the best economic choice.

If you dig a little further and start looking at the real maintenance requirements (i.e., routine maintenance intervals, time to overhaul of major components, etc…) you may find the overhaul interval of a major component on equipment B is half equipment A and that skews the numbers in favour equipment A. For example just the difference between a 250 hour or 500 hour oil change interval can be hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost per piece of equipment over its lifetime. When you're talking 10s or 100s of pieces of equipment this gets into the millions pretty quick… just for engine oil.

If you dig even further though and ask current users of the equipment you may find equipment A has unscheduled maintenance problems that even with the increased planned maintenance requirements of equipment B the unscheduled maintenance skews the number back in favour of equipment B.

What are you buying? What are the service and maintenance requirements? What are the unplanned maintenance issues? How much manpower is required to perform the maintenance procedures (e.g., I have worked on equipment where two guys could pull an engine in an hour, I've worked on others that takes 4 guys a whole day). This is the level of analysis that needs to be done, not just some intellectual's reports on the pros and cons of LRT and BRT. In the end you need the guys with grease under their nails to help tell you which one is the better choice… until I hear from one of those guys (not some prof from Mac, or member of the Metrolinx board, etc…), I will continue to view the numbers presented with much suspicion.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-09-04 16:09:01

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2010 at 11:59:55

I couldn't agree more Kiely.

I wholeheartedly endorse LRT based on evidence. But I'm going to shy away from arguing that it's better in principle than BRT. And I certainly won't argue against BRT in the meantime as a means of getting our hands on LRT.

I've been thinking more about how I see BRT fitting into all of this. And it certainly isn't as a big expensive rapid transit system. Moreso, I see it as a reorganization of current routes and vehicles to pave the way and test the waters for LRT. Take ten or so old busses, do something cheap and interesting with them (have a local artist paint 'em up, run them on veggie-oil etc), and make a big show of the thing. Kinda like the B-Line and its bendy-busses. Run extensive public consultations on the process to see how riders feel about the route and why.

The real benefits of BRT come with rapid transit stops. The B-line has fewer stops, but none of them are any more efficient than a normal stop. Whether this means beginning construction on stations/stops early, so that riders can pay before boarding (so most of the ticket-taking can get done before the bus gets there), or simply posting extra ticket-takers at those stops, people can get a better idea of how this would all work. And as a final benefit, during construction of LRT lines, such bus routes are going to be necessary to handle transit interruptions right along all our most vital lines.

This could be done quickly and cheaply, but lead to so much more.

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By MikeB (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2010 at 19:45:36

Just some comments about the stats

Scarborough RT
The author of the article says that the Scarborough RT in Toronto has low ridership. That is far from the truth. The Scarborough RT has very good ridership and in fact the system is at capacity and can not carry any more riders unless a project to increase capacity is done.

The authort of the article says that the Buffalo Metrorail has low ridership. That is also wrong. The Buffalo Metrorail actually has one of the highest ridership levels of any LRT system in the USA, eventhough it is one of the shortest. This is amazing considering the LRT runs through an inner city and downtown which have seen many problems over the years.

Edmonton LRT
It was also stated that the Edmonton LRT had low ridership. That is not true either. The daily ridership on the first leg of the Edmonton LRT was average for the length that LRT line was. Now that it has been expanded, ridership is through the roof.

I think the point of caution for Hamilton is that Hamilton is not getting full LRT. Hamilton is getting a more higher order streetcar route. True rapid LRT like Calgary has can not be built in the middle of a road like Main Street.
What Hamilton is getting is basically a version of the streetcar on Spadina Ave in Toronto. Just with less stops.

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By My 2 cents (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 02:44:03

Without meaning to be too disrespectful, are people going to ride the LRT if smelly and dirty people keep riding the transit? I don't ride the transit, but I have heard many friends saying that the ridership on Hamilton's downtown transit is the main thing that keeps them away. It's a delicate subject, but one that needs to be considered.

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