Special Report: Light Rail

Some Context on the 'LRT is No Magic Bullet' Article

We need to first decide what our needs are, our future goals for the city, and the lengths we will go to capitalize on the particular tool we have chosen.

By Chris Higgins
Published September 22, 2014

This morning, an article that I was interviewed for was published in the Spectator. I would like to take an opportunity to expand on a few of the thoughts in that piece here and hopefully generate some discussion.

The case of light rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton is an interesting one. Even the timeline is peculiar. Hamilton has long had plans for rapid transit, some of which have come internally, and some externally.

Rapid Transit Background

In the late 1970s and early 1980s this centred around a plan from outside to use Hamilton as a host for new transit technology being developed in Ontario that would have resulted in a line from Limeridge Mall to the CBD using the same trains as the TTC's Scarborough RT.

After rejecting the proposal, plans shifted to a GO ALRT project from the Government of Ontario using the same trains, but this too didn't materialize.

Locally, the 1984 Urban Transit Services plan proposed BRT as a cost-effective substitute for LRT along the east-west (now B-Line) corridor in the lower city. Twelve years later, the City's 1996 Regional Transportation Review plan again highlighted a need for BRT along three corridors.

The decision to pursue LRT over BRT arose externally out of the MoveOntario 2020 plan unveiled by the governing Liberal Party of Ontario prior to the provincial election of 2007, which identified the potential for two light rail lines to form the backbone of the City of Hamilton's BLAST rapid transit network.

In response, the City of Hamilton embarked on an extensive planning process for rapid transit with an emphasis on light rail, beginning with two feasibility studies, the launch of a simultaneous land use planning process designed to promote transit-oriented development along key transportation corridors in the city, and an extensive public consultation process to build a groundswell of support for the project.

Based on these activities and a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Metrolinx, the City of Hamilton was awarded $3 million to plan the B-Line project to a stage of 30 percent design, considered 'implementation-ready' when funding is made available.

What excitement! It seemed like something would actually be built. But fast-forward another seven years, and we are still debating the merits of route choice, technology, and cost.

Now speaking personally, I firmly believe the LRT project would be great for this city in terms of reinforcing market trends that are already underway, such as promoting new development and moving a large number of people in an efficient and more sustainable manner.

Conditions for Success

But LRT, just like BRT, is a tool for a job, and there are certain conditions under which this tool can maximize its impact.

This is how I approached researching a project of mine, the paper Light Rail, Land Use Change, and Image-Led Planning: A Comparative Review and Critical Assessment of Hamilton, Ontario [PDF], which I used as a discussion piece at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC.

The paper itself is a natural offshoot from the 2012 MITL report The North American Light Rail Experience [PDF] where, as the title suggests, we looked at what works and what hasn't related to LRT in 30 cities across North America. [You can read the RTH article on that report.]

One outcome from that was a literature review of the six prerequisites to inducing land use change in concert with a new rapid transit project, which we have published [PDF] in the Journal of Public Transportation to help planners and policymakers in other cities.

Briefly, those prerequisites are:

  1. An increase in accessibility
  2. Positive regional economic, population, and employment growth and demand for development
  3. Positive social conditions in transit corridor and station areas
  4. Positive physical conditions in transit corridor and station areas
  5. Available land for development and ease of land assembly
  6. Complimentary government planning and policy

Interested readers are encouraged to see the Journal of Public Transportation paper [PDF] for longer definitions of each.

Quite simply, if large-scale land use development and revitalization is to happen, experiences in other cities make clear that these factors must be present. There is, however, no information on which are most important. Nevertheless, their extensions to real life flow naturally.

Thinking in terms of land value increases and new development, for example, what it really comes down to is a simultaneous process of demand and supply: whether a particular area is a place that people would pay a premium to live in - because it offers savings in travel time to destinations they value access to, or they don't have to own a second car, or it features amenities and a built environment they are willing to pay for - and whether developers see the potential to make a profitable project in an area.

Hamilton Context

To return to Hamilton, I was always struck by one of the early documents [PDF] that supported the LRT project after 2007, noting that it would:

These are all worthy goals, and communicating them to the general public is crucial for building support for such a big project.

However, I was particularly interested in promises of new development and revitalization and increases in property values within station areas along the line, and the second paper explores these two issues in greater detail (using admittedly limited available data and a rudimentary analysis).

To me, assuming present conditions, the development and revitalization aspect of the justifications for LRT are weakest in the eastern lower city, and stronger in the west.

But I want to make this absolutely clear: my focus on land development should not detract from the point that LRT is also very good at moving people, and there is a large population in the eastern and western lower city that could concretely benefit from improved transit service.

Of course, a proper BRT system with dedicated lanes can also move large numbers of people. The major benefits of LRT versus BRT are in the land development aspect, with trains tending to elicit stronger and more positive feedback from individuals and developers, but the magnitude of this difference and the sources of it remain unclear.

To some degree this is irrational as BRT and LRT offer very comparable levels of transit service, but there is a large body of evidence that shows people simply prefer trains to buses.

In the end, that leaves us with a discussion we need to have, one that is hopefully technical and unemotional in nature. If rapid transit is a tool, be it LRT or BRT, we need to first decide what our needs are, our future goals for the city, and the lengths we will go to capitalize on the particular tool we have chosen.

Is rapid transit in Hamilton about moving the largest number of people in a fast manner at minimal cost? If so, pick a mode and build it.

What if we are truly interested in something more, such as land use development and reinforcing recent trends of lower-city revitalization?

I would argue both modes can achieve such goals, though I do not profess to know the difference in outcomes between each.

Speaking just in terms of land development, what is clear to me is that neither mode can, in and of themselves, overcome more fundamental issues affecting the urban land market in particular areas.

What We Can Do

Still, there are measures we can take to help maximize the land development potential of whichever plan we choose.

Changing King and Main Streets back to two-way travel was incorporated into Metrolinx's Benefits Cost Analysis of the B-Line, but this was one of the first casualties of the local transit planning process.

It should seriously be considered as one of the strongest tools for making transit a competitive option for travel across the city, which in turn bestows a 'locational advantage' for land around transit stations, increases property values, and makes new development more attractive.

Likewise, transit-oriented development incentives within future station areas can also help. Land use planning in advance of LRT was an important driver of making local conditions more receptive to rapid transit when Phoenix's LRT line was eventually built.

With regards to the other 'prerequisites', there are certainly a number of opportunities for development on vacant or under-utilized parcels and the local economy continues to see population and employment growth, which should only accelerate as the rest of the Toronto region builds out to the Greenbelt urban growth boundary.

As for social and physical conditions, these too will continue to evolve as time passes and the lower city as a whole re-orients from its heavy-industrial past.

While considerably less 'sexy' than arguments of being anti- or pro-LRT, or whether one is a champion of BRT, these are very important things that should be considered now as methods for meeting our obligations for intensification under the Government of Ontario's regional growth planning and truly getting Hamilton 'Rapid Ready' for whatever mode we choose to invest in.

What is encouraging in all of this is that we seem to have agreed that some form of rapid transit is indeed required. Now it is just a matter of deciding internally and organically as a City how we proceed with this reality.

Chris Higgins is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics. His full departmental profile is available here.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 22, 2014 at 12:51:21

Are similar studies being run about other LRT/Subway/hybrid plans? Or is only Hamilton getting told that we don't actually deserve real rapid transit?

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-09-22 12:51:37

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By Phil (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:12:01

Effectively, you've said neither form of rapid transit is a magic bullet. However, which would be more desirable in the grand scheme of things from the perspective of short and long term costs and benefits? Why knock on the obviously better option?

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:43:28 in reply to Comment 104689

I never envisioned the research to be employed in an LRT vs BRT context such as this, at the time I was simply examining published planning documents which were rooted in an assumption of LRT. The magic of google has meant that the research was found and is now being used to contribute to this heavily politicized debate. One option is obviously better. I was just picking on particular promises made.

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:37:48 in reply to Comment 104692

One option is obviously better.

Which one?

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By Guy (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:37:35

Chris, you have a *seemingly* balanced/nuanced approach, but it's effectively anti-LRT. How is undermining the better of the two options we're faced with better for our city?

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:45:47 in reply to Comment 104691

I don't see it as anti-LRT at all. In fact I state that LRT stands to really benefit moving people across the entire line, and can reinforce existing positive development and revitalization trends in certain areas. Is that so bad?

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By Guy (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 15:51:44 in reply to Comment 104693

Insofar as the debate is being framed as BRT vs LRT, your comments are being used to criticize the promise of LRT, which is why I said *effectively* anti-LRT.

Need transit experts like yourself to be more vocal in favour of LRT, if that is what you personally support.

It's okay to put aside your 'mask of objectivity' on this issue. Clearly, anti-LRT comments are anything but objective.

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By Guy #2 (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2014 at 18:51:24 in reply to Comment 104706

You're obviously being a zealot for LRT. "If you're not with us, you're against. If you're against us you are not being objective." I know I'm poking the hive by commenting here but this is the way I see it. This LRT is being pressured because of a closing window of provincial financing.

I think a fair and balanced approach ends up in reasoning that LRT is overly expensive, makes us dependent on external financing, and increases risk by having to manage such an expensive system. Where are the calls for simple changes, incremental changes, first? Change our Main and King highways into two way streets for example?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 20:36:31 in reply to Comment 104706

The academic believes in truth. Which requires subtlety and nuance and acknowledges the necessary to balance the 99 good things about one mode with a discussion of the one bad thing.

The media seizes upon the one bad thing and blows it all out of proportion.

This feeds the sort of politician who is quite prepared to make our city a dangerous, unliveable hell provided they can claw their way to power.


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By jason (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:55:06

Great stuff Chris. Appreciate you publishing this and sharing your thoughts.
That particular columnist in the Spec only knows divisive debate and pot-stirring. I can appreciate you feeling caught by surprise at how your research was misused.

I was particularly impressed with Hamilton's current ridership as you mention in comparison to Calgary when it started LRT. Also, I'm pleased with your confirmation of the assessment that there is plenty of development sites available on the B-Line route. You mention the current physical conditions perhaps not being great for LRT, which I agree with. But I've long felt that all the underused land along the route is exactly what will provide use the opportunity to change the physical conditions and allow greater EcDev spinoff to take place.

The fact that we have such tremendous assets going for us in the Downtown-McMaster corridor is a huge plus. And as you mention, ridership is very high along the entire route.
As Steer Davies Gleave reported, ridership will come in at the middle of the pack among N. American LRT systems on day one.

Finally, thank you for stating the obvious that we should follow through with the original recommendation to convert Main to two-way traffic. It never made any sense to me why we would leave it one-way with LRT on King.


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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 14:03:12

To me, the bottom line of Chris' work is that if Hamilton undermines LRT (by refusing to convert Main/King/Cannon to two-way traffic, and refusing to make planning decisions that support transit-oriented development), then the potential of LRT will not be realized.

There are basically two cases for BRT. One relies on pretending that the half-assed express bus B-line service is BRT, which it isn't. That allows transit-haters to pretend they are supporting BRT over LRT when really they're just supporting the status quo. The other takes the most cynical possible interpretation of Chris' work: Hamilton will never create the prerequisites to enable development along a potential LRT route, ergo LRT is a waste of money.

A big step down from "The Ambitious City".

Thanks, Chris, by the way, for sharing this eloquent description of your work and raising the level of debate around this issue.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 18:00:38 in reply to Comment 104695

There are basically two cases for BRT. One relies on pretending that the half-assed express bus B-line service is BRT, which it isn't. That allows transit-haters to pretend they are supporting BRT over LRT when really they're just supporting the status quo. The other takes the most cynical possible interpretation of Chris' work: Hamilton will never create the prerequisites to enable development along a potential LRT route, ergo LRT is a waste of money.

The art of realpolitik ... framing the public debate to obscure your real position and interests.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 14:37:16 in reply to Comment 104695

well said. Although you are being a bit impatient. After all, the city did convert one block of Queen St to two-way traffic last year.

Hence the gulf between most of us, and the Spectator, which just assumes we can't dare touch our one-way freeways or build anything other than Walmart parking lots. Well, of course LRT won't succeed if we maintain the status quo. Changing those things along with LRT is a recipe for great success..

Comment edited by jason on 2014-09-22 14:38:32

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 18:09:53 in reply to Comment 104699

I haven't entirely given up on City Hall either. I noticed city crews out in the middle of the night yesterday painting markings on York Boulevard from Dundurn to Hess (or Queen) for what looked like reconfigured bike lanes. If I'm not mistaken it looked like they were reducing York by a full lane on the south-side. Of course, it was an emergency trip to the 24 hour pharmacy in the middle of the night ... i could have been dreaming.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-22 18:15:06

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 20:38:51 in reply to Comment 104718

Oh dear. Hope that you are OK!

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 20:58:48 in reply to Comment 104722

I'll live. It was to get something for another member of the family who was feeling ill.

btw. I noticed this evening that i wasn't imagining things. There are new rough markings that appear to remove the curb lane on York Boulevard, at least on the south-side. And Hess Street between York Boulevard and Cannon has been reconfigured too, and has green painted areas i don't remember seeing before.

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By Goin'Downtown (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:49:39

I do worry about the survival of businesses along the construction corridor. I haven't seen anything that addresses this, although perhaps I've missed it. I found this just now http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/st... ona quick google. It would seem only ethical to compensate the businesses that legitimately need assistance during the construction phase and soon thereafter (whilst building biz back up).

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 20:50:05 in reply to Comment 104759

Sure, provided they pay it back when the LRT increases their property values.

Oh wait! They do! It's called market-value assessment for property taxes.

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By Goin'Downtown (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 15:14:03

And if the company goes out of biz before the completion? If the company can't pay their mortgage because of revenue losses and have to sell? If the company rents or leases the property and goes out of biz?

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