An Evening With Transit Activist Benjamin Ross

His book concludes that more democratic land use planning, combined with strategic investment in high quality rail-based transit, act to transform a city's use of land to create complete, high-quality neighbourhoods that meet a variety of needs.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 26, 2014

On Tuesday, September 30, Epic Books and Raise the Hammer are proud to present an evening with Benjamin Ross, transit activist and author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Benjamin Ross
Benjamin Ross

In 1996, Benjamin Ross became president of the Action Committee for Transit in Maryland, a group founded to promote a light rail transit line. Over the 15 years he was president, it grew to become the largest grassroots transit advocacy organization in the US.

Through his work with that organization, Ross learned that land use and transportation are inextricably linked.

His new book is a case study in how and why sprawl has failed to deliver on the promise of safe, quiet streets and convivial suburban living, and what cities can do to make themselves better places to live.

The book concludes that more democratic land use planning, combined with strategic investment in high quality rail-based transit, act to transform a city's use of land to create complete, high-quality neighbourhoods that meet a variety of needs.

Following is an exerpt from Dead End. Some of it is specific to the American context, but the theme of opposition to LRT investment will be distinctly familiar to anyone in Hamilton who has been paying attention to our rapid transit debate.

Pay special attention to the well-established bait-and-switch tactic in which LRT opponents use BRT - not to provide a cheaper rapid transit alternative, but to undermine rapid transit altogether.

Book cover for Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism
Book cover for Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

Excerpt from Dead End

Rail transit has its critics, and not just among the right-wing defenders of sprawl. One persistent line of attack is technocratic. Proponents of bus rapid transit, or BRT - buses that board like trains and move faster than other traffic by running in their own lanes or getting more green lights - assert that they can provide the same quality of transportation as light rail for much less money. They point to successes in Latin America and elsewhere overseas.

These claims run up against a strong public preference for rail over bus, and they have come under withering criticism from light rail proponents. When there are stops at traffic lights, busways carrying heavy passenger loads are slower than light rail.

Rail advocates also dispute the claims of cost savings, and they point out that the ride is smoother and more comfortable by train. Americans, they argue, will not accept the crowding that enables buses in low-income countries to carry large passenger loads.

Cost, speed, and ridership all matter, but urban revival depends on what is outside the vehicle as much as who is inside it. Here busways fall short; they do not fit as well on city streets.

To move as many people as three-car trains that are five minutes apart, buses have to run every minute or so. It is easy to cross the street between trains that pass by every five minutes; a bus lane that carries the same number of riders has frequent traffic that is a barrier to those on foot.

And if the passenger load is too heavy for downtown streets, the trains can be put underground, while bus tunnels are hard to build, expensive, and unpleasant.

Flexibility is touted as an advantage of busways - buses can leave the reserved lane when convenient and enter traffic - but in densely built-up places with many transit riders, it is trains that are more adaptable.

In any case, the debates of specialists about the tangible pros and cons of transit modes do not shape public opinion. The intensity of the public preference for rail has a different cause. Rail has high status. Buses do not. Second-class transportation, people feel, will only make their city second-class.

As the bus proponents see it, these attitudes are irrational prejudices that should not distort public policy. But status shapes cities just as money does; ignoring it is the opposite of realism.

No one would tell Los Angeles and Washington that they are wasting money by redeveloping old factory districts, because high-rises could have been built without subsidies by rezoning Brentwood and Georgetown.

Comparing a light rail line that emerges from a contentious political battle to a bus route no one asked for is like picking the spot for a new office tower without checking whether neighbors will object to the zoning change.

Yet that is what transit planners are required to do. The federal bureaucracy, hostile to rail since the Ronald Reagan administration, helps lead the push for bus rapid transit.

Until the rules were changed in 2010, it ranked projects solely on their cost-effectiveness as means of transportation. The Federal Transit Administration now gives some weight to the potential of a project to spur land development, but the bias toward buses remains.

At the local level, where the politics of transportation planning mostly play out, rail-bus debates are unavoidable. Budgets are always limited, and spending too much money on rail lines with too few riders can cripple transit agencies.

But here the rationale for bus rapid transit is usually to spend less, not to get more for the same money. Once this choice is made, flexibility becomes BRT's Achilles' heel. A city decides to cut costs by building a rail-like busway; the engineers go to work; the savings turn out less than hoped.

The easy way out is to drop the train-like features of the bus lane. The promises are rapid, but the bus is slow.

Some BRT advocates disown the run-of-the-mill bus lines that emerge from this sequence of bait and switch; Robert Poole, of the libertarian Reason Foundation, embraces them. "BRT," he writes, "aims to provide performance and service qualities comparable to those of rail transit but at a cost that is considerably lower than that of light rail systems."

But bus rapid transit, he tells those who are thinking of actually building it, does not need to move rapidly. He advises cities to operate what he calls "BRT-lite" - a bus painted a special color, running in regular traffic lanes but making fewer stops.

A similar reversal of positions occurs when transit agencies try to move regular buses faster. The arguments for what are called bus priorities are based on efficiency-crowded roadways carry more people when buses get lanes to themselves and traffic lights let them through first.

This is the same kind of thinking that recommends BRT as a substitute for rail. But the right-wingers who laud BRT when light rail is on the agenda have little interest in this kind of efficiency.

Quick to condemn wasteful spending when it goes to rail, they fall silent when motorists benefit from waste. They now put status ahead of efficiency; buses may be a cheaper way to move, but they rank low in the suburban pecking order.

On those infrequent occasions when bus rapid transit does come to pass, the vehicle's inferior standing quickly asserts itself.

Cleveland built a high-profile BRT on Euclid Avenue with traffic lights that turned green when a bus approached. As soon as the line opened, drivers on cross streets complained, and the "signal preemption" was turned off within weeks.

Boston, in the 1970s, relocated its aging Orange Line on land cleared for a canceled interstate. The low-income neighborhoods traversed by the old elevated tracks were promised light rail as a replacement. Instead they got a pair of bus lanes dubbed the Silver Line.

When it snows, which is not a rare event in Boston, plows clear the car lanes and pile up snow where the buses go - the opposite of what happens on the light rail Green Line.

Unplowed Silver Line BRT route in Boston (Image Credit: Benjamin Ross)
Unplowed Silver Line BRT route in Boston (Image Credit: Benjamin Ross)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By TheBaldasaro (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2014 at 10:12:53

@TheBaldasaro: BRT/LRT My business plan supports beefing up BRT service and shortening wait times. It includes an LRT-LOOP from GO BUS STATION on Hunter to GO RAIL STATION on James, North. Travelling North on Bay, South on James, East and west between King and Hunter, it encompass the new HSR/BRT Station on MacNab. This is the only LRT that makes sense. THE HEART OF THE SYSTEM to follow. Fossil fuelled transportation is tomorrows dinosaur. GO to Go Service will serve all East and West BRT Routes of the G.H.A. and attract local and out-of-town Tourists and commuters to our Condos. My plan is our best opportunity of creating a sustainable and expandable BRT/LRT which benefits the entire City.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted September 29, 2014 at 19:56:35 in reply to Comment 104872

I don't see how an LRT that runs in a weird loop around downtown could be considered rapid. That would be more like surface running streetcars in Toronto. The reason the B-Line LRT route was chosen is because it can be configured in it's own right-of-way at a rapid speed and high frequency, connecting with existing commercial nodes and present/future transit hubs. That's the whole point of Hamilton's LRT plan: fast, frequent, convenient service across the lower city. Not for ferrying people around downtown and between the GO stations.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2014 at 13:14:55 in reply to Comment 104872

"beefing up BRT service"

Stop that. This phrasing implies we already have BRT service. We do not, we have an express bus. A low-frequency one at that.

That word does not mean what you think it means. Stop using it.

More to the point,

reveals that nobody wants BRT. Hamiltonians are split on wanting a full LRT or not wanting a transit upgrade at all.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 28, 2014 at 18:33:32

Just wanted to commend Ryan et al for co-presenting this event. RTH needs to do more of these events.

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By At least your bias is clear now (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 05:46:55 in reply to Comment 104932

Thanks for tipping your hand at what most of us have known for years. You are against those who live in the suburbs and would like to have a little peace and quiet from the madness of living downtown. Urban living isn't for everyone, just as suburban living isn't for you.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 16:53:02 in reply to Comment 105049

You are supposed to live how and where Ryan and all the other enviros tell you. They know better than you do.

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By And1 (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 05:47:38 in reply to Comment 105049

Comment is directed at RTH, not ItJustIs. ItJustIs is just an easily tricked automaton.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 08:28:01 in reply to Comment 105050


Well, I've never been referred to as an 'easily tricked automaton'. In an ever-increasing electronic world, sounds kinda sexy to me.

Let's have coffee so you can fill me in; enquiring minds need to know.

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By Bias (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 20:44:52 in reply to Comment 105054

Sure, come out to the burbs. But, sadly, my area is poorly served by public transit :'(

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By CouldNotSayItBetterMyself (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 08:43:09 in reply to Comment 104932

Yes ItJustIs, we desperately need information and a feeling that citizens can be empowered when it comes to pivotal decisions. Unfortunately I will be attending the Bill McKibben event that same evening. Perhaps Joey Coleman can livestream the Ross event and archive it for posterity. Thanks RTH

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2014 at 00:24:01

I hope other local media will cover this and the message. Politicians and candidates too.

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By James77 (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2014 at 17:54:41

Ross is an amazing writer and thinker. But, why would these organizers put it on THE EXACT SAME NIGHT as the big Bill McKibben lecture at Liuna Station? Most, if not all, of Hamilton's engaged and environmentally-minded citizens will be at the McKibben talk. It's unfortunate that organizers planned the timing of these events so poorly.

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By negatory (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 08:43:49 in reply to Comment 104956

Um, maybe the date had to do with the author's touring schedule?

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 21:13:55

I attended the event tonight. Got a chance to speak with the author.

A nice enough turnout. Quite intimate. : )

I would have preferred a slightly different format, but I can appreciate that this is a book-signing tour. Perhaps there were more in-depth discussions at the after-reading drinks.

Again, kudos to Ryan and Epic Books for having co-hosting this event.

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By Shaun (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 23:56:56

Cheers to RTH for organizing an insightful and well-attended event. It was well worth GOing from and back to Toronto to meet others who are striving to promote clear information and the possibility of urban living as opposed to the status quo. See our website at for Toronto-based transit advocacy in parallel to your own and for an informational source to cut through the oft-floated BS that is so damaging to planned transit upgrades.

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