The lead author of a much-abused LRT study makes clear what the report actually says about whether LRT is a good idea for Hamilton.
By Ryan McGreal
Published October 15, 2014
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of joining the inaugural episode of Cable 14's new current affairs, program, Trending. (Hamilton Cable subscribers can watch the show online.) Hosted by Mike Fortune, Trending has a conversational format that encourages in-depth discussion rather than combative debate and cross-talk.
Screen-capture from 'Trending' episode 1, aired live on Cable 14 on Thursday, October 9, 2014. From left: Ryan McGreal, Chris Higgins, host Mike Fortune, Martinus Geleynse and Jim Dunn
The topic for this episode was Hamilton's rapid transit debate: light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT) and the ongoing confusion over technologies, routes, funding and viability.
I was accompanied on the program with: Chris Higgins, McMaster PhD student in geography and the lead author of a few reports on LRT in Hamilton; Martinus Geleynse, published of urbanicity and organizer of urban bus tours; and Jim Dunn, professor of Social Science at McMaster specializing in socioeconomic inequalities in health in urban areas.
The program was an hour-long and included live calls from viewers, and I think it did a nice job of covering the various questions and concerns regarding Hamilton's rapid transit plan: LRT vs. BRT, east-west vs. north-south, how the investment will benefit various parts of the city, and so on.
I would like to draw particular attention to some of Chris Higgins' comments, since his 2013 article has been misused by LRT opponents to claim that LRT doesn't make sense for Hamilton.
Higgins is a responsible academic and his arguments are consequently nuanced and careful. Yet he leaves no doubt about his own preference for LRT, or his understanding that his report is not an argument against LRT but rather a "call to action" to support LRT with the right planning policites to ensure success.
Comparing LRT and BRT:
The LRT/BRT thing is, it's a decision over what vehicles you want to run on a dedicated right-of-way. BRT done properly - which is not reflected in the B-Line today - BRT done properly would be essentially building an LRT without the tracks, and instead of running a train we run a bus right down those dedicated lanes.
So we're still losing two lanes of King Street, and I guess Main when it goes around McMaster. But otherwise, it really just comes down to either tracks and trains, or is it a bus? And it provides very similar levels of service.
It really comes down to the X factor that's behind a train versus a bus. And from my research, there's no question that people kind of subliminally, or overtly, prefer trains for many things. There's a certain stigma attached with buses and that kind of bleeds into the other elements of why LRT has better city-building capacities.
Getting our fair share:
I'm a Hamilton taxpayer and I'm an Ontario taxpayer, and I think people are getting confused about the differences between how this is all coming to shape. The LRT project comes from Ontario taxes, and right now we are all paying in Hamilton.
We're paying for an LRT line in Waterloo, a new subway line in Toronto, Ottawa's LRT, for example, and I think people should recognize that and try to take their piece from that.
We're paying all this money and you should definitely try to get something out of that, other than - the most possible, I would say.
The choice before us:
The LRT/BRT thing comes down to: what's the gift that you want from the Province? Because the Province really is dangling two sets of keys in front of you. One is the Cadillac and one is a Chevy Cavalier, we'll say.
And if Hamilton wants to be the noble city in the region and say that we'll accept the lesser of the two because it costs less, then good on us, I guess, but I, personally I'm going for the more expensive option of the two.
Saying Yes to LRT:
If we were to say Yes LRT right now, it's not going to get built tomorrow, it's, I don't know, a ten-year project maybe. You might wish in ten years' time that you had said yes to this now.
What his report says:
If anything, my research that was about Hamilton is a call to action, where if we really want to get rapid ready, put those land use incentives in place now. That's what Phoenix has done: they put these incentives in place before the LRT line started even construction.
And then sure enough, what happens is you build the LRT line and there's already a big proportion of population there that's ready to support it on day one. And that's something we should be doing today, in my opinion.
Places To Grow:
The Province is mandating that a certain percentage of growth has to be built in infill development, and that starts next year. So the city is going to have to be building in the existing city boundary, and LRT was always envisioned as a way to really facilitate that. As we're required to add density through the Province, LRT is a great way of moving people in a high density corridor.
When you're old, for example, and it's come time where you can't drive but life expectancies are now much longer than they used to be, and if you don't have a licence, maybe a condo development is really up your alley. And that's, one of the biggest markets for condos in Toronto is that cohort right now, planning ahead.
The current B-Line experience:
That's really what the prime problem along the B-Line is right now: the buses are full every day. I ride the B-Line to McMaster University every day and it's becoming a miserable experience, frankly. And BRT and LRT can help alleviate that problem.
What Buffalo did wrong:
Buffalo has the most expensive LRT built in North America, hands down, becuase most of it is a subway and the cost per kilometre was something like $90 million per kilomere of LRT. Buffalo approached LRT as it was going to be the magic bullet that was going to save the region.
But they built it at a time when there was a large population exodus from central Buffalo to the suburbs. Buffalo's never really recovered. The line does not attract that many people and it kind of exists as a bit of a white elephant. It's doing fairly well for how long it is.
LRT as a 'magic bullet':
If people think that LRT in Hamilton is going to be the cure-all to all of our problems, like Detroit's People Mover, for example, we're all kidding ourselves. When that newspaper article came out a few weeks ago that I was interviewed in and said, 'LRT is not going to be the magic bullet for Hamilton' - well, no, hopefully it's not. It shouldn't be. We should not be thinking of it that way.
My apologies for not quoting from Jim Dunn and Martinus Geleynse, who also marshalled many salient and insightful evidence-based arguments in support of LRT. I intend to rectify my negligence in a subsequent upcoming article.
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