Special Report: Light Rail

Why Are LRT Opponents So Down on Hamilton?

Cynicism entails a reluctance to believe that things can change for the better. This is particularly true for LRT opponents who are stuck in a mindset that the city is a hopeless basket case.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 16, 2016

Visitors check out the Metrolinx Ligh Rail Transit vehicle on display at Supercrawl 2016 (RTH file photo)
Visitors check out the Metrolinx Ligh Rail Transit vehicle on display at Supercrawl 2016 (RTH file photo)

Today's Hamilton Spectator includes a letter to the editor by Ted Lazich of the "NO LRT IN HAMILTON" group and the family that owns Gilbert's Big and Tall clothing store on King Street West.

The letter is an excellent example of a certain pattern of thinking about the city's Light Rail Transit (LRT) plan that I believe drives the people who oppose this project.


A straightforward reading of the letter indicates that it was written by someone who hates his own city and is deeply pessimistic about the future.

Lazich clearly believes that Hamilton does not deserve a $1 billion infrastructure investment!

The underlying issue is not really the city's LRT plan; that is just the latest focus of a more generalized cynicism. He really does not want to see any improvements to the lower city - not because he thinks everything is fine the way it is, but because he despises Hamilton and doesn't believe it is worth the cost and effort of trying to change it.

This is the same Hamilton resident and business owner who recently railed against a proposal to provide wifi in Gage Park and expressed suspicion about an "underlying reason to tear up King Street and eliminate businesses".

Previously, he has also complained about bike lanes in another rant against building LRT while "the downtown infrastructure lays waste". (Ironically, LRT is a major infrastructure renewal project that will save the city tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure replacement.)

LRT Opponents Down on Hamilton

Lazich's letter is a fairly typical reflection of the sentiment underlying most anti-LRT arguments I have encountered.

On Supercrawl Saturday, I spent a couple of hours volunteering at an LRT table organized by the Hamilton LRT Advocacy and Hamilton Light Rail citizen groups and spoke to several people.

From the small sample of people I met, I got the impression that LRT supporters seemed to be people who love Hamilton and are enthusiastic about the future. (This includes long-time Hamiltonians as well as those who had moved to Hamilton relatively recently.)

The LRT opponents I met, on the other hand, seemed to be down on Hamilton generally. They did not like or appreciate public transit, complained about all sorts of things and regarded LRT as just another waste of money that the City will mess up.

Paradoxically, they often expressed little interest in spending time here because it is full of "bums", "beggars" and "low-lifes", but they don't really want to see changes.

Their main concerns were traffic disruption and a fear for downtown businesses - although it is not clear how genuine this empathy for small businesses is since they also said they rarely come downtown.

James North was jam-packed with people on Supercrawl weekend (RTH file photo)
James North was jam-packed with people on Supercrawl weekend (RTH file photo)

Trapped by Cynicism

Cynicism entails a reluctance to believe that things can change for the better. This is particularly true for LRT opponents who are stuck in a mindset that Hamilton is a hopeless basket case.

Hamilton is no longer the down-and-out wasteland these people think it is. The downtown is fairly humming with new property developments, new residents, new businesses and new energy, and the change is only accelerating with LRT, as the developers themselves have explicitly pointed out.

This is not just hopeful or forward-looking; it's already happening. Things are already changing for the better and have been for the past decade, but the anti-LRT cynics can't or won't see it. They still imagine downtown as a dump populated by low-lifes and don't understand why we would bother to invest in improving their quality of life.

To the extent that the cynics acknowledge the existence of new residents and business owners who are working for a more hopeful future, they dismiss these new residents as speculators, freeloaders, and latte-sipping elitists - obviously not "real" Hamiltonians.

And if the facts don't support this cynical, self-loathing worldview, well, the most ardent LRT opponents just simmer in their own stew of made-up claims, denials, conspiratorial suspicions and accusations.

The question the rest of us need to ask is: why should we let people who see no future for Hamilton control Hamilton's destiny?

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 14:12:53

And the 150,000 residents who live in wards 1-4, the neighbourhoods crossed by the LRT line, are implicitly dismissed as "nobodies" ... in addition to the 25,000 people who work downtown and the 37,000 staff and students at McMaster.

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By brundlefly (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2016 at 23:08:41 in reply to Comment 120035

I live in Ward 3 and run a business with 10 employees in Ward 2, Ted can, to coin a popular phrase with the kids... "kiss my grits"

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 14:14:24

Those who have met me know that I am 6' 8" tall For that reason I am a regular customer of Gilbert's.

Needless to say, I am currently re-evaluating my purchasing decisions, and will be communicating that re-evaluation to the owners of this business. If they do not support my city, then I don't support their business.

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By brundlefly (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2016 at 23:09:26 in reply to Comment 120036

I'm 6'7" and have never been and now will never bother.

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2016 at 18:08:08 in reply to Comment 120045

Wow. That is 13 feet 3 inches of LRT support right there.

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By LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2016 at 14:24:36

Thank you, Nicholas. You articulated very neatly a point I've been arriving at for some time. I think we all need to get tee shirts made up that will say 'We Told You So', superimposed over an LRT logo.

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By stone (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 15:35:03

Gilbert's Big and Tall is in a great place to take advantage of the LRT whether they continue to stay there or sell. They have a big building/huge parking lot that is prime for redevelopment. As destination retail they can move anywhere.

There is definitely a feeling from the older generation that Hamilton sucks but McMaster has quietly become one of the Top Universities in the WORLD, the bay front is being revitalized, downtown is being revitalized, the airport has become a player in the Golden Horseshoe, it's surrounded by amazing countryside and there is a very progressive vibe in the city. It's very appealing to young people who can see the potential, but it does seem there are some who see it as a rusty old worn out town.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 15:37:17

It was somewhat surprising to me.

I figured that most opponents of LRT would have a position like:

"I love Hamilton just the way it is. It is already a great place to live, work and have fun. We don't need LRT because things are just fine the way they are."

In fact, the position is more like:

"Hamilton is really messed up and has been declining for many years. I really don't see things getting better. Please don't change a thing!"

The only part of living in Hamilton most LRT opponents seems to really like is the ability to drive through the lower city quickly and without distraction. In other words, that it's an easy place to avoid!

I should emphasize that a lot of LRT supporter are also long term residents, but they are long term residents who see the potential of the city and are not cynical about the possibility of positive change. (Most opponents are long term residents, but most long term residents are not opponents.)

My views are formed by almost nine years of talking to Hamiltonians about LRT, but the profile of what most opponents have in common has only crystallized recently, largely because of the recent emergence of the Gilberts-centred no LRT group in the last few months. Until this year here was no organized or vocal grass roots opposition at all to LRT.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-16 15:40:52

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By stone (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 20:01:35

The fact that you can drive through Hamilton fast does seem to polarize a lot of people but now residents want their neighbourhoods back so whether LRT was coming or not those streets(Main and King) are going to get slowed down.

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By sbwoodside (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2016 at 21:36:44

I spoke for a while with a member of the Gilbert's family at the LIUNA station PIC. Her position was ... surprising to me. She said that people come from all over to her business, they drive, park, go in, and then drive away.

I suggested that if that were the case, perhaps they would be better to move to a location that is more suitable to driving in, parking, and then leaving, for example in Ancaster. Then they could sell their current property at a profit since the land value has gone up.

She wasn't very impressed with my suggestion.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 10:46:50 in reply to Comment 120041

That'd require effort. Sitting where you are, and complaining from the sidelines (aside from vandalizing the city with those anti-anti-LRT stickers) is easier.

I'm a larger guy but wouldn't bother spending my money there after all their nonsense.

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2016-09-17 10:56:43

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 16, 2016 at 22:26:48 in reply to Comment 120041

I don't get why she's upset about LRT coming then. People will still be able to drive, park, go in and then drive away. Sure, construction will be a nuisance, but that's gonna happen anyhow along there when the 100 year old infrastructure gets completely rebuilt. Wonder if they will lobby to halt any rebuild of King and it's underground services so their business isn't disrupted?

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 10:53:38

I don't think anger and negativity are the way to bring the Gilbert's family around. I shop there and I respect their concerns. Do I think they're wrong to support the NO LRT side? Yes. If I was as invested in the location as they are then I probably would be just as concerned about the effects of a major project like this. Truth is - I would probably visit them more of they were easier to get to. When LRT construction begins, I will make a conscious decision to shop at more King/Main shops. I think we should "fight" these concerns with overwhelming support. Turning our backs on them surely won't foster any discussion.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 13:53:53 in reply to Comment 120047

I agree with emphasizing support and helping organize campaigns to encourage people to shop at stores along the line. That is certainly what I plan to do.

The problem is that much of the noLRT rhetoric and tactics are so over-the-top, deliberately misleading and offensive ("EARTHQUAKES!", "$1 BILLION FOR A SINGLE BRIDGE", "100s OF BUSINESSES WILL GO BANKRUPT!" "ONLY BUMS AND HOBOS WILL USE IT!" "EMERGENCY VEHICLES WILL BE UNABLE TO USE KING ST!" "DOWNTOWN IS A DUMP!") that it difficult to treat their actions with respect as individuals.

But I try to separate the need to support the businesses from the tactics some of these business people are using.

Paradoxically, an anti-LRT poster on the no LRT facebook page said that they have already stopped shopping in Hamilton because of the "bike lanes" and instead now shops only in Burlington (which also has bike lanes!). It is comments like this that make it difficult to believe that their concerns for businesses along the line are genuine.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-17 13:55:53

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 15:12:12 in reply to Comment 120052

May of their stated concerns are completely fabricated and hold not weight with any reasonable person. It's part of the tactic to distract from and obfuscate the discussion. If the YES LRT drops to the same approaches then where are we? Noise in an echo chamber. We should keep talking to get the legitimate concerns out and then advocate to fix those issues for a better Hamilton. I want Gilberts to succeed (along with all the other business on the route), I want LRT to succeed, and I want a Hamilton that attracts people for its forward thinking.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 18, 2016 at 09:26:40 in reply to Comment 120054

I agree.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 15:01:29 in reply to Comment 120052

I'm available anytime, anyday if the entire group needs help moving to Burlington :)

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 12:37:24

In the "truth is stranger than fiction" category, this just in from the noLRT people on twitter:

Theodore Sares ‏@nohamiltonlrt 4h4 hours ago The LRT project is just like the gore park redo project which will be just another place for bums and hobos to hang out. #HamOnt #NoLRT


I only hope he's being facetious ... but then again ...

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 13:01:51

Any project like this will have an extended period of construction that will always keep someone away. I fully understand the problem faced by all businesses in this situation. There very real fear is very much understood. Even disturbing one slab of the sidewalk near their store is the possible first nail in their business's coffin. It comes down to how you view change. If you see change as an opportunity then LRT is not a insurmountable problem/issue. If you view change with dread and suspicion then the problems/issues with LRT are very possibly the end of your particular model of how you see the world and by association your business. Perhaps it has never occurred to the owners of this particular big and tall clothing store (indeed a very specialized business) that, potential new customers could come with the opening of the B Line LRT, will now actually be able to access their store for the first time. Whereas before without the LRT, these customers may not have had regular access to a car or a competitor was just easier to get to thus they never went to your store. Any technology that increases access means more customers. In fact, one of the things that rapid transit definitely does and its has been proven in studies for years is that, it helps to increase economic activity in the area of the line without having to add road capacity. For example, the Eaton Centre, the first suburban regional super mall located in a downtown core in North America (built in 1977), could not exist without the Yonge St. subway line and its 2 stations accessing the mall directly and feeding it almost a million customers a week!

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By JPDanko (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2016 at 13:18:53

This is an interesting observation and certainly consistent with what I have heard from those against LRT on the mountain. I would also like to add that it is an extremely low minority that have a firm position yes or no - the vast majority is ambivalent either way.

However, one thing that people do care deeply about it how their tax money is invested. People simply don't trust government to use their money wisely and the stadium is a very common reference where both the city and province royally screwed up a major public sector investment.

So really the single biggest concern on both the anti and pro LRT sides is that government is going to screw this up and waste $1B. I think a lot of what manifests as anti LRT sentiment is really legitimate concern that this project is not going to deliver on its promises - the only difference is those of us who support the project are a little more optimistic towards the projected benefits - and maybe a little more optimistic that both the city and province will come together to maximize its potential.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 13:33:56

I agree one thing though, the real problem with your stadium is that there was never a region wide study done on the best location for a new stadium before site planning and design engineering had already begun. Thus not every politician had the ability to say that yes, this is the best spot and so arguments over location by city officials fueled public controversy over the issue. We had the same problem here in Ottawa with the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park and the Stadium (TD Place). While the debate raged on about the park and the essential privatization of public space, a city of Ottawa study on the best location for a stadium came out. Turns out the Landowne Park location was only the 6th best! This fueled even more debate. People are still debating the issues and the whole place has been more or less operating for about a year and a half now!

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 15:15:53

Is it possible that there are those of us who love this city, want to see more bike lanes and complete streets, and appreciate a robust mass transit system but still believe the LRT is a bad idea?

It represents a reduction in service. Do any of you even ride the bus? I don't have a license. I hate cars. I ride my bike and I take the bus. The HSR is fantastic. It runs very well. What issue does the LRT solve? The odd flyby? Those only occur between September and April in the mornings and the next bus is always 5 minutes behind. I may have experienced a flyby twice in my life. Does that constitute a need to spend a billion dollars on an inflexible train system? Really think about it. Think of the Westdale street festival. If the LRT ran through Westdale Village you wouldn't be able to close the street. As it stands, buses are simply rerouted. How does Supercrawl close the street down with an LRT running down it? The 02 Barton just goes *around*. Please explain how locking the B-Line onto rails improves the system?

Right now on the HSR I can stop every couple of blocks. Say I'm going to Locke. I'll get out at Pearl or Strathcona. What are my LRT options? Queen or Dundurn. Great; especially when it's raining or the sidewalks are covered in ice. Will the other routes still run down King? It's my impression that they won't. If they will, then why are we putting *one* bus line on rails? What's the point? If they're not running then you've just reduced service by a large magnitude. If it's late at night it's HSR policy to even stop between stops so you can get home safely. The LRT simply can't stop at a non-designated stop. How is this better? If the HSR decides one day to move or add a stop to Locke; guess what? They can do it by bolting a sign to a pole. How is this bad?

I'd love to see electric buses and dedicated bike lanes. The buses could be BRT or not although I would prefer they were; anything to reduce traffic in the core.

Buses are flexible, reroutable, redeployable depending on population growth, can easily be swapped out for breakdowns, can move around cyclists, are able to be rescheduled to meet needs, and employ more Hamiltonians at good paying jobs (OC Transpo let 600 bus drivers go when their LRT came online. Just what Hamilton needs; more unemployed. http://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/large-scale-cuts-coming-to-oc-transpo-1.2982502)

Buses can go anywhere anytime and can go up the Mountain. Can a train? No. Buses even go through Mac Campus. The train will have one stop on Main Street. It's a step backward.

On top of all that is the cost. It's ridiculous. And we'll be back at Queen's Park in 20 years begging for a few million to add a Gage Park stop and finish the extension to Eastgate. Imagine; every time you want to see a new stop you have to secure millions in funding. I can add a bus stop with a print out from an ink jet printer.

In short, buses are better. The HSR is doing a great job. An LRT is a step backward in terms of service. Hamilton rocks and will rock even without a shiny train. It will rock even harder with e-Buses.

Comment edited by JimC on 2016-09-17 15:21:31

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By stone (registered) | Posted September 21, 2016 at 08:40:23 in reply to Comment 120055

I would not say the HSR is doing a great job. They I live on the LRT route where flybys and doubling up are very common. HSR on the mountain is a joke. Spots like John at Jackson are crowded with buses multiple times an hour. The only reason HSR can get away with that is because there are numerous brown fields in the area, meaning there is not much traffic, but as soon as those get developed there is going to be a problem. I don't think LRT is a magical solution to anything but the city needs a plan for the future and one of the points of LRT is to have less vehicles on the road, not more .

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 18, 2016 at 08:54:44 in reply to Comment 120055

The LRT will be combined with a re-configured bus system. Buses will always remain part of the transit system in Hamilton and in every other city. There is a very good chance that the boost to the transit system coming from LRT will finally raise the profile and urgency of bus transit to the level that the city will actually start funding it properly after decades of stagnation and cuts.

But LRT is the best solution for the Main-King corridor that currently accounts for 42% of total ridership, or about 30,000 riders per day. The 2010 HSR operational review highlighted the fact that the buses on this route are often over-capacity and plagued by drive-bys during peak hours. This is not good service!

Your impression might be that service is 'fantastic' but that's not the experience of riders who use the bus to commute when they have to wait for two or three packed buses to finally get on (as has often been my experience) and when service is minimal evenings and weekends.

Another example of poor service is that there is no attempt to ensure a proper transfer from the 6 bus to the 1, 5, 51 buses at King and Longwood. I am often waiting to cross the street with ten other riders while 1, 2, 3 buses pull up, stop and head off. Then the ten of us wait ten minutes for the next bus. The 6 and 1,5,51 stops used to be adjacent but HSR moved the 6 stop and other stop so you now have to cross two streets! I would much rather walk down from Charlton to Queen to get an LRT (and I often even do this to get the bus).

If you like the idea of BRT, don't forget that it would operate in exactly the same way as LRT, but with different technology and lower capacity and frequency. The stops would still be widely spaced and it would still run on a separated concrete track.

The fact that ridership growth overall (outside King-Main) has been flat and one of the worst in Ontario shows that most other Hamiltonians do not share your impression that current HSR service is fantastic.

The King-Main corridor is reaching its limit for buses. It can't handle the current demand and certainly not the sort of demand that would be created by the economically, densely populated corridor that the city wants and plans for.

It really is a question of using the best transit technology for the location. And with the current and future demand, that is LRT for the King-Main corridor.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-18 08:56:17

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 17, 2016 at 17:39:49

Ottawa will, not has, will, let go up to 571 staff, not just bus drivers, in 2018 when the Confederation Line opens because the start of LRT service will make up to 150 buses surplus to our present needs. Which was the purpose of the LRT system because our transit system is drowning in a BRT hell that, requires an ever growing number of buses to carry a growing number of passengers (one of the problems with BRT) and has increased our operating costs to the point that we can no longer afford to keep growing our bus fleet. As an urban transit area of 900,000 people Ottawa has to maintain a current fleet of 980 buses (19th largest in North America), this is down from almost 1100 buses in 2009. The problem is that, with our current BRT system and the enormous passenger levels the Transitway Network has to carry, we really need a fleet of 1200-1300 buses to cover the Transitway and increase service to non Transitway bus routes. The people of Ottawa don't want to pay for that! On top of this there is just no room to add those extra buses unless, a truly massive BRT tunnel (more than twice the width of an LRT tunnel and requiring passenger platforms considerably longer than our planned 120 metre long LRT tunnel station platforms) as well as equally large and expensive concurrent upgrades to many existing surface BRT stations. None of this lowering the operating cost of all those extra buses.

Our first phase of electric LRT will replace 150 buses with 15 ,2 car trains at peak hour service, with ample room for much greater numbers in the future. Each train will carry up to 600 people (300 per LRV) and be 97-98 metres long (48.5-49 metres long per LRV). The advantage of modern LRV's is that they can be expanded by adding new sections at your own maintenance facility (modular upgrades), including the Bombardier Flexity Units Hamilton is expected to get. Yours can be expanded from 30 metre long 5 section LRV's to 7 section, 42 metre long LRV's. Each of Ottawa's individual Alstom LRV's can be expanded by adding a 5th section increasing each car to almost 60 metres long and a capacity of 375 passengers each(the current LRV's will have 4 sections and be 48-49 metres long).

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 19, 2016 at 07:29:49

I remember the episode with the TiCats owner and his stadium out in the middle of nowhere. I know that the East Mountain site would have been rejected at the OMB because it simply didn't fallow city policies. It's too bad the west harbor site wasn't used it really had the most potential, especially with LRT.

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