Spectator Discovers Sustainability

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 20, 2007

Has the Hamilton Spectator gone over to the dark side?

I was delighted to open my paper to the editorial page on Thursday and see the paper making a case for studying paying for the HSR entirely out of the tax levy, with fares abolished.

The idea, most recently suggested by Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, seems ridiculous in a city that just raised transit fares twice in a year. And yet:

In truth, the idea of fully funding public transit isn't as crazy as it might first appear. If there's broad consensus and political leadership that agrees we need to take definitive steps to promote transit, get traffic off the roads and improve air quality, the discussion should include this as one possible option.

Howard Elliott, the author of the piece, points out that other services, like libraries, schools and recreation centres, are funded entirely out of tax money regardless of whether a given taxpayer uses them because we believe they provide tangible public goods that benefit society as a whole.

In fact, he argues that transit is more important, but that our society "doesn't put the same value on public transit as it does on other services." He challenges this assumption, noting:

We all know the value that efficient, environmentally appropriate transit can bring to any city, never mind one facing the kind of environmental and revitalization challenges facing our city.

The editorial concludes:

Very few jurisdictions in North America offer free transit. But many are taking innovative steps to coax more people out of cars and onto transit. Some reduce or eliminate fares on key routes, or on smog days. Some use corporate sponsorship to reduce costs.

Here's the real point. The cycle of regular fare increases and ridership erosion isn't sustainable in a society that needs new and smarter ways to deal with transportation issues. As we try to figure out how to take the next step toward that goal, all ideas are, or should be, welcome. Let the debate begin.

Public Transit Must Be a Priority

I'm still reeling from reading such a progressive argument from an editorial board that is otherwise so committed to unsustainable, backwards-looking economic strategies like highway- and airport-oriented development.

However, it's not without precedent in the city's daily paper. As Spec editor Lee Prokaska recently argued when Council was considering the latest HSR fare increase:

[I]t doesn't appear the city has fully embraced the concept that attracting more riders is better for the HSR and the city than increasing fares to raise revenues. It is becoming clearer that getting people out of their cars and onto public transit is crucial to reducing both pollution and gridlock. The provincial government for example has declared the development of public transit must be a priority, and its vision includes light rapid transit in Hamilton. For that to make a difference, though, the rest of the city's public transit system must be functioning well and frequently to feed into a rapid transit option.

Earlier, back in the early summer, Spec editor Robert Howard wrote the paper's highly astute editorial endorsement for light rail:

[W]hat Hamilton really needs is the next step up - the 21st century solution. The proposed rapid-transit lines for Hamilton would essentially be dedicated routes for better or larger buses. This is the time for Hamilton to push the province, and the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority charged with implementing the plan, to consider light rail transit (LRT) lines for Hamilton that would replace some buses with quiet, environmentally friendly electric trains.

He also noted astutely that the line should improve service "where it is needed - where people live, work and commute now" rather than "as a carrot to encourage future growth that may or may not happen". This is an important distinction as the city asks for provincial money to establish BRT-lite along Upper James to the airport.

Electric City, Post Carbon City

Finally, on December 18, the Spec got around to taking a closer look at models of sustainable economic development based on energy production and conservation.

The two stories by Gord McNulty, "Energy City" and "Think light-rail, wind turbines and energy-efficient buildings", examine the work of Richard Gilbert, whose work has been featured prominently in RTH, and Daniel Lerch, whose new book Post Carbon Cities is reviewed in our upcoming issue.

In April 2006, Gilbert presented Hamilton: The Electric City [PDF], a report on peak oil that projected gas prices will reach $4/l in around a decade and recommended the city make energy production and conservation - and specifically electrification of ints critical infrastructure - its economic Plan A.

One quibble I would make is that the article seemed to suggest that Gilbert endorses development around Hamilton International Airport:

Opponents [of Gilbert's proposal] questioned the viability of the concept, given the threat that a steep rise in oil prices would potentially pose to air freight and passenger traffic.

Gilbert suggested aerotropolis would be better suited as a Highway 6 business park, connected to an energy-efficient transportation network and encouraging a diversity of industries.

In fact, while Gilbert has been careful not to comment specifically on whether the city should develop the airport lands, he has made it very clear he thinks we should be concentrating our efforts on leveraging and developing under-used land in the lower city.

More recently, Daniel Lerch presented a proposal to City Council recommending that the city plan for energy and climate uncertainty instead of planning with the assumption that energy will remain cheap and abundant.

Lerch supports more compact, energy-efficient development, something that runs counter to some of the conventional thinking in Hamilton. In 2003, the city began developing a 30-year growth management strategy which called, in part, for a massive aerotropolis industrial park centred around Hamilton Airport.

The aerotropolis proposal, now known as the Airport Employment Growth District, is touted as a solution to the city's shortage of employment lands and is currently under study. Lerch doesn't favour the aerotropolis plan.

Unfortunately, the city's willingness to entertain proposals by forward-thinking analysts has yet to translate into real change in how the city does business.

Council is still approving big box developments, still raising transit fares, still promoting the airport as an employment growth engine, and still favouring buses over electric rail for transit improvements.

Let's hope that the burgeoning sea-change in the Spectator's editorial board is a harbinger of more substantial changes in the municipal government and the city culture in general.

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 beancounter (registered) | Posted December 20, 2007 at 23:32:45

Is free transit an idea whose time has come? Or gone...?

It has been tried and found wanting in some of the larger markets in the U. S.

Some thoughts to fuel the debate to which the Spec editorial alluded:

  1. People often do not value things that cost them nothing. This is why our parents did not spoil us by giving us everything we wanted.

  2. Making transit free is not enough to attract more riders. It would also need to be fast, convenient and comfortable, and therefore more expensive.

  3. Vandalism and hooliganism could be a problem, which could lead to... making it more expensive because of increased security costs.

  4. Perhaps we could consider starting with a fare freeze and major improvements to the service, including, of course, LRT.

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By Jon Dalton (anonymous) | Posted December 21, 2007 at 08:42:55

Now watch the angry letters start pouring in.

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By haaa (anonymous) | Posted December 21, 2007 at 20:25:38

Are free libraries an idea whose time has come? Or gone...?

It has been tried and found wanting in some of the larger markets in the U. S.

Some thoughts to fuel the debate to which the Spec editorial alluded:

1. People often do not value things that cost them nothing. This is why our parents did not spoil us by giving us everything we wanted.

2. Making libraries free is not enough to attract more readers. It would also need to be fast, convenient and comfortable, and therefore more expensive.

3. Vandalism and hooliganism could be a problem, which could lead to... making it more expensive because of increased security costs.

4. Perhaps we could consider starting a subscription library.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted December 21, 2007 at 23:05:35

Both Stanton, New Jersey and Denver, Colorado, dabbled with fare-free in the 1970s; both tried it during off-peak hours and both quit one year into the experiment

Austin, Texas, was the last American city to try ditching fares; they pulled out their fare-boxes between 1989-1990, something Joel Volinski says lead(sic) to "chaos."

Rowdy young passengers vandalized vehicles and scared off "core riders," said Volinski, who authored a major U.S. study in 2002 that concluded that citywide fare-free policies were a bad idea.

After one year, Austin bus drivers themselves rallied and had the program shut down.

Volinski saw a similar experiment fail when he was a director of a smaller transit system near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Ridership soared when that system went fare-free, but it was soon carpe diem for hooligans there too.

"They'd jump on the bus, raise holy hell, then jump off two blocks later. They got a big kick out of that." "It has something to do with the question of value," he believes, "when people pay nothing for something, they just don't think it has value and they treat it as such."

The Austin experiment, his report states, "left lasting impressions on transit operators throughout the country." Nothing on that scale has been tried since.

Todd Litman thinks that, in Vancouver anyway, fare-free transit would attract the wrong kind of clientele. "I have pretty significant concerns about transit vehicles becoming shelters for homeless people." Fares, Volinski puts it bluntly, help keep off "the wacko element."

As the director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Litman argues that if the over-arching goal of promoting transit is to combat global warming, the concept of a free ride is wrong-headed. "I think we need to be most concerned about the quality of public transit, not the cheapness," he said.

The above quotations are excerpts found today at

It would seem at this point that there has been little success with free transit in a city the size of Hamilton.

The idea of free transit does have a certain attraction to it. In spite of the problems mentioned above "The Tyee" also reports that San Francisco was studying the feasibility of free transit in the city by the bay as of July 2007.

And lists areas served by free public transit. None of them is a large city, however.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 21, 2007 at 23:16:12

hmm, interesting stats. I do wonder about the validity of comparing us to US cities. Having lived in a 'safe, medium-sized' US city for 4 years I can safely say that the level of violence and crime is completely different down there. Granted, I could still see this being a problem with some young rowdies jumping on and off for the heck of it, but I wonder if there is info available from safer nations more like Canada? It was always a little unnerving to ride the MAX in Portland knowing full well that a few folks were 'packing heat' on the train.
I wouldn't even mind a flat fare of $1 or $2.00. The real issue is that we NEED to start pumping money into our transit system.
Portland, Seattle and perhaps even Vancouver have a zone system. Transit is free downtown and then Zone 1 is $1.20. Zone 2 is $1.50 and so on the further out of the downtown you get. The downtown fareless square was could go from district to district for free all day long.

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By Balanced (anonymous) | Posted December 22, 2007 at 17:34:01

I wonder how many taxi jobs and businesses would be lost if this was implemented.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 23, 2007 at 09:09:05

every city that develops a first rate transit system sees a huge influx of new jobs and businesses. The question you should be asking is how many new businesses would open in our urban core and how much healthier would the economy be if we were to follow through on great improvements to transit?

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By socialscientist (anonymous) | Posted December 24, 2007 at 21:54:06

No large cities? Commerce, CA, serves more riders than San Francisco's MUNI. The real reason it doesn't "work" in large cities is because the carbon/auto lobby won't let it. Trillions in profits are at stake... and... oh yeah... the biosphere too.

see frepubtra dot blogspot dot com

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 12:40:58


"every city that develops a first rate transit system sees a huge influx of new jobs and businesses"

Could you please provide us with some evidence of this statement? And please enough with Portland already.

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By BE (anonymous) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 18:21:00

I can't wait for someone to reply to Capitalists comment.

Much like Capitalist, I'm far too lazy to do a google search and find the answer to his question... it might take a whole 15 minutes.

I'll let someone at RTH do it, they seem to like research like that.

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