Suburban Bureau

Getting Back on Track

If Hamilton wants to begin the process of intensification, then it must start with transit.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published June 16, 2005

I was recently at a BBQ talking with some regular Hamiltonians and the subject of Toronto came up. Sure enough, the conversation turned into a typical Bash Toronto diatribe.

"It's dirty."

"It's grungy."

"It's crowded."

"It's too big," too expensive, too fast, too blue, too red, blah, blah, blah.

I listened carefully for anything substantial. Did anything they said make sense or was it just Hamiltonians doing what they do best - bad-mouthing Toronto?

I'm not one to argue semantics or subjective opinions - too dirty, too crowded. These points are only subjective, and it depends on what you are comparing it to. Toronto is clean and spacious compared to Athens, and Athens is clean and spacious compared to Delhi.

Since our opinions are mainly formulated by comparisons - my house is bigger than yours, my clothes are cooler than yours, etc. - I find it a waste of time to debate these opinions or comparisons.

I finally said, "Toronto's transit system is fantastic compared to ours. Ours is non-existent."

A woman instantly replied, "Well, we don't need one."

I was stunned. A million ways to respond to that comment flooded my brain, and it took a few seconds to finally say, "No, we all just need to have a car. Maybe you don't need transit, but not everyone wants to spend their day in a car or can afford one, or wants to spend the money on a car."

Judging by the look on her face, I think the point was missed. It was as if I had just landed in Hamilton from another planet. Hours later, her words were still echoing on my brain, like a cartoon word bubble.

I wanted to tell her how wrong she was, how suburbanized and car-dependent she has become, how the only life she knew involved driving to a destination with "free" parking, spending some time there and driving to another destination.

Centre Mall is turning into a Power Centre. Hamilton is expanding its urban boundry yet again for an aerotropolis. The whole city is turning into one big Power Centre.

I started to feel like a crazy person, like someone who needed to get out of there. I kept it together, but in the moment of brief insanity, it occurred to me: transit.

That's it. It's all about the transit.

Transit for me was something I used more often decades ago. I live in the suburbs and cars are a necessity. I have a two-car family, but I have a love-hate relationship with them.

I have always owned a car since my first at seventeen, a 1984 RX-7 painted California Green. I enjoy washing my cars in my driveway on weekends, but I also resent that I must have one. I have taken my two young sons downtown on the bus.

Great cities don't require cars. I'll let that thought sit with you for a bit.

What makes a city great? People - people socializing, working, living, playing in places. Street life makes cities great. Street life makes cities safe, livable, friendly, and neighbourhoodly. Street life must have mutliple destinations within walking distance of residential neighbourhoods, must have mixed-use buildings, must be pedestrian friendly - when's the last time you met someone in your car? - and must be serviced by transit.

I used to think that the buildings created the street life. Streetwalls consisting of apartments, walk-ups, row homes, retail, office, entertainment, and other commercial uses built close together and close to the street was all that was needed to make a livable neighbourhood - picture Sesame Street.

But the buildings are only built based on the transit system that services them. Toronto's neighbourhoods are built on the major transit lines. Subway stops promote the highest intensification. Streetcars promote lower density and buses service even lower density.

If Hamilton wants to begin the process of intensification, then it must start with transit.

I now believe that a transit system that allows residents to have a real choice between a) owning and maintaining a car or b) travelling via subway, bus, streetcar, light rail or tram makes cities livable.

Given the choice, residents of New York, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, Berlin, London and any other great city will choose transit over car. Those cities have proven it. (Even Kitchener is expected to start building a light-rail transit system soon.)

The first priority to getting Hamilton back on track must be to get Hamilton residents back on a track: a light-rail track or streetcar transit system. Streetcars are more efficient at frequent stops. That's what it takes to make the transit system a viable alternative for commuters.

I am just old enough to remember the HSR (Hamilton Street Railway) electric trolley cars. Remembering those old electric-powered trollies seems like something of the future.

Let's get them back. Not only does an efficient transit system move people around the city and create the streetlife we want to enjoy, but also it increases property values, promotes intensification, and can provide a higher standard of living.

I can only dream of what I would do with the extra $15,000 a year I would save by getting rid of two cars.

Trey lives in Hamilton with his family. He is co-owner of an advertising agency, and develops brand awareness and creative services for the entertainment and tourism industry. His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger, and he has appeared on Toronto's Goldhawk Live. Trey volunteers with the London Chapter of The Council of Canadians.

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By pepsmear (registered) | Posted None at

Great article! I was born and raised in the hammer and am lucky enough to be living in montreal, which has a great transit system compared to that of hamilton. I had never really connected the fact that a great transit system promotes life in a city. Thanks for opening that door. We both agree that hamiton could use a better transit system. But, I am sorry to say that drivers will not use the system until it becomes more convenient to use than their car. Such is the case in montreal, where having a car is more of a pain in the @#* than a convenience.

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