As we head toward a future of limited public funding, it makes sense to get creative in looking for ways to meet our city's transit needs.
By Jason Allen
Published January 14, 2011
There has been a bit of discussion recently about the potential $130 million cost to Hamilton of a new LRT line, with several city councillors and armchair urban planners seeming to dismiss the idea entirely out of hand.
While the need for LRT goes far beyond just the need for more frequent, accessible, desirable transit along the Main-King corridor, it does address one fairly important fact about public transit in Hamilton - namely that the 30-60 minute headways on some routes are nothing short of an active discouragement to use the system to go about your daily life.
While the frequency of buses on King street is much greater than that, in theory the LRT would free up drivers and vehicles to better serve other routes, thus triggering a joyful cascade of peace, understanding, and more reliable service.
Instead, we are left with a system that serves some riders' needs fairly well during rush hour, but for most of the rest of the day, leaves most of the city high and dry.
The obvious solution is more public money, but I think Australia, Nova Scotia and New York City this winter are all great examples of how, as climate change continues to wreak havoc on local weather systems, there's going to be less and less money to go around.
That is to say nothing of what would happen to public levels of investment should Spain, the U.K. or (God help us) the U.S. suddenly default on a bond payment.
So even if it's not the obvious solution, the practical solution may just be private transit.
Now, before you dismiss the idea out of hand, consider the humble Guagua, or Dollar Van. A major source of transportation in New York and New Jersey for neighborhoods that are grossly underserved by public transit, these are state regulated, but privately run.
Running simple 15 or 29 passenger Ford Econoline Vans, they ply routes up and down the boroughs of New York, looking for people trying to get from point A to point B quickly.
They haven't replaced the municipal buses, but in local areas they are the de facto transit system, and are famous for being more frequent, more convenient, and less expensive than city-run vehicles.
The buses are also famous for loud music, erratic drivers, and the occasional fight between drivers looking for fares.
Still, the model deserves some investigation. Not by the HSR, but by any enterprising businessperson who owns either an old Econoline van or small school bus, and would like to make a tidy little business for themselves.
That would never fly in Hamilton, I hear you say. It wouldn't be allowed. Why not? It would require only an application to the Taxi Commission to get the license.
According to my reading, however, after the initial license was acquired, none of the other taxi regulations would apply, because of the way the by-law is worded.
Now clearly you're going to want a city staffer who is intimately familiar with the by-law to walk you through it, but it appears at first blush that Dollar Vans would fall most of the way through a loophole.
Such a route could indeed be profitable, either following the 1 King or B-Line around and scooping up whoever was left waiting once the bus was full, or plying a mountain route on the opposite half hour from when an HSR bus ran.
The only other question would be: How much damage would an effective, frequent, convenient Dollar Van service do to the HSR?
That's a question that will certainly be the subject of some public debate, should a Dollar Van ever appear plying the streets of Hamilton looking for fares.
By that point, though, it will be mostly too late. The genie will be out of the bottle, and the city will be fighting a rearguard action against the spread of people-centric, privately-run public transportation.
Perhaps it's time to have an open, creative discussion on how we provide and fund public transit in Hamilton, before some quick-thinking entrepreneur makes the decision for us.
This article was first published on Jason's website
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