Special Report: Light Rail

Three Ways LRT Can Help Low-Income Households

With a little planning, LRT will improve our city's finances, reduce personal transportation expenditures, improve public health, and create a more livable city for the vast majority of citizens.

By Craig Hermanson
Published October 14, 2011

Thanks to Sarah Wayland for her well-balanced and thought-provoking article on the impact of light rail transit (LRT) on low-income households and neighbourhoods.

It is a timely addition to the public discussion on LRT, as there has been some recent debate over the desirability of LRT because of potential negative effects on poorer residents in more affordable neighbourhoods.

There is no doubt that some of the benefits of LRT come from gentrification, which increases property values and improves property tax income for the host city. This improved tax income is accomplished without the expense of building new roads/sewers/services to ever more distant suburbs.

Put simply: it's far more efficient and easier on the purse strings to have higher income to spend over a denser region than the reverse.

Given this, it is easy to understand the concerns raised by some on RTH about possible displacement of poorer neighbours due to gentrification. For instance, the Locke Street neighbourhood has become less and less affordable over the time we have lived here.

I would argue this gentrification is in part because Locke Street is the hub of a walkable and transit-supported neighbourhood; and the affordability created by walkability and transit is in part what led to the gentrification.

I think we can look at the impacts of gentrification caused by improved transit from three perspectives:

1. Public transit is more efficient and affordable to residents than private new or used car ownership.

What's important to note is that when gentrification occurs along LRT lines, it is because of improved access to efficient public transit and increased walkability. Transit and walkability are democratizers: Not every household can afford one, two or three vehicles, but nearly all can afford a transit trip.

The CAA (a car owners lobby group, no less) estimates the cost [PDF] of new car ownership for a 2010 Chevy Cruz at between $8,000 and $11,300 per year over four years.

Yes, you can hold on to a vehicle longer and reduce your costs per year a bit, but repairs and fuel for that Cruz will continue to dog you each year for another $2,240 or more for 18,000 km per year.

I've been personally happy to invest the money that would have gone into a second vehicle into our home, which has appreciated in value. Conversely, if we were to sell our only vehicle it would fetch little more than we paid to put new tires and brakes on it.

Car ownership is the second largest expense for most families. Quite simply, you're poorer for car ownership if you don't need it to get to work.

2. Access to employment opportunities increases the financial well being of affected residents.

LRT attracts employers looking to increase their accessibility to potential employees. Residents have access to a greater number of employers in their neighbourhood and LRT increase the distance residents can easily and affordably travel to work.

Greater employment levels and income in a neighbourhood increases the number of employers looking to serve these neighbourhoods, thus creating even more employment opportunities.

This is essentially a virtuous circle where employees and employers both desire to be accessible to each other.

The principle here is that improvements along LRT lines isn't simply gentrification by new residents, but also an improvement in income and lifestyle for existing residents.

3. Where lower costs (savings on car ownership) and increased income (access to better employment opportunities) don't reach all affected residents, development planning should be put into action to mitigate the affects of gentrification.

This means promoting a mix of infill housing types for people at various stages of life and from various income levels. New housing stock that appeals to empty-nesters and retirees (for example) reduces the strain on supply of single-family dwellings. Purpose built rental and condo buildings similarly prevent rental and ownership costs from increasing as dramatically.

Geared to income and transitional living units ensure those who need access to public transit most are not displaced from their best opportunities to change their circumstances.

No one can claim that LRT to be some silver bullet or magic medicine which will cure all our ills or improve the lives of all residents.

However, the odds seem pretty good that with a little planning, LRT will: improve our city's finances through higher income and lower expenses; improve personal finances through higher income and lower expenses; increase the health of residents by encouraging walking and reducing pollution; and create a more livable city for the vast majority of citizens.

My hope is that LRT will make living in a walkable, transit supported and still affordable neighbourhood a reality for many more in Hamilton - and that we'll all be richer for it, in every sense of the word.

Craig Hermanson is the president of Concrescence Design and the editor of LockeStreet.com. He lives in Kirkendall Neighbourhood and is involved in community development.

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By whatever (anonymous) | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:10:04

Well I do not see how the LRT is going to help low income people, considering the fact that those who are the most vulnerable cannot even afford to use public transit. Now, with the fact the bus tickers are no longer being sold, one must pay additional monies for the card, to load money they do not have.

I am not saying that the LRT is a bad thing, it is not a catlyst to help the poor. The poor need more money to survive, social assistance rates are not based on reality. The writer talks about gentrification, yet that means poorer people are pushed out, while more affluent take over the space.


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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:16:17 in reply to Comment 70576

The writer talks about gentrification, yet that means poorer people are pushed out, while more affluent take over the space.

That's actually a contentious and uncertain hypothesis. According to research by Lance Freeman of Columbia University, gentrification can make it less likely that a poor resident will move out of a neighbourhood.

The higher costs of a gentrifying neighbourhood are offset by improving job prospects, increased safety, and better local amenities, both public and private.

Contributing to the perception of displacement is the fact that urban neighbourhoods have high rates of turnover by themselves, but the people moving into a gentrifying neighbourhood are more likely to be affluent.

At the same time, gentrification leads to increasing population density. While less-affluent residents continue to follow their existing patterns of high turnover, affluent newcomers move into otherwise vacant buildings without having to displace anyone, but start to compose a higher proportion of an (also growing) total population.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:35:41 in reply to Comment 70577

I just don't buy it. This phenomena has been extensively studied and documented, and my anthropological training makes it a little difficult to discount that many first-hand experiences. Having seen more examples than I could count across a couple of continents, I just can't discount the existence of gentrification because it hasn't been totally demographically modelled.

Individuals may be more likely to stay in their units where possible in neighbourhoods under siege, but given the increase in evictions and lack of nearby replacement, it will clearly have an impact on the make-up of an area. And while the addition of some higher-income people isn't necessarily a bad thing, the process all-too often turns toward actively removing lower-income people from the area through "slum clearances" and Guliani-style policing.

This issue is an enormous concern to marginalized people here and all over the world - whether or not they can academically articulate it. Talk to people in plain terms - you'll hear it.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:50:25 in reply to Comment 70582

It's as dangerous to generalize from anecdata as it is to generalize from oversimple models. As Jacob Vigdor or Duke University writes (about Boston):

The typical image people have in their minds is that people are being thrown out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. But there is usually some degree of vacancy and rehabbing of buildings that weren't previously inhabitable. The thing everyone has to keep in mind is that there's turnover in all neighborhoods, and landlords harass poor tenants in all neighborhoods. What happens in gentrifying neighborhoods is that it becomes visible.

Imagine two poor families living in different but roughly equivalent neighbourhoods. The only difference is that neighbourhood A is undergoing gentrification and neighbourhood B is not. For various reasons, the two families decide to move out.

In neighbourhood B, another poor family moves in, but in neighbourhood A, a bohemian family moves in. It looks like the bohemian family has pushed out the poor family, and the overall makeup of neighbourhood A starts to change over time as more affluent families move in - but that's not what's really going on.

The most legitimate argument of anti-gentrification activists is the claim that gentrification doesn't actually help lift poor people out of poverty - which is a much different argument than the claim that gentrification displaces poor people.

There is definitely some truth to this claim, but a couple of countervailing facts put it into perspective:

  1. The absence of gentrification also does not help lift poor people out of poverty; and
  2. The evidence tells us gentrification does reduce churn for poor people, suggesting at least a modest net benefit.

So to summarize: LRT is not the solution to poverty, and I'm not aware of anyone who is suggesting otherwise. In this piece, Craig Hermanson writes that LRT is not "some silver bullet or magic medicine which will cure all our ills or improve the lives of all residents."

However, the evidence suggests that LRT is on balance good for low-income families rather than harmful.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted October 15, 2011 at 00:42:42 in reply to Comment 70585

The goal of revitalizing urban blight is to generate equitable growth via re-development and new developments.

The primary goal of LRT is intensification via supplementary bonusing of density.

The hype around LRT is that it is a green transit alternative to cars.

The expectations of LRT are that it will generate compact urban form.

The data supporting all the hype and expectations is mostly anecdotal. Hence the outcomes are mostly anecdotal.

The results of LRT implementation in most cities like Hamilton which are suburban in character (with a tiny remnant of an old core surrounded by old and newer suburbs) is: what was sold as an urban centric transit solution, usually ends up becoming a rapid linkage connecting far flung suburbs to each other via the city core.

This is the primary goal of LRT in Hamilton. Hence the design of the tracks as presented.

LRT in Hamilton will neither lift the poor, nor create walkable, compact urban form for the new urban professionals.

The poor already know about walkabilty - it was never a novelty for them. They will continue to walk on account of the un-affordabilty of the LRT as it grows to meet the demands of expansion.

It is the new urban professionals in the new TOD driven urban compounds of Hamilton, who will have to quickly learn to reconcile their expectations of LRT with its stark reality.

At best Hamilton's LRT network as it is planned will continue to expand suburban growth, which should not come as a surprise years from now as it would be in sync with the original intent of the track design - which was after all approved resoundingly by LRT enthusiasts.

Almost everything in today's world is anecdotal: WMD, CodeRed, god, devil, prosperity, diversity, equitable growth, good food, good sex, good discourse, good education, good art, appropriate behavior, dissent, job creation, urban revitalization, lifting poverty, displacing poverty, creative cities, and much more...

Maybe, it is about time we get rid of all models and start giving the "anecdotal" the legitimacy it deserves. :)

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-10-15 00:50:47

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By whatever (anonymous) | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:35:07

Hi Ryan: I am not sure if you can convince me that what you say is indeed fact. I am not against the LRT, as from a environmental perspective, our leaders should of been thinking about this strategy, long time ago.

There may be some small businesses opening up but would they pay a living wage, provide benefits and so on, I doubt that, so again, lifting those from poverty is not so clear and defined.

One also has to look at people's perspectives about those who are marginalized. Since social housing is a real issue in this city, how do think this will become a political issue, since cuts to social housing have gone on for years. The current conditions for those in many social housing are deplorable. Shelters are not the answer either, as this process can be very intimidating and callous.





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By Locke (registered) | Posted October 14, 2011 at 15:47:47

I guess part of the argument should be: The current situation isn't helping anyone... and is it possible that LRT will help more than it hurts.

I'm not saying gentrification won't displace some, but that LRT will help more and the current situation isn't acceptable or sustainable. With some effort to ensure new housing is built, the effects of gentrification can be mitigated by increased density, increased access to employment and savings on private transportation costs.

Comment edited by Locke on 2011-10-14 15:48:31

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By Laura, Advocacy Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted October 14, 2011 at 16:15:18

And the gentrification debate continues...

Having returned from a stint of living in Toronto's Parkdale I can honestly say that gentrification of West Queen West reflects of all these comments.

Yes, the area has high turnover of lower income individuals. The problem is, as affluence moves in, these units become unaffordable as landlords realize their potential. So yes, there is displacement.

The question is not whether to allow it or not, but how we as a community respond to it.

West Queen West was not, 3 years ago, a good example of mixed income community. It was more like two communities living side by side ignoring each other. It has gotten better but they have a ways to go.

So, it's not a question of whether or not it will occur but how do we make sure we develop a sense of community in these areas. How do we create community so that people have a sense of belonging and are less apt to leave?

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted October 14, 2011 at 16:39:58

Glad the first article has generated so much discussion -- it was actually frustrating to write something based on such a small body of research findings.

It seems to me that LRT will help low income persons most in situations where it is providing transit where none existed before, and where its presence encourages commercial developments that are often lacking in low income neighbourhoods (eliminating so-called food deserts, for example). In Hamilton, the proposed B-line will be in addition to existing transit. I don't know enough about it to say that it will be providing something new for riders, but it will have a greater carrying capacity than buses so that at least is a plus. The fact that LRT attracts new riders who would never take buses is of interest to the B-line and may help spur needed commercial developments along the route.

I must take issue with the idea of zero-sum game in terms of wealth and wealth distribution put forth in earlier threads. It is possible to improve income and quality of life without simply displacing people in gentrifying areas. However, it takes smart public policy and planning.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 20:50:18 in reply to Comment 70587

As the person who first used the term "zero-sum-game", I must point out that it had a bit of context. Simply shifting demographics around, with no mobility between them, is the very definition of a zero-sum-game. That doesn't mean that all demographic shifts are, but that aspect of them tends to be. This is blatantly obvious when you look at the racial aspects of gentrification - just because an area becomes whiter on average doesn't mean a single individual does (or even can).

As for the commercial development issue, it's worth noting that the commercial requirements for a low-income neighbourhood and a high-income neighbourhood are very different. There is very little market for Locke Street/Westdale-style boutiques in the North End. They don't sell anything poor people need, nor is anything they do sell particularly affordable to most. Even if the same stores remain, there's a strong possibility of rising prices or shifting selections in such an environment, and that's going to affect people.

As for the value of anecdotal evidence, it's pretty much essential when studying communities. You can gather all the data you want, but it'll always be subject to the biases of your own model and collection methods. There's undoubtedly issues with anecdotal resources as well, but they're not resolved by rejecting them entirely. Social sciences just can't be easily quantified by numerical models.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 17:25:02 in reply to Comment 70587

It is possible to improve income and quality of life without simply displacing people in gentrifying areas. However, it takes smart public policy and planning.

And healthy discourse. Because smart public planning and policy have to spring from discourse...which results from engagement.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted October 16, 2011 at 00:16:00

I am presently in Montreal, Latin Quarter, this is a city that masters diversity and it had condos beside greasy sandwich shops beside a church beside a dive bar beside a park next to a five star restaurant. Rich and poor intermingled flawlessly. This should be Hamiltons model.

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By blowing smoke (anonymous) | Posted October 17, 2011 at 15:36:17

Hamilton is basically a city of 350,000 that through an idiot of a premiere was amalgamated with 300,000 suburbanites. The concept of a city of 350,000 needing LRT is ludicrous. Your numbers do not make any sense. You are just blowing smoke

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 17, 2011 at 17:45:54 in reply to Comment 70619

Realistically, Dundas and Stoney Creek and Ancaster are part of Hamilton.

The "idiot premiere" action wasn't this amalgamation, but bringing in a bunch of semi-rural areas like Waterdown and Rockton.

But those are very low-population areas and Hamilton would still be a decent-sized city without them.

And either way, your thesis is wrong. We're talking about density, not size. Hamilton has a high-density corridor that's suitable for LRT. That's the point.

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By blowing smoke (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 01:22:26 in reply to Comment 70621

There just are not enough bodies to make LRT a viable option. The only other city with a population of under 1,000,000 to have LRT was either Edmonton or Calgary or maybe even both. They were closer to that mark than we are and in fact have now surpassed that mark. On top of that both cities are the major city in a very big area, the destination for many many people. Hamilton is far from that. LRT in this little city just does not make any sense.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2011 at 07:15:58 in reply to Comment 70794

That's flat-out wrong. A large number of cities have built successful LRT systems when they had populations around 500,000 - including Edmonton.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted October 17, 2011 at 19:37:21

"Long-term planning is not about making long-term decisions, it is about understanding the future consequences of today's decisions. ~ Gary Ryan Blair

For those who are interested in further exploring as to why our cities will never attain the compact walkable form of European cities - it may be worth recognizing our propensity for celebrating heavy linear footprints of top-down planning which results in acronyms such as "BLAST".

Here is another example of this, much like our B-Line footprint: LRT plan for Hurontario/Main Street between Port Credit and downtown Brampton - which too is a bold linear swath across communities, essentially connecting two extreme points, resulting in a simplistic solution to complex issues of urban growth and sustainability.

Why do we deploy new solutions to re-manufacture old problems? Maybe, is it because of what is continued to be taught in our planning schools? or is it because of what we have come to expect of 'new and improved planning solutions'?

Cutting such bold simplistic linear swaths across regional landscapes in the name of greening and sustainability could only originate from top-down thinking -- which flies against the notion of polycentricity,(1), and emergence which are the building blocks of contemporary regional growth and good urban design patterns which are essentially evolutionary in nature.

While the instincts to draw such bold linear transit swaths may be noble gestures towards achieving progress, it is the cavalier, cock-sureness of future consequences that is alarming.

Blair's quote above, is a call to urban enthusiasts in Hamilton for understanding the true significance of long-term planning and the critical importance of 'future consequences' in creating long-term urban networks.

Blair also says:

"Values lay the groundwork for your goals; Goals lead to the fulfillment of your mission; Your mission leads to the realization of your life's work — your legacy."

What are the values that drives our push for LRT?

Being green or sustainable is not a value - it is a legacy, which is an outcome of a value.

Seeking compact urban forms is not a value - it is only a goal. What is it that drives this goal?

Do we truly seek compact cities in North America? Our propensity to cut large linear swaths across our landscape be they highways or LRT tracks, and to celebrate such designs as innovations clearly tell us that we do not.

Our heavy designs and the resulting heavy urban form merely reflect the values we cherish.

The next time you see an LRT in Dresden gracefully meandering thru its compact urban form, you may recognize the value behind the track design on which it moves with easy and confidence. And possibly even discover that such compact city forms are a result of societal values and not an outcome of design goals.

Mahesh P. Butani

LRT planning and compact urban forms:

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-10-17 20:20:59

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By chatty cathy (anonymous) | Posted October 18, 2011 at 08:19:33

Is there any way we can change Mahesh's user name to TL;DR

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 18, 2011 at 09:19:49 in reply to Comment 70642

Is there any way we can change Mahesh's user name to TL;DR

Sure. Just as we can change the system so that people with absolutely nothing to say...who in fact aren't just guilty of being intellectually lazy, but are also psychological reprobates...aren't provided a venue in which to express their nothingnesses.

All those in favour...?

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