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.
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