The next few years may just vindicate those elements of the Buffalo LRT that were on the money after all, while drawing sharper attention to the corresponding policy decisions LRT needs to be successful.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 25, 2013
this article has been updated
Well over 400 cities around the world have light rail transit (LRT) systems, and the overwhelming majority are successful, integral parts of their host city's transportation infrastructure. Even as I write this, many more lines are in various stages of planning and construction.
But outliers are more interesting than common cases and so we often hear about Buffalo, the poster child for how to do LRT wrong. It has served as both a cautionary tale for LRT supporters and as a bogeyman for its opponents and detractors.
Buffalo made almost every mistake in the book when they built their LRT thirty years ago. They designed a system that mostly runs underground like a subway, except downtown, where it runs at street level on a pedestrian-only plaza (recently converted to accommodate cars again). They did this amid a decades-long cascade of residents and businesses pouring out of the city.
If that wasn't bad enough, the City also failed to change its anti-urban zoning and regulatory by-laws. That meant any investors or builders who might want to leverage the line for transit-oriented development were entangled in rules mandating low density, single-use zoning, suburban setbacks, parking requirements - all the well-known hobgoblins that have sabotaged and frustrated urban development over the postwar era of suburbanization.
Yet today, even Buffalo's benighted transit system is getting credit for a wave of urban reinvestment. An article posted recently in Buffalo News reports that a new medical campus employing 17,500 people has renewed interest in transit-oriented development.
As a result, at least $91 million has or is soon to be invested in real estate projects - primarily lofts and apartments - near the subway stations. The city hopes to approve 800 to 900 new housing units along the Main Street subway spine by 2016, with as many as 2,000 to 3,000 more in later years, according to Brendan R. Mehaffy, the Brown administration's executive director of strategic planning.
"The demand is there," he said. "On a fairly regular basis, we have housing builders come to start taking advantage of what's happening."
And while they now see Metro Rail finally fulfilling its transit and development potential, transit officials, real estate developers, city officials and those guiding the city's burgeoning medical industry all agree the development will spawn an urban lifestyle. It is also possible many Buffalonians may choose not to own cars, they say.
"There's a change in attitude where people don't want to drive all the time," Mehaffy said. "And won't it be easy to just hop on a train and go to work, Canalside or the theater?
"There are people who will want to live in Buffalo and in an urban environment," he added. "That's what we're creating."
Sound familiar? It should - it's the same pattern of reurbanization that has been stirring in cities all across North America over the past decade or so. Several interrelated factors are enticing people back toward city centres:
When Buffalo built its LRT, it was a bet against the overwhelming momentum of suburbanization, undertaken without any complementary land use planning that might have mitigated the suburban exodus. Today, the land use planners and transportation planners are working together to ensure that LRT has the best opportunity to shape the investments around it.
It's still early to conclude that Buffalo's LRT was a good idea ahead of its time, but the next few years may just vindicate those elements of the Buffalo LRT that were on the money after all, while drawing sharper attention to the corresponding policy decisions LRT needs to be successful.
An encouraging note for Hamilton: our B-Line LRT plan, which Council just unanimously endorsed for submission to Metrolinx, the provincial transit coordinating body, has been designed from the start in close cooperation with compatible land use planning. The line will run at street level on dedicated lanes, and detailed design charettes at each node in the transit network mean the communities around the B-Line have active involvement in planning how the line will transform the lower city.
Meanwhile, unlike Buffalo in the 1980s, the populations of Hamilton's lower city neighbourhoods are stable and in some cases - particularly the downtown core - already growing again.
In short, we have learned and are already applying the lessons from Buffalo in what mistakes to avoid. In the next few years, we may also have an opportunity to apply lessons from Buffalo in how to correct those mistakes.
(h/t to @philipquick for noticing the article.)
Update: this article originally said the line runs underground downtown, which is incorrect. You can jump to the changed paragraph.
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