Special Report: Light Rail

Buffalo LRT Enables Urban Reinvestment

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.

Urban Reinvestment

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By billn (registered) | Posted March 25, 2013 at 14:39:52

I have been a regular visitor to Buffalo over the last 25 years, and am in professional contact with the heritage preservation folks there. The changes I have seen, especially in the past 5 or 6 years, certainly support the claims above. Buffalo is reclaiming and rehabilitating its waterfront,encouraging brownfield redevelopment and industrial building retrofits, and has built new, downtown sports venues with little dedicated parking. (We were there last weekend as people arrived on foot from scattered private lots and by transit for a Sabre's game. Local pubs were full, and a very lively scene.) A lot of the redevelopment is being spurred by small business, often times setting up shop in heritage buildings, which create neighborhood hubs, from which more redevelopment radiates. The establishent of a coffee shop on a formerly sketchy corner is credited with beginning the transformation of the now trendy Chip & Del district. The retrofit by Ani Difranco of a beautiful stone church into a performing & gallery space, record company office and pub is inspiring. Areas like Allantown and Elmwood Village are now thriving, walkable urban neigborhoods.

The encouraging take-away for Hamilton is that Buffalo was much closer to rock bottom than we are, but even so all these tools that we have at our disposal are starting to make a positive difference there. The turn-around could be much quicker here.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted March 25, 2013 at 17:25:47

Nice post Ryan ... i juste hope more Hamilionians can see the light :)

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By Jesse (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2013 at 18:43:06

There are a couple inaccuracies in this article that I would like to correct, as a citizen of Buffalo.

Buffalo Metro Rail runs above ground in the downtown pedestrian plaza zone in the central business district. It goes underground as it leaves downtown and runs as a subway the rest of the way to its terminus at the city line. It was originally planned as the reverse - subway downtown and elevated rail in the rest of the city - but was changed late in the design process. This was done partly because of the high water table downtown, but also because of NIMBY issues, with residents protesting against elevated rail, which they viewed as unsightly.

The zoning code is a little more complex. There was a "Transit District Overlay" added that covers the blocks immediately surrounding the subway stations (not even the whole street), and removes some of the more egregious suburban form requirements. In practice, it frequently not been enforced, with variances given out to just about anyone who asks.

In the next year, we will be adopting a new comprehensive rewrite to the zoning code (dubbed the "Green Code") that puts a solid emphasis on walkability, mixed use business districts, and high quality urbanism. The drafts look fantastic, but of course it will all come down to enforcement. The difference of course, is that at least you will need variances in order to create sprawl-oriented designs, whereas now you have to jump through hoops to be allowed to create decent urban buildings.

I will say that even as truncated and underfunded as it is, Buffalo's rail line is a success. The single 6 mile rail line carries about 1/5 of the ridership of the entire regional (two county) public transportation system.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 25, 2013 at 19:27:44 in reply to Comment 87491

Thank you for your comment. I've updated the article to correct the error about the line running underground.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 00:56:53

Quick, someone scour the list of the other 400 LRT systems around the world and try to find one that hasn't been successful so local deadbeats have a strawman to keep pummelling.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 17:24:23 in reply to Comment 87494

so local deadbeats

Who are these "deadbeats?"

Is it really the archetypal Hamilton "deadbeat" that is beating the failed LRT strawman?

An odd (and bitter) post.

I would caution that differences in opinion and constructive criticism of these sorts of projects often makes the end product better so we need to be careful not to lump all those who may have legitimate questions and concerns about LRT into this tidy "strawman bashing deadbeat" pigeonhole you have created.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 18:21:47 in reply to Comment 87501

Thx for asking...absolutely no am I referring to people with questions and concerns. I was just attempting to poke fun at that crotchety group who opposes EVERYTHING other than their snow, their garbage and their street being perfectly maintained.

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By Sky (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 04:57:47

Thank you Ryan for the correction...Jason, and all of those who seem to 'vote' against Keily...
There is more than what meets the eye in any LRT and IMHO, until we figure out all of the snags, we are not doing or being the best we can be...
Why is it OK to have a BUS line (paid by the City? US) going up to Canada Bread et el; paid through our taxes???
I believe it is the "Core to Red Hill" ~from downtown to our newest/largest employer.
We will never get what we really deserve if there is favoritism on our Transit.
I would be thrilled if Tourists could ride up the 'other' mountain on our dollars and visit my business...Is that asking too much? (I believe it is, yet fair is fair; nes pas?)
Any thoughts?

Have an awesome day tomorrow everyone!
Danya

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By Sky (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 05:01:09

whooops n'est pas... :)

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted March 29, 2013 at 13:58:46

LRT in Buffalo has little or no affect on development there. Just like it had little or no affect on the decay there. Cities go through cycles and Buffalo went through a huge down swing as times changed just like every other heavy industry based city. Just like Hamilton. Now thankfully things are changing a little as the economics start to make sense things are starting to pick up a little. Things are starting to be built and renovated. Just like Hamilton. LRT had no role in the decline of Buffalo's core and no role in the slow recovery of the core. Both were destined to happen with the changes in society and times. Just like Hamilton. Our core is starting it's recovery too. Two way streets and LRT play no role in the recovery. There are a myriad of cities across North America going through exactly the same kind or recovery and the presence of one way streets (or two way streets) or LRT have absolutely no effect on the recovery. This of course will never stop the evangelists for either cause to stop pointing at the recoveries were they are present and claiming their sacred cause was the underling reason. If only it were so easy.


Let the downvoting begin.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted April 03, 2013 at 12:47:03 in reply to Comment 87568

Just saying "Two way streets and LRT play no role in the recovery" and expecting that to magically be true doesn't make it so.

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2013 at 13:00:35 in reply to Comment 87618

Trolls gonna troll.

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By roberthoren (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2013 at 20:37:40

also incorrect is the that the streets with above ground ltr have been converted already - not so. they are in the process of conversion. it will go on a block by block basis over the next few years. (because nothing happens fast here, however much i may love my city ;) ) the first block has began conversion already, and just one train station will be lost in the entire process due to redirection of traffic at theatre station.

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