We need to first decide what our needs are, our future goals for the city, and the lengths we will go to capitalize on the particular tool we have chosen.
By Chris Higgins
Published September 22, 2014
This morning, an article that I was interviewed for was published in the Spectator. I would like to take an opportunity to expand on a few of the thoughts in that piece here and hopefully generate some discussion.
The case of light rail transit (LRT) in Hamilton is an interesting one. Even the timeline is peculiar. Hamilton has long had plans for rapid transit, some of which have come internally, and some externally.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s this centred around a plan from outside to use Hamilton as a host for new transit technology being developed in Ontario that would have resulted in a line from Limeridge Mall to the CBD using the same trains as the TTC's Scarborough RT.
After rejecting the proposal, plans shifted to a GO ALRT project from the Government of Ontario using the same trains, but this too didn't materialize.
Locally, the 1984 Urban Transit Services plan proposed BRT as a cost-effective substitute for LRT along the east-west (now B-Line) corridor in the lower city. Twelve years later, the City's 1996 Regional Transportation Review plan again highlighted a need for BRT along three corridors.
The decision to pursue LRT over BRT arose externally out of the MoveOntario 2020 plan unveiled by the governing Liberal Party of Ontario prior to the provincial election of 2007, which identified the potential for two light rail lines to form the backbone of the City of Hamilton's BLAST rapid transit network.
In response, the City of Hamilton embarked on an extensive planning process for rapid transit with an emphasis on light rail, beginning with two feasibility studies, the launch of a simultaneous land use planning process designed to promote transit-oriented development along key transportation corridors in the city, and an extensive public consultation process to build a groundswell of support for the project.
Based on these activities and a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Metrolinx, the City of Hamilton was awarded $3 million to plan the B-Line project to a stage of 30 percent design, considered 'implementation-ready' when funding is made available.
What excitement! It seemed like something would actually be built. But fast-forward another seven years, and we are still debating the merits of route choice, technology, and cost.
Now speaking personally, I firmly believe the LRT project would be great for this city in terms of reinforcing market trends that are already underway, such as promoting new development and moving a large number of people in an efficient and more sustainable manner.
But LRT, just like BRT, is a tool for a job, and there are certain conditions under which this tool can maximize its impact.
This is how I approached researching a project of mine, the paper Light Rail, Land Use Change, and Image-Led Planning: A Comparative Review and Critical Assessment of Hamilton, Ontario [PDF], which I used as a discussion piece at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC.
The paper itself is a natural offshoot from the 2012 MITL report The North American Light Rail Experience [PDF] where, as the title suggests, we looked at what works and what hasn't related to LRT in 30 cities across North America. [You can read the RTH article on that report.]
One outcome from that was a literature review of the six prerequisites to inducing land use change in concert with a new rapid transit project, which we have published [PDF] in the Journal of Public Transportation to help planners and policymakers in other cities.
Briefly, those prerequisites are:
Interested readers are encouraged to see the Journal of Public Transportation paper [PDF] for longer definitions of each.
Quite simply, if large-scale land use development and revitalization is to happen, experiences in other cities make clear that these factors must be present. There is, however, no information on which are most important. Nevertheless, their extensions to real life flow naturally.
Thinking in terms of land value increases and new development, for example, what it really comes down to is a simultaneous process of demand and supply: whether a particular area is a place that people would pay a premium to live in - because it offers savings in travel time to destinations they value access to, or they don't have to own a second car, or it features amenities and a built environment they are willing to pay for - and whether developers see the potential to make a profitable project in an area.
To return to Hamilton, I was always struck by one of the early documents [PDF] that supported the LRT project after 2007, noting that it would:
These are all worthy goals, and communicating them to the general public is crucial for building support for such a big project.
However, I was particularly interested in promises of new development and revitalization and increases in property values within station areas along the line, and the second paper explores these two issues in greater detail (using admittedly limited available data and a rudimentary analysis).
To me, assuming present conditions, the development and revitalization aspect of the justifications for LRT are weakest in the eastern lower city, and stronger in the west.
But I want to make this absolutely clear: my focus on land development should not detract from the point that LRT is also very good at moving people, and there is a large population in the eastern and western lower city that could concretely benefit from improved transit service.
Of course, a proper BRT system with dedicated lanes can also move large numbers of people. The major benefits of LRT versus BRT are in the land development aspect, with trains tending to elicit stronger and more positive feedback from individuals and developers, but the magnitude of this difference and the sources of it remain unclear.
To some degree this is irrational as BRT and LRT offer very comparable levels of transit service, but there is a large body of evidence that shows people simply prefer trains to buses.
In the end, that leaves us with a discussion we need to have, one that is hopefully technical and unemotional in nature. If rapid transit is a tool, be it LRT or BRT, we need to first decide what our needs are, our future goals for the city, and the lengths we will go to capitalize on the particular tool we have chosen.
Is rapid transit in Hamilton about moving the largest number of people in a fast manner at minimal cost? If so, pick a mode and build it.
What if we are truly interested in something more, such as land use development and reinforcing recent trends of lower-city revitalization?
I would argue both modes can achieve such goals, though I do not profess to know the difference in outcomes between each.
Speaking just in terms of land development, what is clear to me is that neither mode can, in and of themselves, overcome more fundamental issues affecting the urban land market in particular areas.
Still, there are measures we can take to help maximize the land development potential of whichever plan we choose.
Changing King and Main Streets back to two-way travel was incorporated into Metrolinx's Benefits Cost Analysis of the B-Line, but this was one of the first casualties of the local transit planning process.
It should seriously be considered as one of the strongest tools for making transit a competitive option for travel across the city, which in turn bestows a 'locational advantage' for land around transit stations, increases property values, and makes new development more attractive.
Likewise, transit-oriented development incentives within future station areas can also help. Land use planning in advance of LRT was an important driver of making local conditions more receptive to rapid transit when Phoenix's LRT line was eventually built.
With regards to the other 'prerequisites', there are certainly a number of opportunities for development on vacant or under-utilized parcels and the local economy continues to see population and employment growth, which should only accelerate as the rest of the Toronto region builds out to the Greenbelt urban growth boundary.
As for social and physical conditions, these too will continue to evolve as time passes and the lower city as a whole re-orients from its heavy-industrial past.
While considerably less 'sexy' than arguments of being anti- or pro-LRT, or whether one is a champion of BRT, these are very important things that should be considered now as methods for meeting our obligations for intensification under the Government of Ontario's regional growth planning and truly getting Hamilton 'Rapid Ready' for whatever mode we choose to invest in.
What is encouraging in all of this is that we seem to have agreed that some form of rapid transit is indeed required. Now it is just a matter of deciding internally and organically as a City how we proceed with this reality.
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