Special Report: Light Rail

Chris Higgins Sets the Record Straight on Cable 14's Trending

The lead author of a much-abused LRT study makes clear what the report actually says about whether LRT is a good idea for Hamilton.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 15, 2014

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of joining the inaugural episode of Cable 14's new current affairs, program, Trending. (Hamilton Cable subscribers can watch the show online.) Hosted by Mike Fortune, Trending has a conversational format that encourages in-depth discussion rather than combative debate and cross-talk.

Screen-capture from 'Trending' episode 1, aired live on Cable 14 on Thursday, October 9, 2014. From left: Ryan McGreal, Chris Higgins, host Mike Fortune, Martinus Geleynse and Jim Dunn
Screen-capture from 'Trending' episode 1, aired live on Cable 14 on Thursday, October 9, 2014. From left: Ryan McGreal, Chris Higgins, host Mike Fortune, Martinus Geleynse and Jim Dunn

The topic for this episode was Hamilton's rapid transit debate: light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT) and the ongoing confusion over technologies, routes, funding and viability.

I was accompanied on the program with: Chris Higgins, McMaster PhD student in geography and the lead author of a few reports on LRT in Hamilton; Martinus Geleynse, published of urbanicity and organizer of urban bus tours; and Jim Dunn, professor of Social Science at McMaster specializing in socioeconomic inequalities in health in urban areas.

The program was an hour-long and included live calls from viewers, and I think it did a nice job of covering the various questions and concerns regarding Hamilton's rapid transit plan: LRT vs. BRT, east-west vs. north-south, how the investment will benefit various parts of the city, and so on.

I would like to draw particular attention to some of Chris Higgins' comments, since his 2013 article has been misused by LRT opponents to claim that LRT doesn't make sense for Hamilton.

Higgins is a responsible academic and his arguments are consequently nuanced and careful. Yet he leaves no doubt about his own preference for LRT, or his understanding that his report is not an argument against LRT but rather a "call to action" to support LRT with the right planning policites to ensure success.

Comparing LRT and BRT:

The LRT/BRT thing is, it's a decision over what vehicles you want to run on a dedicated right-of-way. BRT done properly - which is not reflected in the B-Line today - BRT done properly would be essentially building an LRT without the tracks, and instead of running a train we run a bus right down those dedicated lanes.

So we're still losing two lanes of King Street, and I guess Main when it goes around McMaster. But otherwise, it really just comes down to either tracks and trains, or is it a bus? And it provides very similar levels of service.

It really comes down to the X factor that's behind a train versus a bus. And from my research, there's no question that people kind of subliminally, or overtly, prefer trains for many things. There's a certain stigma attached with buses and that kind of bleeds into the other elements of why LRT has better city-building capacities.

Getting our fair share:

I'm a Hamilton taxpayer and I'm an Ontario taxpayer, and I think people are getting confused about the differences between how this is all coming to shape. The LRT project comes from Ontario taxes, and right now we are all paying in Hamilton.

We're paying for an LRT line in Waterloo, a new subway line in Toronto, Ottawa's LRT, for example, and I think people should recognize that and try to take their piece from that.

We're paying all this money and you should definitely try to get something out of that, other than - the most possible, I would say.

The choice before us:

The LRT/BRT thing comes down to: what's the gift that you want from the Province? Because the Province really is dangling two sets of keys in front of you. One is the Cadillac and one is a Chevy Cavalier, we'll say.

And if Hamilton wants to be the noble city in the region and say that we'll accept the lesser of the two because it costs less, then good on us, I guess, but I, personally I'm going for the more expensive option of the two.

Saying Yes to LRT:

If we were to say Yes LRT right now, it's not going to get built tomorrow, it's, I don't know, a ten-year project maybe. You might wish in ten years' time that you had said yes to this now.

What his report says:

If anything, my research that was about Hamilton is a call to action, where if we really want to get rapid ready, put those land use incentives in place now. That's what Phoenix has done: they put these incentives in place before the LRT line started even construction.

And then sure enough, what happens is you build the LRT line and there's already a big proportion of population there that's ready to support it on day one. And that's something we should be doing today, in my opinion.

Places To Grow:

The Province is mandating that a certain percentage of growth has to be built in infill development, and that starts next year. So the city is going to have to be building in the existing city boundary, and LRT was always envisioned as a way to really facilitate that. As we're required to add density through the Province, LRT is a great way of moving people in a high density corridor.

Accommodating seniors:

When you're old, for example, and it's come time where you can't drive but life expectancies are now much longer than they used to be, and if you don't have a licence, maybe a condo development is really up your alley. And that's, one of the biggest markets for condos in Toronto is that cohort right now, planning ahead.

The current B-Line experience:

That's really what the prime problem along the B-Line is right now: the buses are full every day. I ride the B-Line to McMaster University every day and it's becoming a miserable experience, frankly. And BRT and LRT can help alleviate that problem.

What Buffalo did wrong:

Buffalo has the most expensive LRT built in North America, hands down, becuase most of it is a subway and the cost per kilometre was something like $90 million per kilomere of LRT. Buffalo approached LRT as it was going to be the magic bullet that was going to save the region.

But they built it at a time when there was a large population exodus from central Buffalo to the suburbs. Buffalo's never really recovered. The line does not attract that many people and it kind of exists as a bit of a white elephant. It's doing fairly well for how long it is.

LRT as a 'magic bullet':

If people think that LRT in Hamilton is going to be the cure-all to all of our problems, like Detroit's People Mover, for example, we're all kidding ourselves. When that newspaper article came out a few weeks ago that I was interviewed in and said, 'LRT is not going to be the magic bullet for Hamilton' - well, no, hopefully it's not. It shouldn't be. We should not be thinking of it that way.

My apologies for not quoting from Jim Dunn and Martinus Geleynse, who also marshalled many salient and insightful evidence-based arguments in support of LRT. I intend to rectify my negligence in a subsequent upcoming article.

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 Brandon (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 13:57:57

Don't forget that it's a Cadillac with the maintenance costs of a Chevy Cavalier, or a Cavalier with the maintenance costs of a Cadillac.

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By wha-huh? (anonymous) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 14:04:26 in reply to Comment 105388

whas sat?

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By RobF (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 14:13:11 in reply to Comment 105388

Yes this distinction seems to get lost in the mix. It makes little sense to build BRT instead of LRT with the provincial capital funding being promised. Not when the operating costs which Hamilton taxpayers are responsible for and cannot borrow to cover are higher for BRT. The B-Line LRT is the clear choice in our situation. The alternative, which Brad Clark is supporting now, is essentially to do nothing on this file.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-10-15 14:13:26

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 14:40:37

"We're paying for an LRT line in Waterloo..."

Here in Hamilton, where we’re talking about 100% funding from the provincial government, this sounds like Waterloo Region’s LRT must be provincially funded. That’s not the case: a third of the funding is coming from the provincial government; another third from the federal government; and the remainder from the Regional Municipality of Waterloo. The Municipality had initially hoped for a larger contribution from the Province, but had to cover the shortfall.

It’s unclear to say that “we” are paying for an LRT in Waterloo. Part of the funding is coming from the coffers of other levels of government, and I guess it’s true that taxpayers in Hamilton contribute to those. But a significant portion of the project is being funded at the municipal level.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 14:41:06 in reply to Comment 105388

I guess it's one of these

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 15:22:48 in reply to Comment 105393

Ditto for Ottawa.

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By GTHA (anonymous) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 15:29:23 in reply to Comment 105396

In the GTHA, this is the case - Mississauga and Toronto (and others are 100%). If we don't take the investment, we still pay for others rapid transit. To do this is INSANE and as a political ploy, it shows shear dishonestly in Clark. The man will say, do, lie, contort, whatever it takes to get elected. Not the "Change we Need"

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 15:37:54

I can't watch the show (Bell subscriber), so I'm curious to know if Chris Higgins was asked how it felt to be linked – erroneously, it would seem – to Brad Clark's reasoning to change his mind on LRT and now advocate so-called "flexible BRT."

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By MattM (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 15:38:30 in reply to Comment 105393

Regardless of how much the province is actually paying for those projects, the point still rings true.

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 15:51:50 in reply to Comment 105398

It is what it is, which is politics. I am sure his mind was made up as soon as his mayoral competitors supported it. You need a wedge issue to define yourself with. And it has become clear to me that it's not even about LRT or BRT in this election, it's fighting about whether our existing street network will be maintained. i.e. you couldn't even give some people in this city $1 Billion in provincial investment to give up their one-way streets.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 16:13:57 in reply to Comment 105394

No, that's a Cavalier dressed up as a Cadillac.

It's a poor analogy that's being stretched to it's limit.

The problem is that LRT costs more to build than BRT (capital costs) but costs less to maintain (operating costs).

Since the province has said it will cover the capital costs and leave us with the operating costs, Brad Clark's comment that we can only afford BRT doesn't make any sense, since it'll have a higher cost than LRT.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 18:17:23 in reply to Comment 105400

Bang on. I've been saying it for years and despite being critized by some, will continue to say that the more TO migrants moving here who actually know how enjoyable city living can be, the better off we'll be. The small group of Hamilton folks who understand it simply hasn't been large enough to make a city wide impact. We're slowly getting there tho.

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 19:17:15 in reply to Comment 105400

And it has become clear to me that it's not even about LRT or BRT in this election…

I'd agree with that, although I'd go further and suggest the reason why there's such resonance with LRT being a wedge issue is it reflects the growing class divisions that many cities are facing but Hamilton uniquely so. LRT is continuously described as a "toy" or gift, unnecessary at that, to the downtown. It reflects the unease of, as Richard Florida describes it, "a missing middle of industrial jobs, [and] middle-income neigbhourhoods [that] have begun to disappear from our cities and metros." They are getting something, and we are losing.

Well, at least that's my theory, based on the super-charged rhetoric around what really should be academic arguments. And somewhere client scientists are shaking their heads over and over.

Comment edited by jeff on 2014-10-15 19:17:33

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 21:04:57 in reply to Comment 105404

The reasoning seems to go like this:

highways all around the suburbs are an 'investment'. None of those residents say "we shouldn't build these because they aren't used by the entire city". Transit is for poor people with no jobs. Therefore LRT = a toy, and a waste of money because why should poor people have good transpo options when they aren't contributing anything to society anyhow.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 21:05:20

Wow. What a piece of...television entertainment. (I could reference it with a decidedly undecorous -my word- phrase such as a 'circle-j@$%', but I won't. Sorta. Kinda.)

It was like an infomercial. An infomercial with not just four participants reading from the same script, but a 'moderator' who couldn't possibly be any more obsequious- Hmmm... Actually, given what I saw, I bet he could.

Very reminiscent of the tenor and substance of this election campaign's 'debates' (for the most part): Pablum. (I think Kool-aid needs to be retired.)

Preaching to the converted. To the Loyal Cadre of pro-LRTers. Certainly not to the people who are going to vote against it by voting for the candidate who ain't yours...namely those in districts outside Wards 1 & 2. But this is an audience that nobody seems to want to engage with.

Here's a suggestion: Instead of having a stacked panel whose purpose is to shine a very bright light on The Shiny Thing Capable of Transforming a City, how about actually having a dialogue with people who don't wear the same jersey at you do. Unless of course, you're not actually interested in engagement, but in feeling the righteous glee that listening to your thoughts coming out of someone else's mouth provides.

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-10-15 21:06:40

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By higgicd (registered) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 22:09:20 in reply to Comment 105406

I agree. While the show accepted calls, tweets, and emails from any and all, they should have just cut to The Sun News guy for some really constructive dialogue that I'm sure would have bridged the divide between us.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted October 15, 2014 at 22:33:10 in reply to Comment 105406

There are no BRT supporters. That`s a waste of money (as Ottawa has found out) and only leads to more costs for the city of Hamilton with none of the city building benefits. There`s a reason why most, if not all experts, support LRT. We arent inventing it. We know it works in MANY other places, and have the benefit to adopt their best practices.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted October 16, 2014 at 07:36:06 in reply to Comment 105405

That is my impression as well. That mindset is just as obsolete as the ICEs they're driving. I tell you truthfully, having the choice to live comfortably and peacefully with no car, is worth more to me than the car.

The problem includes, but is bigger than Hamilton's downtown. The other day in physio, overhearing background chat, downtown Hamilton came up and was spoken of pejoratively as though it was a matter of course. However a Burlington mayoral candidate also wants to cancel bike lanes because they're ineffective. Meanwhile I sit on my balcony and watch with my own eyes schoolkids and adults use the on road bike lanes (at least in ward 2 of burlington where the network is a somewhat decent beginning). And Europe is beginning tests of hydrogen-electric trains, and we are still banging our heads against the same wall, struggling to even string some wires over some track, having to constantly debate to exhaustion just to maintain the improvements we do have and not slip backwards into 60s motormania hell.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-10-16 07:38:34

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By LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle (registered) - website | Posted October 17, 2014 at 12:09:26

It staggers me that the concept of fully-funded inner city transportation should even be up for debate. I've lived here my whole life, and I remember back when HSR bus service was still considered enviable and viable for everyone. I could be wrong, because these are anecdotal points, but our streets seemed quieter, our students happier and our attitude towards car culture didn't seem as ingrained as it is today, and this was back in the day when every guy on my block was outside tuning his Charger or applying Bondo to his Mustang. It's a weird irony that, in an age when cars aren't as mythologized as they were when I was growing up, that our attitude towards getting out of them and walking, cycling or riding public transit is seen as an almost unnecessary necessary evil.

I know I'm short on original ideas on this, but I think what we need is a comprehensive re-education program to teach everyone why Complete Streets and LRT aren't just some fantasy dreamed up by inner city intelligentsia to take away their easy 'commute'. It could be a combination of posters, brochures and short videos, using smart infographics and simple animations with voiceovers to help show everyone how the changes aren't that radical, aren't just pie-in-the-sky thinking, and could really revitalize not just the downtown core, but the entire east/west route through Wards 1 through 5 (for starters), if only we'd wrap our brains around the benefits of a comprehensive, efficient, comfortable public transit system.

One of the key points that has to be addressed is this prevalent attitude towards the downtown core. The outer boroughs seem to think they can function just fine without one, failing of course to realize the long term effects of a rotting inner city. Blaming amalgamation for the higher taxes and refusing to cope with the reality of our city solves nothing. We can't turn back the clock, and if we really look at the sequence of events, we'll see that there's no point in trying. It's not possible to undo all of the things that have been done to us and still take care of the myriad problems we currently have. The damage is done. Time to move forward for a change.

And I agree with Chris et al about LRT NOT being a silver bullet investment. It shouldn't be. Silver Bullets and White Knights are faerie tales, and we really need to get our heads out of the Disney books and start looking at what makes modern cities flourish, including macro and micro economies and organic growth. I'm tired of the way Hamilton loves to put all of its eggs in one basket. It's that thinking that got us tied to the steel mills and the juggernaut industrial sector and high index pollution and a worn out inner city in the first place. We have a chance to move past that era now, to get started on building a new city, with a new identity, new relationships, and new economy, but we can't do any of it if we keep looking over our shoulders fondly at a misunderstood, bygone era that will never truly return again. The global economy won't allow it.

The funny thing is, too many people, certain candidates included, think that Hamilton, is, was and always will be an industrial city first and foremost. We got that way after decades of being other things. Study your Hamilton history and you'll find we were once the centre of court justice in Southern Ontario, and then the transit AND electricity capital of the region, and a bustling near-metropolis of trade and consumerism, as well as a thriving manufacturing city. That changed slowly, and part of the problem is, we spent too long bowing at the twin altars of steel and the automotive industry. We've forgotten our true identity, which was to always be on the cusp of growth and technology. We have a chance to reclaim that, and to make our city all these pleasing platitudes we've heaped upon ourselves recently, if we can just get rid of this knee-jerk reaction to progress and evolution/innovation.

Heck, LRT isn't even reinventing the wheel: It works almost everywhere it's been implemented, when it's done right (which we need to consider carefully ourselves). LRT, Two-Way Conversion, Complete Streets, tax incentives and reduced red tape for small business operators, and yes, Brad, fixing our roads and sidewalks... these things can and will all contribute to the revitalization of our city as a whole. No one is going to come to Stoney Creek Mountain or even Ancaster for a day trip if the majority of the City of Hamilton is dessicated by willful neglect. But if you fix up the heart of the city, all of the city's attractions will become more accessible and desirable attractions for everyone. This is how other cities function and thrive. Just insisting that it has to be a Hamilton-made solution isn't going to get anything done. Of course it will be a Hamilton=-made solution. Only we can make it.

And only we can stop it stone dead. Choose.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted October 17, 2014 at 21:47:13 in reply to Comment 105433

A thousand words? On the Internet? Render that down to a third the length and I'll have a read.

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By LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle (registered) - website | Posted October 18, 2014 at 11:01:58 in reply to Comment 105439

You counted? I'm almost flattered. But I'm also serious, so here's my tl;dr version:

Saying no to LRT isn't an option. We need it, and we're paying for it whether we want to or not. And no, LRT alone won't save us, but then, nothing and no one else will, either. We need to get it together as a city and reclaim our status as innovators and community builders. We need to unlearn old prejudices and learn what it takes to make a city thrive in a recessed, diversified economy. And we REALLY need to stop listening to talking heads that feed into our fear, angst and reflexive dread of encouraging and being seen as anything other than blue collar shmoes. Historically, we have been--and could still be--so much more.

(132 words)

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted October 18, 2014 at 11:21:13 in reply to Comment 105440

Your comment was well stated and raised very true points. I'm glad you are not discouraged by someone who probably is having difficulty reading due to too much awesomesauce :)

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By Spock (anonymous) | Posted October 19, 2014 at 06:28:39 in reply to Comment 105408

"There are no BRT supporters."

Really? I'd say otherwise.

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By Refreshing (anonymous) | Posted October 19, 2014 at 06:30:57 in reply to Comment 105406

That was refreshing. There's far too much back-slapping and self-congratulation on this site over how they feel they're the smartest guys in the room and the people who disagree "just don't get it" or are knowingly ignoring it.

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By Fake name (anonymous) | Posted October 20, 2014 at 09:41:45 in reply to Comment 105446

You misunderstand - everybody who says they want BRT really just wants the whole "improving transit" thing to go away. At most they want a few more empty buses to the suburbs.

Here's a simple test: if you want to remove the bus-lane, you don't want BRT.

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By Scotty (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2014 at 20:30:51 in reply to Comment 105451

No. I don't. YOU misunderstand. I know what BRT is, as do others in this city, and it's a viable option. Please don't try to lecture me on what you think I don't know.

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By no name (anonymous) | Posted November 13, 2014 at 16:25:41

Hamilton realistically will never get an LRT because of the funding issues and political issues in this city. It's just not realistic and we need to focus more on other issues such as housing and poverty. LRT just is not fit witin the understanding of Hamilton. Toronto for sure because it is a large city. Hamilton is large but if we were to build it it would be impossible. Too many issues such as widening the road, traffic lights, etc.

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