Special Report: Light Rail

Anti-LRT Letters Demonstrate Need for Public Engagement

With the imminent announcement of LRT funding, the first order of business for the City is to elevate the level of a public debate mired in fear and misinformation.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 25, 2015

With the imminent announcement of a Provincial light rail transit (LRT) funding commitment for Hamilton, the City quickly needs to re-form its rapid transit office - this time, preferably under the umbrella of the Planning and Economic Development Department.

Light Rail Transit rendering on King Street at Wellington
Light Rail Transit rendering on King Street at Wellington

The first order of business must be to elevate the level of public debate over LRT by providing good information in the face of fear and confusion.

Ever since the City fell silent on communicating with Hamiltonians about its LRT planning process in 2011, the public discourse has gradually slid into a miasma of knee-jerk opposition, misinformation and downright hokum.

Here is a quick review of the letters-to-the-editor that have been published in the Spectator this month.

A May 23, 2015 letter titled "Seize the transit opportunity" cites Hamilton's position as a potential "transit hub for southern Ontario" and then makes a bizarre non-sequitur: "City council cannot waste any more time or energy with the ridiculous idea of connecting McMaster University to Eastgate Mall with the LRT."

It suggests that Hamilton is being "defiant toward the province" without articulating what is "defiant" about a plan that the City developed in close consultation with Metrolinx and on which the Province is just about to make a funding commitment.

Another May 23 letter, this one titled "Everything old is new again", suggests that ride hailing services like UBER are similar to the old jitney cabs, and then adds, "Just like this LRT idea is so similar to that dear old HSR line. With very likely the same problems we had back in the '40s."

Of course, modern LRT is as different from a 1940s streetcar as a modern automobile is from a Chevrolet Fleetmaster. LRT vehicles are smooth, comfortable, accessible, fast and run on dedicated rights-of-way rather than in mixed traffic.

A letter from May 22, titled, "Better ways to spend $1 billion than LRT", claims, "The primary purpose of this new transit system is so that people can get between Eastgate Square and McMaster a little bit faster than they would on the current system that includes the very efficient B-Line buses."

Like so many naive critiques of LRT, it completely ignores the role of rapid transit in attracting and shaping new developments that make more efficient use of public infrastructure, boost property tax revenues, reduce the need for automobile lane capacity and attract young, creative professionals to live in the city.

A May 21 letter, titled "Use Queen's Park money for buses," continues in the vein of comparing modern LRT to traditional streetcars. It suggests, "Perhaps the newly-appointed citizen's panel might research council meeting minutes of the day as to why the LRT was destroyed."

We know why the streetcars were destroyed: Canada Coach Lines, a bus company, bought the Hamilton Street Railway and converted the streetcar lines to bus and trolleybus lines rather than invest in catching up on delayed streetcar maintenance. (The last trolleybus was decommissioned in the 1990s.)

Again, modern LRT is very different from World War II era streetcars - but even the streetcars of the time did not fail because they didn't work.

Those few cities that bucked the streetcar-abandonment trend across North America and Europe love their streetcars, and many of the cities that did remove their streetcars have since reversed course and invested in new streetcar and/or LRT systems.

Also, it scarcely needs to be pointed out that Hamilton will not get to decide how to spend whatever rapid transit capital the Province promises.

We cannot afford to make major policy and investment decisions based on ignorance, fear and knee-jerk opposition to change. The City and the Province alike have a serious responsibility to explain what modern LRT is and how it benefits the city and the region.

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 lettie (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 14:46:32

I wish they would build the bay to airport route first. It will open up way more opportunities than the other route by the time it would be done. We will need it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 22:13:51 in reply to Comment 111708

Someone proposed a dense condo/mixed-use project at Upper James and Stonechurch a couple of years ago. Built to the sidewalk, parking underground and behind, two 30-storey condo towers on top of retail stores.

Residents freaked out and now construction is set to begin on the revised plans for the corner. Big box store with GIANT parking lot.

No chance LRT would work out in NIMBY-ville before the B-Line route.

The next LRT line should be a run from Mohawk College to Limeridge Mall. Not Upper James

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 23:09:10 in reply to Comment 111721

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2015 at 10:48:06 in reply to Comment 111726

Wards 2 & 3 are lousy with one-ways. If that were a city-wide reality, they would have been revoked by 1957.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted May 26, 2015 at 08:15:36 in reply to Comment 111726

Only if you plug your ears when people explain WHY they don't want oneways.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 15:25:33 in reply to Comment 111708

"Airport passenger numbers aren't good enough, councillor says" (March 2015)
cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/airport-passenger-numbers-aren-t-good-enough-councillor-says-1.3006284

"Land piling up at Hamilton airport for runway extension that won’t fly" (April 2014)
sachem.ca/news/land-piling-up-at-hamilton-airport-for-runway-extension-that-wont-fly/

"Bus or Rail? Finding the right solution for Hamilton’s A‐Line Cost‐Benefit Analysis" (Dec 2011)
reports.strategicinterchange.ca/SI_A-Line_CBA.pdf

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 15:18:37 in reply to Comment 111708

The city started an "A-Line" bus service between the bay and the airport a few years ago, and it got very little use (far less than the B-Line). We already know the King St corridor (should've been Main st, but anyway) has enough demand to support the LRT right now.

The truth is that most of the south mountain was built for the car, and the people who choose to live that lifestyle won't ever use transit to the same extent as the core. That said, this city is so friggen divided, that maybe we should fast track a north-south rapid transit link so that mountain people can stop bitching that the money shouldn't go downtown.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 25, 2015 at 15:03:23 in reply to Comment 111708

One of the most important success criteria for LRT is existing base transit ridership and urban form. Right now the east-west B-Line has ridership that would put it among the busier North American LRT systems on opening day, whereas the A-Line ridership is still relatively low. The City needs to grow north-south ridership to ensure success on a phase 2 A-Line LRT.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 15:07:58

As someone who's always yammering on about 'engagement', here's my 2¢ towards the LRT conversation:

1) This video: https://youtu.be/swcMC1Talk0

2) This website: http://www.humantransit.org/

3) And most importantly, this book: https://hpl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/...

I've been talking up Jarrett Walker since I was pointed towards the video recently. I've been in touch with City Hall (specifically the Mayor's Chief of Staff), recommending that this book should be required reading for a) Council, b) all appropriate City staff, and c) all participants in any proposed Citizen Panel on Hamilton transit. (Oh, and d) everyone here.)

This book isn't just a fantastic primer about transit, it's also a refreshingly cogent contribution to the discussion that isn't mired in dogma. (I don't have the book in front of me right now, but in the closing sections of the book, Mr. Walker advises not getting stuck on the technology before deciding on what you want your city's transit to do.)

The Mayor should seriously consider taking some of the $140K ostensibly ear-marked for the Citizen Panel and bring Mr. Walker to town. To my mind, there is no better investment towards an authentic and genuine dialogue about Hamilton transit.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted May 25, 2015 at 23:14:14 in reply to Comment 111710

Jarrett Walker gives his great advice on technology on the second to last page of his book (page 226 in the chapter "Epilogue")

He indicates that it is important that the technologies selected must above all be useful in fitting the geometric patterns of the city and to serve them efficiently, thereby maximizing the personal mobility of the entire community.

Mr. Walker would indeed, I believe, bring greater clarity to the debate about transit in this city.

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By Wally (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2015 at 01:04:51

One thing I don't like about the current plan is the no thru traffic between Catherine and Walnut Streets. Though I do like the two way traffic flow between Wellington and Walnut.
It should be two way the whole way. The one way flow between The Delta and Traffic Circle makes no sense.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted May 26, 2015 at 06:17:12

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By LRT (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2015 at 09:38:19 in reply to Comment 111729

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 26, 2015 at 21:13:20

I was downtown at a coffee shop on King St this afternoon, and overheard the staff (one of whom was the/an owner, I think) talking about the LRT. The gist was "yeah, the building phase will be hell on business and might even break a few businesses, but we have to take the long view in this city for a change. The LRT will be good for downtown business, even if some downtown businesses suffer in the short term."

Warmed the cockles of my cautiously-optimistic heart.

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