Special Report: Light Rail

Eight Reasons Everyone Should Support Light Rail

Light rail isn't just good for riders; society as a whole benefits from fast, clean, convenient transit.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 27, 2007

Everyone should support light rail, even people who don't necessarily plan to use it. Light rail is a true public good, a civic infrastructure that helps everyone, not just its direct beneficiaries.

Here are eight reasons everyone in the city should choose light rail over glorified buses.

8. Cheaper to Operate

Light rail costs about half as much to operate as buses - and that's at current fuel prices, which are expected to quadruple over the next decade and a half, according to the city's Peak Oil report.

Since the province (and possibly the feds) will be paying most of the capital costs, it makes sense to pick a system that's easier on the local property tax base. Even Lloyd Ferguson and Dave Mitchell should be able to get behind this.

7. More Capacity

In addition to a lower operating cost, light rail carries many more people than buses. This maximizes the benefit of the original investment and has better long-term potential to scale up as ridership continues to grow.

6. Less Traffic

Even with dedicated lanes, light rail reduces overall traffic because it carries people a lot more efficiently than an equivalent car lane. That means you benefit from light rail even if you still choose to drive.

5. More New Riders

It's good that light rail can carry more people than buses, because it's much better at attracting new riders out of their cars. Light rail is the best at generating a net increase in ridership (and a matching net decrease in driving).

If we're going to spend the money, we should make sure we get the most bang for our buck.

4. Cleaner Air

Light rail is quiet and produces no emissions at the tailpipe, and can be powered using renewable energy sources (wind, solar, hydro). Even using non-renewable energy, electric rail is several times more efficient than internal combustion at moving people around.

Light rail also takes more cars off the road than buses, which further reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas production.

3. Compatible Land Use

Light rail can go anywhere: on the road, on the sidewalk, across a plaza, in the air, underground, up the escarpment, and so on. Light rail fits well in an urban environment and easily shares space with other uses.

Light Rail is compatible with cars and pedestrians
Light Rail is compatible with cars and pedestrians

2. More Investment

Developers absolutely love light rail. It tells them the city has a long-term commitment to servicing a community.

They are also aware that light rail attracts many more voluntary riders than buses and that proximity to a light rail station is a major incentive to homebuyers.

That's why light rail lines regularly generate billions of dollars in new private investment around the lines. As the transportation director for Kinosha, Wis., put it, "Developers don't write cheques for buses."

1. More Intensification

Because light rail attracts so much investment, it leads dirrectly to intensification around the line, a natural fit with the city's long-term growth strategy.

Main Street could enjoy a dense, mixed streetwall of five- and six-storey buildings with retail and offices below and apartments and condos above.

If the city is smart and recognizes that light rail means less driving, it can even eliminate parking requirements for new buildings adjacent to the line.

That will further reduce the barrier to new investment and will allow more intensive uses on a smaller footprint.

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 Dariusz (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2007 at 13:45:48

Hi Ryan,

This is great, but it's difficult to deal with the fact that people (especially our esteemed local politicians) actually NEED convincing that rail is a better solution than bus lanes.

What is making us hold on to buses in large urban areas like Hamilton and Kitchener? You don't have to go to Germany or France to understand that in cities rail moves more people more quickly than buses ever will; just go to Toronto and get from North York to Davisville by bus, then by subway, and compare the experience.

Thanks for this article!


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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2007 at 22:49:53

Hi Dariusz,

Thanks for your kind words.

I can't speak to the political environment in Kitchener, but in Hamilton, my understanding is that the mayor here, Fred Eisenberger, 'gets it' when it comes to light rail, but has the uphill challenge of overcoming the inertia of a local government that has been fixated on buses for decades.

The previous mayor had a my-way-or-the-highway approach to policy (to which the Hamilton Spectator's former editor-in-chief said that politics in Hamilton was a "blood sport"), and the current mayor wants to try a different style of government, one that brings the various parties on-side instead of ruling via diktat.

Unfortunately, that means he tends to come off soft on the issues. However, by taking his time, doing his homework, and making a case that people can get behind, he may be able to succeed in getting others to support his vision.

After all, he's only one vote on city council; that means he has to find some way of appealing to the Maria Pearsons, Lloyd Fergusons, and Dave Mitchells who have much different values and agendas than he does.

The nice thing about light rail is that you'd have to be an utterly myopic ideologue not to see its many benefits, especially since the province is offering to pick up most of the capital costs.

Even Councillor Ferguson should be able to see the benefit of a public investment that doesn't coerce behaviour (his stated objection to the anti-idling by-law and proposed pesticide by-law), has about a 15:1 return on investment, is great for business and even benefits people who still choose to drive, by reducing traffic congestion.

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By idlergear (anonymous) | Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:25:17

Where would it go to climb the escarpment?
Too bad the old rail line was converted to a cycling/walking path, an LRT here would have been ideal to move thousands of commuters each day.
Possibly a large volume system could go up and down where the steps go at Wentworth?

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2008 at 13:10:15

LRT can handle the grade of the claremont access.

Or if I had my way, we'd have a high capacity high speed gondola (or maybe even 2 or 3 of them) linking upper and lower lines, with gondola cars running pretty much every minute or less.

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