Light Rail

A Time to Plan and a Time to Act

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 30, 2008

Yesterday, the Spectator published a truly perplexing short opinion piece by Cal Di Falco on the city's push for light rail, titled "A rail line to nowhere".

Rather than making a coherent argument on the basis of evidence, it merely came across as a blandly obligatory contrarian polemic that (ironically, given its title) didn't end up going anywhere.

Di Falco's thesis, from what I can piece together out of the essay, seems to be: Light rail might be good and people are excited about it, but we need to a) be realistic about what it can accomplish and b) think of it as part of a larger revitalization plan.

Well, okay. I'm not aware that anyone is arguing differently. Raise the Hammer and Hamilton Light Rail have always argued that light rail is consistent with and supports a more distinctly urban approach to city planning that includes dense, mixed use development, two-way streets, wide sidewalks, and so on.

People who support modern rapid transit recognize that it is one part - albeit a critical one - of a broader urban "renaissance" (to use Mayor Fred Eisenberger's term).

Indeed, Di Falco appears to be attacking a straw man, especially when he writes, "The underlying thought is that light rail will serve as a 'magic bullet' of sorts that will ignite our economy." No one says light rail will be a "magic bullet", but the evidence is very robust that done right, light rail serves as a strong anchor for private investment.

Di Falco writes, "I will concede that it holds promise and that there are other cities that can attest to its paybacks." However, I'm not sure he did much actual research or else his statement might have been more strongly worded.

The American Public Transportation Association reports that on average across North America, every public dollar invested in building light rail generates six dollars in new private investment.

Cities that invest a few hundred million dollars in light rail attract billions of dollars in new development in the following years. This pattern is repeated again and again in cities that 'take the plunge'.

The closest Di Falco gets to taking a firm position is when he states, "Hamilton remains a city with a failing downtown core".

As a person who works right downtown, I simply disagree with this. Parts of downtown are doing badly, while other parts are doing very well and steadily improving. It's a mixed bag, not a disaster.

It's facile and unhelpful to dismiss the entire downtown core with a hazy generalization that hasn't actually been true for years.

Di Falco concludes, "We should think of a light-rail system as a staged implementation and, within that model, we should ensure that the first installations of light rail arrive in an environment that is equally able to seize the opportunity that light rail offers."

I don't quite know what this means. For that matter, I'm not at all certain Di Falco knows either.

If he means that we should build the east-west B-Line first and rezone the transit corridor for dense, mixed use development, the city already plans to do exactly this. It's the basis of the city's "nodes and corridors" long term growth plan under GRIDS.

Di Falco has argued in the past - rather eloquently, in my opinion - that the city needs to adopt and commit to a larger vision and firm guiding principles if it wants to achieve a successful revitalization. I don't necessarily agree with all his thinking, but he did make a principled case for his grand vision.

He wrote, "I am a big fan of big thinking. We must define a grand vision of what we want to be," but cautioned against becoming "reckless in its pursuit."

In that context, it sounds like Di Falco is now warning us against adopting light rail as a substitute for a grand vision. If so, this seems to be a case of the inevitable tension between the perfect and the good.

"Big thinking" planners aim for the perfect - for a consistent grand vision and guidelines to which everyone is aligned. It's a noble goal, but hard to achieve and maintain in a large, pluralistic system like a city. We already have a litany of grand visions articulated and then abandoned, going right back to Vision 2020 in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, the people who actually get things done - I'm thinking, for example of Gil Penalosa - start with a broad sense of what is needed, 'shoot from the hip' in the right general direction to get things rolling and then iterate to hone in on successes. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors there.)

Penalosa describes civic policy making in Canada as "Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim..."

Now, obviously you can't built a light rail system by shooting from the hip, but the planning involved is neither uncertain nor controversial. It's complicated but not complex, and we have abundant examples of successful implementations to guide us (plus one or two examples of unsuccessful implementations as cautionary object lessons).

Likewise with updating the transit corridor zoning to leverage the LRT as an investment magnet, the way forward is simple, clear, and very well understood. We even have an excellent implementation of TOD zoning that's close enough to visit and study firsthand: the King-Spadina Plan that has been so remarkably successful in restoring investment, vitality and density to that part of Toronto.

Again, when you strip out the plannerese, the rules are surprisingly straightforward:

  1. Build to the sidewalk.
  2. Open onto the street.
  3. No parking requirements.
  4. If there is parking, it must be inside or behind the building.
  5. Buildings should be broadly compatible in height with their neighbours (with the stated intention of increasing overall height and density).
  6. Use the property the way you want as long as the use is not harmful to neighbours.

We absolutely don't need to wait for grand master plan to get started on these two initiatives (three if you include painting a yellow line down the middle of our one-way streets and turning around half the traffic lights).

There's a time for sober reflection, and there's a time for making up your mind to do something. I humbly submit that in Hamilton, with respect to the light rail initiative, we have arrived at the latter.

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.

6 Comments

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By Melville (anonymous) | Posted October 31, 2008 at 12:49:30

"...it merely came across as a blandly obligatory contrarian polemic..."

Tip: if you want more people to read your article, try using your thesaurus less often.. you're not supposed to be trying to confuse or out-word your audience.

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By Thesawhat? (anonymous) | Posted October 31, 2008 at 13:50:12

lol I know Ryan, thats actually just the way he talks.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2008 at 15:08:04

At least he didn't use the word 'juxtaposition'...:)

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 31, 2008 at 22:29:49

I bring a thesaurus whenever I'm meeting Ryan to chat. Either that, or just smile and nod a lot.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 01, 2008 at 08:05:42

As a fellow HAT* sufferer, I sympathize with Ryan. People think you're being pretentious, when really you have no control over the stream of fancy-schmancy words spewing from your mouth. It's a burden.

*Hyper Articulate Tourettes

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By Frank (registered) | Posted November 04, 2008 at 10:51:58

LOL!

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