The Goal of High Quality Public Transit

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 28, 2009

RTH reader schmadrian posed a question to me in the comments to my recent article on the city staff recommendation to raise transit fares:

[W]hat's the ideal result of public transit in this city? Ryan, what kind of scenario would put a smile on your face? I'm not going to get into the facts and figures, the revenue or ridership numbers; I'm talking basics here

I spent enough time working on a response that it seemed worthwhile to post my reply as a blog entry, hence this post.

Transit as Economic Development Engine

I see high quality transit as first and foremost an engine of economic development, and only incidentally a transportation mode per se.

Hamilton Light Rail advocated for electric rapid transit on the evidence-based case that light rail generates billions of dollars in new economic development. But I don't just mean new condos and office towers on the transit corridor - I mean something more basic.

High quality transit allows a city to grow more densely around transit nodes so that it can leverage its intrinsic urban efficiencies - its economies of density, scale, association, and extension - to produce innovation and generate wealth.

Cities do not generate ideas in themselves, but they do bring creative people into contact: cross-fertilizing ideas from one intellectual domain to another; asking open-ended questions; challenging orthodoxy; forking a project into separate groups that progress independently; and merging forked developments to integrate their best features.

Creativity leads to invention - producing something new. Invention leads to innovation - putting the invention into practice. Innovations that generate value survive and reproduce, feeding the next wave of invention.

Cities that foster the chain of creativity-invention-innovation produce better tools for growing and responding to challenges. To the extent that high-quality transit supports dense, mixed urban development - and we know that it does - it also supports economic growth and development.

Strong evidence suggests that increasing population density and mixing destinations more closely confers measurable economies. When cities intensify, energy and infrastructure costs grow more slowly than population, but the innovation rate grows more quickly than population.

Scale up a city and you get both an infrastructure productivity boost and a boost in the rate of creative output.

Hamilton Squanders Urban Efficiencies

Hamilton is a city spread so thin that it no longer commands the urban efficiencies. For example:

As a result of all these colliding factors, Hamilton is an unfriendly place to start a business, and so few Hamiltonians do. I know technical business owners who live in Hamilton but launched their startups elsewhere, citing the absence of a fertile environment in Hamilton - the lack of that indigenous soup of inventors, entrepreneurs, investors and skilled workers from which successful businesses have a better chance of emerging.

Sadly, our political leaders are committed not to growing Hamilton's own economic capacity but in luring a foreign white knight to swoop in and save us with hundreds of jobs. Instead of competing on quality, we try to compete on cost; and the result is that we attract the low-value bottom feeders of industry - dirty, low-skilled, low paid work for which we should be "grateful".

Where Transit Fits In

Now, obviously high quality transit will not, by itself, magically fix all that ails Hamilton - not even light rail transit! However, it is a necessary part of any viable solution.

As long as our transit remains a neglected stepchild in both funding support and transportation planning priority, it will be impossible for Hamilton to develop the kind of density and vibrancy that would allow people to start trading automobile commutes for urban engagement.

Remember: cars take up a staggering amount of space, not only in lane capacity but also in abundant "free" parking at every conceivable destination. A city in which every family needs two cars is a city that can never bring destinations close enough together to leverage density and proximity as economic efficiencies.

Try to imagine a great city that doesn't have high quality transit. It's impossible - they're inextricably entwined. In great cities - New York, Boston, London, Paris, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Portland, and so on - people with enough money to have options choose to take transit because it is fast, convenient, and affords them a distinctly urban quality of life.

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 Really? (registered) | Posted October 28, 2009 at 14:02:30

So Logical!

Why don't City Leaders get it!?

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 28, 2009 at 14:21:36

Great thesis Ryan. Your point about transit not being the only criteria for creating a creative economy is an important one. I think some of the barriers to transit investment is the lack of other criteria being in place, as well as a lack of foresight overall. Also, transit extensions are so expensive to build they can provide lightening rods for the electorate (and no politician likes a lightening rod...)

It's as if towns need to reach a tipping point before they are prepared to make significant transit investments.

One thing Hamilton has going for it is the potential Metrolinx investment (although how effective Metrolinx is going to be is still to be determined... I can't help thinking this organization is too unweildly to produce anything useful) and the fact that LRT will change the mind set and image of Hamilton. These are huge added bonuses.

Hopeful more and more people 'get it' when it comes to transit.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 28, 2009 at 15:22:19

Ryan, if public transit is an engine for economic growth, then why are city revenues growing slower than transit funding?

From 2002 - 2008, transit funding grew 89.2% from 21,882,790 41,403,665, while tax revenue only grew 32.1%, from $477,072,305 to $630,065,330.

If transit funding pays for itself in new economic development, shouldn't assessment be growing faster than the money the city spends on transit?

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By canbyte (registered) | Posted October 28, 2009 at 23:26:14

A Smith keeps making an important point but keeps getting slagged for it, i'd guess by the socialists amongst us. But the reason city revenue lags transit investment is nicely outlined by Ryan's blog - too many other negative factors at play. His list is not complete.

Myth: cars are bad. Truth: cars need not be used much to be considered a useful asset for the owner. A parked, seldom used car is not overly burdensome to a functional city. Car haters are not helping the discussion.

Myth: LRT is good and will remake Hamilton's image, improve its prospects etc. Truth: Never mind the label, only the function (result) matters, and as A Smith would probably like to point out, it matters not how the result is achieved.

Our imaginations are being stifled by our rigid philosophies/ political doctrines (much like the 'health' care debate).

I'm often tempted to think that getting rid of city hall would be the best ultimate answer to Hamilton's woes. In the meantime, get the broom. Make a clean sweep!


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By JonC (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 07:08:27

I hadn't noticed that Smith had transferred his misinformation here as well. My response.

Short summary, transit has actually dropped from 4.17% of the total budget to 3.98%

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By AB (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 07:50:57

You start with a very relevant question but end up going into something that the questioner did not want to hear. He doesn't seem to want to hear about macro thingies. The question needs to be look at from the perspective of a transit system user, not that of a planner.

Who says I want to live in a dense community?

If I tried answering this question, I would say the ideal transit system should take me from most points in the city to other points with no changeovers at high speed. I hate travel standing jostling with crowds, so I want to travel all seated. I don't like waiting for too long at the station for the train. And I just can't remember all the routes and schedules. The system should revolve around me -- it should just take me in when I arrive and take me straight to where I want to go. Simple.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2009 at 09:49:31

Much discussion here seems to centre on the notion of urban density and its desirability. High-density living in distressed communities can be unpleasant for some because it brings them in closer contact with people in distress. High-density living in vibrant communities can be very rewarding for some because it brings them in contact with interesting, happy people.

LRT development and high-density urban living depends on people seeing the likelihood of leading a good life in close proximity to others. All great cities make the same bargain with their residents: you might be crowded and uncomfortable living here at times, yet life can be so rewarding that it is worth the pain it sometimes brings.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 13:08:40

Ryan the most important sentence in your essay is the first one "I see high quality transit as first and foremost an engine of economic development, and only incidentally a transportation mode per se." It is YOUR Opinion, YOUR Vision and by the sheer number of essays you write and the huge amount of time you put into this website, which is dedicated in large part to that exact concept, shows how passionate you really are. You are a fanatic. You have lost all ability to see reality, all you see is your vision. Your vision is not shared by the vast majority of citizens in this fair city. Why do you continually try to push your ideas, your vision on every body else? This site could be so much more. A real place to exchange ideas and deal with real problems in an effective way. Instead it is thinly disguised personal propaganda site. Why not try to reach some sort of workable and affordable real solution? LRT routes criss crossing Hamilton simply is not affordable no matter how passionate you are about it. Detroit a huge city is building a LRT of something like 3.5 miles (5.6 KM)AND it is privately financed! this in a city with a population density 5 times as high as ours. Transit is all about area and density. I know you do not want it to be that way but, that is the way it is, it is REALITY.

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By rail head (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 13:15:04

"Your vision is not shared by the vast majority of citizens in this fair city ... LRT routes criss crossing Hamilton simply is not affordable no matter how passionate you are about it." Pssst, support for LRT is shared by the vast majority of citizens in this fair city. Including council. And staff. And the Province. And Metrolinx. Looks like you're the one thats fallen out of step. REALITY is moving along nicely but you seem to be stuck in old ways of thinking that don't work and never did work.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 13:25:27

RE "Your vision is not shared by the vast majority...." The vast majority of citizens in this city don't give an ounce of mental energy contemplating the economics of cities. And even still, the vast majority support rapid transit. Far from being fanatical, the views expressed in this essay reflect the work of some of the most prominent thinkers in the realm of city and transit planning. If it comes off as radical to anyone, that is clearly because they are not well educated on the topic.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 14:50:44

Mr. Meister says: "Your vision is not shared by the vast majority."

Well, considering the LRT Public Consultation Meetings were some of the highest-attended Public Info Meetings City Staff has ever had, along with the numbers published in the Rapid Transit Office's reports, I'm going to go ahead and say that you, sir, are the one who is out of line with the majority of Hamiltonians. They/We DO support it!

Detroit is as dense as Hamilton?!?! Where are you getting this info? Detroit has sprawaled out far worse than any Canadian city, as well as most U.S. Cities. Infact, if you look at most of Detroit's inner-city, you'd notice it's about as populated as Flamborough! Empty/Burned out houses in fields. GoogleMap it if you need confirmation.

Also, the fact that Detroit is even thinking about building their LRT along Woodward Ave (which is Detroit's 'main street') shows how much support there is for LRT in general... even in Motown (the 'Mo' means Motor, as in MotorCar)!

LRT will change attitudes about Transit in this City whether you want to believe it or not. You can easily ignore a bus, but you sure can't escape a beautifully modern Light Rail Train zooming by you down Main Street.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 15:46:55

Mr. Meister's comments have elicited a consistent response thus far, and not a surprising one, either.

I agree with his observations.

I've been reading this blog for a while...18 months, two years? Not sure...and Ryan's approach has been consistent even as it's become more and more entrenched.

I was thinking about this only this morning, this sense of...well, what is commonly referred to as 'bloody-mindedness'. And there's a correlation to a certain southern neighbour that's applicable. Not in topic, but in the tendency to become bound by ideologies and beliefs of Life as it should be, rather than being open to the realities of Life as is it is lived:

"If there's a drug problem, get more cops on the streets, make more arrests, build more jails. Don't waste any time trying to figure out why people are doing drugs, why people are selling other words, the societal causes of drug use, and the concomitant crimes."

(I should add that the same thing could be said about so many Americans' reactions -on some kind of DNA-based, philosophical level- about the notion of health care not being a basic human right.)

"I see high quality transit as first and foremost an engine of economic development, and only incidentally a transportation mode per se."

To a great extent, there's no need to go any further in this discussion. Not because it doesn't merit more engagement, but because Ryan sees things a certain way and from my vantage point, having read countless of his essays and columns and posts, that certain way possesses its own remarkable intractability, obdurateness...and pronounced blinkered-ism.

I fervently believe in solid public transit.

Not as 'an engine of economic development', but as a means to get people from one place to another. That's all.

Once you start attaching hifalutin existential raisons d'etre, you're getting into some pretty mucky areas. Especially when it's clear that in this situation, where Hamilton currently is, how things are designed, getting people from Point A to Point B at a reasonable price far outstrips any other reason you can come up with.

(I do find it fascinating that Ryan seems as attached to his approach to transit as the average North American is to their car-as-value-system-lynchpin mindset. To me, both are seriously flawed.)

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 16:01:40

schmadrian >> I fervently believe in solid public transit. Not as 'an engine of economic development', but as a means to get people from one place to another. That's all.

Do you believe that if the approx $31 million spent on the HSR was given back to the people of Hamilton, that they would spend that $31 million on mass transit?

If not, then why are we allowing politicians to spend taxpayer's money on things that they don't want?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2009 at 16:31:34

Schmadrian wrote:

Ryan's approach has been consistent even as it's become more and more entrenched.

I'm still waiting for your response to this:

If I'm wrong, demonstrate that I'm wrong and I'll change my mind. Otherwise, I will continue to believe what the evidence tells me.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 16:40:47

schmadrian said >> "I've been reading this blog for a while...18 months, two years? Not sure...and Ryan's approach has been consistent even as it's become more and more entrenched."

But he's just saying the opposite of what City Leaders have been shoving down our throats for decades; "if you want to get from Point A to Point B, then you must Drive. Not Convenient? We'll build expressways for you!"

So if getting from Point A to Point B via Public Transit 'isn't convenient', then why can't Transit Users get the same, fair treatment? Build Transit Users an expressway-of-sorts, or rather, Dedicated Rapid (Public) Transit Lanes.

I have been waiting for LRT opposition to grow, as I knew the loss of general pupose lanes would be an issue. So Thank You Shmadrian for preparing us for this sure-to-come major issue (I wouldn't doubt it if it became an election issue next fall).

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 16:49:24

I went to the transit meeting and to be honest I think many of you should of attended.

Since the city's motto is the best place to raise a child, the presentation of the teachers, who see the daily impact of poverty of their students is astonishing. From their presentation, the system is condenmning many children to live a life of extreme pvoerty because they cannot get to school becuase they simply cannot afford to pay for transportation and that many walk very long distances, in fact one student got frostbite because of that.

The poverty levels are growing, this time last year EI recipients were around 6,000, now it is over 16,000 people in the Hamilton area. I wonder how many of them will find work? Or are they to be pushed onto the Onario Works system, that is so draconian, that many simply cannot survive.

To the majority who post here, you are what was referred to as the "suits", and those suits, do not like to travel with those who struggle. It seems that there is a definite class division within the city, which to me is outrageous for someone who has had the luck to get a good job, yet feels they are above those who struggle.

The consultant's report was interesting but they stated that there should be investment and improvements to the transit system, for the same reasons as Ryan mentions.

There was also input from the driver's side as well, which pointed out many problems between labour and management on issues of health and safety issues for the most part.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2009 at 17:22:41

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Zippy McGee (anonymous) | Posted October 30, 2009 at 00:24:34

I would like to see a vast network of public transit in Hamilton.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted October 31, 2009 at 13:29:22

congratulations! your wish came true
We have vast network of public transit crisscrossing the city it is called the HSR. Buses running hither and yon.
I am not anti transit. Let me repeat that so you understand it, I am not anti transit. I am however dead set against spending tax dollars on new LRT within the city especially something as huge and expensive as a line from Eastgate to University Plaza. There are better more important things to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on than a transit line that will lose money every single hour of every single day. Building an LRT line makes no more sense than building a couple of concentric expressways around the city.

The rail trail Hamilton to Brantford (I believe) is a huge success as is the waterfront trail. Let us have more of that. There used to be a rail line downtown around Ferguson or Walnut. What happened to that land? Can it become a new bike pedestrian route? York Blvd. has a large median strip for a good length can that be used to make bike lanes? Why not a new bike and pedestrian bridge across the 403 north of King St? There are a lot of bikes going to Mac. Can we get them off of King and Main St? A new safe bike friendly route can (must?) be found? Even in City budget terms hundreds of million of dollars is a lot of money and there are better ways of spending it than LRT lines in the city.

What would happen if we abolished the current system of transit taxes and replaced it with a new system based on wealth? The 10,000 highest properties in Hamilton have to pay for a monthly bus pass and they are distributed free to people who need them? Or let them sell them for whatever they could get for them? There have to be better ways of doing this than what we are doing now.

How about some of that money is used to buy the land around the McMaster project on Longwood so the City can really control how the area is developed instead of fighting with different groups who have conflicting ideas. There is potential there for a large influx of good jobs. Look at Burlington they have a huge swath of commercial and light industrial sites on both sides of the QEW. A lot of well paying jobs. A lot of places paying tax dollars. That is what drives a city's economy.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 31, 2009 at 14:29:11

Mr. Meister >> I am however dead set against spending tax dollars on new LRT within the city especially something as huge and expensive as a line from Eastgate to University Plaza.

What you don't understand is that this new LRT line will attract 6x-7x more in tax revenue than it costs, it's a sure thing-can't lose scenario.

>> transit line that will lose money every single hour of every single day.

You have to lose money to make money. In other words, if we don't get this LRT, we may save money day to day, but we will lose money year to year, get it? You have to think long term, not just day to day.

>> Look at Burlington they have a huge swath of commercial and light industrial sites on both sides of the QEW. A lot of well paying jobs.

That's because they're closer to Toronto. Because Hamilton is farther away, we have to use lots more government spending to attract investment. Thankfully the government has our best interest at heart, unlike big business, so we can trust them to make good decisions with our money.

In fact, I would like to see even higher taxes, so that the government can take control over Hamilton's economy even more. If we allow people and businesses to decide what investments should go ahead, it will only create chaos. Hamilton does not need lots of small investments, based on making profits, we need large scale investments that help the people.

Only government truly cares for the people, so why not let them make all the economic decisions.

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By Fail (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2009 at 20:50:52

I see the usual gang of comment voters are out in force on this one.

So much for freedom of expression.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 04, 2009 at 09:57:31

People disagree with me! Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!

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By Toronto Condos (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 02:51:11


Nice information! Your content unique and meaningful about Toronto Condos. You are doing very well job! Keep it up.

Toronto Condo s

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By Jimmy "Trolly- Train" Hasim (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 19:52:16

We need a subway line across this city. Toronto and New York are successful cities and both of them enjoy underground transportation.

If LRT is a 5/10, subways are a 10/10. The city should raise taxes and invest this money into things that will attract new residents. If the other levels of government don't want to kick in, let's do it ourselves.

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