Christopher Hume and Guests on Transit in Hamilton

The most important factor in running an efficient transit system is population density - and the population density below the escarpment is enough to make transit work.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published October 02, 2013

The Renew Hamilton organization is a Hamilton Chamber of Commerce initiative that aims "To document, promote and accelerate the regeneration of Hamilton's built and natural environments with a particular focus on our downtown and adjacent neighbourhoods." They sponsor a speaker series on urban issues called "Conversations with Christopher Hume and Guests".

Christopher Hume (Image Credit: Renew Hamilton)
Christopher Hume (Image Credit: Renew Hamilton)

Since I enjoy Christopher Hume's Toronto Star columns, and I am an advocate of light rail transit (LRT) for Hamilton, I decided to attend last Thursday's event, called "High Time for Transit".

Chamber Recognizes the Importance of Walkable Streets

The evening kicked off with an introduction by the new president of the Chamber, Keanin Loomis, who explained why the Chamber supports this initiative and what positive changes are already happening in Hamilton.

He reprised some of the themes of his recent Spectator column, including his impression that Hamilton has reached a tipping point in its recognition of the importance of pedestrian-friendly streets in driving a vibrant economy.

His main message was, "This city's transportation infrastructure, in its current state, will be the biggest drag on our future success". He clearly thinks the critical missing parts of this infrastructure are not freeways or wider, faster streets, but LRT and complete streets.

It is extremely encouraging to hear this message coming from the president of the Chamber of Commerce!

Loomis then passed the microphone to Jeff Feswick of Historia Restoration, who introduced Christopher Hume and the other guests. Hume started off with a general overview of the importance of transit to successful cities, and how the GTA and Hamilton are falling behind.

The "guests" were Don Hull, the Director of Transportation for the City of Hamilton, Mary Proc, Vice President, Customer Service of GO Transit, Alex Bitterman, Associate Professor of Architecture in the Golisano Institute of Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Andrew Kuzyk, a partner in Entro Communications.

Each guest was given five minutes to make an opening statement. Hume then asked a few probing questions, and finally speakers took a few questions from the audience.

Don Hull and the HSR

Don Hull was extremely impressive and very well prepared, with facts and figures at his fingertips. In five minutes he managed to give an excellent overview of the role of transit in urban planning, the challenges the HSR faces and the opportunities for improvement in the future. He also placed the HSR in the regional and national context.

Although it is well known that low-density sprawl makes transit inefficient, I was surprised to discover that the HSR service below the escarpment actually makes an operating profit that is used to subsidize service on the mountain.

In other words, if the HSR only had to serve the lower city it would be profitable and might not require a public subsidy!

As Hull pointed out, the most important factor in running an efficient transit system is population density - and the population density below the escarpment is enough to make transit work. This shows how important it is for land use and zoning decisions to support the densities and mixed uses that make transit viable.

Besides urban sprawl, another challenge for transit in Hamilton is the over-supply of cheap parking, the cheapest in Canada by some measures. Cheap parking harms transit in two ways: it undercuts on price because over-supply means monthly parking is much cheaper than a monthly bus pass; and it reduces density by locking up land as unproductive car storage surface lots.

On the regional and national level, Hull pointed to the lack of a national transit policy and national funding as a serious handicap in effective long-range planning. Canada is one of the few developed countries without a national transit or transportation policy, and there is no consistent federal funding source for transit.

Even at the regional level, it has proven very hard to get municipalities to cooperate. Apparently, the various municipalities spent months arguing over what colour the Presto card should be!

Despite the challenges, the HSR has made considerable progress in the last few years. It now has the youngest fleet in Canada (with an average age of less than six years). Service is slowly expanding after many years of retrenchment. All buses are GPS-equipped, which means that they should be able to give riders real-time arrival information, and the HSR will soon trial traffic signal priority for buses.

Hull realizes that frequency of service is a real challenge. Infrequent service discourages everyone except commuters (who know exactly which bus they need to take), and service is often only every 30 minutes in the suburbs and in the evenings and weekends. Increasing frequency is one of the most effective ways of making transit more attractive, especially for casual use.

Finally, Hull argued that transit is not in conflict with automobiles, but that we should make sure the entire transportation system works efficiently and that people have the opportunity to make the best modal choice for each trip.

He also emphasized that every trip begins and ends with walking, and so the quality of the pedestrian experience really is the foundation of the entire transportation network.

Mary Proc and GO Transit

Mary Proc talked about the on-time service improvements in GO Transit since 2008 and how occupancy had increased from 58% to 82 percent. She described how GO decided they wanted to be associated with the one word "easy" and that this is the basis of their branding strategy.

However, she emphasized that their challenge now is not attracting customers but accommodating growth. GO simply cannot expand fast enough to meet demand.

Proc had two important messages for Hamilton.

The first is that two-way all-day GO train service is not a "promise", but a "funded commitment".

However, for me, her most important statement was that Hamilton will get "14 km of LRT to be funded by the investment strategy in the first round". This was news to me, and I hope she really is giving us official GO (and Government of Ontario) policy!

Limits to Branding Strategy

The other two speakers were a bit of a let down.

Kuzyk clearly hadn't come prepared, and seemed surprised when asked to make a five-minute opening statement. He mumbled something about the importance of "branding" and making transit a "value proposition", and then ran out of things to say after about 30 seconds.

Bitterman also seemed to think the beginning and end of transit planning was coming up with an effective branding strategy that would make people want to take transit - rather than, for example, actually providing a top-notch service.

He then launched into a long anecdote about how "Pan Am became the airline every other airline wanted to be" by implementing a comprehensive branding strategy.

After he finished, Hume remarked drily that Pan Am went bankrupt over 20 years ago, so clearly having a top brand wasn't enough to save their business! Bitterman's obsession with branding also seemed a bit beside the point since Proc had just finished explaining that GO's challenge wasn't attracting customers, it was managing demand.

I must admit that with all the challenges of transit, and its importance in urban design and urban economies, I was surprised that three out of the four guests focused almost exclusively on "branding".

Mayor Bratina

Loomis then asked Mayor Bob Bratina to make some comments. He gave us one of his folksy reminiscences about growing up in Hamilton, describing how his dad would ride a bike to work (complete with metal pant clips) and how he himself loved being downtown and refused to switch schools when they moved to the mountain.

But then he said something quite insightful, which made me think he is finally 'getting it'. He said, "We are trying to re-invent the city I grew up in in the 1950s," and "Young people can't afford a $33,000 car and don't want to get their license."

I hope this means that the Mayor's thinking has evolved radically since last year, when he still supported our high-speed one-way auto-centric traffic system on the basis that we can't go back to the 1950s:

Traffic planning in the 21st Century can't be compared to the conditions in 1956, when the one-way system was implemented in Hamilton," and pointing out that more families now own two cars and fewer people ride bicycles or take transit to work.

"That was then," he writes, "and now the picture has changed completely, so decisions on traffic management have to respond to current conditions."

I hope that Bratina is beginning to understand that we can go back to liveable, vibrant and economically dynamic complete streets, just like Loomis explained in his opening remarks.

Some of us still ride a bike to work, metal pant clips and all.


There was time for a few questions from the audience. The evening concluded with Richard Allen presenting Christopher Hume with Dave Kuruc's poster showing the list of proposed Hamilton LRT stops. Hume commented that he understood LRT is "controversial" in Hamilton.

Hamilton B-Line LRT rendering
Hamilton B-Line LRT rendering

Richard Allen deserves huge recognition for organizing this series, and I am impressed that Christopher Hume has donated his time over many Hamilton evenings to promote this discussion. It's not always easy to get someone from Toronto to take Hamilton seriously as a city.

Somewhat ironically, I was the only one who rode a bike to the evening at Liuna Station, which, I discovered, has no dedicated bike parking. And I'm pretty sure no one took public transit, either.

The next Renew Hamilton event is a learning forum, which will take place 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM on October 18 in a tent pitched on the site of the William Thomas building next to the Lister Block. The theme is how to create quality urban environments and will feature "local speakers and success stories."

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By Gardengirl (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 10:07:49

I agree that 2 of the speakers were a letdown - the only compromise I would make in regards to guests overstating the 'Branding' of public Transit were some good points made by Bitterman. The need to create the desire in people to use public transit as a better alternative and not the last or only choice is fairly important.
For instance - when I can take the GO into Toronto I know I'm in for a nice ride, clean, fast, easy - I don't quite feel the same way about the HSR (when will my bus come? real time information regarding scheduling would be very helpful as pointed out by Joey Coleman) Otherwise it was an interesting event and I look forward to the upcoming Renewal forum on October 18th.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 10:53:39 in reply to Comment 92846

I agree that branding is important to promote a good service. But it has to come after, or at the same time, as the service is improved. Some complaints about transit are just image, but many are legitimate complaints about comfort or convenience compared with driving.

Most of the limitations of HSR compared to GO are real limits of the service (no real time arrival information, less comfortable, low frequency). LRT greatly increases transit use partly because it is "sexy", but mostly because it is a much better service.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2013 at 11:11:44 in reply to Comment 92849

Real-time information is a simple problem of IT infrastructure, and not even an expensive one to solve. The HSR has the information about the positions of its buses, and the technology exists to get that information to any rider with a phone via voice/sms/web/app depending on how much effort you want to put into this. A website and SMS would be the cheapest way to provide the service to the most people.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 11:26:22 in reply to Comment 92852

Another simple improvement would be to AT LEAST put route numbers and frequency on each bus stop (most now simply say HSR) and preferably also put a printed schedule and route map with stops.

The current set up seems to assume every transit user is an expert who knows where the routes run and what the frequency of service is.

A few years ago I wanted to get back down from the mountain in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I walked to the nearest bus stop (with no route number or schedule) and just hoped the bus would come soon and that I would be able to transfer to a bus going downtown (no, I didn't have a cell phone). In the end I had to wait over 20 minutes and then ask the bus driver where he was going.

Adding route numbers and service frequency to the bus stops would not be difficult or expensive, but would make the system much more usable for non-experts. In many cities each bus stop includes all route maps for lines serving that stop together with their schedules, and the busier stops include a full network map and real-time information about when the next bus is arriving.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-10-02 11:27:41

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 10:40:38

It's interesting that you note you were the only one to take "alternative" transportation to the event. I wonder how many in the audience have taken the HSR in the last year, or ten years. Real-life experience on our transit system is so important for all politicians, HSR staff, and those expressing concern from the Chamber.

Also, one small correction to your article. Some routes go to one-hour frequency on evenings and weekends. The Aberdeen bus is one of those. (A good transit system should not ever decrease frequency to one hour -- that pushes people to retain their cars, thus decreasing passengers, etc.)

Fingers crossed that Mary Proc was stating facts as she knows them re: LRT.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 14:28:00 in reply to Comment 92847

Well, just to temper Nicholas' hyperbole a bit: a number of us that were present live close enough to LIUNA to walk, and I'm pretty sure one of the other guests at our table took HSR.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 15:05:48 in reply to Comment 92865

I'm glad to hear that some people walked, and that, perhaps at least one person took HSR. I would have asked people how they arrived if I had been given the chance.

There were no other bikes parked and the parking lot was full of cars. It is not hyperbole to note that at a meeting dedicated to transit the vast majority drove by themselves in cars (and I was outside for quite a while so I had plenty of time to see how most of the guests left).

If anyone reading this did take HSR to the meeting, or knows definitely others who did, I'd be interested to know. Given the number of cars compared to the number of guests, it is absolutely clear that the vast majority drove.

This doesn't make those who drove hypocrites (I might have chosen to drive, depending on my schedule and the weather), but it does show that Hamilton has a long way to go to make HSR attractive to those who can afford to drive (e.g. those who can afford $107 for a dinner and discussion).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-10-02 15:06:46

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2013 at 11:01:37 in reply to Comment 92847

To be fair, the Aberdeen bus route feels like a completely random walk, it just kind of aimlessly wanders the Durand area and then jogs over to Westdale North via Aberdeen. That's... strange. I'd wager the HSR only keeps it running at all out of inertia.

I assume that, if the city makes the massive investment that is B-Line LRT, we'd see the routes re-jiggered away from the hub-and-spoke model into a sort of spine-and-rib pattern, with most of the east-west travel happening on the B-line.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2013 at 10:45:57

Although it is well known that low-density sprawl makes transit inefficient, I was surprised to discover that the HSR service below the escarpment actually makes an operating profit that is used to subsidize service on the mountain.

This should be obvious to anybody waiting around for the sardine-can/5C watching all the empty buses departing Southbound. That said, it does not automatically follow that HSR would make a profit if they shut down the mountain routes. Consider how many of those riders on the 1/5C/10/2/insert-other-crowded-route-here are transferring from the underused mountain buses? If you shut down the underused mountain routes, you lose not just the mountain-only riders but the riders who transfer to a lower-city bus.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2013-10-02 10:48:49

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 17:36:22

Imagine Hamilton's lower city with 100,000 more people packed into its neighbourhoods.

Keanin Loomis can imagine that new world. In fact, the president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce says it has to become a reality if the city's economy is to grow.

Loomis told The Spectator's editorial board Tuesday that pushing the city's population to 650,000 over the next 20 to 30 years will provide the "critical mass" of people needed to support the controversial LRT transit plan....

Loomis said the public debate over the transit plan has paid too much attention to its cost rather than its potential benefits. Even Chamber of Commerce members remain deeply divided on the plan because of that focus.

"I wouldn't want to survey the members on this right now because I don't think the result would be good."

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 20:42:41

Thanks for the synopsis Nicholas. I was unable to go to this event. FWIW, I usually ride my bike when I go to LIUNA station. As for the # 6 Aberdeen bus, I feel kind of guilty about that one. I feel like it is a personal taxi ride just for sometimes. Then again, when I look at the bus portion of my property taxes that guilt goes away.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted October 03, 2013 at 08:10:46

OK, maybe the #6 Aberdeen bus wasn't a good example. My point was that if a bus route exists, reducing its frequency to one hour should never happen. The bus route fills a need (or does in theory) and people should NEVER have to wait one hour for any bus -- evenings and weekends included.

Also, my point about the evening Nicholas attended and people driving was not so much in the context of this event. I just wonder how many of the people there (city reps, councillors, chamber members) have taken a bus AT ALL in the last year to ten years. If you don't experience the transit system as it exists, it's difficult to have an informed opinion.

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