Accidental Activist

Subsidy v. Investment

The world class Tube and TTC systems are not maintained by handouts, but investments. Hamilton had better pay attention.

By Ben Bull
Published January 09, 2006

Since moving to Hamilton from Toronto five years ago, I have noticed a number of interesting comparisons in the way we run our affairs, compared to other, larger cities. The most striking of these is transit.

Hamilton, like many mid-sized cities, has a pretty lackadaisical attitude toward moving us around.

I first got this during the budget deliberations of 2001, soon after I arrived. Hamilton's city staff and councillors were discussing the need for cutbacks and the high cost of "subsidizing transit".

Almost in the same breath, they went on to refer to "the importance of continued investments" in our roads.

Why should we subsidize one mode of transit, and invest in the other? What is the difference?

I soon learned, first-hand, that the Hamilton Street Railway, ahem, is not the TTC. The slow trundle into town from Ottawa St. and Main St. was a far cry from the relative speed and ease of my jaunts around Toronto.

Living here I began to discover a strange reality: nobody cared! Even worse, the HSR was evidently regarded as just another social service, an unfortunate necessity for the city's less fortunate.

Spec letter writers argue, "People only take transit when they have no other choice," and even "Transit is for poor people." The "subsidize transit" mentality of our civic leaders seemed to have seeped into the general consciousness of the very people the HSR was supposed to serve.

You can say what you like about places like Toronto and London, England, two cities I have lived and commuted in for many years, but their transit systems are hardly regarded with the same frustration and impatience as a homeless person begging for a meal.

Their use is certainly not dictated by the size of your wallet. The world class Tube and TTC systems are not maintained by handouts, but investments.

So why does Hamilton, like so many other mid-sized cities around the world, have such a regressive and negative attitude toward public transportation? What's with our elitist attitude toward the car?

I believe the answer to this lies not in a mid-sized city v. metropolis comparison, but in something much simpler: leadership. The "subsidize transit" mentality proliferated by our civic leaders is clearly setting the tone for the rest of the town, and it's holding us back.

Disagree? Take a look around: forty or fifty years ago, people wondered what the hell towns like Newcastle and Toronto were doing screwing around underground while everyone else was dreaming of fast cars and freeways.

Towns like Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK raised the ire of many a local resident when they threw their cash into bottomless subway pits, while the rest of the town went without.

Take a trip around these towns today, and see who's questioning their wisdom now.

The truth is that these towns ? large and medium alike ? saw the potential and importance of efficient transit a long time ago. Back in the Hammer we seem to forget that we were supposed to become Canada's largest city, on the back of the railway boom of the 1940s.

Since that time we've successfully adopted a victim mentality and steadfastly avoided the kind of progressive city building approaches that have spurred the steady growth and comparative prosperity of places like Toronto, Newcastle, Liverpool, and many others around the globe.

Of course, we all know that it takes much more than a good transit system to make a successful city, but there is no doubt in my mind that Hamiltonians just do not get it when it comes to understanding the importance of public transit.

Cities can be leaders or laggards, and complex issues like transit truly test the leadership mettle of any civic administration. Unfortunately, not only does Hamilton lag, but it fails to show even the slightest inclination of grasping the true value of investing in its transit.

We're struggling even to care about whether we have efficient rail links to and from Toronto. There are a mere seven GO train trips a day there and back, and no VIA service at all.

Our recent so-called "push" for an expansion of VIA service beyond the Aldershot station has resulted in what looks like a mind-boggling decision to bypass our downtown altogether!

Hamilton: the year is 2006. Our neighbours to the east constructed their subway in 1954. London started back in 1863. Liverpool and Glasgow were no bigger than us when they built their tunnels over 100 years ago, and around the world places like Portland, Oregon and Bremen, Germany have prospered on the backs of their SuperTram transit infrastructures.

Here in Hamilton, our transit does not need another subsidy. It just needs to be taken seriously.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By judgefred (registered) | Posted None at

Obviously, it takes lots of money to accomplish a mega project. Hamilton chose the Red Hill. Let's hope it works out like City Council said. Otherwise there's not going to be money for another megaproject for years to come.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

We already know there won't be any money for another mega project. Plus, transit investment shouldn't be considered a mega project. Although in Hamilton it will be because of the 'mega-indifference' council has shown towards transit for the past few decades.

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By sean (registered) | Posted None at

It makes me happy to see the rail construction going on beside the 403 in Aldershot. We should consider ourselves lucky to be so close to a non car-centric transportation project. It's also interesting to me that 75 trains pass through the junction at the high-level bridge daily. And I thought rail was dead! There may be hope for us yet...

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By judgefred (registered) | Posted None at

I was in Winnipeg last week and I was able to ride on their free public bus service. They call them Spirit buses and they follow four routes. These buses can take you anywhere you want to go within the city core. The city was definitely walkable, there were plenty of parking spaces and no heavy traffic in a city of 650 000. The prospect of being able keep the car in the garage and walk or bus to wherever you need was very attractive. If they can do it, why can't we. I've heard somewhere they were considering free bus service between Mac and the core. This would be a nice start. Having people living, working and playing downtown has a multiplier effect in terms of commerce and quality of life.

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By sean (registered) | Posted None at

Students already ride "for free" but I agree that linking Westdale to downtown with a free bus makes a lot of sense.

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