LRT must be contained in a comprehensive strategy that includes land use planning, two-way conversions and street calming - all objectives we have been advocating for years.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 22, 2014
A column by Andrew Dreschel in today's Spectator has inflamed the debate over Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) plan.
Titled, "McMaster study says LRT no magic bullet for Hamilton", the column interviews Chris Higgins, a PhD student at McMaster who was the lead writer of a paper [PDF] reviewing LRT, land use and development planning in Hamilton.
This new study makes pretty much the same point: that LRT, by itself, won't magically transform the city but instead needs to be part of a more comprehensive strategy that includes land use planning, two-way conversions and street calming - all objectives that we have been advocating for years through Raise the Hammer.
Here is the crucial message in the paper:
[T]his research demonstrates that along the whole B-Line corridor, local conditions compare favourably to three of the six land use change prerequisites noted in the literature. There is an availability of parcels on which to build, complimentary government growth and transportation planning policy exists at the local and provincial levels, and local economic conditions appear to be heading in the right direction.
However, the B-Line corridor, specifically the eastern portion of the planned line, faces a number of economic, social, and physical challenges to attracting new demand and development, though the strengths in these areas along the corridor from McMaster to the central business district does suggest some potential for land use change in the western lower city and downtown core.
Furthermore, the city is actively engaged in a number of policy and planning programs designed to improve economic and social indicators in the lower city. But crucially, the arterial road network along the prospective corridor is uncongested and forecasted to stay that way with high road capacity and little interest shown to date in large-scale two-way conversions, thereby greatly reducing the potential for any rapid transit-based locational advantage in station area.
This is not an explanation of why LRT will not succeed. It's an explanation of what LRT needs to be successful, and it's precisely what we have been calling for on Raise the Hammer.
In fact the paper itself acknowledges that the City is already addressing some of the identified success criteria, but needs to commit more fully to complete streets and traffic calming.
For years we have argued that the current form of Hamilton's lower city streets as a network of fast, multi-lane one-way thoroughfares has by itself done considerable damage to the neighbourhoods they cross. The paper acknowledges this:
[S]tudies have characterized the negative impacts of one-way streets on commercial uses, noting that high-speed automobile traffic presents a hazard to pedestrian movement that erodes confidence in the physical environment and discourages shopping in nearby commercial districts.
Likewise, in a follow-up article Higgins wrote today for RTH to provide some context and clarity on the Spectator interview, he wrote:
Changing King and Main Streets back to two-way travel was incorporated into Metrolinx's Benefits Cost Analysis of the B-Line, but this was one of the first casualties of the local transit planning process.
It should seriously be considered as one of the strongest tools for making transit a competitive option for travel across the city, which in turn bestows a 'locational advantage' for land around transit stations, increases property values, and makes new development more attractive.
Our one-way thoroughfares are convenient for people who want to drive through the city at high speed but that convenience comes at a terrible price. Whether or not we build LRT, Hamilton needs to tame and reclaim its streets for a more accessible, equitable, diverse and economically productive mix of uses.
More important, this is a relatively quick, easy and inexpensive change that the city has already begun to adopt, albeit reluctantly.
It's hardly an argument against LRT to point out that it will be more successful if it is combined with complete, livable streets that also encourage active transportation, public health and improved local commerce!
If we engage in a project of traffic calming and complete streets but don't invest in LRT, the danger is that we will end up with a transportation network in which the transit system is incapable of accommodating the increased ridership it will generate.
Despite decades of free-flowing automobile traffic across the lower city, transit use on the B-Line corridor has grown to 13,000 rides a day, with crush capacity on express buses and frequent "pass-bys" as overstuffed buses fail to stop for waiting passengers.
The paper claims that people won't choose transit unless it becomes less convenient to drive, but many people along the B-Line corridor are already choosing transit despite the fact that it comes in the form of cramped, crowded, uncomfortable buses.
According to a Downton Hamilton Profile [PDF] using 2006 Census data, 25 percent of downtown workers commuted by transit, walking or cycling - despite the fact that our downtown parking lots have some of the lowest day rates in the GTHA and peak usage is less than 70 percent.
And the lower city - especially the downtown - is a moving target. The resident population is increasing, the number of jobs is increasing, and as the McMaster study notes, there is still tremendous potential to increase both further on vacant and underdeveloped properties around the line.
No one is seriously claiming that LRT by itself is a "magic bullet" that will single-handedly solve Hamilton's problems.
Most supporters rightly regard LRT as a necessary component of a comprehensive strategy to set this city up for the kind of long-term transformative change that other cities across North America and around the world have already embraced and experienced.
Some of those cities will be our direct competitors for new residents, investments and jobs over the coming years: places like Kitchener-Waterloo and Mississauga, which are also actively pursuing LRT systems in order to attract development, shape land use and improve their quality of life by reducing their reliance on automobiles.
But LRT opponents and concern trolls are already jumping on today's Spectator column to claim that LRT won't work in Hamilton after all. That's not what the study says, and we need to make sure we don't let such an important debate get hijacked by yet another false claim.
If we squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an LRT system with supportive land use and transportation policies in place, we will continue to stagnate in comparison to those urban centres that understand and seize the opportunity.
We can't let yet another future-altering decision by guided by the contempt and self-loathing that says we don't deserve nice things and it wouldn't work here anyway.
with files from Nicholas Kevlahan and Jason Leach
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