Without overstepping his bounds, David Dixon modeled precisely the kind of leadership on transit that Council needs to adopt if Hamilton is to achieve prosperity.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 15, 2015
Hamilton's public transit system entered a long decline starting in the 1980s. Starved systematically of operating revenue year after year, the HSR cut buses, reduced service and shrank its annual ridership from 30 million in 1985 to just 20 million in 1994.
After that, the inflation-adjusted HSR budget fell by another 25 percent between 1994 and 2005. Since then, funding has stabilized but not grown, while ridership has crawled up by only around one percent a year.
Annual ridership today is only around 21 million, despite Council's commitment in 2001 to invest in transit and boost ridership significantly by 2011. Despite 15 years of high-level plans, Council has adopted no concrete strategy to grow the system and has no coherent vision of transit beyond regarding it as a social service for the poor.
The HSR has been in decline for 30 years, and its management team has spent most of that period content to manage the decline. However, we have a new Transit Director, David Dixon, and based on his comments at yesterday's dog's breakfast of a General Issues Committee meeting, he is not content to continue managing the decline.
Thanks to independent journalist Joey Coleman, you can watch the meeting in all its craptacular glory.
The centrepiece of yesterday's meeting was a protracted and often excruciating debate over the fate of the two-kilometre bus lane on King Street between Mary and Dundurn. The bus lane started in October 2013 as a one-year pilot project, and a faction of suburban councillors is eager to kill it.
The bus lane portion of the meeting begins at around the 40-minute mark in the video. It starts with a presentation by new transit director David Dixon, followed by three hours of questioning by Council and then another couple of hours of debate.
But first, the tl;dr: four motions related to the bus lane were presented, and all four were voted down in close split votes. Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins moved to eliminate the lane, Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead moved to "suspend" it, Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr moved to defer a decision to the February 6 meeting, and Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson moved to direct staff to make the improvements staff recommended in the report.
As a result, the bus lane pilot is still in operation for now; but Councillors will have a chance to make a final vote on the motions at next week's Council meeting.
Dixon was an impressive gust of fresh air: a transit director who actually believes in transit and has a vision for how the city can choose to invest in a more prosperous, inclusive future.
He fielded a seemingly endless array of gotcha-style questions from councillors without stepping into their traps. When Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins asked when Hamilton will be ready for higher-order transit, Dixon replied, "It really becomes a political question."
He drew a contrast between "the technical approach" of deciding when to upgrade to rapid transit and a more comprehensive, visionary approach. "Having the advantage of having worked through several different political environments, it really depends on where you as a city want to be. You can lead people to become a more progressive, transit-oriented city, or you can choose to let that evolve naturally. And so really it becomes your decision."
If you want to know what "natural" transit growth looks like, just look back over the past ten years: flat or one-percent annual growth while our competitor cities roar past us.
Acknowledging that the transit lane does impact rush-hour automobile traffic, he added that without transit, there would be 2,400 cars on four lanes rather than 1,200 cars on three lanes.
"It's important to realize that having a good transit system does defer having to build new roads. It does result in less congestion, and it has a lot of positive social, economic and environmental impacts."
By investing in better transit, Dixon argued, the City avoids future congestion and delays and avoids having to invest in more roads. It's about "how you want to see your city get shaped and grow and intensify."
Collins was particularly insidious. He did his best to link the success of bus lane at increasing ridership along the Queenston-King-Main corridor with the viability of the city's rapid transit plan, only to oppose the bus lane. He is clearly trying to use the bus lane as a lever to topple LRT.
Dixon told Collins, "This lane in its current configuration does not have a significant impact on our ability to operate a conventional transit. It really needs to be extended."
Responding to Collins' question about how much time transit riders have saved with the bus lane, Dixon countered that what drives ridership is consistency. "When you're really moving towards choice riders, the most important factor is a consistent, reliable time of journey. That's what moves people. And so really, transit lanes are about providing that reliable, consistent ride."
Collins kept repeating that the transit lane doesn't work. Dixon countered, "The current transit lane does work. It's just not as effective as it could be, and it needs to be elongated to be really, truly valued to the transit user."
What Collins heard - what he was determined to hear from the very outset - is that the bus lane can be removed without harming the status quo, with which he is apparently satisfied.
He parlayed the embarrassingly modest scope of the bus lane not as an argument to expand it but rather as an argument to eliminate it altogether. So much for choosing a more progressive, transit-oriented city.
He clearly understands what is at stake. When Dixon warned that traffic will get progressively worse if we don't build transit capacity, Collins replied, "Most communities wait until they reach that crisis point" before investing in higher order transit, but Hamilton is not in crisis yet.
Dixon modeled precisely the kind of leadership that I wish we saw in more of our City Councillors.
"One of the reasons I'm here is I think Hamilton is in a very exciting spot in time. And so, where that timeline [of increasing congestion], how long it is or how short it is, really depends on what happens here from a growth perspective both in terms of residents and jobs, where you choose to intensify, and that will really determine what that timeline looks like. And the second thing I would say is, you don't want to get to the point where now you've got all the congestion and you're really scrambling."
In his response to Ward 7 Councillor Scott Duvall, Dixon reiterated the need for leadership.
"You're at 45 trips per capita [per year]. You know, the really good cities like Montreal are at close to 200. A lot of our peers are well above that [45 trips]. Some are below. We command seven percent of the modal share. So if you want to get people to shift to other modes of travel and really consider the avenues as moving people, not cars, and complete streets, that's really policy stuff that Council needs to take a position on. As I say, you can let it happen 'naturally', or you can choose to make Hamilton, at an extreme, a city in which you can live without a car."
I repeat for emphasis: "That's really policy stuff that Council needs to take a position on." Council has paid lip service to precisely that policy through a tedious array of master plans over the past 15 years, but when it comes time to put those plans into practice, Council keeps falling back on a fearful retrenchment in the status quo.
The novellist William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed."
That is certainly true of cities, which are the very laboratories that invent the future. When it comes to urban innovations, some cities are ahead of others.
Chicago, for example, built the world's first transit-only lane 75 years ago in 1940. The future came to Hamilton a bit more slowly: we opened our first transit-only lane, as a two-kilometre pilot project, in October 2013.
But according to Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead, who opposes the bus lane, "The future is not now." In other words, we should not build for the future until ... some time in the future.
Whitehead's antics start at around the 1:51 mark on the video. After arguing that the bus lane was politically motivated by Council rather than generated by a staff recommendation, Whitehead then immediately contradicted himself by accusing staff of not being objective about the bus lane.
"This report was driven by public transit staff that are advocates for the higher order transit and obviously they're looking through a singular lens when it comes to addressing these issues. So I guess the next question is: would it take, what would it take for public transit staff to say no to bus lanes? Would it be short of a nuclear bomb going off? Like, what would it take for public transit to stand in front of us and say, 'We can't tweak this, we can't fix it, but this is the right way to go'?"
It is to Dixon's credit that his jaw remained in place throughout this line of questioning. Dixon reiterated yet again that it comes down to whether Council wants to lead on growing transit or just leave it as it is. "It's not just cars as it was in the '60s. It's about pedestrians, cyclists, transit, cars - moving people through those corridors."
In a follow-up article, I will focus on those members of council who also demonstrated leadership on an inspiring vision for a more prosperous, inclusive, financially sustainable city: Councillors Sam Merulla and Jason Farr, who were on Council when the bus lane was approved, and newcomer Councillors Aidan Johnson and Matthew Green.
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