Downtown Bureau

Getting On the Right Track

We can learn from Toronto and other cities and develop the right system for our city without the obstacles and negative side effects being incorporated.

By Jason Leach
Published March 19, 2007

A recent piece in the Toronto Star discusses the ongoing battle in Toronto over dedicated streetcar lanes and their impact on neighbourhoods.

Recent issues of RTH have seen many writers and bloggers come forward with plans for modern streetcars or light rail on Hamilton's main east west corridor – McMaster to Eastgate.

I believe that the plans we've presented here are affordable, efficient and most of all, will have a great impact on surrounding neighbourhoods. Here's why:

1. Cost.

A 'rapid streetcar' using modern streetcar vehicles is much cheaper to build than a full LRT system. Toronto is proposing an LRT system, which, of course, is much cheaper than a subway.

The rapid streetcar concept takes the same features of light rail – speed, attractiveness, permanent tracks which draw large private investment and dedicated lanes – but uses slightly smaller vehicles and doesn't require massive relocation of underground services due to the lighter vehicles.

2. Dedicated lanes, but not walls, curbs and obstacles.

A rapid streetcar plan such as the one proposed to run both ways on Main Street would see streetcars in their own lane, but would still allow cars to make left turns at most streets and cross the tracks easily and safely. The raised curbs that are a feature of Toronto's streetcar lanes are rather clumsy obstacles for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.

In Portland or most European cities with modern streetcars it is common to see street parking on the "other side" of the tracks against the curb as well as pedestrians crossing the tracks with their groceries or cyclists crossing the tracks as necessary.

Obviously the train has the right of way, but we aren't talking about a bullet train speeding along killing people. Streetcars are designed to fit perfectly in the urban environment, not act as obstacles.

Streetcars blend into the cityscape. Feel like jaywalking, crossing the tracks on your bike or dropping someone off? Make sure no train is coming and go for it.

More photos here:

Note – the above photos from Portland show a streetcar that uses the same lanes as cars. Regardless, a double solid yellow line and signage would allow the same design to be used with a system using dedicated lanes. No curbs required.

3. Neighbourhood/retail impact

Let's be brutally honest here. Main street is a shell of what it used to be and what it could be. In Toronto, some shopkeepers feel that the high curbs in the middle of the road and lack of parking have resulted in bad news for business in areas like Spadina that have always seemed to boom.

In Hamilton, five-lane freeways, tiny sidewalks and timed lights have killed once-bustling retail streets. We have parking coming out of our backsides, but few customers and many less shops than there should be.

Rapid streetcars would slow down the vehicle traffic on Main. Curb parking would be retained on the south curb along its entire length and folks could easily turn onto and off of side streets to find more parking.

More importantly, people and businesses would begin to show up in large numbers as a result of the streetcar line. The line shown in Portland in the photos above has seen $1.5 billion in private investment within a five minute walk of the tracks since opening.

Hamilton's east/west corridor has many underused lots and buildings. A streetcar along with a more pedestrian-friendly environment (think trees and benches along the entire corridor) would revitalize neighbourhoods that have been ignored for too long.

LRT spaces stops apart quite far. A rapid streetcar would take a medium approach, having stops spaced out further than a typical bus route, but not as great a distance as with LRT.

4. Transportation options

Even though walking or cycling aren't directly mentioned as a benefit of a rapid streetcar, they are natural byproducts of this project. Right now people have one realistic option for traversing Main Street – their car. Streetcars still allow for two eastbound vehicle lanes, but having lights controlled for the streetcars instead of autos would make it quicker to get from downtown to Eastgate or Eastgate to Mac in the streetcar.

Furthermore, balancing the transportation modes on Main Street would automatically result in more cyclists and pedestrians. Cyclists would feel safer to ride their bikes on a normal city street whereas right now Main Street is not much different than the QEW. More shops, condos, restaurants and streetcar users means more people getting on and off trains, running errands, going out for coffee or just walking the dog.

Main Street would start to look like a proper, urban street once again. Public art, benches, trees, flowers, patios and sidewalk displays would turn an empty, concrete canyon into a wonderful street for local residents and visitors.

Hamilton is establishing a rapid transit office at city hall. I strongly urge those involved in the Transit Steering Committee and in this new transit office to research the modern/rapid streetcar concept. Bus Rapid Transit will be well-used east/west along the Mountain and various north/south routes such as Centennial/Hwy 20.

Our urban east/west corridor is the most logical place for a modern streetcar system. The financial benefits would be incredible and the impact on Hamilton's economy would be fantastic.

We can learn from Toronto and other cities and develop the right system for our city without the obstacles and negative side effects being incorporated. Hamilton's future is in the tracks.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2007 at 12:00:47

I know I'd use a streetcar to get downtown provided it was economical and relatively quick. I live out near Eastgate and I can't stand the way people "drive" downtown. I'd much rather save myself the hassle.

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By maestro*f (registered) | Posted April 05, 2007 at 17:25:39

It seems to me it would be a lot less expensive to run articulated trolley buses with the same right-of-way privileges as a streetcar would have. Unfortunately, an express service from Eastgate to the university doesn't solve the biggest problem the HSR has which is getting from anywhere on the Mountain to anywhere in the lower city. I've ponder solutions to that one more than once!

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 06, 2007 at 15:38:48

you're right - electric trolley's would be cheaper, at least up front. Jump ahead 25 years and at least two full replacement purchases later for buses compared with the 25-year lifespan of streetcars, as well as the operating costs and the total cost ends up coming out pretty close. the biggest difference is the fact that very little, if any, private investment will flow along a bus line. Streetcar/LRT lines are magnets for private investment. And Hamilton really needs that.

I wouldn't say that getting people from the mountain to downtown is the HSR's biggest problem. Having 7 or 8 full buses pass by passengers on the lower city east/west corridor is a much bigger problem. Plus, it's not the HSR's fault that council has allowed the Moutain, especially south of Mohawk to develop in such a poor manner. That's the real problem. the HSR could develop some BRT lines from the Meadowlands, Upper James, Limeridge and Upper Stoney Creek into the lower city but short of spending billions to line every major road on the Mountain with BRT lanes and vehicles it'll never be as convenient to use transit there. The same way it'll never be as convenient for someone living in Markham or Etobicoke compared with someone in downtown Toronto.

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By DredWolf (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2007 at 16:06:54

Hi there. I'm very excited to hear that the city of Hamilton is opening a rapid transit office and that discussion is going on to bring possibly an LRT to Main St. Since the street is five lanes wide, one lane could be taken to widen the sidewalks to allow for patios with the fifth lane being used at intersections to allow cars to make left turns. The Clairemont Access road could be used to run an LRT to upper Hamilton along upper James to perhaps Limeridge mall (Clairemont would be good since it has a gradual climb and no tight bends like the Jolly Cut). One LRV vehicle worth considering is the Bombardier Flexity being used in Brussels, Belgum (which the TTC is considering to use to replace its aging CLRV fleet). I also strongly feel that should Hamilton bring back streetcars, the city should acquire and restore one of the Rockwood Streetcar Museum's original HSR streetcars (which would be wonderful to use for any special ceremonies including the opening ceremony of Hamilton's LRT system).

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