Accidental Activist

Tram Ride an Event in Itself

Bus transit can only get a city so far. If a municipality wants to get people out of their cars they need to provide an incentive - and quite frankly, the bus isn't it.

By Ben Bull
Published February 14, 2008

The bus is a crap way to travel.

Buses stink, they're noisy, they're dangerous and they're dirty.

I don't like them.

When I lived in Hamilton I would hop on a GO bus and head into Toronto for a few drinks once or twice a month. Inevitably, these nights out would end with me sprinting for the terminal, hopping the last ride home and clamoring for the invisible bathroom 30 seconds into the trip.

As a resident of the Hammer, I took the bus infrequently. When I did so the experience was always, how can I put this ... colourful?

I recall one ride, eavesdropping on a young woman's sexual escapades over the previous weekend (I couldn't help but listen, she was talking at the top of her voice). I spend another trip witnessing a brawl that started at the front and spilled out onto the street. Happy memories.

As a youngster in Leeds, I took the bus all the time. Leeds has a bus only transit system like Hamilton. But my memories always seem to bring me back to the same central theme: waiting. I'm sure the popular bus expression "You wait for one, then three come at once" was coined at a bus stop in Leeds.

Opportunities Met and Missed

In 2004 Leeds was supposed to unveil a brand new SuperTram system. Running along a couple of pilot corridors through the downtown and into the east end, the SuperTram was going to propel my old home town into the 21st Century.

But it never happened.

I recall visiting my friends in Manchester when their Metrolink LRT was being constructed. Traffic chaos snarled the downtown and any residents I spoke to bemoaned the "nut jobs on city council" and the "farce" that was their "state of the art" transit system.

"Why do we need trams?" they would ask. "We already have buses."

More specific complaints pointed to the fact that the system was being built at a time when Manchester had other priorities - the city was almost bankrupt and many citizens were impoverished and unemployed.

But they built it anyway.

Wholesome and Exhilirating

Until I travelled to Toronto I had only ever been on one above ground electric rail system, the Blackpool Tramway. I hopped aboard again during a visit last year. It was pink and noisy - and dirty too. But it was on time and it was quick.

And it was fun.

Part of the case for Light Rail transit is its "cool factor". Now - I get that. There is something human and wholesome, even exhilarating, about taking the tram.

When I take the kids on the streetcar in Toronto it's like an event in itself. One look at their faces, as they scan the streets and soak up the world around them, and I know they're having a trip to remember.

It's interesting to me too, that when I fielded the flood of phone calls and e-mails after my letter to the Spectator in 2003, several of these revisited the old Hamilton streetcar.

An 80 year old ex-Hamiltonian from Burlington phoned me to reflect on his childhood trips into town, sitting on his mother's lap and trundling along to Woolies.

"I loved that ride," he lamented with a sigh, "but it's all gone now."

Personal Impressions Shape Our Decisions

More astute RTH readers might be looking for a little more evidence to support my view. But that's not my intent. I'm sure that if I scoured long enough I could find evidence to support both modes of transit - but I won't. To me the argument is anecdotal, because in the end it's these anecdotes, our own personal impressions, experiences and opinions on public transit, that shape our decision to use it.

For me, buses are too noisy and enclosed. When I hop aboard I don't feel attached to the street. On a streetcar I feel almost like a pedestrian. I can hear the street, I can see my surroundings - clearly, and I can smell them too.

In the summer I love pulling open the window, the breeze on my face... It's the closest I can get to walking.

I heard an argument recently that goes something like this: Car owners won't travel on the bus because it stinks and it's slow. The only people who ride the bus are those who have no choice.

This argument makes sense - it's certainly true for me. I have many opportunities to drive my car in Toronto but, for the most part, I don't. I prefer to take the streetcar because, on the whole, I enjoy it.

That would not be the case for the bus.

Painfully Simple

Bus transit can only get a city so far. If a municipality wants to get people out of their cars they need to provide an incentive - and quite frankly, the bus isn't it.

Manchester's Metrolink has been cited as a pivotal reason for the selection of the city's bid to host the 2002 Commonwealth games. Today the city is thriving. Strong evidence shows that Light Rail Transit leads to improved investment, and BRT doesn't.

Now why would that be? You may ask. Well, it's simple. LRT attracts more riders and moves more people from A to B. A city that moves people around efficiently thrives. A city that moves people around together grows and prospers.

To me the argument is painfully simple - Buses bad, LRT good.

Now if Hamilton could only see its way to building one.

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 TOMKINITE (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2008 at 10:00:52

To an extent I believe in the idea of LRT. There are a few exceptions, though.

1) Hamilton is a city of scale, as many other cities. As our city populates and grows so due to the needs of the citizens, our particular civic engineering must also change. LRT does not economically adhere to scalable growth.

For example, we as the citizens could not endure the expense of changing or adding more transit lines as needed for an LRT system. You also eliminate the course of action in analyzing what a popular route might be through real-world testing.

We could not simply change those routes and adjust to the growing concerns and needs of the environment which surrounds it's users.

2) Without prejudices, some of the areas in which LRT would work (given the first point of permanence), downtown for example, would attract some abusers. I believe that LRT would be a short-change or even free system to downtown. In reality, this makes it attractive to the ill-willed and therefore makes it unattractive to the average folk.

Obviously, some recommendations which the review board gave for improving downtown would surely change that around.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted February 18, 2008 at 14:35:00

I was in Manchester this past summer and had the pleasure of using their MetroLink that Ben described. The system was beautiful. Easy to figure out, frequent service, and it fit nicely with the 'feel' of the city.

Manchester is a great example because it is a city very similar to Hamilton. Roughly the same population, built on industry, and in somewhat of a transitional stage. Interestingly, like Hamilton Manchester also has a desire to become a 'transit-hub,' but they've chosen rail instead of airplanes or highways.

With Hamilton ideally situated in close proximity to Toronto, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, London, & Kithcener, it would indeed succeed as a transit hub. A rail-based strategy would embrace the future of inter-city transit. And how suiting that the 'Steel City' would be the centre of a Southern Ontario Rail network.

It all just fits so nicely.

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By lonita_fraser (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2008 at 08:38:05

I have very fond memories of the DLR in London (Docklands Light Rail). It was quick, in no way separated from the regular rail or tube system, and a very charming way to see that part of the city - also, at the time I was there, the easiest way for a tourist with a yen for time-related interests to get out to Greenwich to stand on the Prime Meridian. (Yes, yes, I'm a geek. :) It's not always beautiful, sometimes too industrial for the tastes of some, but that's Hamilton as well, so part of us.

Many years ago I recall someone in grade school telling us that downtown Hamilton had been planned as a two-storey city core: pedestrians and shop entry up, traffic down - hence the rather tall nature of a lot of shopfronts in the core. If they had gone through with that plan, an LRT would have been much simpler to slot in next to road traffic. It would be curious to find out why that plan was never adopted, if, indeed, it was not merely a rumour.

What would be interesting also, is providing a better and higher quality transit option for people who live in outlying areas such as Grimsby, Caledonia, Binbrook, Waterdown, et cetera, but who live in Hamilton; or, conversely, people who live in Hamilton and work in those places, or even the remoter areas of Stoney Creek. There's currently, to my knowledge, no public transit option at all. I am not alone, I know, in having to turn down excellent employment opportunities because there's simply no way to access the businesses in question unless you drive. A point was made regarding the Mac/Eastgate corridor - an LRT on that route could easily be extended right out to Grimsby and Dundas, for example. Easier access to Ancaster, the remoter parts of the escarpment, the beach, the bay, et cetera, would also be served nicely by an LRT.

Not everyone drives, or can, or even wants to, yet these outlying areas are vital parts of this region, and they can't be utilised or accessed unless non-sustainable transit is used to do it.

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By TOMKINITE (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2008 at 12:31:43

>>Yes it does. It can support much higher densities than we currently see along the Mac-Eastgate corridor. Within the large range of densities an LRT line can support, it can scale up by adding more and longer vehicles. Naturally, it is most cost effective per ride at the highest density it can support.
I can agree with that.

>>In addition, LRT itself attracts investment in new developments at an appropriate density (i.e. developers build around LRT lines in a manner that maximizes their allocative efficiency by establishing an intensificiation that the service can support).
I agree.

>>The city has already extensively studied locations for higher order transit, and the Mac-Eastgate corridor (the route of the current B-Line, a kind of BRT-lite) is the prime location. A second higher order route has been proposed from James through Upper James to the airport.
These routes would be great.

>>LRT is not a passive mode, and nor is it a zero sum game. By making infrastructure decisions, the city influences how and where development occurs.

Build a highway outside the city, and development will occur at low densities on land accessible to the highway.

Build a light rail line inside the city (at a lower price per kilometre, mind you), and development will occur at higher densities on land within the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) corridor - approximately 400 m to either side of the line, or the maximum distance that the average person will walk to a transit station.
I believe each city has a magnitude to which this sort of transportation will absorb. I'm curious the degree in which Hamilton would benefit (not just transport-wise, but with image of the city, etc). I'm excited to see what the outcome may be.

>>Why? Since the province is offering to pay the capital costs, I would assume that LRT would be the same price as a bus.

>> In any case, an LRT line could help pay for itself simply by increasing the business tax assessment along the route. If we compare with other cities that have invested in light rail, Hamilton could expect up to $100 million a year in new assessment on TOD.
Interesting. Good ROI on TOD? :)

>>Again, you're using simple, binary reasoning to model a complex system.
Tsk. Tsk. I think an open mind is all that is needed in accomplishing great strategies.

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By bigbri (registered) | Posted March 06, 2008 at 10:59:29

For nearly a decade, starting in 1996, I took the GO bus every work day back and forth between home in Hamilton and work in Toronto. I considered it Southern Ontario's best kept secret: it was cheap, it was relaxing, it was convenient, it even could be stimulating. You could sleep, do the crossword or simply stare out the window and think. Yes, your fellow travellers could be colourful at times and yes, like any transit system, you had to put yourself on a clockwork schedule. But never once, in the estimated 4,000 trips I took, did I witness a fistfight or even a loud argument. Oh, sometimes, the characters were obnoxious - like the drunken Ticat fan who sang Randy Travis songs all the way home or the dude who liked to play his music loudly - but they were harmless. At times, the people you met could be interesting, even enchanting - like a woman who became my girlfriend for a while. (I abandoned GO in 2005 because of what has become my bugaboo: how people use their cellphones in confined public spaces - but that's another story.) What Ben is suggesting would take us back to a more genteel, romantic era for sure, the turn of the 20th century when electrical radial lines fanned out from Hamilton in all directions.

But is it feasible now? Who's going to pay for it? What GO Transit ought to consider, at least in the interim, is finding ways to make the current bus experience more palatable (ban cellphones?) and comforting for the poor slobs who must rely on it. Start marketing it more effectively. Make it, dare I say, sexy. For what it's worth. Bigbri.

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By MarkState (registered) - website | Posted April 06, 2008 at 07:37:18

I grew up in Hamilton when we had streetcars as part of the system. HSR stands for Hamilton Stree Railroad. The entire city guffawed when we were able to sell our streetcar fleet to Toronto, and applauded as the tracks were torn up or buried under the streets. I was too young at the time to appreciate the celebration.

In 64, I moved to Toronto, where I have lived since. Now I know why Hamiltonians laughed at Toronto for picking up the cars, and cheered to see them go.

LRT carries 3X the number of people per vehicle as buses. But now, GO is experimenting with enclosed double decker buses, so this last of the sane reasons for wanting to keep the streetcars is on the way out as well.

I can't even know where to start with the streetcar situation. So let me begin by pointing out to you that your aversion to buses seems to stem from rolling home half cut on the very last bus back to the city you had to get away from to get drunk for your own reasons. You now have an aversion to buses, and think that this is a good argument for prefering light rail to them. Maybe there's some sense in what you say, but if there is, I haven't seen it. Be careful you don't twist your ankle in the rails, or fall down by tripping on them like many senior citizens do here every day, or catch the front wheel of your bicycle in them and go tumbling ass over teakettle if the people in Hamilton are ever stupid enough to take your comments seriously.

Contrary to what you say, streetcars on most lines are completely unreliable. It's not altogether their fault, though. Often, and I underscore the word 'often', you will see several streetcars lined up on the tracks behind one another because the lead one has broken down, been involved in a situation with a vandal or miscreant, been involved in an accident with another motor vehicle, been stuck behind an accident with two or more motor vehicles obstructing the track, or been involved in an accident where somebody stepped off the streetcar (only 3 lines in the city of Toronto have pedestrian island stops in the middle of the street where the cars run: Spadina, St. Clair, and Lakeshore) and was hit by a passing vehicle. While the streetcars are lined up (and if buses were employed on the same route, they could have gone 'round), the potential passengers down the line line up in mobs at the stops... waiting. The first car through stops at all the transit pickup points, and the passengers crowd on and perform personal plowing moves to get off.

Your kids have never enjoyed these crowds, I take it. Bring them to Toronto for another ride. Don't wait for a streetcar traffic jam...did I mention that when the streetcars come along the street, they are usually followd by a dozen or two automobiles who are not allowed to pass them when the doors are open, but can't possilby pass them most of the time anyway because the streets are parked in the curb lanes...just come during rush hour when the people who want to take the TTC have their daily dose of second thoughts.

In Toronto, the acronym TTC stands for Toronto Transit System. Torontonians will tell you it also stands for "take the car!"

When you begin to tally up the cost of replacing track and overhead line, constant scouting of line track and in-service repairs to powerline pucks, daily yard repairs on vehicles that were new in the 80's, and electricity used to power them (the motors are 3 phase, and the initial impetus on the streetcars is energy consuming), two or three buses are only slightly more expensive to run, safer (both as a traffic vehicle with manoeverability and because they pick up and drop off at the curb), and at least as clean (we use electric, bio diesel, and crossover buses in Toronto,and are gradually replacing the fleet of diesels with them).

We might have to replace them with two buses each or even with one double decker, and so the expense of drivers will be increased for a while.

Meantime, your view of LRT as an alternative to buses is completely unrealistic and seen through the blurred rosy coloured glasses of your past.


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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted April 07, 2008 at 14:23:59

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your comments. I live in Toronto now, and lived here for a few years before my 6 year adventure in Hamilton. I am very familiar with the TTC.

I notice you don't mention the safety statistics relating to bus travel. I would be interested to know what they are and how they compare...

There is no black and white when it comes to urban transit. I am not suggesting for a moment that the case for Light Rail is air tight. There is always a downside to every system. My commentary is simply reflecting- for the most part - my predominant thoughts about Bus travel.

However, now that I am back in Toronto I have to say I am finding the streetcar a very pleasant way to travel. I agree with most of your observations about tram safety. I would also add speed - or rather lack of it - to the list of TTC downsides. But, as Ryan points out, there are lots of measures that can be taken to speed up the streetcar and make it operate more reliably and safely. I believe the lack of TTC investment has more to do with the streetcar's failings than the streetcar itself.

With respect to your dedicated transit line comments (Spadina et al) - I, personally, do not like these. As you say the pedestrian medians are ridiculously small and often lead to people spilling onto the track. And they break the street up. I hate plotting my way onto the media and standing in the middle of the road as streetcars come within inches of me and my kids as we wait to get on. I would rather these medians were used for street carts/shopping vendors or bike lanes.

For dense urban streets like Queen and King adding more speed is clearly dangerous. Although with triggered lights the A-B commute time could be reduced without an increase in travelling speed. A friend of mine recently suggested to me that they should build an underground for busy thoroughfares and put antique trolley's on the streecar tracks for the tourists and for those who don't like the subway. Interesting idea. For those towns that can't afford subways however, or don't have the density for them, I think the LRT argument far outweights the bus argument for sure.

You are correct that buses are now more environmentally friendly and cost-effective, and have some mobility advantages over LRT, but I still don't like them and, overall I feel the LRT argument in much stronger.



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