A Modest Proposal: Burn the Straw Men

There’s plenty of talk surrounding the proposal to introduce a light rail transit system from McMaster University down to the Eastgate Square. The conversation has been going on for some time. Many have cited the Hamilton Light Rail Initiative and various experts, from realtors to urban planners, to support developing LRT in Hamilton. The rhetoric is cogent, but sometimes a little over-exaggerated. With this in mind, a new McMaster study—recently amended to provide a critical review of the receptivity of the area surrounding the proposed B-Line—is suggesting we pump the brakes a little, lest we find ourselves running off the rails.


The study’s title, which is so long it could dwarf a freight train, is Light Rail, Land Use Change, and Image-Led Planning: A Comparative Review and Critical Assessment of Hamilton, Ontario. The article contests the notion that an LRT system is a stand-alone panacea for urban revitalization. Rather, a light rail transit system is a catalyst for preexisting factors which, when implemented collectively, can lead to the revitalization of a city’s image and land use. The article lists six preliminary conditions that drive the revitalization of areas surrounding a light rail system. But here’s the problem: Hamilton only meets three of them.


Prerequisites Hampering the Prospect of LRT


Increase in Accessibility


Hamilton loves cars. That fact should come as no surprise to commuters. It’s hardly a new infatuation. In the 1950s the city introduced one-way streets to accommodate the high level of traffic created by commuters trying to reach heavily-industrialized areas of the waterfront, and the downtown core. And here lies the heart of the problem. The system of one-way streets, in tandem with synchronized traffic lights, translates into reduced congestion in the proposed area surrounding the B-Line, running from McMaster University to the Eastgate Square. The article cites Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan, which states that the area is not likely to experience congestion as far ahead as the year 2031.


Figure 3

Caption: Transportation Master Plan 2031 Base Case Level of Service (Current Travel Behaviour with Committed Improvements)

Ironically, the fast-moving flow of traffic may be great for commuters, but is detrimental for proponents for a light rail system.



Positive Social Conditions


Poor social conditions threaten the success of an implemented LRT system, particularly in the downtown core and east end of the city. The study refers to areas projecting lower income families, indications of poor quality of life, and an under-educated population.


Figure 5

Caption: Health, Social, and Economic Area Rankings, 2006


Crime and safety concerns also set the tone for a poor social environment.


Figure 6

Caption: Violence-Prone Areas, 2009 and 2012


Positive Physical Conditions



The city’s one-way streets, apart from reducing congestion within the downtown core, create a poor environment for “potential developers, financiers and buyers,” the study says. In short, a high concentration of fast-paced traffic flow doesn’t mix well with commercialized areas and an influx in pedestrian shoppers. Fair enough.


Factors Bolstering the Prospect of an LRT System


Positive Economic Conditions


The second factor affecting an urban revitalization pertains to a city’s economic, population, and employment growth—and for all three, Hamilton is experiencing a sluggish progression. The city experienced a modest population growth of 0.59 per cent between 2001 to 2011—similar to Toronto’s 0.88 per cent. The article also refers to data collected by Statistics Canada in 2012, which gauges Hamilton’s unemployment rate at 5.9 per cent, calibrated as two per cent lower than the provincial average. The article also draws on the positive demand for development within the downtown core and the city’s reputation for a bourgeoning housing market.


Figure 4

Caption: Changes in Assessed Property Values in Hamilton for 2012


Available Land


Hamilton has a significant amount of available land surrounding the LRT corridor. The study cites an estimation made by the IBI group, which suggests upwards of “500 vacant parcels vacant parcels totaling 243 hectares located within a two-kilometer radius of the proposed line.” Much of this land is currently vacant residential housing or parking lots.


“…There is a considerable amount of available land, much of which will not require land assembly or expensive remediation.”


Figure 7

Caption: Parking and Vacant Parcels in the Lower City


Complementary Government Policy


The McMaster article suggests that preexisting government policies and planning work to bolster the implementation of a rapid transit system. The study refers to a “planning paradigm” consisting of the Government of Ontario’s Greenbelt and Places to Grow Acts—which will accelerate Hamilton’s growth rate as Toronto development expands toward the boundaries.


Now What?


So there you have it, six preliminary factors necessary for implementing a successful LRT system in Hamilton. Some may take this information as the final nail in the coffin for proponents of an LRT system in Hamilton. The work required to introduce a viable location for light rail is beyond the capacity of the city. Doubly so, when considering that moniker given to the Spectator article that released the study, titled, “LRT is No Magic Bullet.” However, the backlash has been surprisingly optimistic. The review does not suggest LRT is dead in the water. In fact, the article’s co-author McMaster PhD student Chris Higgins, produced a piece the same day for Raise the Hammer with the hopes of generating a progressive discussion on the topic. Within the article, Higgins exhorted readers to consider rapid transit as a tool for a job.


“I want to make this absolutely clear: my focus on land development should not detract from the point that LRT is also very good at moving people, and there is a large population in the eastern and western lower city that could concretely benefit from improved transit service,” Higgins wrote.


“In the end, that leaves us with a discussion we need to have, one that is hopefully technical and unemotional in nature. If rapid transit is a tool, be it LRT or BRT, we need to first decide what our needs are, our future goals for the city, and the lengths we will go to capitalize on the particular tool we have chosen.”


Ryan McGreal, Editor of Raise The Hammer also took the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion. His article, “No One Said LRT is a Magic Bullet” defended the publication’s stance supporting LRT. Just as the title of the article suggests, McGreal points out that the LRT argument does not, and never has, been proposed as an all-encompassing solution to land use change and revitalization.


“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,” McGreal concluded.


Overall, the discourse pertaining to LRT is, to put it lightly, emotionally charged. It’s an immensely important topic for the city. It’s a topic that will have a profound effect on Hamilton’s future. Everybody is trying to ensure we do not look back on our decision, some way down the line, to see we’ve made a debilitating mistake. It’s paramount that we do not exacerbate the situation by cramming words into each other’s mouths. That’s the tone McGreal and Higgins adopted within their articles. And it’s advice which we’d all do well to entertain.

About the author  ⁄ Dyson Wells

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