It’s a funny thing to witness this city as it attempts to free itself from the negative stigma that has loomed over it like a shadow for so long. Hamilton’s no stranger to battling poor image and misguided perceptions, being once known as nothing more than the ugly stepchild to the more glamorous areas of Southern Ontario.
The streets of the downtown core are a derelict, pseudo-urban wasteland: its cultural spheres are as desiccated as the lands its steel mills were built on. Crude and outrageously misguided as these statements are, all of them could have been said about the city at one point or another. The stigma of an ugly city, a dirty city, is a pit that we’ve slowly begun clawing our way out of in recent years.
Our communities are no longer perceived as vapid and lifeless. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for those within our city—and those hailing from the outskirts of the GTA—to tune out our artists and musicians. To dismiss them as irrelevant. Our housing market has become one of the most explosive in all of Canada. The truth is, Hamilton’s not just a Steel City anymore.
And yet, in an almost comical turn of events, we face another stigma that is nearly identical in rhetoric. Much of the accomplishment this city has achieved rests upon its ability to embrace public transit. This is not a new premise, and it’s one city council had agreed on unanimously four years ago with the decision to greenlight a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. Of course, a lot has happened since then. The Liberals have pledged to fund 100 per cent of the capital cost of a light-rail transit system in the city, which is estimated at $811-million.
Now, in an impressive display of political back-pedalling, we’re told that the Province is willing to support 100 per cent of the capital construction costs of “rapid transit,” as per Ontario’s Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca earlier this year. The ambivalence of the Province’s commitment draws more questions than answers. The most obvious of which, “what exactly does rapid transit entail?” Nobody will say. So, we’re left bracing for two drastically different outcomes, LRT or BRT.
A little over nine per cent of Hamiltonians take advantage of public transit for their daily commute. That number falls surprisingly short of the national average of 12 per cent, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent figures from 2011. Of course, larger cities have the capacity to maintain a higher public transit rate amongst its commuters, with 23.3 per cent in Toronto and 22.2 per cent in Montréal.
On average, the larger a city is, the bigger an issue traffic congestion becomes, and the greater the need for commuters to circumvent the situation through the use of public transit. In larger cities, the practicality of a shorter commute overcomes any distaste for public transit. Yet in smaller cities, where traffic is less of an issue, the stigma of public transportation prevails. “Public transit is ugly, dirty, and only for those who can’t afford better.”
Sound familiar? And there’s the problem. When the discussion revolves around waterfront restoration, or the introduction of new businesses within the downtown core, we are the Ambitious City. But once the discourse narrows down to public transportation, we hit the brakes.
The more one looks at the figures related to transportation in Hamilton, the more one begins to feel as though we’re sitting behind the wheel of a car, idling at the curb.
In a recent study by Oxford Properties Group, an international real-estate investment organization, the company surveyed a little over 2,000 Canadian workers.
“Three-quarters of Canadians identify a reasonable commute to the office as their most valued attribute, followed by access to public transportation (44%), as well being within walking/biking distance to home (35%).”
Lynda Lukasik is a veteran of community activism and certainly knows her way around a roadmap. After receiving her PhD in Urban and Regional Planning, She became the Executive Director of Environment Hamilton in 2002. She has maintained that position and has also served two years as a policy and decision analyst in the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. Shebhas taught environmental planning and policy courses at Athabasca University, the University of Toronto, the University of Guelph, and Ryerson University.
“Ultimately I think LRT is what we need in this community, quite frankly. I’ve heard people talk about bus rapid transit as a transition to LRT, and I agree with that perspective. I’m looking down the road to Kitchener-Waterloo. They started later than we did on this conversation, and they’re building their LRT.”
The region adopted a plan to introduce a LRT system back in 2010 with the hope that it will increase urban density. Councillors, Members of Parliament, and the Ontario Transportation Minster broke ground on the first stages of construction for the Waterloo region LRT earlier this September.
But Kitchener-Waterloo isn’t currently one of the hottest housing markets in the Country. The question then becomes, is a bus rapid transit system capable of accommodating for the influx of commuters forecasted to be travelling in and out of the city? For Lukasik, the city has no time to waste.
“Right now we have a B-Line, but that’s hardly a comprehensive rapid transit system. We may find out the hard way that, yes, rapid transit and, ultimately, LRT were essential pieces—because we know already, the boom is starting,” Lukasik said.
“Even in terms of thinking about urban quality of life, if we’re going in this direction of where the development is happening, and we’re not paying attention to our public transit system… unless all these people commit to walking and biking everywhere they go, we may have a big mess on our hands.”