At the meeting  last month between Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca and city representatives, the minister said Hamilton city staff will soon be invited to  meet with Metrolinx in an attempt to get down to brass tacks on Hamilton’s transit needs. The development comes as some noted urbanists, long seen as staunch supporters of LRT, are starting to have second thoughts.

Yonah Freemark is the creator of The Transport Politic and has contributed on urban issues to the New York Times, CNN, Next City, and other outlets. He is a project manager at Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. Writing in the urbanist website Citylab he says five U.S. cities (Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose) opened light rail systems in the 1980s to great fanfare. Light rail cities like Portland became transportation models for the country, pointing toward a transit-friendly urban future. Yet for even a passionate urbanist like Freemark the LRT dream has not lived up to expectations, “you might think that the experience building light rail in the 1980s had been unambiguously successful. Yet it doesn’t take much digging to find that over the past thirty years, these initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines.” The writer goes on to say that one of the reasons for the disappointing result was the failure by the original five cities to engage in aggressive development near the transit stations. In Hamilton it has been suggested that such development would occur spontaneously.  He also acknowledges that each of the five cities continued to develop freeways at the same time as building light rail and that “these conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail’s mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.  Citylab describes itself as a publication that “informs and inspires the people who are creating the cities of the future—and those who want to live there.”

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy.  Coming from Portland, a city often held up as an example of the benefits of LRT, Walker was quoted in a recent Toronto Star article sounding a skeptical note. ”The US has been under the influence of a very aggressive movement claiming essentially that the streetcar vehicle…has some sort of intrinsic properties that cause it to generate great communities regardless of whether it has any utility as transportation whatsoever.”  Speaking to Toronto Planning earlier this year Walker says we shouldn’t care if the equipment is on rail or tires. Much more important, according to Walker is to maximize the number of places a person can get to in their city within a reasonable period of time, say 15 to 30 minutes—a concept he calls “abundant access.”  Use that criteria rather than what kind of transit vehicle is chosen. Frequency, speed and multiple destinations are key elements of his transit vision. “Is the technology a goal or is technology the tool?” he asked his Toronto audience.

Arguably, Hamilton’s Rapid Ready report is closer to Walker’s vision of an effective transit system than the proposed LRT B Line, because it emphasizes improvements in mobility across and between all parts of the city, above and below the escarpment and into the suburbs. As Walker says, “It is an obsolete model just to get people downtown– people want to reach multiple destinations within a reasonable period of time.”

Written by: John Best

Providing a fresh perspective for Hamilton and Burlington

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