Time to go all-in on Hamilton LRT

This article was originally published in the Hamilton Spectator here.

Hamilton is at a turning point in its history. After decades of decline, job losses, and blight, things are really starting to look up. For the fourth year in a row, more than $1 billion in new construction permits were approved in 2015. The West Harbour GO station has contributed to the revitalization of the north end and James Street North, and upcoming GO service to Stoney Creek promises to do more of the same when it opens in 2019. Despite the belief that Hamilton has become a “bedroom” community, 70% of Hamiltonians work in Hamilton and our downtown office buildings are at the highest occupancies in years, hosting new high-profile tenants like IBM.

Yet still there is much room to improve. We still design our streets primarily for driving, and as a result 84% of trips taken by residents are made by car. Despite the city’s targets to grow transit ridership from 2001 to 2011, transit trips per capita actually decreased, while at the same time other GTA municipalities (including Durham, Brampton, and York) saw double digit growth. Hamilton also failed to meet its goal of increased rates of walking and cycling from 2001 to 2011, and it’s showing on our waistlines – a 2011 Statistics Canada study found that nearly one in three Hamilton adults are obese.

At the forefront of Hamilton’s turning point lies the single largest investment in Hamilton’s history – the B-Line Light Rail Transit project. Despite commitment from the Liberal government to pay all construction costs for the project and countless supportive votes from city council over the years, the issue has been incredibly polarizing for our community. Some claim it to be the silver bullet solution to Hamilton’s problems, while others are concerned about whether the project is needed at all.

The reality is that building the LRT will absolutely benefit our city – it will improve transit access and travel times across the city, spur new development, and support the city’s commitments to addressing climate change – but it’s up to us to maximize its potential. This project isn’t just about building a new rapid transit line, it’s about a commitment to building and improving the transit network that serves Hamilton as a whole.

One aspect of the debate has been over whether the LRT should be accompanied by a conversion of Main Street to two-way traffic. According to the business case for the project from 2010, “The introduction of a time-competitive rapid transit system following the conversion to two-way streets provides additional incremental benefits.” In fact, the conversion of one-way streets to two-way is so obviously important that the business case assumed Hamilton would have done this regardless of whether or not the LRT was built. Downtowns don’t need to support high-speed, cross-town vehicle traffic, but they do need to serve those who live, work, and operate businesses there.

Another key element to the success of the LRT is Hamilton’s bus network. A high-frequency LRT arriving every 10 minutes or less doesn’t benefit those who don’t live near the line if connecting buses only arrive every 30 minutes. The best transit systems support “show-up-and-go” service, that is, service that is so frequent you don’t need to consult a schedule, you can just arrive at the stop and know a bus is arriving soon. The HSR’s proposed Ten Year Strategy calls for increased bus frequencies and more buses across the city, two things desperately needed for HSR to grow its ridership and support seamless connectivity between buses and the LRT. Sadly, though, the plan remains unfunded by city council. If city council is serious about improving transit access for all Hamiltonians, it is critical that they secure the funds to implement this plan.

Finally, higher-order transit cannot be successful if people cannot reach it through the most basic form of transportation – walking. Toronto’s rapid transit network contains very few stations with parking, yet the subway system there carries more than double the population of Hamilton every day! Their secret: it’s very easy to reach on foot. The surrounding streets and development patterns are supportive of walking. Along the Hamilton LRT corridor and beyond, it is essential that the city commit to improving the walkability of the streets by calming traffic, adding safe crossings, and widening sidewalks.

LRT will undoubtedly deliver a wealth of benefits to Hamilton, but if we take a lukewarm approach to implementing it, the outcomes of this billion-dollar investment will be less than ideal. We need to complement the LRT with supportive infrastructure and policies, including the two-way conversion of Main Street to better serve the needs of downtown, full funding of the HSR Ten Year Strategy to improve bus connections to LRT, and continued pushing for more safe, quality walking infrastructure to make it easier for people to reach LRT on foot.

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