Once and Future Things

A couple of days ago, I responded to an article posted in Raise The Hammer about the cable TV debate on LRT, and how misrepresented one of the panelists was. My comment was addressed more generally to the whole Light Rail Transit (LRT) vs. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) argument that has become one of the key wedge issues of our municipal election here in Hamilton, Ontario. That comment, which was article-length (and a bit heavy on the polemics) was picked up by RTH to become an article in itself. Very flattered, though of course, I didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said by the likes of Brian Henley, Ryan McGreal, Graham Crawford, Chris Cutler and Mark Richardson, to name a few, on the various points that I made. I just put them all together in one place. So Ryan titled, subtitled and reposted my comment here.

The thing is, I’ve been reading about this stuff for the last couple of years, since before the BRT argument reared its ugly head. Dawn and I attended the Metrolinx study a couple of years ago at the AGH, and we’ve been staunch supporters of LRT ever since. For me, it goes back to a conversation I had with my friend William Ferguson, whose father, I was told, worked at City Hall back in the early 80s, when a monorail project was offered to Hamilton… and we passed on that, too. I believe it wound up going to Vancouver instead. This was back when our steel mills were still going pretty strong, and this city’s economy looked sturdy enough to handle just about anything. The recession that followed in the 90s, and the political upheaval of two wildly divisive and unpopular provincial governments (one I gladly voted for; the other not so much) turned most of us off of the idea of provincial politics, and Hamilton’s municipal political scene was largely perceived as a morass of backroom deals and shady associations. Whether they were true or not, rumours of mafia money and graft were rampant back when I was a boy growing up in the East End of Hamilton (Barton and Kenora, to be exact; the ‘White Survey’). Heck, I actually knew some of the big players back then. The 70s and 80s around my house were fascinating times.

Getting back on topic, what can I possibly add that wasn’t already said in the RTH article? Well, for one thing, I haven’t given my view of the BRT side of things. And for another, I haven’t declared for a mayoral candidate, or a ward 2 candidate, or even the ward 1&2 school board trustee. I haven’t even voted yet. I’ve been saving it for the 27th. Advance polls are nice, but I like the rush of going out, voting, going home, and waiting for the results. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as Howard Cosell used to say on Wide World of Sports, which my sister’s dad watched faithfully in the 70s. Along with ABC News, Dirty Harry flicks and Kojak.

So, what about BRT? Well, if it’s all we end up getting out of this deal, I’ll use it. But I won’t like it. And I certainly won’t expect it to be game changing in any sense. And nobody else should, either. See, we’ve already got something like that. It’s called the A and B Lines. And they are fast becoming completely inadequate to our needs. We need better, safer, more frequent routing; we need our ailing bus line to be repurposed to feeding the B and A lines; and we need to send a clear message to commuters that the downtown core isn’t their personal, not-so-private shortcut to the outer boroughs. See, we live here. The downtown core is where we live, worka nd playa lready. Our kids are in those streets. Our shops, our institutions, our livelihoods are tied up in this ailing inner city infrastructure, and many if not most of the people driving through the downtown have absolutely no intention of stopping to buy one single thing. Bus Lanes have nothing to do with it, folks, and they never, ever did. In fact, many of these ‘single occupant vehicle’ owners have openly stated in the comment sections of the Spectator that they want nothing to do with the downtown… except for a shorter commute. And that’s just not good enough.

Aside: I didn’t approve of the Red Hill Expressway, and I still don’t use it, but it horrifies me that too many commuters still drive through the city at speeds exceeding a sensible inner city limit, as if they’re still on the QEW or the 407. That needs to stop, pronto, folks! It’s there, and it gets you across town and around downtown traffic faster than anything we’ve ever had, so bloody well use it already!

Burlington Street and Industrial up to Wellington were the fastest routes through the city for decades, thanks to the favouritism we lavished on our industrial sector, and especially our steel twins, Stelco and Dofasco. But Wentworth and Wellington were never built for that kind of traffic, and Victoria Street looks like hell as well. All three of those roads flank or run through my current neighbourhood, Stinson, where I’ve lived for over twenty years. And in the last five to ten, I’ve seen a steady increase in through-traffic on Stinson, from people coming off of Wentworth from either King, Main or Burlington streets, or Charlton to the south, and driving as if they just came off a major highway. Stinson is almost 100% residential, but they have this dirty little phrase they like to trot out on such occasions, called ‘Arterial roads’.

Then we built the LINC and finally the RHE, and wreaked untold environmental (not to mention historical) devastation in the process. So we’ve got the Expressway now, which helps people NOT drive into Hamilton. For a long time, that thought flummoxed me. I was deeply offended that people wanted to essentially bypass our great city. But as I get older, I kind of wish they would. Our streets would be safer and last longer if they would. Barton, Queenston, King and Main, even Cannon… these streets all drive through low-to-medium density residential and multi-use commercial zones. We neither want nor need heavy through-traffic on these routes. We want residents and shopper on these routes. That’s the way I remember it from when I was a boy, and that’s clearly what the old photos from the 50s through early 80s show: a thriving downtown core loaded with pedestrian shopping traffic everywhere you went. Cars, buses, trucks, yeah, we had ’em, but they weren’t the sole focus, even though our 60s era makeover pretty much guaranteed they would be.

See, we have a funny equation that we’re all taught subliminally in this city; it’s certainly taught elsewhere, but I’ve lived in Hamilton my whole life (minus that three months in Oakville in 1991, which really doesn’t count, since I was couch surfing), so I’m a not certain. The equation works like this: Wide/Fast One Way Streets = $$$!

We learned this equation from the likes of NYC’s former high muckamuck, Robert Moses, who taught the Western World of the 50s and 60s the nouveau philosophy of car culture city planning, though I’m pretty sure he got the idea, ironically enough, from the Nazis (see: Autobahn). My point, all Godwinning aside, is that the guiding philosophy that lead us into this mess was paved with asphalt and good intentions, because we really believed it, and we still do. SOLD! We still think cars and trucks are the only way this city can function. We’ve gotten rid of some of the train tracks that used to crisscross the city, but we’re still making new roads to nowhere with alarming speed, and having to rebuild them at an alarming rate because of increased traffic and inferior construction. We’re just beginning to get the hint and build more stable, concrete-based roads in the East End, but you’d better believe it’s expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive, not to mention a breathing hazard. But hey, it keeps people in work, right?

So, why NOT BRT? We’ve had a pretty good bus system for decades. Or rather, we used to. Provincial downloading of transit costs in the 90s all but murdered the HSR, and it’s been limping along ever since. And in that time, the vague feeling that there was something unsavoury about taking the bus has just bloomed into a whole anti-bus culture. We literally cast our votes against anything to do with improving the buses in this city. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but it’s true. Look at how long we’ve been limping with this substandard bus system that almost nobody is happy with. Even if it’s better than they say, the fact that nobody sees it speaks volumes. Changing the culture is key, but that takes time. Years to fix what takes minutes to undo.

So what we need is to change the conversation, and the best way to do that is simply to cut the knot in half and present a new solution: dedicated transit lanes. And nothing says dedicated more clearly than a fricking rail line that cars and trucks can’t use. You won’t find parked cars or idling trucks accidentally occupying an LRT line, because no one wants to see the untold mayhem–not to mention legal fees–caused by that.

LRT may be expensive and time-consuming to build, and it’s not a one-size-fit-all silver bullet solution, either, but it’s well and truly past time Hamilton stopped looking for every new idea to be a universal panacea. We’re building an ecosystem, here, not a Wal-Mart. We want sustainable development. We want new housing and affordable housing and new jobs and living wage jobs and health and safety and Complete Streets and Bike Lanes and affordable post-secondary education and adult reeducation made widely available and we need a lot–if not all–of it yesterday.

BRT isn’t going to do any of that for us. It’s a bandaid, and not even as cheap as we’re being told. The upgrades, upkeep on roads and the repair fees will keep ballooning for years to come, where LRT will be a sustaining, affordable upkeep issue that won’t even need to address the issue of rebuilding roads every five to ten years. I’m not saying LRT is going to solve everything, but when you consider what it takes to sustain inner city density growth and development (don’t forget the development dollars that City Hall has been courting), you can’t convince investors OR residents that adding a few faster buses to a line that already has fast buses is somehow going to miraculously change the way people get around. Nobody actually believes it. It’s a way to shut down the larger conversation about making radical changes to the way we live, work, play and get around in Hamilton.

Change is expensive and scary, and people would rather blurt out some nonsense to shut the conversation down than have to change their world view. Naysayers know that, if we keep investing in the uncertain future, we won’t be able to go back to the way things ‘always’ have been. And they’re right. But where they get it wrong is this persistent feeling that, if they stall long enough, the steel mills, or perhaps some other big, dirty industrial-based business (see also: Gasification Plant), might come in and rescue us all from the scary future. Heavy Industrial manufacturing and processing are leaving North America,for good. We still make things, but not on the scale we used to, and that trend has been happening since the late 70s… heck, since the post war era of manufacturing and world trade, really. Can you remember how far back you saw your first Toyota? I can. It was lint he late 70s, around 77 or 78, and we all laughed, just like they did in that movie with Michael Keaton and George Wendt, ‘Gung Ho’. And just like that other movie with Danny DeVito, Other People’s Money, every attempt we make to turn back the clock and save the old factory is met with increased indifference and futility. The trend is not reversible, folks. World market forces are in play. They are slow and inexorable, and they happen over decades and centuries, and nothing we do today or tomorrow is going to make Hamilton back into the lunch pail capital of Canada.

But if we invite new development, remediation dollars, and new clean manufacturing in the green sector, we can remold Hamilton and grow in ways we never dreamed possible. Maybe we’ll even get my wife’s glass elevators up the escarpment, or perhaps mayoral-hopeful Crystal Lavigne’s gondolas, or perhaps we’ll just stabilize and grow up the side of the escarpment using a combination of old and new technologies and good old Mother Necessity. Things can change. They will change. We just have to get our heads back in the game and start thinking forwards instead of backwards. We have to welcome the change. Invite the change. Start dreaming about what could be, instead of remaining chained to the past.

So, I’m doing what I can to make change in Hamilton now. I’m a staunch supporter of LRT. I’m a staunch supporter of the lobby registry, of environmental protection, of affordable housing, of poverty reduction, of transparency and open dialogue with our three levels of government. I’m 110% for equal rights and equal pay for all of our residents, regardless of age, race, sex or creed. I believe wholeheartedly in Direct Democracy, and I believe with religious fervour that we all need to be allowed to live our lives as comfortably and as safely as possible, regardless of our financial class status, BUT that we ALL have a duty to uphold the values that make our city, our province, and our country great.

We all need to get in the game and make this work, whatever this is going to be. There is no opting out. There is no moving forward without also putting real effort into making the changes needed, and the way we do that in this society is with our vote. Representational Democracy is a fossil, and we need to get rid of it, but until it’s safely buried, we need to use it to make the changes that will guide and inform our future political landscape. Give it the send off it deserves. Vote for new government, and vote as frequently and as steadily as needed until the change comes. Never waver. Never lose hope. The future will either claim us, or it will devour us. We mustn’t hesitate. We mustn’t drag our feet. That way leads absolutely nowhere. There is no reverse on this train.

Go Big or Go Home.

On the 27th, I’m voting for Brian McHattie, not because I think he’s the best person for the job, but because he has a track record of fighting for the progressive things I care about, and we need that kind of thinking right now, more than ever. Maybe that’s the same thing. I don’t know. I like a few of the mayoral candidates, and I really like Crystal’s vision of the future, and I like Mike’s philosophical take on the city’s needs (plus, he’s a neat guy), and I think Fred’s alright, if a bit over-cautious, but Brian’s platform most resembles mine, so I’m going to back him this time. If he fails to keep promises, he’ll learn what happens to disappointing politicians in Hamilton, soo enough.

I’m also voting for Chris Erl for School Board Trustee, because I know him, I trust him, and I believe he’ll fight for what the city needs from the school board right now, instead of this monolithic, faceless beast we’ve been lumbered with that is tearing apart our schools and our communities.

And I’m still undecided about Ward 2. Jason Farr has the experience and the contacts, and we have a kind of working relationship, which I appreciate, but Terri Wallis would bring a new perspective to council, which it could surely use right now. At this point, I could go either way. I’d like to invite them both to contact me privately if they would like to discuss the matter. Obviously, the 27th is the cut-off date.

Time I wrapped this up. My mother’s internet needs fixing, and I’ve got other fish to fry, metaphorically speaking.

Thank you for reading. Have a good day.


One Response to “Once and Future Things

  • Congratulations on the article posting!
    I take my opportunities to read and reflect on very well articulated points you always bring forward.

    LRT vs BRT is not just a Hamilton Ontario topic. Many European urban studies are being done and places like Dublin, Prague and so on are also including promenades, one way streets and traffic calming measures as part of their urban infrastructure and future planning.

    I too support LRT. Having experienced BRT disfunction in places like Mississauga/Brampton more buses is just congestion and traffic nightmares compounding frustrations.

    Having dedicated lanes makes sense for all the reason you gave and more. Thanks for sharing!

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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