The Hamilton LRT Debate – a primer

Okay, I’ve read a fair bit on this subject, but I am far from the most capable or the most educated person to take up the challenge. There are a LOT of good and bad points about this debate, and yet the only thing I keep hearing from most naysayers is that it will be a waste of provincial tax money, because it’s too good for the likes of those who use public transit in Hamilton currently. As you can imagine, I take exception to the inference. I use public transit quite a bit. I may not be the sort of person you want to invite to your stag and doe, or even the wedding, but I AM a human being. Kindly extend me the same courtesy I extend you in assuming you aren’t just some terrible mouth breather with thin skin and a permanently upturned nose.

LRT isn’t just for welfare recipients and children. That’s a problem that we have artificially enforced in this city. Over the last three decades, we have reduced the HSR operating budget, cut numerous routes and numbers of busses on the roads, and kept hiking the fares without improving the service in any meaningful way (pro tip: making the drivers drive faster and work harder isn’t an improvement). We also created a stigma against bus riding, some here referring to the bus as the ‘loser cruiser’, the kind of snobbery that really doesn’t suit Hamilton’s rough image at all. LRT benefits workers of every class, and it benefits elderlies and families, too, because it will be able to move more of them from one end of the city to the other, and from home to GO station faster and safer than the buses, and even the venerable old B Line can.

It also has something to do with our long, somewhat unhealthy, slightly obscene love affair with our cars and the automobile industry. We used to make a lot of steel here, so back when cars were still made of steel, we were practically car makers ourselves. In fact, we even had a car plant here, too, a long time ago. The steel jobs are mostly gone now, and cars are mostly made of plastic now, but we still drive one person to a vehicle to the Timmie’s and then to work, like it was an ordaned right given to us by some old car deity in the sky. We curse and bemoan anyone using the road for anything other than driving, even though these roads were originally formed by horse and cart, and then built and designed for bicycles, not cars. We get behind the wheel and think we own the road, and by proxy, the city as a whole. That’s how entrenched car culture in Hamilton is. But the thing is, cars are not what put Hamilton on the map. We have been many other great things in our longish history besides steel makers and car manufacturers-by-proxy.

And cars haven’t been as good to us as we like to think, either. I won’t go into the pollution and environmental arguments, of which there are many, which sadly, most Hamiltonians are raised to ignore, thanks to our decades of manufacturing history. What I will say is, our dependency on the car has reshaped this city in so many ways, and not all of them good. I can’t find numbers on this, but I’m reasonably sure that we have more one way streets than just about any other city in Ontario. Maybe even Canada. We’ve been talking about two way conversion for sixteen years, and still haven’t converted more than a handful of streets. Interestingly, those streets that have been converted now enjoy much more vibrant businesses and services than they did back during the declining years of the 80s and 90s.

And that decline wasn’t a coincidence. One way streets came along to help alleviate growing traffic problems in the 50s and 60s, when more families were buying their first car, and as a consequence, more people found it easier to move to the growing suburbs and to drive to other cities for shopping and work, and thus began the decline of the downtown core. It all ties in together, folks. We made it easier to ignore the core, and the core very nearly died as a consequence. That may not seem like a big deal to all those people living in Ancaster and Flamborough, where you imagine the death of old Hamilton won’t affect you, but it would. Fortunately, we’ve stopped the death cycle, for now. We’re enjoying a renaissance in Hamilton, and most of the storefronts are full or being redeveloped again. Almost to capacity once more. You should slow down and see it some time.

But the point I came to make is that LRT is not just some high-falutin’ strategy to bilk you of tax money to appease ‘aggressive urbanists’ (more like ‘defensive urbanists’, if you don’t mind me saying); it’s about investment in our collective future. We will build routes that reach most of the city, so that people who come to the city can actually see the whole city without having to rent a car and figure out our arcane one way street system, badly overbuilt, underused throughways and treacherous mountain accesses. The proposed BLAST plan is fairly comprehensive, and if we reallocate HSR resources to servicing those areas that aren’t serviced by the LRT system, then public transit won’t be such a bad joke in Hamilton anymore.

LRT invites redevelopment dollars. I know that sounds counterintuitive. How can you make more money by spending more money on a service no one (worth knowing) will ever use? Well, the answer is simple: if you consider the age groups moving to the core, you see more students and professionals and elderlies with no access to cars, looking for easier access to the amenities of the city. We’re becoming an urban center again. We’re building thousands of condo units, and if they fill up, that means thousands of workers and shoppers who will need easy, efficient ways to get around the city. I know, you’re thinking of cars. But in a city with one way streets the way we have them, and parking problems the way we have them, and the transit system the way we’ve currently gimped it, that means walking or biking, and as any pedestrian or cyclist can tell you, Hamilton is actively unkind to non-motorists going anywhere near their roads.

I don’t want this to be an Us-vs-Them argument. It’s not. You may not be an early adopter of the LRT when it comes, but one day, most of you will leave the car at home (or at the dealership, because you’re too old and infirm to drive safely anymore…. and some of you should have lost your license a lot sooner, with the way you have been driving lately) and take the train. It really does make sense, so long as it works, and the thing of it is, it will work, if you let it. That’s the thing. We’re all so hard-wired to think that anything new that other cities do can’t possibly work here, because Hamilton is special. The truth is, we’re not that special. We’re certainly not bucking any bad trends other cities that reject change do. We widen and lengthen our roads, and our traffic just gets worse, not better. There are actual, scientific explanations for this, but I suspect you aren’t interested. You just want me to trot out some argument you can poke holes in with the badly misrepresented statistics you’ve read in the Spec. We all kn ow that editorial slant can make one set of numbers dance to any tune we like. There are numbers that support most arguments, if you care to look. I like reassuring numbers that support my argument, but I’ll take whatever facts you hand me.

Either that, or you want to remind me that you as a home-owning taxpayer have a right to say where your tax dollars go. Fair enough. So do I. I pay property taxes, too. I’m not a homeowner, so I don’t pay them as directly as you do, but my rental rates increase almost annually to offset the taxes my property managers pay, and it’s a fair bit more than yours, in the long run. So I get a say, too (And I say, you can thank me later). We all do. But you see, we are currently engaged in what we call representational democracy, where we rely on our elected officials to represent our best interests for us, because we essentially can’t be bothered to do so on a regular basis ourselves. What that effectively means is, the only way we get opinions formed in the interim heard is we have to invest some of our spare time to join groups and associations to grab our councillors and mayor’s ear and make them see reason. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and often doesn’t help one bit, but we do it because we care.

Unsurprisingly, a number of urban core neighbourhoods have rallied and gotten involved in local politics, and that alarms the outer wards, who have few if any Neighbourhood.Community Associations or Business Improvement Areas to compete. A lot of us so-called aggressive urbanists are really just residents like you who have issues and demands, but have taken time away from our families to look into these new developments and let our councillors know which way we lean on any given issue. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, as I said, but we do it because we care. And not just for our own streets or neighbourhoods. Many of us are united in causes and groups in this city that cross neighbourhood and even ward boundaries. We want everyone we know to live better lives, and we know people all over the city. We don’t get paid to do this. We do this out of some perhaps misguided idea that ours can be a great, wonderful city if we work to revive and sustain it.

But what does this have to do with LRT?

LRT is not going to cure cancer. it’s not going to bring our loved ones back from the dead. It’s not going to save us from the zombie apocalypse. But it will shorten riding and waiting times, and it will reconnect our separate wards in a way that the HSR with its gimped service schedule and its stigma-ridden reputation probably never will, even if we DO put more, faster buses with dedicated bus routes (that don’t get taken away from us in under a year) and stabilized fare rates. It’s a weird truism, and it doesn’t make sense on the face of it, but once your city reaches a certain size and population density, it starts needing trains. Trains move people faster, safer and reliably. Not always, but then, weather and road kill affect us all equally, regardless of our mode of transport. At least we don’t have to shovel our drive or dig our car out of a snowbank to get to work.

LRT won’t make suburban sprawl more bearable. But you see, that’s the thing of it; suburban sprawl is a fairly recent convenience, and it really doesn’t work out as well as we have been telling ourselves. In the end, many empty nesters are moving out of those homes and moving to retirement villas, or to downtown condo developments where they can get to the grocery store, the hospital or the pharmacist easier than they can now, even if they can still drive. And that’s something most Hamiltonians don’t like to admit; driver’s licenses are not a dog-given right. We get them as soon as we can when we’re young, and think we’ll be driving for the rest of our lives, but it’s not true. The reflexes and eyesight go, and your old reliable vehicle dies the death and your retirement plan can’t cover the cost of a new car, and before you know it, you’re virtually trapped in your subdivided suburban homestead, unless your son or daughter (or grandson/granddaughter) are available to come take you to the grocery store.

LRT won’t make you a hot chocolate and tell you a bedtime story, either. But what it promises to do, and what it can and will do, is improve the odds of getting more cars off the road before 2040 when they expect that the surplus population in and around the GTHA will be so high that our roads won’t be able to cope, and Single Occupancy Vehicles will become a pariah anyway. I understand the primal urge to not be stuck in a car with other people on the way to work. Many of us prefer to drive alone, if at all, because, let’s face it, people are annoying and unreliable, and they throw us off our groove, especially first thing in the morning. But there is a problem with this: Petroleum is a finite resource. The oil deposits are almost depleted, and they’re being emptied faster and faster, every year, despite the warnings. And roads, well, they’re extremely finite, too. We can’t afford to rebuild every urban and suburban road to better take the number of vehicles that we have now, let alone that we will have if we keep on building suburban housing complexes the way we have been in the last twenty to thirty years. All of those cars put incalculable strain on our roads, whether there are one or four people in the car. But at least if there are four people in one car, it’s less car than four people in four.

People are moving to Hamilton. They never stopped, actually. You may, as a long time or lifetime resident feel a little miffed about this, but it isn’t going to stop. We don’t put people on buses and send them elsewhere. We welcome all comers. That’s what cities do. And if you actually understand the value of your city life, then you’ll know that your city doesn’t need fewer people, but many more. It’s a weird dichotomy, but the more people you have, teh more resources you have, and the more workers you have, and the more things you can make and sell, ad nauseum. We don’t have a shortage of jobs; we have a shortage of good jobs close to home. The unbelievable thing is, the more people you have living in a city, the more jobs will stay and or develop in the city. Businesses don’t make you come to them; they come to where you are. Enough people in Hamilton capable of doing modern jobs will attract more businesses that we’ve never had before, opening up options for everybody who isn’t still holding down a steady 7-3:30 in (Arcelormittal) Dofasco or the few factories left running in Hamilton’s industrial sector. IBM is coming to Hamilton. They won’t save us alone, but it’s a really good start.

Look, we have spent a great deal of time, energy and money (both public and private) in the last ten to fifteen years trying to turn our collective fate from financial ruin to this great story of Hamilton as The Comeback Kid. And that is what Hamilton is, and always has been.

We can turn the tide here, and we can rewrite our own epitaph to read ‘Not Dead Yet’. One thing we need is more jobs. More investment dollars. More skilled labour. We can and will get all of that in the next ten to thirty years. It’s already starting. But we can’t expect folks to stay and make a go of it if we won’t give them amenities and services like they’re used to in other, larger, more diverse, more productive (yes, I said it) cities. They will come, they will try living here, and they will move away again, leaving us with more crippling debt than we have now, with empty houses and empty condos and empty storefronts again, and we will have nothing to show for it, and nothing to build on, and no more second chances, at least for this generation, and all because we couldn’t approve of one enhancement, simply because we can’t see how it benefits us personally.

It’s time we understood that a city as large as ours is a collective of a LOT of peoples with a lot of different expectations, and a lot of different priorities. One of our priorities in city building over the last fifty years has been helping drivers get around faster. But it’s been proven demonstrably that this philosophy doesn’t benefit the health and welfare of the city as a whole. In fact, making your car commute easier has cost us millions per year in road repairs and lost revenue from your dollars being spent elsewhere. Buying Local isn’t just a nice sentiment; it’s a movement to revive decaying cities and towns. SUpporting your local businesses encourages them to give better, more competitive services, and giving to your local economy keeps money in Canada, instead of sending it to the Waltons (of Wal-Mart) in America (who incidentally don’t pay nearly their fair share of taxes in either country). Buying Local actually becomes a priority when you limit your footprint and shop in local shops you can reach by bike or by foot, or occasionally by short trips in your car. Owning a car shouldn’t be an invitation to corporate greed, but they have learned to anticipate the habits of a car-driving, seemingly independent population who don’t care how their shopping choices affect their neighbourhoods and their hometowns.

We can all either rise together into a new age for Hamilton’s prosperity and identity as a working city, or we can look to the past longingly, wishing it would all somehow magically come back and we could all know the security and prosperity of our grandfathers, who moved here because things were happening. Things are happening again. You can be part of it. We all can.

And yes, LRT is part of that. Not the only part, but a big part. One train route isn’t going to save the city, but it’s going to make a difference, and that difference will not be in isolation. More changes are coming every day, and we have to work hard to cement those changes and make them sustainable. People want to live here again. People who bring new jobs and new ideas. This city is on the cusp of a great rebirth.

But we have to accept the changes, first.

Thank you for reading.


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