A good LRT plan does more than change transit Take a page out of Jane Jacobs’ book and transform the very way we use city space
In her famous book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs discusses the complex relationship between cities and automobiles. She states that while automobiles aren’t fundamentally bad for cities (for example, trucking is essential to transport goods to businesses), if we fail to limit their use in urban environments, they will slowly but surely erode cities.
Erosion of cities by automobiles entails so familiar a series of events that these hardly need describing. The erosion proceeds as a kind of nibbling, small nibbles at first, but eventually hefty bites. Because of vehicular congestion, a street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one-way flow, an expressway is cut through yonder, and finally whole webs of expressways. More and more land goes into parking, to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of vehicles while they are idle.
Each time a road is widened, or new parking is added, or a new highway is opened, automobile travel is made more competitive and practical compared to other modes. The result is that the road “improvements” don’t just benefit the existing drivers, they actually encourage more driving. This compounding effect in turn creates more demand for automobile travel and more pressure on increasing space for automobiles, resulting in more road widening and highways and parking, and so on and so on.
But the opposite effect is also true. When cities implement changes that make automobile travel more difficult, the result, as Jacobs describes, is “attrition of automobiles” by cities. Slowly but surely, sidewalks can be widened, development can replace parking lots, and bike lanes can replace car lanes. Again, this is a compounding effect. As other modes become more competitive and safe relative to car travel, fewer people drive and even more space is freed for alternate uses. This has been rapidly occurring in downtown Toronto in recent years, where it is now nearly impossible to find a surface parking lot that is not slated for redevelopment.
The initial plans for the Hamilton LRT project showed some promise for introducing some attrition of automobiles. Along the King corridor, vehicle travel lanes were to be significantly reduced, sidewalks were to be widened, and bike lanes added throughout, while at the same time the LRT would introduce a new, time-competitive travel option.
Recently though, policy decisions from the project team have scaled back the effects of this project on automobiles. Rather than implement policies to encourage attrition of automobiles by cities, the project team has chosen to accommodate existing vehicular traffic on parallel streets through significant road widening. This widening will see Dundurn Street North widened significantly, and bike lanes removed on important stretches of the project. Main Street West will remain one-way east of the 403, despite strong recommendations from the 2011 environmental assessment to convert it to twoway (the consultants argued that a two-way Main would make the LRT more time-competitive to driving and thereby encourage more ridership).
Going to such extensive efforts to maintain current traffic volumes will not only add significant capital costs to the project, they will also undermine the benefits of the LRT.
Thinking about LRT simply as an obstacle around which status-quo auto traffic needs to be redirected entirely misses the point and it is short-sighted. This perspective limits the LRT to nothing but an upgrade for existing transit users along that corridor, when in reality this project has the potential to transform the way people move through Hamilton’s core, adding significant people-moving capacity without the obvious drawbacks of adding vehicular capacity.
When the Yonge Street subway was built in Toronto in 1954, Toronto became one of the smallest cities to ever open a subway line. The results of this aspirational project went far beyond simply moving existing transit passenger from one mode to another. The Yonge subway created the people-moving capacity equivalent to a 26-lane highway straight into the downtown core, with a fraction of the space requirements and no pressure for additional car parking. This drastically improved access to downtown Toronto, thereby increasing employment and helping to make it the massive urban centre it is today.
Arguing that the LRT will increase traffic in other parts of the city is a self-fulfilling prophecy if the LRT is accompanied by increased vehicular capacity. This project has finally given Hamilton an opportunity to begin to reverse years of erosion of our downtown by the automobile — let’s not let this one go to waste.
As other modes of transport, like cycling, become more competitive and safe relative to car travel, fewer people drive — and LRT could help in this change, writes Benita Van Mitenburg.