In Steeltown, a familiar refrain on light rail transit

And some locals are blaming recent Toronto transplants for pushing “ideological, anti-car” solutions on working-class Hamilton


HAMILTON – It is a rite of passage for newcomers to Hamilton to head to hip James Street North, the heart of the art district.

The downtown is rather depressed but there is an exciting arts scene on James North – it always comes up in discussion of a changing Hamilton with its galleries, clubs, independent restaurants the popular well-attended monthly art crawl and the fall “Supercrawl” music festival, which attracts 100,000 attendees.

The city of half a million is far more than that. Greater Hamilton is also blessed by accessible Greenbelt surroundings like the Niagara Escarpment and the Cootes Paradise waterfront sanctuary.

I moved with my wife to the rust belt city in May 2013 after living in Toronto almost all my life, following other younger Torontonians moving here as well because of the cheaper housing. The local realtors’ association cannot say how many former Torontonians are buying up the reasonably priced building stock. The Transportation Tomorrow Survey offers a clue. It reports that more than a third of working Hamiltonians are commuting daily outside this city by car or GO Transit, with about 82 per cent of them headed directly for the GTA.

The migration to Steeltown has picked up to the point that locals complain of recent arrivals infecting the political culture of working-class Steeltown. The current municipal elections have provided flashpoint for that debate over an issue familiar to Torontonians – the car versus light rail transit (LRT).

Brian McHattie, a planner and local councilor since 2004 who is originally from Etobicoke, is running on a progressive platform and has the support of urban activists who want to see more streets like James North in Hamilton. His slogan: A New Mayor For A New Hamilton. To that end he’s released a four-part plan for improving neighbourhoods that he’s dubbed, wait for it, Transit City.

And yes, like the plan of the same name pushed by former lefty Toronto mayor David Miller, LRT. The $1 billion line proposed would run from McMaster University to Eastgate Mall across the lower part of the city below the forest-laden Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario. The plan also includes more space for walking and cycling on city streets.

For local activists who have long been fighting uphill battles for two-way, pedestrian-friendly “complete streets” here, McHattie is a bit of a godsend. They see his LRT plan as an opportunity to transform whole swaths of an economically stagnant lower city into neighbourhoods that will attract smart development.

But there’s a major roadblock: the suburban residents on Hamilton Mountain above the Escarpment who find these lower city roads handy for zipping in, out or around Hamilton in their vehicles. That sentiment is often expressed by their political representatives on council who oppose the LRT even with the province potentially willing to pay for it.

Hamilton is an industrial town with its own culture,” says veteran activist Don McLean, co-ordinator of municipal watchdog group, Citizens at City Hall. But that’s changing. “A lot of people moving into the lower city want walkable neighbourhoods.”

Kim Arnott, the co-author of the Hamilton Book of Everything, argues that “some Toronto transplants” to Hamilton are pushing “ideological, anti-car,” solutions like light rail on reluctant locals for “problems that may or may not really exist.”

She says the advocates, including architects, comprise “the same 20 people” whose names and quotes pop up in the Hamilton Spectator, the local daily newspaper, which recently published a series of pro-LRT op ed pieces.

Apparently, Toronto is not the only city where an urban/suburban divide is messing with transit plans.

The current mayor, Bob Bratina, campaigned in support of the proposed LRT for the lower city in Hamilton in 2010. But he reversed himself upon getting elected, arguing the ridership numbers weren’t there to support LRT. Most think he was scared off by the war on the car rhetoric of suburban voters.

The issue is made more complicated by a fact peculiar to Hamilton – most of its downtown streets are one-way.

U.S. traffic engineer Wilbur Smith is given credit for having convinced Hamilton’s local politicians to convert more than a 100 of the city’s two-way streets in the core to one-ways in the mid-1950s. Smith was responding to a problem of urban centres coping with a ramp up of car-usage in the post-World War II period.

Smith came up with this new “insight” where one street can be made west bound and another street next to it eastbound to “dramatically increase speed of cars,” says Ryan McGreal, editor of the urbanist online forum Raise the Hammer and a volunteer with pro-LRT group Hamilton Light Rail. He notes that “Within months downtown business owners were screaming about this they saw their business drop immediately.”

Today, Hamilton is still paying for the grand experiment. Entire sections of the older lower city remain desolate one-way avenues bereft of retail activity and few people seen walking along the narrow sidewalks, with cars whisking by at intimidating speeds.

Downtowns in other cities are thriving again, especially after embracing walkable two-way streets, while downtown Hamilton still has multi-lane one-way thoroughfares cutting across it,” says McGreal. “It is no coincidence that the parts of downtown that are the most walkable like James Street North. are also the most commercially viable.”?

But McHattie is less despairing than some of his urbanist colleagues about bridging those divides, old and new Hamilton or urban/suburban here. These days he’s spending a lot of time trying to convince voters on the Mountain.

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