Transit Hubs, and the myth of the 800 meter radius

As the 2018 election approaches, battle plans are being drawn by candidates planning to run on a “Revive the LRT” Platform. There are two dangerous aspects of letting 2018 become a Referendum on the LRT:

1.Many of these candidates are “One Trick Ponies”. Not all of them, certainly, but enough that it’s a problem.  So think very critically and ask the important questions of every candidate before voting on this one issue alone. After all, the LRT is not a magic wand that will fix any of our other problems: health care crisis, aging infrastructure, underfunded libraries, lack of affordable housing, rising insurance rates, illegal basement apartments, senior support services, traffic congestion on Bovaird, under-employment, rising local transit fares, lack of youth employment opportunities, lack of provincial follow through on all day GO Service, environmental impacts of housing developments, incomplete streets, lack of cycling infrastructure, lack of tourism, insufficient wedding and hotel facilities, crime, or any other issue.

One issue election? Hardly.

2.  Tying into the point above, much of the LRT Debate rests on certain assumptions and assertions that just don’t hold up to scrutiny as it applies to the City of Brampton. And candidates need to not only understand that Brampton is a multi-issue city, but they need to possess two qualities in order to effect any actual changes in Brampton, the real Brampton, the Brampton that exists today in reality:

  1. They need to understand the context of Higher Order Transit as a tool in the overall City Building and Planning toolbox; and
  2. They need to have the intestinal fortitude to make real changes, knowing that long term changes are painful in the short term, and may not lend themselves to re-election in 2020.  That’s right, ask your candidate how willing they are to be a One and Done member of council. The answer is important, as I’ll illustrate below.

The fact is, the business case for building an LRT over a significanly less expensive BRT option is based on the following promise: it “Transforms Cities!”  And it can do that, absolutely. It is higher order transit. But like a teenager playing video games in your basement, just because it can work, doesn’t mean it will work.  For an LRT to actually transform a city, there are conditions that need to exist (see for example: Light Rail and Land Use Change: Rail Transit’s Role in Reshaping and Revitalizing Cities, Christopher D. Higgins, Mark R. Ferguson, Pavlos S. Kanaroglou, McMaster University).  

One of the most significant prerequisites for success of an LRT as a transformational paradigm is that it needs to be part of an entire Transit Oriented Development (“TOD”).  Cities, such as Houston, Texas, have invested in LRT systems without the success enjoyed by other cities.  Houston is known as sprawling and highly auto-oriented, and has greatly expanded its light rail system in recent years.  Does that sound familiar? A little bit like Brampton maybe? What has been the result of Houston’s investment?

A study that looked at Houston to examine land-use development around LRT stations analyzed parcel-level land-use data from 2005–2014. The data revealed a spike in commercial development along the original light rail corridor, approximately 4 to 10 years after its opening. Land-use development along the newer light rail corridors was more modest and not considerably different from the control corridors. Small changes in the levels of high-density residential housing and land-use mix near light rail stations indicated that efforts to encourage transit-oriented development have not yet had much effect.  (Abstracted from and credit belongs to: The effect of light rail transit on land-use development in a city without zoning, Richard Lee, Ipek N Sener)

This bears repeating: because it was not a TOD to begin with, transformation was slow to begin, and didn’t really catch on beyond its original impact. Hardly the “Game Changing / Status Quo Disrupter” we were sold on.

In fairness, the City of Houston is also unique in that it is by far the largest city in the United States without zoning ordinances. Now, Brampton does have planning and land use by-laws in place, but do we have the right ones?  If only there was a “bell weather” by which we could predict the effect the LRT would actually have in the context of our current planning and zoning regulations. Oh wait, Downtown Brampton already DOES HAVE a Higher Order Transit Service, I forgot!  (pssst: I didn’t really forget)

LRT’s are generally described as intensifying and raising the property values and density of lands within an 800 meter, or 1/2 mile, radius. Therefore, we can look at the 800 meter radius around the current GO Station to see what effect an existing Higher Order Transit service has had on Brampton, namely, regional heavy rail connection linking Kitchener to Toronto with Brampton in the center:

the 800 meter radius myth

Bearing in mind, the GO station has been located there for over 40 years (GO Transit began serving the station in 1974), and bearing in mind the station itself has been an active train station since it was built in 1856, we can concede that the Service has had time to have its transformative effect on the area.  So why is the 800 meter radius around the station not already a Regional Urban Centre for arts, culture, entertainment and business?

It’s simple. Downtown Brampton was never intended to be that. As such, it was never planned as such, zoned as such, nor promoted as such. Consequently, it was not built as such and certainly it is not, by any definition, a Transit Oriented Development, save and except for approximately two square blocks (bound by George Street, Wellington, Chapel and Nelson). But outside of that? It is a quiet, mostly historical, residential neighbourhood, with as much as 35% of the development lands occupied by some arm of the government instead of by private enterprise.  Admittedly, one can argue that without all day, two way GO service, the effect of the station is dimished, but one almost has to remember that Downtown Brampton is serviced by National Rail (Via), Regional Rail (GO), Regional Bus (GO), Rapid Local Bus (ZUM), Local Standard Bus (Brampton Transit), and of course Local Taxi Service, all of which constitute modes of public transportation. So no, I do not accept that simply adding one more mode of public transportation will be some magic Game Changer.

Instead, our future mayor, be it the incumbent or #MayorJackson2018, will need to work with Council to effect real and substantial change in the area. An express train to Square One, fancy as that may be, will be wasted steel if we fail to implement a policy framework to rezone, redevelop and reinvent the Four Corners, and build it outward and, yes, even upward.  To that end, and before candidates knock on your door to sell you an LRT cure all, I invite everyone to take a walk around that 800 meter radius. Really walk around it; really look closely at your surroundings, and ask some critical questions:

  • Who lives here?
  • How old and historically significant are the houses and buildings?
  • Are the property values depressed and economically attractive to a developer?
  • Is there significant room for gentrification?
  • Are the existing residents here politically active?
  • Who will be displaced? Which residents? Which businesses?
  • Are they regular donors and contributors to local candidates, local charites and local causes such as the hospital (ie: do they carry a lot of political clout)?
  • Will the residents here actually stand back and let Council change this neighbourhood?
  • And, most importantly, will they go quietly into the night?

To really make a change, to really “Disrupt the Status Quo” in Downtown Brampton, the next mayor, and indeed the entire next council, will need to be committed to serving One Term. After that, real changes in Downtown Brampton will mean that their political fortunes are likely to turn quite sour, and they need to really be prepared to be a “One and Done” member of council. Residential neighbourhoods need to be become commercial districts. Some buildings will need to be torn down. Some streets will need to be realigned. Some lands expropriated. Services such as hydro, gas, water and sewer to be upgraded. Changes need to be made, over the objection of local residents if history tells us anything. It will cost money, Property Tax money, and it won’t be free by any strech of the imagination. It will be an investment and we will get the money back in the long run, but for now? It’s gonna cost us, and that will mean a property tax increase.

If candidates aren’t willing to “take one for the team” and actually build a Downtown, you should really question whether their intentions are Changing the Game, or just Playing the Game.

Before we let 2018 turn into a Referendum on the Main Street alignment, really ask why the LRT issue is being pushed. Is it because all the hard work is really done and Downtown Brampton is actually ready for an LRT?  Or is it because its easier to sell you a bottle of snake oil on the idea that an LRT will somehow overcome all of our current challenges without any of the hardwork, and growing pains, that we actually face as a City?

An LRT is just one piece of the planning puzzle. Are they really willing to assemble the remaining pieces? If we truly want Four Corners to be our Downtown, there is a political price to be paid. Is your candidate actually ready, willing and able to pay it?

 

3 comments

  1. The essential issues of zoning and rapid transit are too often treated as different instead of same issue. If you mandate one spot per use, in commercial and retail development, you are in essence requiring a sea of parking around any reasonably sized mall. If you require 2.25 spots per residence you are likewise mandating a sea of parking around apartment buildings. These spots are expensive to build, and force a developer to use large footprints even when they choose to build up. The logic of higher density in essence frustrated by parking requirements if nothing else. Think of 100 persons per hectare as a high density target (good for area around LRT station) this will be hard to achieve when you require 50 sq meters for every apartment in parking in the residential space. Think in terms of a hectare being 10,000 square meters. This again is an issue at the retail and commercial level, where nearly half the density target would be consumed just by parking. That is, to make an effective run at a true transformation, means changing the zoning for times coverage and parking requirements before you start. That is create zoning that is totally at odds with the current reality of Brampton. Zoning changes required, because that is what a builder must provide at a minimum.

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    • Great insight into the hard work that needs to be done. Transit Oriented Development is not “shoehorn 4 buildings into this spot”, it is the result of considering all the amenities needed by residents and ensuring they are accesible without a car. Four Corners has a lot of amenities, but it is not a complete neighbourhood. Not yet anyway. And adding one ingredient into a mixing bowl does not accomplish anything. But given the location, is there any political will to support a radical re-definition of the area? Or will there in fact be political opposition? In either event, will our city leadership be willing to stake their own careers on making a decision and putting a plan into action? Either make Four Corners into a Downtown with a comprehensive plan of action (that encompasses more than 2 square blocks), or admit defeat and move the Official Commerical District designation to the Queen Street Corridor. But this cycle of lamenting a lack of downtown with piecemeal approvals of one project at a time with no real plan of how to leverage the assets into creating a complete downtown is futile.

      Oh, did I mention that the 35% of hectares occupied by government bodies does not include the hectares occupied by religious organizations? Because churches don’t intensify the way private enterprise and residential complexes do. So the problem of crowding out of available lands is actually far worse than described in the post.

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  2. Pingback: Downtown (not so much) re-envisioned – The Brampton Bruin

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