Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Unprotected sex on the LRT

THIS WEEK’S REPORT #1,140: The hybrid rapid transit model favoured by the mayor and civic administration could end up adding millions to the subsidy taxpayers must pay to maintain public transportation in London. The idea may be catchy, but it encompasses a nasty surprise.

Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 - LondonOntario

A gentleman of my acquaintance, too connected to publicly claim authorship of his usually witty putdowns of civic affairs, has provided a risqué but succinct analysis of the current campaign by the mayor and civic administration to convince us our rapid transit option should include light rail.

“They know sex sells, but they are selling you unprotected sex.”

A less eloquent but clearer warning is offered in a report presented last week to the London Transit Commission, the board that governs your public transportation company. 

The report discusses how London Transit will have to adjust its schedule to meet the requirements of a system with a light rail component. Because riders have an expectation urban trains run at very frequent intervals, everything that connects to it would also have to step up. 

“This will negatively impact the overall efficiency of the service,” the report says. “The ridership return per revenue service hour and ridership revenue will be less, resulting in the need for higher operating subsidy support.”

The reality is that even by 2035, the 20-year timespan current planning forecasts, London will barely have the minimum population needed to support light rail transit. But to attract any customers, the LRT will have to run on a schedule as if it did. The expectation is trains would run every 7.5 minutes during busy periods and every 10 minutes other times, regardless whether there are passengers aboard or not.

If the line isn’t paying for itself – and it won’t be if trains are almost empty much of the time – either London taxpayers will have to pony up the difference or transit customers will. And the cost could run into millions every year for at least 10 years, probably more. 

By preparing this report London Transit, in its quiet way, is firing the first shot in what could be a protracted battle with City Hall over how to best improve our public transportation system.

The preferred approach, London Transit has long argued, is to crawl first, then walk, then run. So it suggested express buses on the two main commuter routes and those were established several years ago. Next it recommends the introduction of bus rapid transit – also known as BRT – a very effective and less costly way of getting customers downtown in a hurry. 

Twenty years from now, when the population reaches the minimum required, London Transit says would be a good time to consider super streetcars on rail – the so-called LRT solution.

That, says London Transit, would be a transportation solution to a transportation problem, which is that the system at present is over capacity and needs a significant reorganization.

City Hall, though, had a different idea. The planners there opted to a city-building solution to a transportation problem, believing if the light rail line was laid down new development along the right of way would blossom with the rising sun.

Maybe, but it hasn’t happened all that quickly elsewhere in cities much, much larger than London. 

And there’s a good reason for that, as was expressed in an article Steve LaFleur, now of the Fraser Institute, wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press in 2014. At the time Winnipeg was also considering LRT, but ultimately opted for BRT.

Mr. LaFleur looked at Calgary, which does have LRT lines, and this is what he found.

“Calgary shows us major related problems with LRT. The city boasts rail increases proximate real estate prices. Given that people typically are only willing to walk 200 metres to take transit and that low-income people are most likely to use transit, this is a problem. By concentrating all of the city's transit capital investment into one corridor, it would increase the value of land precisely where low-income people need to live. 

“Building a city-wide BRT system for a much lower cost will spread out the real estate impact, revitalizing neighbourhoods throughout the city. Moreover, BRT can be built quickly and modularly, whereas a city-wide LRT system would take decades at a staggering cost, despite there being nowhere near enough population or density to justify it.”

Remember he was writing about Winnipeg, population 663,000, not London, population 381,000. 

Meantime, in London the push toward LRT continues, despite the lack of a real business plan and without the active participation of London Transit. Indeed, when the civic administration presented their hybrid proposal to council last November, London Transit officials weren’t even invited to participate. Instead they sat, unacknowledged, in seats at the top level of the public gallery.

That snub was deliberate, some people believe, a signal that a subtle campaign is underway to bring operation of London Transit into City Hall, as has happened in Hamilton. Ironically, the Steel City move has worked so poorly the Chamber of Commerce in that city is urging the establishment of an independent commission to run transit, as is the case here in London. 

The McLeod Report on Radio

Weekdays, 9 – 10 a.m., on CJBK Radio, 1290. Friday a special edition from the CTV Green Room at Covent Garden Market. Subject: How does this city talk to itself when Big Media dies. Guest panel: Laurie Lashbrook, Carmi Levi, Rachel Berdan.