CONTRIBUTION: The hybrid plan may end London’s winning streak

The City of London is on a winning streak; but the Hybrid Transit Plan could end that.

London’s recent track record includes some proven successes when it comes to strategies designed to foster economic LRT London Ontariodevelopment in the downtown while raising the overall quality of life and reputation of the city. Recall the successes that came from the Millennium Plan which included the construction of Budweiser Gardens, the Covent Garden Market complete with outdoor ice rink, the establishment of the Central Library in Galleria Mall, and a splash pad at the Forks of the Thames. At the time these projects faced opposition from those who doubted whether the improvements would yield a return on investment. In retrospect, every dollar invested by the city generated an additional three dollars from the private sector as businesses gained the confidence to open shop in the downtown.

Currently London is working on a similar strategic plan, not fully developed, but with comparable promise. Two are downtown redevelopment projects following the same pattern of place specific design found in the Millennium Plan. Dundas Place is proposing that a large section of Dundas be transformed into a flexible street moving busses off that corridor but providing a shared space for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists with the option to limit traffic for festivals.

Back to the River looks to restore the Forks of the Thames as a city landmark that Londoners can be proud of. A recent design competition unveiled a vision that is futuristic and seeks to maximize the vistas of the river while keeping the project pedestrian friendly. The crowning jewel appears to be a new performing arts center. Both moves would significantly add to London’s “street ballet” playing to the expectations of the “creative class.” These moves are winners for the city.

But what of London’s transit plan? City Council recently indicated that a hybrid plan with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) is the preferred option but it comes at a hefty price for tax payers (approximately $850 million and probably more) – $125 million from city coffers to be collected through development fees with the assumption that the provincial and federal levels of government will pitch in the rest. Council rightly sees this as a city building opportunity but there is the danger of overreach too.

The London Plan makes the claim that “development along rapid transit corridors will be of an intensity that it will support rapid transit ridership.” This is further supported by The Way Ahead: London’s Bus Rapid Transit Strategy which claims that for every $1 spent there will be $1.80 generated in benefits.

What if it doesn’t? Beneath this rosy economic picture are assumptions that are not firmly grounded. The transportation user benefits they identify which formulate this 1:1.80 ratio depend on time savings for those who use public transit and the expectation that a large number of people will switch from car to bus travel resulting in automobile operating savings and time savings as a result of less driving.

There is reason to doubt the transit plan will attract the ridership it needs. The time savings seem too low (Between 5 and 7 minutes depending on where you are coming from) and the new rapid transit and light rail corridors, while located in strategic locations, does not service most of London, meaning the vast majority of the city will not reap the benefits of the service.

When I have expressed these concerns I have been met with two common responses. The first is the Field of Dreams idea that if you build it they will come. In real life city improvement strategies do not necessarily fall into place so easily. The risk is that London tax payers will be burdened with having to finance surplus infrastructure and chronically under-capacity public transportation. Once it is built it is difficult to avoid. That or raise fees substantially.

The second argument is more shameful. If the provincial and federal governments agree to fund the project it is simply too much money to pass up. Treating the Provincial and Federal investment as if it is “free” money is how countries become insolvent!

While I am bullish on Dundas Place and Back to the River; I am bearish on the transit plan because the business case is not convincing. I am open to changing my mind, but while rail is being argued as the technology that will take London into the future, why does it feel like the technology of yesterday?

Elon Musk suggests that autonomous cars will be largely mainstream twenty years from now and if it is going to take ten years to complete the BRT/LRT plan, what’s the point? London may be better served by anticipating and preparing for this scenario; not trains. Stratford has recently invited this technology into their city in its experimental stages which is an idea London should consider doing to learn how to govern this technology and how to ease its integration into the city’s infrastructure.

In the meantime London can pursue an incremental strategy to improve transit service by adding additional busses to high needs areas and establishing new routes where the demand is justified or allowing the innovations of the Shared Economy to flourish – Uber anyone? Why buy into light rail in the 11th hour of its usefulness as a technology? It is time to admit we missed that boat and to look to tomorrow’s technologies not yesterdays to take London into the future.

Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner is a Contributor to the London Institute. He is a PhD Candidate in Local Government at Western University and a Thames Valley School Board Trustee in Wards 7,8,9,10,13. He holds a master's degree in American Studies and a bachelor's degree in Political Science.
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