Monday, December 12, 2016

Is HSR LRT's Achilles Heel?

Recently, our friends at The Hamilton Spectator published a piece on the challenges facing HSR on the ridership front. See it by clicking here. 

With uptake in public transit and ridership as key components of a successful LRT deployment, the trends described in the Spec article are worrisome, to say the least- possibly prompting some to wonder whether HSR  and its ridership will end up being LRT's Achilles Heel. 

The following is our Q/A with Debbie Dalle Vedove, Director of Transit:

1. In a Hamilton Spectator front page story,  the decline in HSR ridership and the challenges associated with growing ridership where described. What is your understanding of the relationship between ridership and the business case for Light Rail Transit? To the extent that there is a linkage between LRT’s success and HSR’s performance, what efforts are being made between these two transit strategies/offerings?

2. Is there a “tipping point” understanding in place that would signal at what point HSR ridership stats will either bolster the potential success of LRT, have no effect, hinder its success or undermine it. Can you speak to us about that analysis and what those numbers or thinking looks like?

3. Is there anything else you would like Hamiltonians to know about the status of HSR and plans going forward?

We received the following response from Ms. Dalle Vedove:

HSR has been working very closely with the LRT team to ensure seamless integration. The City is implementing both the 10-year Local Transit Strategy and LRT project simultaneously over the next 8 years to build and improve Hamilton’s overall transit network. We are working on growing ridership on the system as a whole. As we provide more transit options the ridership will grow.

With respect to LRT we are confident in our ridership projections. Metrolinx has a planning capacity of 130 passengers per vehicle during the peak hour in the peak direction at any given point along the route. With a six-minute headway (10 vehicles per hour) this means that the capacity for on-board passengers will be about 1,300 passenger in the peak hour. In the 2031 forecasts, for the weekday AM westbound peak direction, this level will be exceeded from Scott Park through to Mary Street, with the maximum being about 1,500. This means that by 2031 it will be necessary to either relax this standard (standard planning capacity is about 1,600) or add service.

In the 2041 forecasts, the maximum passengers on board exceeds the Metrolinx planning capacity from Queenston Circle to James Street, with the maximum at 2,350 passengers. Under these conditions, the B-Line will be well over the Metrolinx Planning Capacity and Standard Planning Capacity for a single Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) and coupled LRVs will need to be operated.

In addition, Council has approved an application to the province for approximately $36.5 M in Federal ‎Public Transit Infrastructure Funding. This provides a needed funding source to support the Ten Year Local Transit Strategy. ‎In addition to the design stages for a new maintenance and storage facility and new buses, the funding application includes a set of projects such as improved customer service technology and infrastructure that is intended to improve the customer experience. To this end, we have recruited and hired a social media coordinator and will be launching @hsr on Twitter before year end.

Your thoughts. Do you have confidence that the city has this under control, or are you concerned?


  1. Herman TurkstraDecember 12, 2016

    I hope that more people will start to think of the LRT issue as something for the Hamilton of 2040 and beyond. The current discussion about the Claremont Access demonstrates how plans in 1960 impact life in 2016. That access was designed not for 1960 capacity but for two or more generations later. Or as they say, Rome was not built in a day.

    1. with actual data appearing to undermine projections, planning for an uncertain future should continue. Investing at this stage-at the expense of identified infrastructure deficiency- is irresponsible. Was the Claremont reference intended to instill confidence in our current slate of Councilors?

    2. How will people "start to think of the LRT issue as something for Hamilton of 2040 and beyond" when the LRT renderings we all see look something like 40 years ago with an LRT photoshopped in?

      Renderings show same-width sidewalks, streets and cars of 2016, not 2046.
      If the City truly wished to get people on board with LRT, let true visionaries/planners design our urban landscape, including roads, that will accommodate vehicles of 2046. Until I see narrower streets for 3-wheeled vehicles, dedicated bike lanes, and sidewalks widened for the influx of motorized wheelchairs, alongside an LRT vehicle, I'll continue to scoff at the City's current LRT vision, unable to either take it seriously or support.

      I still hold out hope, perhaps naively, that the City will one day free our visionaries and planners to plan for our future urban and transit needs. After the planners/visionaries complete their work, call in the traffic engineers and tell them to make it work, streetwise. The current LRT plans show, as always, that traffic engineers shout loudest at the table from the onset of design and, ultimately, keep us in the past decade after decade, both past and future.

    3. well said

      The Dark One

  2. I agree that we have to think of tis as a long term strategy, but with the cost of electricity for example, we should not set something up that cannot sustain itself in the short and medium term.

    "As we provide more transit options the ridership will grow. "


    John S

    1. as we provide more transit options, the ridership will shift.

  3. Councilor Jackson remains adamant he wants the HSR-and not Metrolinx-to operate the system. I can envision this pitting him against Eisenberger and being the catalyst for interesting discussion, and the eventual demise of "the vision" All aboard

  4. Noone has shown, to my satisfaction, why BRT could not be the solution now and 40 years from now. I say that tongue and cheek because most of us know that by that time, cars as we currently know them, tracks and busses will be antiques.

  5. This reminds me of those people who are dying to win the lottery. They play every week and finally, one day, after years of playing, they win big time. And within 4 years, they are broke.

    Yep, that 1 Billion sure sounds good now.....

    Ronnie Cash

  6. The HSR's ridership data in no way undermines projections. The average annual drop of 1.9% over the last two years is unwelcome but not unanticipated. It would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize the HSR ridership dip of 2015/2016 as a great mystery or a barometer of the limit of ridership potential. Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of a formula that was known to councillors and municipal policymakers from the very outset: 1% increase in fares = .2% to .5% decrease in ridership, while 1% increase in service = .5% to .7% increase in ridership. That formula appears in 2017 Budget briefing documents for the Ten Year Transit Strategy.

    If you apply the the HSR’s own fare policy elasticity equation (1% increase in fares = .2% to .5% decrease in ridership, 1% increase in service = .5% to .7% increase in ridership) you can see that the HSR is actually faring well despite everything that’s been thrown at it. Consider the fare increases over the last two years. Cash fare (11% of riders) up 17.7%. Student passes (5% of riders) up 8.5%/ Student tickets (8% of riders) up 6.1%. Adult passes (40% of riders) up 18.2% . Adult tickets (31% of riders) up 17.5%. Seniors passes (6% of riders) up 45.1%. Apply the HSR’s usage ratios and elasticity formula to 2014 ridership (22.25M) and you get a predicted gross decline from 2014 (22.25 million riders) of 813,061 to 2,003,499 riders.
    The HSR’s 2017 Transit Operating Budget/Ten Year Local Transit Strategy, page 26 shows Annual Operating Hours increasing by 16,000 in 2015 and 34,000 in 2016, for a total 50,000 additional service hours (i.e. delivered hours, not “annualized” hours), an increase of 6.1% from 2014. This translates to a potential gross uptick of between 3.1% and 4.3% (697,500 to 956,750), which would be insufficient to generate net ridership gains under anything but the sunniest outlier scenario.

    Takeaway: Council decisions have real-world consequences. The HSR’s own forecasting model anticipated that potential outcomes after the first two years of the strategy might be anything from an best-case-scenario increase of 144K at to a worst-case-scenario decrease of 1.35M. A recorded decline of 826K riders over two years lands somewhere in the middle. Again from the HSR’s 2017 budget document, page 26: “Growth” is not anticipated until the 2017-2018 fiscal year.


  7. Council could have reduced or eliminated the HSR ridership decline by simply adding the capital cost of planned bus expansion to the 2015 budget cycle rather than kicking it to 2016 in hopes that senior government would pick up the tab. Council's choice accepted certain risks associated with that directive at the outset, but it deemed those risks less notable than the potential savings to the City, which as then-HSR director David Dixon predicted, did not materialize. (The pipe dream dissipated in March 2016 when Minister of Transportation Del Duca reminded council that the province already funds bus purchases through provincial gas tax revenues.)

    By pushing transit improvements slated for 2015-2016 back to Q2 2016, the HSR guaranteed that its ridership would universally experience a year of being charged substantially more for service that did not improve one iota. Worse, pass-holders, who are the HSR's most frequent users, were hit hardest — while cash fares increased 11%, adult passes increased 18% and seniors' passes jumped 45%. And all with no upside for users. (The delay also distorts the service formula, since the added buses were only online for 3/4 of 2016, meaning that anticipated benefits would be at least 25% lower than predicted, possibly higher given PSE student ridership concentrations.)

    It is similarly inaccurate to characterize the HSR's capital and operational investments of 2015-2016 as "gains" in anything but a semantic sense. The HSR budget clearly identifies the enhancements of the first two years of the Ten Year Local Transit Strategy as targeting System Deficiencies. This was the system that Dixon inherited, and whose status quo reality he characterized in Feb 2015 as "untenable".

    In Feb 2015, HSR Director David Dixon warned that the City's transit system had esentially hit the wall: “They cannot deliver the service they are being asked to deliver. They don’t have sufficient run times. The loads are beyond what they’re capable of carrying." Rather than expedite a solution, Council decided to grind the gears for another year and see what would come of it. And predictably, they eroded customer loyalty by treating users like an afterthought. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/why-hamilton-s-transit-system-isn-t-working-for-riders-or-drivers-1.2948679

    The afterthought approach was extended to a core demographic of dedicated users: post-secondary students, who were transitioned from a proven and convenient one-card system (student card with annual sticker) to a two-card system with quality control issues (fading under heavy use) and exorbitant replacement costs (up to 110% of the cost of the original pass). Then the HSR began doing routine security sweeps, confiscating contested UPasses from post-secondary students, which presumably did nothing to build user loyalty. https://www.thesil.ca/get-board-hsr


  8. Now step back for a moment and consider how easy it is to knock HSR ridership down by 400,000 rides a year using only McMaster undergrads. Over the 30 weeks that Fall/Winter classes are in session, it would only take 6,667 McMaster UPass holders — around a quarter of all of the school's undergrad UPass holders— making one less round trip a week in order to push HSR ridership down by 400K rides a year. That's not much of a departure from routine.

    Rubbing salt in the wound, earlier this year the HSR proposed rolling back peak service on the 51 University line — augmented as part of an increase in fees paid by McMaster undergrads — in order to cut the HSR's budgetary footprint (despite the fact that 51 buses were admittedly at capacity, which should trigger additional service under HSR Service Standards) just as they were entering negotiations on a three-year UPass contract with the MSU and its 25,000 annual passholders. Not very customer-focused.

    Then, as an encore, council decided that the ridership declines that their own policies had created offered sufficient reason for them to defer the promised investment in service enhancements yet again, meaning that users continue to bear the lion's share of operating costs and that the system continues to limp along even as it's supposed to be entering its expansion phase. This despite the Ten Year Transit Strategy's cornerstone premise of Fair Share: That because users and the broader public both experience benefits from a well-functioning transit system, that they should both pay toward its operating costs.

    Council's craven decision, presumably driven by election-year jitters, will likely lead to a third year of ridership declines. That situation certainly won't be helped by the federal government's elimination of the tax credit for public transit passes, which allowed residents to claim 15% of the value of monthly and weekly transit passes. Without that rebate in hand, the cost of transit essentially increases by 15%.

    Just one more disincentive against transit use, imposed by the people alleged to be transit's champions.


  9. Still, HSR+, amirite?



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