Light Rail Trap: the LRT & Gentrification


by camille

Yes, I’m against Light Rail Transit (LRT), but no, I’m not an angry suburbanite worried about “taxpayer” money or traffic or the effects of construction on small business. I live downtown, I work part-time jobs, I ride the bus every day, and I think the LRT is going to be terrible for me and my neighbours.

So much of the debate about the LRT in Hamilton has been the good urban progressives who care about the environment and public transit against the conservative suburb-dwellers who care about convenience and cost. The narrow terms of this debate hasn’t left us much room to talk honestly about a project that will physically reshape our city and open up our neighbourhoods.

Certain enthusiastic supporters of LRT say it will bring investment and encourage development, I think they’re right, and this is exactly why I oppose it. The LRT is part of a project of incorporating Hamilton into a regional housing and job market. It’s part of the same process as the GO stations downtown, and the rent increases and condo construction that came along with them.

This process has displaced literally thousands of people, driving us into more precarious, more expensive situations, with less access to services and often more risk of violence and exploitation. It’s called gentrification, and it has been a disaster for the huge majority of the people living in the areas it affects. The LRT promises to bring that same process to every area a stop is built.

The LRT will collect people from the east and west ends of the city and funnel them towards the GO transit hubs downtown. North of the eastern terminal at East Gate Square, developers have collected a large parcel of land that will likely go toward condos. At Kenilworth, Ottawa, and Parkdale, developers have been accumulating properties for years, waiting for the right moment to make huge return on their investment. A project like the LRT linking those areas to Toronto’s housing and job markets is just such an opportunity. It might be surprising to hear that there is risk of gentrification at Barton and Kenilworth, but investors are already maneuvering: just this past June, a group of local real estate speculators brought in a bunch of Toronto investors to tour the area in an event called “Try Hamilton”.

The opponents of LRT make the point that small businesses will suffer during construction — this is doubtless true, but for investors and developers, this is yet another opportunity. During the much-delayed construction of the Sheppard subway line in Toronto, many businesses closed for good, which created an opportunity to replace them with new types of businesses aimed at the people who moved into the expensive high-rises that popped up around each subway stop. This is also currently happening in Kitchener-Waterloo, where an LRT project similar to what’s proposed for Hamilton is under construction.

There is presently no voice in the LRT debate that considers how it will contribute to gentrification, to evictions, high rents, police violence, hunger, and displacement. I imagine investors and developers must be ecstatic to see progressives, who so often oppose their schemes, pushing ahead a project that stands to benefit them the most. This isn’t because those activists are dupes — far from it — it’s because transit is already so unpopular among the political class in town that to attach any sort of demand about housing or poverty would make improving transit impossible.

It’s true that if we’re to live in a city like Hamilton, we need to be able to move around in it, and that transit should be useable, quick, available to all, and affordable. But if we don’t find a way of linking transit to questions around gentrification, it’s likely to make social injustice worse for broke and working people who rely on public transit.
It seems likely that any LRT would be run by Metrolinx, the regional transit body that operates GO, and not by the HSR. The HSR is already too expensive, and in the past ten years, the fare has increased from about $2 to $3. But during the same time, the fare to ride the GO train to Toronto, operated by Metrolinx, has increased from about $6 to more than $12. It’s much more expensive than the gas costs of driving alone in a car, making it another example of how expensive it is to be broke. If the LRT experiences the kind of price increases common to Metrolinx services, how can we imagine it to be useful for broke people moving around the city?

Would we end up with a two-tier transit system, where the LRT serves people commuting to work in Toronto (or to well-paying jobs within the city) while the rest of us are stuck riding the same HSR bus on even more congested roads? Will the gentrification the LRT brings with it push us out of our neighbourhoods and into housing further from the line? If we’re displaced, will this project even be useful to us any more?

Regional integration is generally presented to us as unquestionably positive, but by becoming more a part of the regional housing and jobs market, we will lose a lot here in Hamilton. The faster it is to get between two places, the more those places come to resemble each other. Developers talk about Hamilton as a blank slate, telling us there is nothing worth saving of our culture. But really, Hamilton is a city where people look out for each other, know how to make a good time out of nothing, and have lots of amazing skills to pass on. Getting melted into Toronto doesn’t value any of that.

Yes, we need to move around these days to find work and housing, but why is it that we need to be constantly uprooted in order to survive in this society? If our access to basic needs wasn’t dependent on the whims of the economy, we wouldn’t need to move across huge distances in order to survive, and all the arguments in favour of the LRT would disappear. Further regional integration is being presented as a solution to the problems it creates.

Without clear demands about gentrification and fare increases, the LRT is a gift to developers. And even if there was some plan (like affordable housing around stations and caps on fares), there are still big questions about whether rapid transit of this kind is good for us or whether it just contributes to further displacement and a further loss of our ability to control the conditions under which we live.

I know a lot of the most active supporters of the LRT care deeply about issues of social justice, and I encourage them to find a way of pushing these issues into the conversation. However, as it stands, the LRT is going to contribute to rent increases that push us out of our homes, cost hikes that force us to make do with less, and dislocation that scatters us throughout the region. I’m against the LRT — it seems like it’s only going to make a bad situation worse.

A suppliment to this article looks indepth at Evergreen Cityworks