Hamilton has failed to meet targets set by council and staff to improve public transit ridership and reduce reliance on cars in the city, officials say. Now, major policy changes and investment are needed so the city can avoid what the transit director calls a "crisis situation" for traffic and transportation in Hamilton.

In 2007, Hamilton adopted the Transportation Master Plan — an overarching strategy brokered to make the city more reliant on methods of "active transportation" such as walking, cycling, public transit, car share, bike share and carpooling.

'Transit is becoming less of a want to have and more of a must have.'—Don Hull, City of Hamilton director of transit

According to the plan, the target was to reduce the number of kilometres driven in single-occupant vehicles by 20 per cent, increase daily public transit trips from five per cent to 12 per cent, increase walking and cycling from six per cent to 15 per cent, and increase annual transit use per capita from 40 per cent to 80-100 per cent.

According to Don Hull, the city's director of transit, those targets have not been met.

"We've only had fairly modest growth," Hull told CBC Hamilton. "It's a product of our investment."

Compared to other cities, Hamilton's transit-use growth has been very modest. This table shows how Hamilton stacks up against other Ontario municipalities in terms of public transit growth from 2006-2011, in terms of ridership:

City 2006 2011 Growth
Hamilton 21,165,302 21,882,479 3.4 per cent
Ottawa 91,839,276 103,500,481 13.0 per cent
Mississauga 29,022,030 32,863,821 13.7 per cent
St. Catharines 4,752,760 5,559,331 17.4 per cent
York Region 17,108,258 19,784,179 17.6 per cent
London 18,710,000 22,436,392 20.4 per cent
Durham Region 6,942,129 9,792,256 41.1 per cent
Brampton 10,139,107 16,328,909 68.6 per cent

Source: The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing

This table shows how Hamilton compares to some similar Canadian cities when it comes to public transit:

City  Service Area Population Square Kilometres Gross Expenses Active Fleet Riders Per Capita Service Hours Per Capita
Winnipeg 657,000 222 $138M 545 72 2.00
Victoria 360,000 614 $92M 280 69 2.21
Quebec City 563,000 548 $181M 597 79 2.02
Hamilton 480,000 235 $72M 217 45 1.43

Source: The City of Hamilton

Hull says the city's primary goal in the past five years has been to expand HSR ridership — but that just hasn't happened, and there are many reasons for that. One is that historically, the city has viewed public transit as a competitor of the car, which is counterproductive, he says.

Another is an internal tug of war for funding.

"Internally, we have competed. Cycling and public transit and accessible transit have competed for limited funding," Hull said. "We recognize that has to change. The programs have to be complementary and not in competition with each other."

While previous transportation-related city departments used to be separate, now they are becoming amalgamated under one portfolio.

"That's turned out to be one of the biggest envies of municipalities across Canada," Hull said. "That's one of the biggest hurdles — the separation of transit programs."

Is the HSR reliable?

CBC Hamilton is trying to create a snapshot of just how reliable the HSR's service really is.

Here's how you can help: any time your bus is off schedule this week, email adam.carter@cbc.ca with the route name, bus stop, scheduled time and what time it actually arrived.

When funds had been garnered for public transit in the last five years, they were mostly spent on capital projects, Hull says, pointing to the construction of the MacNab Street Terminal and Hamilton's overhauled conventional transit fleet.

"We've spent a considerable amount of capital in terms of improving the transit system," Hull said.

But those types of investments don't tend to drive up ridership — so city staff plans to ask council for an operating budget investment aimed at increasing conventional public transit service hours over the next five years. That, Hull says, is a much-needed investment, especially in outlying areas where buses are scarce and coming only a couple of times an hour.

"What people want more than anything is not to have to know the bus schedules," Hull said.

But is it reliable?

Jason Nason, Hamilton's de facto online transit authority, agrees that service needs to improve in outlying areas. He told CBC Hamilton he feels that the HSR's system is fairly reliable, but too infrequent once you step out of the downtown core.

"I don't even look at the schedule when I leave the house, because one comes on Barton every eight minutes," Nason said, adding that kind of service city-wide could help bolster ridership. 

ii-transit-300

Historically, Hamilton has viewed public transit as a competitor of the car, Transit Director Don Hull says. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Nason runs @HSRTransit and hsrtransit.blogspot.ca, a twitter account and blog that he uses to inform Hamilton transit riders about everything from transit delays to route detours. He's been monitoring them for about a year and a half, while also creating mobile-friendly versions of bus schedules.

Nason is a former Zellers operations manager from a now-shuttered store on the Mountain. He has no formal affiliation with the HSR — he's just filling a role that the city hasn't. Currently, there is no official online HSR presence other than the city website.

"I just like buses, I know HSR, people are always asking me questions — so I made an account," Nason said. "A lot of transit systems have one, and they have for a long time, so it's kind of weird that we haven't done it yet."

Few people in the city know Hamilton's transit system like Nason does. He takes the bus multiple times a day, and receives constant feedback from the public on Twitter. He says that though he usually receives about a dozen angry tweets a week about service delays, the promised service is usually up to snuff.

"It does have its issues, but on the whole, it's pretty reliable," Nason said.

Changing perceptions

But there's also the tricky matter of perception that has dogged Hamilton's transit system. To some, public transit in Hamilton is seen more as a service for people who can't afford a car rather than a viable transit option for everyone.

Hull acknowledges this, and says it's a perception that has to change.

"We have to make people understand that public transit is a lot more than just for people who can't afford a car," Hull said. "It has a much more important public contribution."

Hull says a "significant, multimillion-dollar" rebranding effort is on the way, which should be funded by provincial transportation body Metrolinx. The city is also counting on Metrolinx funds to start a bikeshare program and to fund LRT in Hamilton. Hull says it will likely take two years to get an advertising blitz off the ground.

"It's going to take some time, but I think it's important we take the time, get it done and get it done well," Hull said.

Avoiding a crisis

But oodles of time isn't a luxury that the city has at its disposal. The GTHA's struggles with gridlock have been well documented, and things have gotten so bad that it's holding back the entire Canadian economy, according to Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.

"The gridlock challenge in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area is probably the greatest impediment to productivity improvements in the Canadian economy," Duncan said in January.

"Whatever government of whatever political stripe is going to have to come to terms with the reality that there will have to be new sources of revenue to support it."

And while Hamilton's traffic doesn't crawl quite as badly as Toronto's, Hull says that hogtown's problem is heading this way.

"Toronto's in a crisis. And as you move away from Toronto the crisis is either on the horizon or it's foreseeable," he said. "We should be thinking about investing now, because digging your way out of a crisis is expensive."

Investing now is exactly what Hull is advocating. He's been doing this job for a little over 25 years, and is the second longest-serving manager in the country when it comes to municipal transit. Yet in the past year or so, he's started overhauling the way he thinks about transit in Hamilton, and the city is starting to follow suit.

Council has made public transit a strategic priority when it wasn't in the past, and recognizing that businesses coming to Hamilton are insisting on effective and efficient public transportation, he says.

"Transit is becoming less of a want to have and more of a must have," Hull said.

"We can only avoid investment for so long. I liken it to a car: we've got a good, well tuned, well-running Chev, but we've had that car now for 10 or 15 years and we haven't upgraded."

"And now we have to. We've found a new reason for being."

This is the first in a series of stories on public transit in Hamilton from CBC Hamilton. Check back on Tuesday for a look at accessibility at the city's bus stops.