North America

The Double Double LRT – Make Hamilton Great Again

In 1870, Hamilton had a population half as large as Toronto’s. If it were to have kept that up, Hamilton would today be the 3rd largest Canadian city. The Bulldogs might be competing for the Stanley Cup right now.

Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo Populations

But, Hamilton has been held back by two processes. One was the move from water transport to land transport. Hamilton’s main advantage was its port, which is still by far the busiest among Canadian ports in the St Lawrence/Great Lakes network. But in the modern era dominated by land transportation, Hamilton has been limited when compared to Toronto, as it is somewhat blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour or Niagara Escarpment (or, more distantly, by Lake Erie) on all sides.

Hamilton port

The other was the move move away from manufacturing, and towards service-oriented metropolises. This too has held back Hamilton relative to Toronto, as Hamilton’s port (and its position between Lake Ontario and Erie, near the Welland Canal) had made it a manufacturing leader.

But things may be changing again:

  1. Many services that cities like Toronto specialize in may face outsourcing or automation
  2. As industry continues to automate, it may allow some “re-shoring” to high-wage countries like Canada. (And, if services are automated or outsourced, wages may fall in countries like Canada, relative to other countries)
  3. If fuel prices (or pollution concerns) increase, it may lead water transportation (for cargo) or re-shoring manufacturing to become more important
  4. If machines remain unable to compete with the dexterity of human hands, manufacturing may need to remain located in cities, with human workers operating alongside machines
  5. E-commerce and automated warehousing may free up some urban commercial real estate for industry

In other words, it is becoming increasingly possible to imagine that mid-sized port cities like Hamilton, and large service cities like Toronto, will both reindustrialize to a certain degree going forward.

Indeed, cities in Ontario may be particularly well-suited for (partially) automated industry. Ontario has the highest disparity between surplus overnight power (generated by nuclear plants and wind farms, which cannot turn off at night) and relatively expensive daytime power. This disparity automated factories might be able to take advantage of, as machines can run overnight.

What follows is a joint transportation plan for both Hamilton and Toronto, aimed at transporting people during the day and transporting cargo during the day and night, while maximizing fuel-efficiency in both cases.

The Double-Double

Cargo is heavy, and so requires a lot of energy to transport. Luckily, as mentioned above, Ontario has a lot of surplus nighttime electricity (especially on windy nights). Overnight is also the best time to transport cargo, because there is no traffic on the roads and because green light-red light cycles can last far longer than they can during the day. This is important for transporting cargo in a fuel-efficient manner, as the weight of the cargo means that acceleration and deceleration requires a lot of fuel. Being able to drive at a constant speed without having to constantly stop and start because of traffic jams or red lights is a big benefit. Today overnight transport is held back because it is expensive to pay workers to drive vehicles, or to load and unload vehicles, overnight. But if machines are doing the driving and loading/unloading, that could change.

Electric vehicles are ideal for overnight transportation, not only because of Ontario’s surplus overnight electricity, but also because electric vehicles are quiet — and being quiet is obviously very important overnight. But electric trucks are simply not efficient enough. Light rail would be better.

Overnight transportation can help solve one of the main challenge faced by light rail/streetcars: namely, the fact that are less efficient at accelerating and decelerating than wheeled vehicles are (because there is less surface friction for rail than road), so having to stop and start constantly because of traffic and red lights makes light rail/streetcars much less efficient than they would be at night when there is no traffic and far longer green lights. This is particularly true of longer, heavier LRTs that would otherwise be more efficient, for example those that will be used by the Eglinton Crosstown (which will be able to handle three of the new long Toronto LRT vehicles strung together to create a really long LRT train). Longer LRTs are also slower at turning; overnight, however, they could turn slowly without causing a traffic jam of cars waiting behind them.

Cargo LRTs could also capitalize on one of light rail’s main advantages over heavy rail: flexibility. LRT tracks can branch off of the main route to travel directly into an industrial building, in order to be directly loaded or unloaded. a

But what about the daytime? How do you maximize light rail efficiency when a vehicle in the daytime would have to stop constantly for red lights, or stop to drop off/pick up passengers, or stop (if it is forced to share a lane with cars) because of traffic jams? Toronto’s answer to this question has been the Eglinton Crosstown tunnel. But Hamilton obviously cannot afford a subway like the Crosstown. It’s possible that even Hamilton’s surface LRT plan will soon be cancelled by Doug Ford.

In theory, there are two ways to maximize LRT fuel-efficiency. One is an express method: allow an LRT to run quickly in its own lane (not shared with cars), and have as few red lights and pickup/drop-off spots for passengers as possible. This is obviously difficult to do in a downtown setting in the daytime, without a Crosstown-like tunnel. Moreover, unless you have two lanes in each direction, to allow an express LRT to overtake a non-express LRT, the lack of pickup/dropoff spots on the express LRT would mean that the LRT might be less accessible and cost-efficient.

The other method would be to have the LRT travel as slowly as possible, in order to reduce the amount of fuel need to constantly accelerate and decelerate, and allow it to share its lane with cars. But here too, while fuel-efficiency might be maximized, travelling at a slow speed might also reduce cost-efficiency, since it would carry many fewer passengers per hour than a faster service.

The solution to these daytime challenges (if there is one), would seem to me to be to do the following: have two parallel LRT lines on the same street, one a Really Fast Lane and the other a Really Slow Lane.

The Really Fast Lane would run express in the middle lanes of the street, and would not have to share its lane with cars. It would make all of its passenger pick-up/drop-off stops in the Really Slow Line, so that trains in the fast lane would be able to minimize their stops by running express routes. (Overnight, having two lanes would also allow for one of the lanes to be used for loading/unloading cargo, without causing backups).

The Really Slow Lane, on the other hand, would overcome its slowness problem by doing the following: share its lane with cyclists, with cars, and allow cars using the Really Slow Lane to drive autonomously. By driving at really slow speeds, you can allow for autonomous driving without having to pay for LIDAR (and LIDAR has challenges with snow anyway) and with a reduced chance that fatal accidents involving autonomously-driving vehicles will occur, and you can allow cyclists and cars to share the same lane safely and comfortably. As such, you can potentially make a slow lane not only more fuel-efficient than a normal lane, but also cost-efficient.

So, that’s the basic idea behind the Hamilton Double-Double: one Really Fast Lane, for express LRTs carrying passengers or cargo, and one Really Slow Lane, shared by LRTs travelling slowly, fast-lane LRTs making stops to pickup/droppoff passengers or (at night) cargo, cyclists, cars, and autonomous (/advanced cruise control) cars.

For downtown Toronto, however, where the density of red lights and passenger stops is so high that even a Double-Double would not be able to maximize fuel-efficiency (let alone cost-efficiency), since the fast lane would still have to stop too much, while the slow line would be too crowded by traffic, a somewhat different plan could work: a plan more similar to the Crosstown.

Okay, this idea is pretty crazy, I admit, but here it goes:

The problem with subway tunnels in downtown Toronto has been one of expense: they would (unlike the Crosstown) have to tunnel through bedrock, and avoid a lot of underground utility lines and nearby buildings that exist. But what if, instead of having one subway lane in each direction, you only have one lane? What if, on Queen Street, you have 2 surface LRT lanes (one really slow lane and one really fast lane), and one underground lane (travelling in the opposite direction as the surface lanes)? Not only would you have half as much tunnelling as a conventional subway, and more easily avoid underground utilities and buildings, but you would also then have room underground to create turning lanes, so that the underground LRT could branch off to go directly into nearby buildings for the loading/unloading of cargo overnight. So long as the two surface lanes were fast enough to prevent the tunnel lane from being underutilized, maybe this could work….?

Finally, a last crazy idea: connect the LRT systems of Hamilton and Toronto, by having LRTs that can drive directly on and off ships travelling between the Hamilton port and Toronto Port Lands.

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2 thoughts on “The Double Double LRT – Make Hamilton Great Again

  1. But your graph shows that the main decline of Hamilton relative to Toronto took place between 1870 and 1920 – so, long, long before the decline of either ports or manufacturing. In fact, while I don’t have figures to hand on the population of Hamilton historically (not knowing who, what or where Hamilton is), I wonder how much of that relative decline is just in the fact that the population of Toronto more than tripled between 1870 and 1890 alone.

    At first glance, at least, my analysis would just be that nothing happened to Hamilton: in 1870, there were no large towns in the area, there was demand for a large town in the area, Toronto happened to be leading the way at that point, so Toronto benefited from economies of scale and got larger and larger and larger. Though its not like Hamilton stayed still either – it more than doubled in size between 1900 and 1914, apparently.

    Regarding your five factors for the future:
    1. Yes, it seems likely that service sectors in the west will face a great deal of competition from abroad, given educated middle classes and low wages abroad, and improving communication links.

    2. Yes, if production costs are less dependent upon labour (and more upon mechanical capital), the west will find it easier to compete. I suspect that looks more like a slowing pace of offshoring, rather than actual reshoring, but who can say?

    3. Fuel costs will certainly encourage international sea transport (relative to air). Not sure about the relative advantages of sea and land. I suspect land will continue to outcompete sea, because I think it’s easier to innovate faster and cheaper rail transport than to innovate faster and cheaper boats. But maybe not.

    [really wild idea: given the tech pioneered in long-distance competitive sailing, it’s not impossible that sailboats will make a big comeback – at least as a cost-cutting addition to oil. If your boat is going the way of the wind (and modern boats can sail almost straight into the wind), why not cut your fuel use 5% or 10% by sticking a bunch of cheap plastic sails on it? Modern sails can pretty much by controlled mechanically, too, so no added labour costs). ]

    However, would increased transport costs encourage manufacturing reshoring? Not so clear. High transport costs encourage shorter journeys in total, sure – but if your industry relies on imports, higher transport costs actually encourage industrial offshoring (because it’s cheaper to ship finished products than it is to ship raw materials). Although I guess that depends on the details: it’s certainly cheaper per £ of value to ship finished goods if cost is relative to mass (10 tons of computers are worth more than 10 tons of plastic and metal and silicon); but it’s cheaper to ship raw materials if cost is relative to volume (finished products are much more wasteful in stacking – think about the wasted space in a car!). In reality, it’s a bit of both (you want to pack more stuff into a ship, but at the same time your fuel costs rise as you weigh the ship down further). I think mass is more important, but I could be wrong.

    Where you do start getting more local manufacturing is when the transport costs rise to above Riccardo’s threshold for the negligible cost of transport in calculting relative advantage. Theoretically, once transport costs go over a certain line, we shift from a relative advantage world economy into an absolute advantage set of local economies where as much as possible is made locally. I gather this threshold is quite high, but I don’t know how high exactly. So…

    4. I can’t imagine why manufacturing would be located in cities. It won’t require much if any human labour (machines can already vastly outcompete the dexterity of human hands), and land prices are far, far higher in cities. And so are transport costs! If you’re bringing in trucks full of raw materials and sending out trucks of finished goods, you don’t want your trucks having to go through city traffic every day. The sensible solution is to locate your factory in a transport-rich location near to but outside any major settlement.

    5. There will be a LOT of space cleared up in cities, yes, as highstreet retail continues to collapse. But that’s prime land you’re talking about, and it’s not going to go back to low-value industrial use. Instead, it’s going to be converted into residential.

  2. Well, thank you very much for the thoughtful comment. I don’t have time to repliy to all of it all right now, so I’ll just mention what I think is the most important point, which is that question of machine vs. human dexterity. I was under the impression — which may be totally wrong — that the dexterity of human hands may be the only significant advantage that might be maintained against automation or digital outsourcing. Not that machines couldn’t outperform human dexterity, but that they can’t do so more cheaply than humans (at least, assuming that human wages are driven way down by automation and outsourcing). As a result, while industry is likely to be done much more by machine, it might still continue to employ large numbers of humans on-site/in-country. This would be in contrast to, for example, the profession of accounting, where you could imagine that it might be possible to automate or outsource nearly 100% of all tasks profitably.

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