Infrastructure Urban Planning

Ontario’s land use scandal: Another greenfield hospital for Niagara

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Recently, I discussed the greenfield locations of new hospital and post-secondary institutions in Ontario, focusing on the new St. Catharines Hospital site and the Orillia campus of Lakehead University, but also mentioning the proposed sites of a new hospital for Windsor, and an university campus in Milton. Hospitals and educational institutions are primarily funded by the province, which likes to promote sustainable development policies such as the Greenbelt, and mobility hubs at major transit nodes.

The trouble with these new sites, located far from each city’s urban centre, is that they are difficult to reach by walking, cycling, or public transit. They don’t support downtown businesses, they ignore other potential urban land parcels (often former industrial sites), and are not in accordance with the province’s own land use policies.

I recently returned to Niagara Region to examine Niagara Health’s plan to consolidate health services outside of St. Catharines (where it already merged two urban hospital sites to a single suburban location). It proposes consolidating most health services located in five municipalities (Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne, Fort Erie, and Niagara-on-the-Lake) into one site, at the corner of Biggar and Montrose Roads, south of Niagara Falls’ urban area, but adjacent to an interchange with the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).

Niagara Falls, like most of urbanized Niagara Region, is de-industrializing, with modest population growth. Employment is largely dependent on public sector jobs, such as the education and health services, and the city’s tourism industry. As a large employer, the hospital should be as accessible to its employees, as well as its patients, as possible.

Map of current Niagara Health sites and proposed new hospital

The proposed hospital site is at the corner of two two-lane country roads, in an area without sidewalks. To the north and west is a golf course; to the south is a Hungarian community hall, farm fields, and a few exurban ranch houses. The land was donated in 2013 by a local business family, but last fall, Niagara Falls City Council was considering purchasing an additional 20 acres for staff parking.

Cycling Travels

Cycling the Greater Golden Horseshoe

IMG_4179You never know who you might meet when you ride through Toronto’s ravines

Spring is here!

One of my favourite things to do is go for a ride, either within town, or on a day trip or an overnight excursion. Toronto’s ravines are a treat; and the further away from Lake Ontario you get, the quieter the trails are.

Two years ago, I was riding up the Humber River Trail north of Highway 401 when I saw a deer wandering down the path. I stopped, and the deer passed by, within metres of where I was standing. Not much further north, I saw two deer — a fawn and its mother — fording the Humber. Tommy Thompson Park, better known as the Leslie Street Spit, is another favourite place to go. The Spit was created from clean landfill to create a new outer harbour in anticipation for St. Lawrence Seaway shipping that never came. Instead, it has become an important migratory bird sanctuary. The views of Downtown Toronto are great, and there are no ferry lines to wait in.

For longer distances, GO Transit is especially helpful. All of their buses are equipped with bike racks and their train (outside of rush hour, of course) can handle over 25 bicycles each. (The seasonal Niagara trains have dedicated bike coaches as well.) GO Transit can get you out of the city for more rural rides, or for longer one-way rides to or from Toronto.

At least twice a year, I ride out to Hamilton on the Waterfront Trail, opting to enter that city by going around Burlington Bay and taking Cannon Street in from the east. It’s an 85 kilometre trip that takes the better part of the day. I’ll have dinner and drinks at one of the many Downtown Hamilton establishments before loading my bike on the bus at the Hamilton GO Centre. Other times, I have used GO Transit to get out to rail trails in Peterborough, Uxbridge, Guelph, or Barrie.

I prefer rail trails as they’re more relaxed than rural roads or highways; I’m not able to keep up with roadies, and I’m okay with that. Rail trails are flat, but they’re also usually unpaved, and some sections are very quiet. (I have gone 20 or 30 minutes without meeting another trail user in some rural areas.)

Here is a summary of some of my favourite long-distance rides.

Intercity Rail Transit Urban Planning

GO Transit’s Grimsby problem

The Bruce Trail near Fifty Road, November 6, 2016

On Sunday, November 6, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm November day to go hiking on the Bruce Trail. I started in Grimsby and hiked for 23 kilometres west to the Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument in Hamilton. The hike was lovely as there was still some fall foliage left to enjoy, and the views above the Escarpment over Niagara vineyards and Lake Ontario were spectacular.

View of Downtown Grimsby and Lake Ontario from the top of the Niagara Escarpment

In order to do this six hour, one-way hike, I took the train to Grimsby, and began my trip from there (enjoying a coffee and snack at a great local coffee shop first). Upon arriving at Stoney Creek, I took a Hamilton Street Railway bus downtown for dinner before taking a GO bus back to Toronto.

View from the lookout at Devil’s Punch Bowl Conservation Area towards Hamilton Harbour

The Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument, where I ended my hike as the sun began to set

When I go for a bike ride or a hike, whether it be a solo trip or a hike with friends, I like to plan the trip in advance, and to think about the transportation options for getting there. And so I come once again to thinking about Grimsby, GO Transit, VIA Rail, and local transit.

There is currently only one train each way between Toronto and Niagara Region — Amtrak’s Maple Leaf, which is operated by VIA crews on the Canadian side of the border. The Maple Leaf takes 12 hours and 30 minutes to get from Toronto’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station, including a stop at the border for customs and immigration checks. Other delays, such as freight traffic and even ship traffic on the Welland Canal, make this train commonly late for Niagara passengers headed to Toronto in the evening. There was once a second daily VIA train between Toronto and Niagara Falls, scheduled to serve commuters, but it was cut by the Stephen Harper-led Conservative government in 2012.

img_6547-001Downtown Grimsby

GO Transit operates a summer weekend train service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, making stops at Port Credit, Oakville, Burlington, and St. Catharines, but not at Grimsby. GO Transit also operates a year-round bus service — Route 12 — that follows the QEW between Burlington GO Station and Downtown Niagara Falls, stopping at several park and ride lots and at Fairview Mall in St. Catharines, a secondary hub for local transit in that city.

The Maple Leaf Train leaves Union Station at 8:20 AM, 7 days a week, and arrives at Grimsby just after 9:30 AM, stopping only at Oakville and Aldershot. Taking GO Transit, it takes nearly two hours to get to the park and ride at Casablanca Boulevard, including the transfer time at Burlington Station.

GO Transit Route 12

The Grimsby Amtrak/VIA station is located on Ontario Street, at a site picked by the Great Western Railway in 1853. It is a mere 5-10 minute walk to Downtown Grimsby, located in the centre of that community’s population. The GO Transit park and ride is located at the west end of town, at Casablanca Boulevard. The planned GO Transit Rail Station is located nearby. The bus stop and proposed rail station is located 3.5 kilometres from Downtown Grimsby, or a 45 minute walk.

img_6544-001Grimsby Station

The current railway station at Grimsby consists of only a small shelter and indoor waiting area, along with a small parking lot for VIA customers. The platform is small, about one rail car’s length. The VIA Rail Canada sign is almost as large as the station building itself. But for me, the railway station’s location was far more convenient than the GO bus stop at Casablanca Boulevard.

A new station at Casablanca Boulevard offers several advantages for GO Transit: easy access to the Queen Elizabeth Way, plenty of undeveloped land for a parking lot, and room for a platform for GO Transit’s 10-car and 12-car trains. But the location is not friendly for customers who wish to walk or cycle to the train, and without a local transit system, it’s inaccessible for many potential Grimsby commuters unless they were to take a taxi, get a ride, or drive their own car.

Overlooking the QEW/Casablanca Boulevard interchange and the proposed location of the Grimsby GO Station. GO buses serve the park-and-ride lot in the middle ground. Note the clear view across the lake to Toronto.

I have argued here before that GO Transit has an unfortunate record of catering to motorists while mostly ignoring the needs of many of its current and potential customers. GO Transit’s need for large parking lots often precludes locating stations in more urban locations. By providing ‘free’ parking, GO forces all passengers to subsidize those who drive alone to its stations.

Of course, GO Transit is going to build Grimsby Station at Casablanca Boulevard; it was announced earlier this year as part of a GO service expansion project. But a useful local transit system, scheduled to connect with GO trains and buses, offering fare integration, can mitigate this problem. Transit riders shouldn’t be told to take a hike.