My last Record column this year evaluates the idea of the central business district in the context of Waterloo Region, and (of course) again discusses light rail. Hopefully it isn’t too unfocused:
The Future is Multi-Nodal
Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs. A frequent argument against the project is that downtown Kitchener isn’t a large enough CBD and that there aren’t enough people commuting in. But the whole concept of a central business district is a thing of the past, and light rail does not need a large CBD to make sense. The future lies in urban areas composed of multiple dense nodes connected by high-quality transportation — which happens to be exactly what Waterloo Region is planning for.
Cities once contained housing in addition to commerce and industry. When streetcar lines were started, they moved people within the city, but they also opened up the suburbs for residential development that promised tranquility and fresh air. Later, the availability of cars and cheap fuel together with massive post-war highway and road development led to suburban flight on a larger scale. Commerce also followed the highways and set up shop in suburban malls. Only jobs remained, producing the classic CBD — where commuters stay from 9 to 5, leaving an empty city every evening. But those long commutes aren’t healthy for our cities, and an office monoculture is not conducive to urban living.
Most of Waterloo Region’s growth has occurred after the post-war years, and many jobs are located in suburban office parks. So we have no reason to cling to the notion of a CBD — it just doesn’t apply. But that’s not a bad thing. Instead of jobs clustering in any single downtown, many destinations and much employment have fortunately clustered along a reasonably dense linear corridor.
Growing Waterloo Region Up with Transit Infrastructure
A single line of built-up areas is easily seen in Waterloo Region satellite imagery — this is the Central Transit Corridor. The planned light rail line and the express bus line to Cambridge would connect four downtowns, the university district, three major commercial areas, and many corporate and industrial campuses — along with a quickly growing supply of housing. In the context of a redesigned bus network and strong planning policy, LRT (light rail transit) is the infrastructure necessary to manage growth and provide for the region’s economic and environmental health.
Most of the tremendous post-war growth here has been suburban, but the area near the LRT route has still grown by 50% or more since 1955 — the last year of interurban trains. If that was it, light rail wouldn’t make sense. But the plan looks to 2031, and the province projects more than 200,000 new residents by then. The Region’s new Official Plan implements provincial targets of 40% of growth occurring in the urban cores. This will more than double the population and jobs along the Central Transit Corridor. A light rail system will both help attract this development to the downtowns, and handle the resulting demand for transit along the spine of our region. It would also be a more environmentally and financially sound approach than ramming wider roadways and more parking into our downtowns.
Many have called for more buses instead of rail. But this isn’t either-or. In fact, the recently approved Regional Transportation Master Plan calls for a dramatic ramping up of the Grand River Transit budget — tripling per-capita funding within twenty years. The plan calls for five new express bus routes in the next five years to service other major corridors, for more frequent and later service, and a redesign of bus routes to a more grid-like network to connect with the light rail and the express routes.
However, simply more buses won’t work in the Central Transit Corridor. Already, each direction of King Street between Waterloo and Kitchener sees 12-15 iXpress and Route 7 mainline buses an hour. Which is great for riders now. But when the population and jobs more than double, so will transit ridership — or actually more without road expansion. With buses as they are now, 20-30 buses an hour is essentially the limit. Past that point they bunch together and form jams at busy stops. For them to handle the ridership we would need a bus highway through our downtowns, with passing lanes and level platforms. For most of the cost of an LRT system, it would get us dozens more buses per hour polluting our downtowns with diesel fumes and noise, and would only postpone the capacity issues.
LRT, in addition to its smoother ride and quieter and friendlier electric propulsion, has larger vehicles that can be coupled in trains. Less manpower is needed to operate it, and more and bigger doors allow for low dwell times at stations — which are the main capacity bottleneck. And more than just funneling growth into central areas, the inflexibility of light rail will be able to guide development to occur alongside transit and in a way conducive to transit use.
We’re finally realizing that our resources are finite. In the post-war era, anything was possible. Technology would solve all problems, land was plentiful, gas was cheap, and everyone could drive their car from the idyllic suburbs to work downtown. We know now that sprawl comes with costs to the environment, costs to our health, and costs to our wallets — it’s expensive to build streets and lay down infrastructure to serve low densities at the edge of the city. We’ve already chosen to put a limit to sprawl. Now it’s time to follow through with the transit service and infrastructure that will grow our Region up and not out.
My latest Record column is on the public subsidies for highways:
Taxpayer Money Should Fund Transportation Efficiently
Today’s lesson in economics: When something good is free, people take more of it. But if it’s the government handing out the free lunch, you better believe you’re paying for it. Space on provincial highways like Highway 401 is one such free lunch, and it’s often painfully clear to motorists that this space is in high demand. Much of that demand is thanks to the taxpayer subsidy for highways.
Insufficient road capacity has been a perennial problem ever since we started driving everywhere and choosing where to live based on road connections. The perennial solution has been to add new roads and widen, widen, widen — neighbourhoods and the environment be damned. It hasn’t worked, however, thanks to the phenomenon of induced demand. Once a busy highway is widened, it only takes a few years before people move in to new, cheap houses further out along a clear commute — and the highway gets congested again. Taxpayer money is thus spent to turn the problem of traffic congestion into two problems: traffic congestion and more infrastructure to maintain.
As crumbing bridges across North America can attest, we haven’t even kept up with the maintenance of our existing road network, much of it built in the 1960s and 1970s. Every new overpass is an overpass that has to be replaced in 40 or 50 years. Every new lane of roadway is an extra lane to repave every several years. More space on the roads results in more driving, leading to the lost productivity costs of congestion and more injuries sustained and lives lost in the lane of duty (with attendant emergency response costs). And, of course, more driving costs the environment through desperate oil production, carbon release and air pollution. Highway spending nets us a much larger bill than we bargain for.
The financially sustainable solution to congestion requires providing transit that is sufficiently good to attract drivers. Transportation by rail uses fewer resources to carry more people, and arguably in more comfort. The infrastructure requires less maintenance, lasts longer, and is lighter on the environment and public health. All costs considered, train service is less expensive than building and maintaining more highway space.
Commuters’ decisions are based mostly on the personal costs and benefits of the choices available to them. They have no great love of driving on busy highways (even free ones), but they can’t take an alternative that doesn’t exist. When presented with serious alternatives to driving, commuters flock to them in droves. The popularity of commuter rail, such as GO trains, indicates that plenty of people would choose to get to work by train.
Instead of spending double-digit billions on further highway expansion, Ontario should funnel transportation funds into train service, such as GO train extensions to Kitchener and to Cambridge, the Waterloo Region light rail project, and frequent and fast train service on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. With good alternatives in place — which could even be as simple as dedicated bus lanes — Ontario should implement dynamic user fees on limited-access highways to pay for upkeep and to eliminate congestion.
Some would take the train and others would take the bus on those same highways. Yet others would move closer to work — like the three-fourths of Waterloo Region commuters who travel less than 10 km to work (and who currently subsidize those long highway commutes). Of course, occasional and regular users who find the highway worth paying for would have a faster, congestion-free commute.
Limited-access highways are at best a wasteful kind of transportation infrastructure, but when congested they are a tragic waste of economic resources. If we believe in subsidizing transportation systems, we should be doing so efficiently, and doing it to improve overall quality of life.
Today’s Record carries my community editorial board column on new urban space and the Northdale university-area neighbourhood. Below is my original text:
Making New Urban Space in Northdale
In the last half-century the Region of Waterloo has seen tremendous growth. We’ve built a university on farmland. Subdivisions upon subdivisions have sprung up at the outskirts of town. Industry has been pushed out to “parks” accessible only by car. We’ve put up office building wastelands and power centres galore. We’ve torn down parts of our downtowns to put up parking lots and inward-facing malls with blank walls facing the street. And we’re still going strong, with plans to demolish industrial buildings in Kitchener’s warehouse district to turn it into a parking district.
At least we’ve decided to somewhat curtail the building of widely spaced houses on inaccessible crescents and cul-de-sacs, and new policies call for intensification and reurbanization. However it seems our thinking stops at a strange one-dimensional notion of density, one of condo towers, parking garages, and monster developments of all kinds. Where are our lively new city streets? Where is our walkable city built for the street level? If we seem constitutionally incapable of building new urban space, one reason is that our planning policy makes it essentially impossible.
The late Jane Jacobs, renowned urban activist and thinker, wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
Northdale is a rapidly growing area in Waterloo adjacent to Wilfrid Laurier University and near the University of Waterloo, Research in Motion, and the Research and Technology Park. Growth of the universities has resulted in a student residential monoculture there, with its attendant problems of overcrowded houses and rowdy students. Waterloo city planners recently completed a report to allow City Council to decide between the staff vision for Northdale and an alternative vision brought forward by community members unsatisfied with the current approach.
That current approach forces high-demand land in the interior of the neighbourhood to remain as low density detached housing (to attract hypothetical families) and allows for only residential use without provision for neighbourhood amenities. There is no liveliness save for keg parties, no public space, and nothing to attract outsiders in. The corridors chosen for higher density are growing duller and drearier with every new student housing building added – either parking-oriented barracks or stucco towers.
The alternative is to allow and encourage the built form of our streets to become urban, and this requires considerable changes to zoning: removing minimum parking requirements, setting minimum densities, limiting heights to street-scale (e.g. six or eight storeys), and – most importantly – permitting mixed uses. The city of Kitchener is implementing new mixed-use zoning, and Waterloo’s planners should take note. For all the housing sprouting up in Northdale, there is no grocery store in sight. City planners require parking so that we can all drive to the mall, but in their infinite wisdom they do not see fit to allow streets where we might have reason or desire to walk. (The only exceptions are grandfathered in.)
Northdale is within walking distance of two universities, many major tech companies, busy transit corridors, future light rail, as well as Uptown Waterloo. Currently it is prime land for students without much choice, but it could easily also be attractive for students with choice, for university faculty and staff, and for RIM employees. Add commerce and a few academic and office buildings to a diverse mix of housing, and you have a great alternative to more suburbs.
We should plan for neighbourhoods in which people enjoy living and enjoy walking – where we not only live, but also work, shop, and play. Neighbourhoods where we have welcoming streetscapes, good transit routes and service, shops on our way, useable public spaces, and a built environment that supports community instead of hindering it. Northdale is a perfect opportunity to create new urban space.
Michael Druker is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo. He is a member of the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group (TriTAG) and of Help Urbanize the Ghetto in Waterloo (HUG Waterloo). See more of his opinions at http://psystenance.com.
This year I am on The Record’s Community Editorial Board. Today’s paper carries my column on the subject of off-street parking requirements. Below is my original text (most is behind the cut):
We Should Curb Parking Requirements
Why do we devote so much land to parking? You might suppose this is purely due to the high demand or the high value of parking, but you’d be wrong. Municipal by-laws have actually been requiring abundant off-street parking across North America since the 1940s — when cities started their decline and modern suburbs their ascent. These requirements pave the way for a spread-out, car-oriented form for cities, to the detriment of the density and foot traffic necessary for vibrant urban areas.