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.
There’s two points in this post, one that is relatively conventional and one that isn’t. If you already know about the high cost of parking, skip to the second one.
So first, parking lots are actually quite expensive. There is the cost of the land, the cost to build them, and then the maintenance cost, which is at least $500 USD per surface parking spot annually. But more importantly, there is also the opportunity cost of what is not in the place of the parking lot: commercial use, retail, residential, public space, anything. By spreading out destinations with asphalt padding, various uses take more space than they inherently need. Most deleterious, however, is likely the social and urban form ramifications of mandated free parking (whether through by-laws or culture). Free parking is part of the larger equation that makes driving very attractive by making most its costs invisible, and it is one of the major building blocks of the sprawl of post-war North America. This high cost of free parking has been written about extensively.
But, in a slightly sinister way, parking lots can be worth more than even the New Urbanist might think. In particular, it may be worthwhile to sometimes let parking lots win against proposed downtown development — especially if that development is not of a high caliber. Once a development or park or any such use is in place, it will be there for decades. Parking lots, on the other hand, are an excellent placeholder (just don’t tell their owners). I think cities may soon be getting caught up in a rush to urbanize, intensify their downtowns, and all that jazz, but in the process may allow too many subpar developments and uses of space. They might also miss out on some uses, such as for public spaces like squares and parks, playgrounds, schools, train stations, or anything that wasn’t easily planned for with the current mindset. When cities realize their missing uses, they would do well to have a strategic stash of parking lots to sacrifice instead of needing to tear down something more substantial.
The recently opened public square in the heart of Uptown Waterloo is a good example. If that parking lot had not been there, a public space in such a central area would have been infeasible to obtain. Development is not always better than a parking lot, because the latter retains possibilities that the former shuts out.