Simplicity and the case for light rail

On June 10, Regional Council will hold a public meeting about the Rapid Transit proposal prior to the vote on June 24. Below is my current draft speech. Delegations are allowed 10 minutes, so I may expand it a bit.

I have travelled to many cities, both in North America and in Europe. And I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had reason to ride buses in cities while travelling. On the other hand, I’ve ridden all manner of trains: streetcars, subways, light rail. (Many of those cities were travelled to by car, I might add.) This is because user-friendly bus systems are a rare species.

What I want to emphasize is the ease of use of light rail as compared with a normal bus system. These things have quite different aims: the bus system needs to service an entire area comprehensively, and by definition is complicated. Bus routes may easily change from one season to the next, even those of rapid buses. It is very difficult to know a bus system well. I regularly use buses here, and I know only a few routes that get me around in a limited fashion. For other trips I have no choice but to drive.

A light rail system is a permanent fixture of a city. This has huge economic implications, as potential businesses will know that the train will be exactly there, and won’t get moved. Same thing for people who decide to buy a condo, and consequently for those who build condos. Whatever assurances might be given (and they rarely are) that a bus route will stay fixed, they will never be good enough to actually convince people of the permanence of something so inherently of no fixed corridor.

It is easy to understand a light rail system: there is a small number of distinct, named stations, and there are trains running often enough that you do not need a schedule. You walk to one stop, wait for a train in the right direction, get off at another stop, and walk to where you need to go. There should definitely be shuttles connecting to the light rail stations, but be assured that there will be many more people that would have nothing to do with buses, but who would use the train.

There are clear advantages for any visitors to the area — they can park their car and use the train to get around. They will get off the GO train, or the high-speed train, and easily be able to get to the most important destinations. These visitors simply will not navigate a bus system if they can avoid it, and they will avoid it, either by driving or by just not coming to a place in which buses are the only way to get around.

Of course, there are other reasons why light rail is superior to buses, and these help explain why many people with easy access to a car would use light rail, whereas buses are generally used by those who have no alternative. Modern light rail has a very smooth ride, is quieter than buses and even many cars, and releases no diesel fumes on riders and passers-by. There are many current drivers who would gladly give up commute-driving in exchange for a quiet ride where they can read or nap while not paying for gas or car upkeep. It is also far safer, of course, for them to take the train than the expressway. With a light rail line, the adamant drivers will have fewer cars on the road and the Region will have less danger of running out of space or funds for ever-expanding roads and highways.

I have focused on the simplicity of light rail, but there has to be simplicity in the plan itself. To that end, I very strongly urge Council and staff to reconsider the confusing splitting of the route in downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo. It does not drive development as well as a single corridor and it would not be a comprehensible decision in 20 years. Businesses have been concerned about visibility. However, the proposal is not for a streetcar but for rapid light rail with few stops, and thus accessibility rather than direct visibility is the most important aspect for businesses.

Let me mention one last, but very important issue. If the light rail line is to be staged, the bus stage for the Kitchener to Cambridge segment must be very temporary. There is little simplicity, and even less ease-of-use in a line composed of both a light rail and a bus segment. The region must make a firm commitment — either in terms of year or ridership — to building the Kitchener to Cambridge light rail portion. This is not just a concession to Cambridge, but what needs to be done to make this project the best long-term solution it can be for our region.

By this point it should be clear how important it is to have a fixed-rail line connecting our cities and their major destinations. Of the possibilities, subways are too expensive, elevated systems are too intrusive, and buses are inherently impermanent. We must choose to build light rail to move this region forward.

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3 responses to “Simplicity and the case for light rail”

  1. colin says :

    Michael, congratulations on your entry into the blogosphere — I hope it doesn’t eat your life (blogs can be time consuming affairs!). Your argument about the permanence of LRT compared to buses, and how that spurs commercial development is right on, but it’s also the reason why these things are so hard to get done I think. The stakes are so high that the consequences of getting something wrong are nervous-making for everyone (I have to say I have great pause for thought when I see the current route going almost through my back yard — but then I remember that if this thing happens I’ll be 2 stops from front door to office and will get rid of my car). I have a friend, a transportation engineer, who argues strongly for LRB because he says that in the time span over which the LRT pays for itself, buses will go through several design evolutions and be clean and quiet, whereas the LRT we build now will be out of date. I’d go further on the Kitchener-Cambridge link. It should be done NOW. If the rationale is to help spur urban intensification then there is much more potential for this to happen quickly in Cambridge. Just take a drive or a walk down Hespeler Road to convince yourself (if you dare!). I haven’t thought through the split route yet — but like you I worry about legibility. Keep up the blog!

    • mdruker says :

      Thanks Colin. I hope to get out of this blog in experience as much as I put in in time.

      Thing is, there’s nothing to really “get wrong” in this kind of development. Once you put up a building, it gets tenants and life and becomes part of its surroundings. Was it wrong to put it up in that particular place? It’s not a question that often makes sense.

      I believe you meant BRT? Your friend’s argument is an argument for light rail, I’d say. Buying those new and better buses every 10 years is no improvement over trains that are already better now that will last 40. And buses will always be dependent on the quality of the road; no bus will /ever/ have as smooth a ride as a train unless it is running on a track.

      In principle I agree about Cambridge. But it does appear that there might be low ridership potential currently, and having a train that runs empty can be politically dangerous. A good BRT segment would build some ridership, especially with a believable promise of LRT soon. But I am very sympathetic to building it the entire way now.

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