Simplicity, light rail, and a more complete transit system

Last night I spoke at Waterloo Regional Council in support of the staff recommendation for a light rail system for the region. The speech incorporates and expands on my earlier draft and on my idea for a more complete transit system for the region. I had several people come up to me to express their support, so I want to share the speech:

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, if not fantasy.

I hope to give a bit of a reality-based perspective on transit planning, one that focuses on what transit users actually would do, as opposed to what they could do or what they should do.

First I will talk about the ease of use and simplicity of light rail, and then I will discuss how to implement light rail to obtain the easiest to use and most effective system we can.

To start, light rail and normal bus systems 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, on the other hand, 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. To people and developers, bus routes are fleeting and intangible, while tracks are concrete and reassuringly permanent.

It is easy to understand a light rail system: there is a small number of distinct, named stations, and there are trains running regularly and 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. While I agree that there should be shuttles connecting to the light rail stations, be assured that a large proportion of the future LRT riders would not even consider riding buses.

There are clear advantages for any commuters or 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. Many new residents will come to the area without a car, and find they don’t need one.

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 an LRT line, the adamant drivers will need to share space with fewer other cars 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 and unjustified splitting of the route in downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo. It does not drive development as well as a single corridor would and it would not be a comprehensible decision in 20 years. I know that 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. So I suggest two-way operation on Caroline in Waterloo and on Charles in Kitchener, leaving King Street free for festivals and possible pedestrian malls, and ensuring a coherent transit line and transit stations.

If the light rail line is to be built in stages, 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 figures — to building the Kitchener to Cambridge light rail portion. This is not just a concession to Cambridge, but what needs to be done to ensure this project is the best long-term solution it can be for our region.

In discussion of this rapid transit line, we must take note that there is only so much growth that can occur in a linear corridor, and that many parts of our cities will remain away from the backbone light rail line. It is naive to believe that residents of these places will flock en masse to bus connections with the light rail line. I believe that we need to think ahead to a more complete transit system, and consider streetcar lines operating in mixed traffic to connect outlying areas with the central corridor in a way that buses never could. In addition to this transit link, streetcars would very directly build vibrant streets in areas they are most needed.

LRT and streetcars for Region of Waterloo

My map provides an example of what a more complete transit system might look like. A streetcar along University Avenue connects the two campuses, forming an interesting and thriving district and supplanting the current blight of student housing; it also connects outlying residential areas and the new development at Ira Needles with the core. Another streetcar goes along Highland and Victoria, connecting residential and commercial areas and forming a new urban corridor for Kitchener. In Cambridge, a streetcar would be complementary to the LRT, providing transit and development along the corridor the LRT passes over. A heritage trolley could run up the spur line from Northfield to St. Jacobs, perhaps even to Elmira; if you’ve been to the St. Jacobs Market on a Saturday, you know that the ridership is there. And the last line in my map connects Pioneer Park and Doon with Kitchener and Cambridge LRT stations. Conestoga College at Doon will have probably 7,000 full-time students with its expansion, plus many thousands more part-time students, so this is a very important connection, not to mention vital if we want residents to be able to have a fully transit-accessible region.

As you can also see from my map, I believe that both the King Street and the spur line routes should be built in Waterloo, with half of the Waterloo-bound trains going in each direction. The University Avenue streetcar should provide the connection between the campuses, so the King Street portion should return to King Street just past Uptown.

Transit map of LRT and streetcars

Now, a few short points about light rail. Light rail is easy to understand and use. Its visible permanence promotes development. It does not pollute the city with either fumes or noise. It provides a smooth ride with smooth, infrequent stops. It provides a more stable headway between vehicles, and is not prone to vehicle bunching. The trains are easy to get on, get off, and move around in. The named, infrequent stops allow riders to relax while on board. And finally, the trains will outlast several generations of buses, none of which will compare in terms of comfort.

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 our possibilities, subways are too expensive, elevated systems are too intrusive, and buses are, of course, inherently impermanent. Above all, failing to build this system is the most expensive option we have, costing us at the very least several billion dollars in road expansion and millions of hours lost in traffic over the next 20 years. We must choose to build light rail to move this region forward.

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2 responses to “Simplicity, light rail, and a more complete transit system”

  1. Jesse says :

    the only problem with that idea is lrt systems are usually for major cities, it would cost too much to build for such a small place

    • mdruker says :

      I won’t rehash it here, except to say that that’s bullshit. If we can afford to build the roads we don’t have space for, then with less money we can afford to build the LRT (plus associated transit improvements) that prevents the need for most of those roads in the first place.

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