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.
As promised in the last post, I will discuss the issue of the splitting of the route in downtown Kitchener and Waterloo that was recommended by the Region of Waterloo report. I understand the motivations, but I think it is a very short-sighted move and that the region would be better served by the alternative of routing both directions along Caroline in Waterloo, and along Charles in Kitchener.
Part of the appeal of a light rail line in the first place is that it is simple. Fixed stations, trains going both directions, no schedule needed. But the recommended split route segments have stations on them, which complicates the route. Having stations on different streets for the two directions would make giving directions based on station location more difficult, and it would also create strange disparities in ease of access to transit based on the direction of one’s destination. In other transit systems where the directions go along separate one-way streets for much longer stretches than proposed here, the split is easy to understand and deal with, but here it is a very ad hoc measure. This is not a huge issue with the proposal, but it adds needless complexity and costs without the benefits to compensate.
Waterloo holds festivals that require the closing of King Street to traffic. The proposed way to deal with having one direction going along King Street is to double-up on the one Caroline track during any festivals. This will be difficult to do in practice, will require a serious amount of planning, and will include the real possibility of failure — which might not prove dangerous, but would certainly bring the entire system to a standstill. Additionally, splitting the route here is incredibly short-sighted because of the impossibility of single-tracking when (not if) trains will be running at a very high frequency.
King Street in Uptown Waterloo is already a fairly reasonably developed area and attraction, especially with the newly-opened public square. It is one street over from Caroline and no trouble to get to. On the other hand, Caroline is surrounded by parking lots that are prime for transformation. This is going to be happening very soon in the case of the Balsillie School, which will be next to CIGI. But it will take a fair number of years after trains start running before Caroline Street gets fully built up, and until then King Street will continue getting the lion’s share of visitors. People will go to King Street and the public square, and probably enjoy the lack of a transit line separating the two sides of the street. And of course, leaving trains off King would allow the future conversion of that portion of it into a pedestrian mall. Side benefits of not having any part of LRT along King in Uptown Waterloo: more parking left on King for those who swing that way, and no need to have LRT go against traffic on Erb.
One more point about Waterloo: apparently the Catalina town houses (bounded by William, Caroline, Allen, and Park) are an important part of why the proposal has only one track on Caroline. Such influence should not be accorded to a non-historic development of perhaps 20 units. For comparison, the Bauer Lofts, also on Caroline, are nearing completion and will have 89 units. This is the right scale for the area, especially noting the adjacent Sun Life building and the proposed 144 Park condos. [Update: This 143-unit high rise has been approved.]
In Kitchener, the proposal has one direction along Charles and the other along Duke. This is even more problematic from the standpoint of complexity because those streets are not even within sight of each other. The two stations would be far away, and this would present issues with directions and orienting, and with the arbitrariness of business and residential proximity to only one direction of travel. It is far simpler to have both tracks along Charles Street, which is easy walking distance to anywhere else in downtown. Of Duke, King, and Charles, Charles is the one with the most opportunity for new development. And as in Waterloo, King Street and Duke Street will hold their own in attracting visitors.
I find the idea of businesses being seriously hampered by being out of sight of the transit route to be strange. Light rail is not a streetcar — people cannot get off at will. The main thing LRT does for people is facilitation of getting from station A to station B, a trip in which people are interested due to the surroundings of station B, and not just due to what they happened to glimpse along the way. Most importantly for businesses in the downtowns, LRT will bring many more people into the downtown areas from elsewhere, resulting in more than what the current business selection can handle. Worrying about direct visibility from the LRT is silly; if it is there, worthwhile, and walking distance from a station, they will find out and they will come.
As just one example, consider the Mission District in San Francisco. All the main transit lines — subway and frequent trolleybuses — are along Mission Street, from which most visitors make their way a block or two to Valencia, which has an entirely different street feel than Mission. Considering the distance between the successive 16th St Mission and 24th St Mission BART (subway) stops which service the district, the distance to Valencia is insignificant.
There have been a few weeks now to think about the Region of Waterloo’s rapid transit recommendation, and to read the discussion about it, both well- and ill-informed (the latter particularly notable in The Record). No Achilles’ heel has been exposed, but I do want to mention a few points that I believe would improve the proposal.
First, the current proposal involves a staged implementation, with the portion from Fairview in Kitchener to Cambridge using adapted bus rapid transit until ridership warrants full LRT extension. I think Cambridge is right to be concerned with this plan, as there is no strong commitment on the part of the Region to ever extend the full line to Cambridge. A split system can only be a temporary measure, because the line transfer and change of modality fundamentally disconnects the system, annulling some of the benefits of the rapid transit line. The same reasons why BRT is less usable than LRT — and more, since this is not full BRT — are the reasons why aBRT to Cambridge indefinitely into the future is unacceptable. There has to be a firm commitment by the Region to complete the line, with a guarantee that the line would be built by a certain year or a certain ridership on the aBRT, whichever comes first. Honestly, the Region should have enough faith in the economic powers of the LRT system that it would start building the Cambridge segment as soon as the first stage is operating, if not sooner. Either one of these possibilities would help assure businesses and residents of Cambridge that development focused on the aBRT line would not be too risky, as LRT extension would not be an empty promise. Of course, this assumes that stations would be preserved, which is also something to which the Region should commit.
The division between LRT and aBRT in the recommendation occurs at Fairview in Kitchener. However, I think it may make more sense to extend the initial LRT to Sportsworld for a few reasons. Sportsworld is currently undergoing a fair amount of development, and it is also more natural to group it with Kitchener than with Cambridge. A division placed there would allow coherent transit lines for both Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge. The primary benefit, however, would be easy access from the 401. Space for a park-and-ride is likely easy to find, and the location allows reasonable access to both cities. It would also allow for a decent connection to inter-city buses, which are going to remain important for at least the near future. But I will say that I’m not entirely sold on this, and if initial LRT to Sportsworld is difficult to justify economically, it is probably not worthwhile.
The major issue I find with the alignment itself is the recommendation to split the route in downtown Kitchener and Waterloo, and I will address that in a separate entry.