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Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs.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.
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.
In a previous post I described how the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians. But UW’s problems go deeper. It was built as a suburban campus on farmland in the 1960’s and 1970’s — when it seems planners and architects were intent on planning for the car, even when designing a pedestrian-dominated place. Now that the campus is surrounded by the city on all sides and there is growing recognition that spaces need to be designed for pedestrians, it is important that it integrate well into its environment. However the campus street plan essentially does the opposite.
Currently the main campus road, Ring Road, is accessed by vehicles only through two connector roads on the north and south. There are thus a high number of intersections for vehicles to contend with, and it is a roundabout trip to get in and out of the campus. My estimate is that most of the people travelling by motor vehicle on Ring Road are actually using transit. So the meandering is a waste of time particularly for bus riders and of money for Grand River Transit (as UW is a transit hub). But even though Ring Road is difficult to get to, it is wide open in many parts and even the few speed humps don’t suitably slow down car traffic.
UW can be a pain to get to on foot from some directions, and difficult to navigate once you do. There are barely any pedestrian thoroughfares, mostly just paved paths (if that). In many cases, vehicular access roads serve as makeshift pedestrian corridors. All parking is surface parking, and there are lots right inside the main campus (bounded by Columbia and University).
I propose a new University of Waterloo street plan. With contribution from Sylvan Mably, I’ve drawn what I think to be a much improved version of UW’s campus. The emphasis is on connectivity, navigability, and a street system that fits its use. This alternative street plan is ambitious but firmly rooted in what is actually feasible to do from the current situation.
There would no longer be a Ring Road, and its east and west segments would be through streets. Moreover, both of these streets would connect with Seagram Drive at the south end of the campus, and part of the current Seagram alignment would be turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare (as it would not be a useful vehicular connection). Other notable road changes are an extension of the current St. Jerome’s access road across Laurel Creek to the extended Seagram Drive, and a street connection for the west end of the student village. Good road connectivity would reduce the distance vehicles (including bicycles) need to travel to reach points of the campus.
The solid lines on the map would be streets with wide sidewalks and perhaps bike lanes. As the design of a road dictates how drivers use it, through streets inside the campus would be designed for low speeds (30 km/h). Where possible, they should have street parking with demand-responsive pricing; this would ensure that short-term parking is available when needed. The dashed lines are what I call pedestrian lanes. These are wide thoroughfares laid out with paving stones and designed for pedestrians, but shared with cyclists and the occasional intruding campus delivery van. These lanes should be named, especially the several that provide east-west routes and the north-south thoroughfare (which splits around the Grad House knoll and the Math & Computer building). With naming and a somewhat grid-like network of lanes and streets, the navigability of the campus would improve dramatically. Wayfinding and campus travel would become easier and more pleasant. Thanks to improved connectivity, the campus would be easier to access by walking, cycling, bus, and light rail (which will stop along the east side of campus).
Most of the lanes follow existing paths, but some would need to be graded first and others would need to be created through current parking lots. A connection would be made between Lester and Phillip Streets to make Hickory Street/Lane a useful corridor across UW, through the Northdale neighbourhood, and past King Street. Two buildings would have to be sacrificed to open up the north and south pedestrian gateways to the campus. The more pressing one is South Campus Hall at the south gateway, and the current campus master plan actually calls for it to be demolished for this very reason.
Endless construction has been steadily devouring what little open space UW’s main campus has left. There are currently grand plans afoot to develop distant parts of the University of Waterloo lands, possibly including academic buildings. My plan would allow well-located possibilities for street- and lane-facing campus buildings to accommodate growth, in particular at the parking wastelands in the north and south ends. UW is actually already haphazardly removing lots to put up new buildings. With my street plan there would be opportunities for well-located parking garages, e.g. by St. Jerome’s, off Seagram Drive, or by Columbia Street. It would also open up important possibilities for public space, such as around the south gateway to campus. Eventual demolition of some of the old three-story buildings in the center of campus (and replacement with taller, more compact ones) would allow for some much-needed central public space.
This is intended to be food for thought, and is neither exhaustive nor definitive. However, I strongly believe that a plan along these lines would dramatically improve the University of Waterloo’s walkability, connectivity, campus experience, and safety, and make it a better university overall.
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.
Few things devised by man really ever go away. Plenty, however, go out of use and become exotic or quaint — no longer of practical utility. But sometimes the utility of something can persist and even grow again, and yet this may be difficult to see through all the recreational use.
What the hell am I talking about? Tourist trains, for one. Trains have gone away as transportation in most of North America, but tourist trains abound. When looking up Port Stanley as a possible place to visit a few months ago, I found that there was a tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas along the old London & Port Stanley line. Note that St. Thomas is pretty close to the 401 highway, while Port Stanley is much further south, on Lake Erie. I thought it would be pretty neat — drive to St. Thomas and take the train to Port Stanley and back. Unfortunately, this tourist railway deliberately prevents usefulness, since the only boarding is done at Port Stanley. (In fairness, the Waterloo Central Railway between Waterloo and St. Jacobs does allow one-way trips.)
The bicycle hasn’t been a major mode of transportation in North America for the better part of a century. At the same time that driving has become the predominant way to travel, bicycling has stayed around as child’s play and recreation. Go to any Wal-Mart and you will find a wide selection of mountain bikes with 20+ gears and fancy shocks. At the specialized bike shops you’ll also find ultra-light road bicycles for the spandex-wearers. At neither place are you likely to find many comfortable utility bikes, with fenders, baskets, skirt guards, and lights. And neither mountain bikes nor road bikes are well-suited to being used for utility cycling. Yet when I look at what people use to get around town here in Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s almost always the ubiquitous recreational bicycles.
Walking is no longer considered a serious mode of transportation. Parks, however, abound with all kinds of recreational trails; often you’re supposed to drive to the park so that you can go for a stroll. These paths tend to be under the oversight of parks departments and feature signs saying they are closed at night. And being recreational trails, why would anyone want to use them in foul weather? Presumably this is why the path through Waterloo Park is not paved, despite being extensively used as transportation.
The Iron Horse Trail has its share of irony. It’s a rails-to-trails on the old Grand River Railway right-of-way. Though it is paved and even plowed, it isn’t lit and is “closed” at night. What used to be a passenger railroad was converted into a recreational trail, which incidentally is now used as transportation by many people.
I would suggest that the focus should be more on recreation as an adjoint to utility, not just recreation for its own sake (perhaps with utility as an afterthought). When your regular travel take you through a park, that enriches each trip — as opposed to the few times a year you might get to an out-of-the-way park. Focusing on making a recreational space useful can end up adding more to the quality of life for many more people.
Similarly, downtowns also should be about utility and not just recreation. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there.” After the post-war suburban sprawl took hold, downtowns suffered. Some tried to convince people to come back through demolishing buildings and providing plentiful free parking to compete with the suburbs, to little effect. Others, like Waterloo and Kitchener, built downtown malls in the failed hopes that people would come downtown for them (instead of the suburban ones). Unless your downtown is an amazing tourist spot, it just cannot be sustained as an occasional destination. Downtowns need to be places that are used in a variety of ways on a daily basis — for utility, not just recreation.