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TriTAG and light rail

I haven’t forgotten about this blog. However, as a member of TriTAG, the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group, I have spent quite a lot of time recently on the content for our new website — which I am happy to report is now live at tritag.ca. (Tri-cities is for Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge, and for being a catchy name.)

Today’s issue of The Record also carries my op-ed in support of light rail for the Region of Waterloo. It mainly focuses on light rail as the natural evolution of the rapidly growing iXpress bus route.

While TriTAG strongly supports the light rail project, it is by no means a single-issue group and is also focusing on issues relating to transit and urban infrastructure in the Region, including ones addressed in this blog.

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Missing sidewalks in Kitchener-Waterloo

Missing sidewalk on Esson

For a city to be open to pedestrians, there need to be paths between useful destinations, the paths need to be maintained, and pedestrians need to feel safe. Before you can run, you have to walk, and before you can walk, you need a place to do it. In Kitchener-Waterloo there are numerous roads that are missing sidewalks, often on both sides of the street. Sometimes the sidewalks are sporadic: they appear and disappear on a stretch of road. Occasionally one-sided sidewalks even switch sides at intersections. Suburban subdivisions are haphazard, sometimes having full sidewalk coverage, but just as often leaving them out. And sidewalks in industrial areas are simple: there just aren’t any.

I set out to document the state of missing sidewalks in Kitchener and Waterloo. Using Google Maps, I drew red lines for roads missing sidewalks on both sides and blue lines for those missing a sidewalk on just one. I tried to cover everything that is not a suburban subdivision, and I did Eastbridge as an example of a suburban area. There are undoubtedly missing sidewalks that I did not document, and probably some tiny sidewalks that I mistook for curbs. Click on the below map image to see it on Google Maps in more detail. [Update: This is based on 2006 satellite imagery, and a few sidewalks have been put in since then.] Read More…

A walk from Waterloo to the University of Waterloo

Waterloo is a small city that has owed much to the rise of the University of Waterloo over the last half century. Uptown Waterloo is the thriving, if small, downtown area. Waterloo has 100,000 residents and the University of Waterloo has 30,000 people. It’s less than 2 km between Uptown and the main UW campus. Let’s take a walk from one to the other.

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Parking lots are worth more than you think

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.

Transit infrastructure, not just transit

The streetcars that crisscrossed North American cities and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally built and run by private companies, and operated at a profit. With the rise of the private automobile and due to other factors, they were no longer able to turn a profit, even in the cities in which streetcars were not deliberately run into the ground. I don’t think cities realized at that time that the infrastructure of the streetcar lines may have actually been worth paying for — and not just something to be allowed if paid the usage fees by streetcar companies. And so the infrastructure was swept away with the streetcars, which paved the way (no pun intended) for the downturn of urban areas and boosted suburb development.

Fast forward to now. Many people still participate in discussion of, and decisions about transit in North America without understanding that transit is not just about moving people effectively. From such a point of view, it can make sense to advocate for high-frequency buses and not much else in many cases. (Of course, there are also factors such as comfort and simplicity to consider.)

The other side of transit is infrastructure. Transit infrastructure, generally rail-based, changes the fabric of its surroundings. It transforms the geography, and attracts disproportionate development to its stations or corridors. Once built, it is taken as a permanent and reliable connection and short-cut between disparate places. It is visibly in place, a financial and social investment that is both useful and that cannot be easily picked up and moved. In other words, it is infrastructure. And such infrastructure is central to reclaiming an urban landscape.

We should stop talking about just transit, and start talking about transit infrastructure. The way discussions are framed makes a difference, and currently discussion about transit allows the ignorance of all the implications of transit beyond the movement of people. The only way to build liveable cities in North America that are not car-dependent is by building strong transit infrastructure. Transit can only follow, while transit infrastructure leads.

Speech against the Ira Needles development

On Monday, June 22, Waterloo City Council considered the proposed development and zoning changes for the huge Ira Needles mixed-use development at Ira Needles Boulevard and University Avenue, which would straddle the border between Waterloo and Kitchener.

The public input sessions regarding this proposal were only conducted in the immediate surrounding suburban area, so there was poor awareness of this project. Several of the presentations at the meeting were by the developers and associated people. One lady argued against the proposal because of its proximity to the landfill — her concern is that the development will be unusable and unsafe as a result, and that this will have unfortunate consequences for the landfill’s operation. Another argued that it will contribute to serious water contamination issues. My speech, reproduced below, was the only one against the very idea of the development. A number of people later came up to shake my hand for giving the speech.

Unfortunately, City Council disregarded their own misgivings as well as the concerns raised, and voted unanimously in favour of the development. In writeups about the ruling, the Record and the Waterloo Chronicle mentioned my comments with varying degrees of accuracy.

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Reality-based transit planning

Discussion, planning, and design of transit systems that aims to get people to use them must be based on what people actually do rather than on what they should do. The more in line with people’s actual use a transit system is, the more useful and economically efficient it is.

It is irrelevant how far people should want to walk to get to transit. The reality is that they are not willing to walk far, though the more complete reality is that they are willing to walk further to get to a train than to a bus.

It is irrelevant that people could plan around infrequent service. Very few are willing to do so.

It is irrelevant that people should take the bus to get to where they need to go. Either they will or they won’t, and empirical evidence all over the world says that they will do everything in their power to avoid buses.

This is why I have been talking about perception and simplicity. Because at the core of a transit system are people who have to navigate it using their faculties of perception and memory (and more), and who also do not derive equal pain or pleasure from the various modes of transportation. Paternalistic transit planning based on what people should do is self-defeating.