Growing Waterloo Region up with transit infrastructure
My Record column today makes the case for light rail in Waterloo Region, with a slightly different approach than last year’s one:
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.
Taxpayer money should fund transportation efficiently
My latest Record column is on the public subsidies for highways:
Taxpayer Money Should Fund Transportation Efficiently
Today’s lesson in economics: When something good is free, people take more of it. But if it’s the government handing out the free lunch, you better believe you’re paying for it. Space on provincial highways like Highway 401 is one such free lunch, and it’s often painfully clear to motorists that this space is in high demand. Much of that demand is thanks to the taxpayer subsidy for highways.
Insufficient road capacity has been a perennial problem ever since we started driving everywhere and choosing where to live based on road connections. The perennial solution has been to add new roads and widen, widen, widen — neighbourhoods and the environment be damned. It hasn’t worked, however, thanks to the phenomenon of induced demand. Once a busy highway is widened, it only takes a few years before people move in to new, cheap houses further out along a clear commute — and the highway gets congested again. Taxpayer money is thus spent to turn the problem of traffic congestion into two problems: traffic congestion and more infrastructure to maintain.
As crumbing bridges across North America can attest, we haven’t even kept up with the maintenance of our existing road network, much of it built in the 1960s and 1970s. Every new overpass is an overpass that has to be replaced in 40 or 50 years. Every new lane of roadway is an extra lane to repave every several years. More space on the roads results in more driving, leading to the lost productivity costs of congestion and more injuries sustained and lives lost in the lane of duty (with attendant emergency response costs). And, of course, more driving costs the environment through desperate oil production, carbon release and air pollution. Highway spending nets us a much larger bill than we bargain for.
The financially sustainable solution to congestion requires providing transit that is sufficiently good to attract drivers. Transportation by rail uses fewer resources to carry more people, and arguably in more comfort. The infrastructure requires less maintenance, lasts longer, and is lighter on the environment and public health. All costs considered, train service is less expensive than building and maintaining more highway space.
Commuters’ decisions are based mostly on the personal costs and benefits of the choices available to them. They have no great love of driving on busy highways (even free ones), but they can’t take an alternative that doesn’t exist. When presented with serious alternatives to driving, commuters flock to them in droves. The popularity of commuter rail, such as GO trains, indicates that plenty of people would choose to get to work by train.
Instead of spending double-digit billions on further highway expansion, Ontario should funnel transportation funds into train service, such as GO train extensions to Kitchener and to Cambridge, the Waterloo Region light rail project, and frequent and fast train service on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. With good alternatives in place — which could even be as simple as dedicated bus lanes — Ontario should implement dynamic user fees on limited-access highways to pay for upkeep and to eliminate congestion.
Some would take the train and others would take the bus on those same highways. Yet others would move closer to work — like the three-fourths of Waterloo Region commuters who travel less than 10 km to work (and who currently subsidize those long highway commutes). Of course, occasional and regular users who find the highway worth paying for would have a faster, congestion-free commute.
Limited-access highways are at best a wasteful kind of transportation infrastructure, but when congested they are a tragic waste of economic resources. If we believe in subsidizing transportation systems, we should be doing so efficiently, and doing it to improve overall quality of life.
Don’t be fooled by middling transit frequency
Most bus routes here are infrequent, with buses no more often than every 30 minutes. What would count as frequent? I’m sure the majority of those who don’t use transit think every 15 minutes is frequent. But I’d bet most would change their minds after going to a bus stop and waiting 10-15 minutes (or more) for such a “frequent” bus. In the abstract 15 minutes isn’t much time, but at a bus stop it’s forever. Which is why truly frequent service is every 8 minutes or better, which doesn’t allow much time for getting annoyed with waiting.
If using schedules or trip planners, any frequency increase certainly improves the transit experience. But though we are tempted to think of 15 minute service as being frequent, it just is not good enough to be painlessly used without schedules. The difficulty with middling headways of 15-20 minutes is that while it seems like one should be able to use the service without a schedule, in practice doing so is not advisable. Even schedule-using riders may be more lax following the timetable than with avowedly infrequent service, and so more likely to just miss the bus — leaving them to wait the full 15 minutes until the next one.
Transit agencies, politicians, and transit advocates should call a spade a spade, and only refer to transit services as frequent if they can be used painlessly without a schedule by most people — and not just the transit-dependent, either.
The “little old lady” approach to driving buses
First of all, I’ve never driven a bus. I have, however, driven plenty of cars and have had the opportunity to observe that cars differ in how easy they are to smoothly halt and accelerate. But I’ve always been able to learn and adjust, with the aim of making the ride reasonably smooth. In my estimation, though there are likely differences between different buses, there is also between-driver variation in jerkiness of ride.
Therefore I propose the following aide to bus drivers (or those who train them). Whenever there are passengers on board, the driver should drive as if there is a little old lady standing at the front of the bus and trying to hold on before the bus gets to her stop. That means minimizing jerkiness for fear of sending the little old lady flying. Most drivers should be familiar with this scenario, and it gives a tangible way to think about a smooth ride.
Ideally there would probably be accelerometers on buses, but in practice whatever keeps the little old lady reliably on her feet is probably good enough for the rest of those on board the bus as well.
The curse of flexibility in transit
You hear it all the time. Buses are more flexible than rail. From point A, bus routes can take you to your favorite points X, Y, and Z, each in a single ride. They can detour around an accident. The routes can be altered to accord with population shifts.
But the curse of flexibility is that it gets used. It sounds like a truism, but bear with me. I believe the theme applies rather broadly, but I want to talk about the curse of transit flexibility.
The other day I was at the University of Waterloo after 7 pm and had to unexpectedly make it to downtown Kitchener. The 8 bus could get me there, but it was running at a 30 minute frequency. By that hour the 7 was running at a 30 minute frequency, on just one of its routings. The iXpress had the furthest stop and at that hour was also at a 30 minute frequency. I had the luxury of a choice between three different buses with separate schedules and bus stops — and infrequent service. Had the iXpress been running at a 10 minute frequency, I would’ve gone to that stop and not have wasted my time and energy trying to plan such a simple trip.
In contrast, transit infrastructure like light rail forces a choice of a corridor — and that’s where the service is concentrated, without being diffused among many routes.
Buses can detour. For some time this week road construction closed the north UW campus entrance, and separate construction closed the east side of Ring Road. That meant hell for transit users, who first had the realization that their bus wasn’t where they expect it, then had to figure out where it actually was, and of course the schedules were screwed up anyway. The iXpress did a detour of over 3 km between the UW stop and the R&T Park stop, taking a long time and getting stuck in the construction-related traffic along the way. Getting out and walking that same distance would have been faster.
Light rail can’t detour, so it forces construction to be done quickly, with minimal impact — and at night whenever possible.
Buses can have their routes moved in accordance with change in transportation demand, and the flip side is the absence of commitment that transit along a corridor will be provided in the years to come. So the location of transit routes cannot be used to directly inform decisions about where to live, or where to build. If you build fixed transit infrastructure (e.g. light rail), however, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a tangible commitment to providing transit along that corridor, which is used to determine where to live and where to build, thereby itself shaping the transportation demand.
Precisely due to their flexibility, buses can do little to shape or direct urban form and land use. So they have no choice but to react. They can demand little of any forces that hinder their operations. And a bus system’s flexibility in providing service from any point to any other point makes it difficult to consolidate service into select, high quality routes that are easy to understand and use.
Bold lines: Guaranteed high-frequency bus routes
I’ve written before about the complexities and uncertainties of bus systems. Here I outline one simple way to make transit networks more accessible to riders and would-be riders: guaranteed high-frequency routes. Creating such routes and marking them in bold on maps makes clear what portion of a system is accessible without a schedule, making possible spontaneous trips and more natural transit use.
Lines should be marked in bold on route maps if they run (for example):
- At least every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm and Sundays and holidays from 8 am to 8 pm;
- At least every 30 minutes the rest of the time.
Express routes should be clearly delineated from other routes on the same corridor. Branching is okay, but only sections of a line meeting the frequency criteria may be marked in bold. Streetcar lines, if any, should meet bold line standards, perhaps being drawn in a separate color for clarity. Maps should list the service frequency for bold lines, and bus stops along bold routes should clearly indicate their status as such.
Currently there is not a single Grand River Transit route that qualifies. Route 7 mainline is pretty close to bold between King & Ottawa and King & University, but lacks night service. On University between Westmount and Weber, routes 8 and 12 could together be close as well.
Bus routes necessitating a schedule are only accessible to committed bus riders, and are unfriendly to casual users. A guaranteed high frequency on selected routes makes those lines easier and more pleasant to use for the choice rider as well as for the regular transit user. Minimum nightly service assures users that they will not be stranded, which encourages use during all hours.
Transit systems without bold lines should try implementing a small network of them. And systems that already have lines that qualify should be making a big deal of it. Simplified pocket-size maps ought to be freely available to show the transit-novice and the transit-averse which routes are easy to use.
It is difficult for low frequency service to spur enough ridership to “justify” high frequency service; it’s an uphill battle of incremental service increases in tandem with small ridership increases (and sporadic service cuts for good measure). Bold lines allow a transit network to pull itself up by the bootstraps through strategic allocation of resources into a network structure that is qualitatively different and more accessible to riders.
The opportunity of full buses
“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” -Yogi Berra
It’s rush hour and you’re going home. You’re driving along a freely moving road with no jams. In front of you a bus stops to pick up a few passengers. It looks like it will take a while, so you pass it, and look in while doing so. The bus is jam-packed.
Will this make you more or less likely to consider taking the bus? Unless you are a pickpocket, I imagine the answer is the latter.
It seems to me that transit advocates like seeing full buses, and I admit I’ve been one of that number. Full buses mean that people are riding transit, which is good! But full buses are actually a bad thing for a number of reasons, and they may be detrimental to the growth of transit mode share in areas where transit does not predominate.
It is plain uncomfortable to be on a crowded bus. Difficult to get on, difficult to get off. When the bus lurches or grinds to a halt, standees — often unable to get a good grip — get thrown all over the place.
A full bus takes longer to get everywhere. As a result of having so many people, it is likely to make more stops. Plus, it takes much longer each time someone needs to get on or off. It’s even worse in the case of buses running every 15 minutes or more frequently, as the later a bus arrives, the more people will be waiting for it. The next bus is comparatively less burdened, and is able to catch up. This bus bunching decreases effective frequency.
There is always some variation in how many people ride the bus. If the bus is full as a matter of course, there is no room for it to handle an upward deviation in ridership. Every time someone gets left behind at a bus stop, that has a real chance of adding another driver back to the roads. And it certainly doesn’t invite new riders.
It is an order of magnitude better to run half-full buses at twice the frequency than running crush loaded buses. The difference in quality of service between the two choices is huge: higher frequency is itself attractive to riders, as is having more space available and having shorter dwell times. This higher frequency would of course be particularly effective if it crossed the schedule-free threshold. I suspect that in many cases of full buses in K-W, running at twice the frequency might actually lead to running 2/3 full buses (not just half-full) as a result of increased use by choice riders. These would be serious effects on overall ridership figures and on transit mode share.
Full buses are a better problem to have than empty buses, and it is probably appropriate to consider it not just as a problem but as an opportunity to increase the number of people using transit. We should think of every full bus as having missed out on a certain number of would-be riders, which riders will materialize if offered less crowded service.
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.
Quantifying the bus experience
Yesterday I took the iXpress bus from Uptown Waterloo to Conestoga Mall (with only four stops in between). In those 20 minutes I counted around 130 minor rattles of the bus, and 80 major rattles. So on average, that’s around a rattle every 6 seconds, with a major one every 15 seconds. It’s not surprising why it’s difficult to read on a bus, and why headaches are a frequent result of the ride.