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Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs.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.
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.
On June 24, Waterloo Regional Council nearly unanimously endorsed the plan for light rail between Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge. Pending firm commitments from provincial and federal governments, the first stage will consist of light rail between Waterloo and Kitchener and temporary adapted bus rapid transit between Kitchener and Cambridge.
The case for LRT in the region is solid, but it is of course unusual for North America to date in how proactive it is. the transport politic wrote about the plan, saying we would be the “smallest in North America to build a modern electric light rail system.” Hamilton — the city with a bus system called the “Hamilton Street Railway” — is now working on a plan for rapid transit as well, with a strong citizens’ push for light rail. GO Transit is slated to bring commuter buses to Kitchener in a few months, and trains to Guelph and Kitchener by 2011. The City of Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo are pushing for extending GO trains to Cambridge via Milton.
Most interestingly, in light of the LRT plans here and under the same provincial pressure to grow up and not out, the even smaller city of Guelph is now going to consider light rail in a review of its transit system.
I think as it progresses into the procurement and construction stages, the Region of Waterloo light rail plan will serve to tip transit in Southwestern Ontario to something more serious and more usable. Currently, public transit infrastructure is assumed to be something for large cities (at least in North America), and our plans will show otherwise.
First will be Cambridge, which will be increasingly clamoring for its light rail extension. Other cities and areas — Hamilton, Guelph, London, Brantford — will consider light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT), and people there will know that LRT is a serious option, and that BRT is a pale imitation. Cambridge and Guelph will get some kind of rail link along an existing right-of-way. GO Transit will perhaps provide the missing link between Kitchener/Cambridge and Hamilton. And once the LRT is in place in Waterloo Region (if not before then), we will certainly start exploring additional transit infrastructure, such as to St. Jacobs and Elmira and along cross-corridors.
People in Southwestern Ontario will realize that true, useful, and pleasant transit is possible, and will stop being satisfied with token bus service and congested roads. And the Region of Waterloo will lead the way.
I just sent in a letter to the editor at the Record:
It is insightful to contrast the two main complaints about the recommended light rail proposal.
Some say that we shouldn’t build expensive and inflexible light rail, that we should spend less money on an expanded bus system. They claim buses are just as good as trains, but are cheaper and more flexible. Well, to say nothing of the positive impact of a visibly permanent route, I will note that people in the real world vastly prefer trains to buses.
Just look at the Cambridge residents angry that they’re not yet getting the train! They’re upset because they’re getting left with only buses, and it speaks volumes about people’s true feelings about them. Those who have the choice will continue to avoid buses, but it is precisely these people who we need to be enticing out of their cars.
I, for one, would prefer seeing trains to Cambridge sooner rather than later. However, if we don’t build light rail at least in K-W, no one will leave their cars, and all of us in the region will bear the resulting costs of sprawl and roads.
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: Read More…
The Waterloo Spur alternatives should not be treated as opposing alternatives but as an operations issue which should be seeking to serve both corridors over the long-term. As currently structured, the alternatives create a fundamental choice between a more “hidden” LRT system and one that is open and public along the King Street alignment. There was concern that the physical environment and walking distances in the R&T Park were not currently supportive of transit use, whereas the King Street alignment had the potential to contribute to the ongoing intensification along the corridor and capture ridership from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University. It was noted that if the initial investment were to occur along King Street, a potential branch along the Waterloo Spur could be created at anytime in the future and that this could be tied to development within the R&T Park.
That’s commentary from the expert panel cited in the Region’s recent report on the preferred Rapid Transit plan.
I agree with that assessment, and think that if only one of the routes has to be built at the outset, it should be the King Street route, which connects Laurier, supports development at King & University, and provides for redevelopment potential along the suburban-looking King & Weber area. This is as opposed to the R&T Park, which is huge and spread out, much of it still far from any future light rail station.
However, I do not believe this is the best way to provide for transit and development in Waterloo. I think both routes should be constructed at the beginning, and furthermore that there should not be a weird and confusing detour from King that there is right now in the plans. Let’s assume that my previous suggestion of keeping both tracks on Caroline in Uptown Waterloo is followed. North of that, half of the trains would return to King, and go all the way up to Conestoga, and the other half would follow the spur line all the way to the St. Jacobs Market, returning via King. This would form a useful loop. See the map at the bottom of this post.
What this doesn’t account for is a connection between the universities. In the current plans there is probably a bus route that runs along there. However, University Avenue, especially in between the two campuses, is an excellent place to create a vibrant street, with nice-looking residences and all kinds of shops and restaurants. The best way to serve the students here is to have a streetcar running along University, as is illustrated in the map. Such a streetcar would also serve the outlying areas in the same way as a feeder bus would — perhaps going to both ends of University Avenue to serve the suburb commuters and connect them to the LRT spine and the universities. It would lead to development elsewhere along University Avenue. Also, RIM Park could in this way become a trolley park. (Back when streetcars were commonplace, streetcar operators might open an amusement park at a terminus in a streetcar suburb to attract riders on weekends.)
I believe my proposal is a much more complete solution to transit in Waterloo than just one branch of LRT. Streetcars make a lot of sense for cross-corridors that are ripe for development of vibrant streets. In Waterloo, University Avenue is such a place. I haven’t studied the rest of the region, but I’m sure that several of the current cross-corridor bus plans could be fruitfully replaced with streetcars. It is probably unnecessary to explain why streetcars are a better driver of development and ridership, so I won’t do it here.
What this means for the current plan is that Council should be encouraged to have it both ways, and to construct both routes. Cross-corridor streetcars can be separate projects, and they can in fact be started immediately. A University Avenue streetcar would make itself useful very quickly.
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.