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Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs.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.
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.
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.