Friday, February 22, 2008

The Transit Question

Take my town as a case study: 100,000 people, a vibrant but small downtown core, three post-secondary institutions, a huge sprawl with big box stores and far-flug industrial parks rimming the suburbs. But we are not alone: we are a twin city with a town of 200,000, and we're in a regional government with another city of 200,000, bringing our regional total to half a million. The region controls the transit.

Now the region has a plan to span the three metropolises with limited-stop, fast transit. In the future, they propose, people from the south side of Cambridge will be able to travel across Kitchener and to the north side of Waterloo quite quickly. They call this idea Light Rail Transit, or LRT, although it hasn't been decided whether it will be on rails or take the form of dedicated bus lanes.

There will be a stop in the downtown core of my town, Waterloo (en route to the outskirts), and this has caused some concerns:

* LRT stops tend to require a lot of space and a fenced-in area, but our downtown core doesn't have much space to spare.
* Any configuration of LRT is going to disrupt pedestrian flow - make it hard for people to cross the street.
* The presence of an LRT station could threaten the village feeling of our downtown. (I don't really get this one.)
* Any configuration of LRT is going to disrupt traffic flow, and although many people see this as a good thing, it's rightly worrisome to merchants who constantly compete with malls and big box stores... and we are about to get our first Wal-Mart.
* Because the LRT stations are far apart, people will likely drive to the LRT, which doesn't reduce car ownership.
* The LRT is extremely expensive and will drain money from more cost-effective bus routes.
* The LRT will probably never be heavily used.

Supporters of the LRT have their reasons too:

* There will be a commercial impetus to build density (housing, work and retail) around the new stations, and this may be the only way to change the formation of our city long-term so that we're not so car-based.
* The current bus-based transit system is not widely used because people find it too slow and inconvenient.
* We have to plan for a future of expensive gasoline when people are forced to give up their cars. The LRT may never appeal to the hard-core car users in the suburbs and rural areas, but it would appeal to occasional transit users, youth, and so on, and may be required by the non-rich as gas prices rise.

The solution, as my friend Adam proposed, may be to accept the LRT but to impose strict guidelines for how stations are built in the downtown core so that there is as little disruption as possible. This is a wise suggestion as we, as a city, have fairly little control over regional decisions - and the region is gung-ho on LRT.

The other side of the coin, as my friend Alan suggested, is that transit technology and culture is changing rapidly, and the LRT may be too inflexible for the great unknown of the future. With climate panic setting in and gas prices on the rise, many people are looking for solutions to the environmental toll of commuting. Solutions could be in transit technology - we could be driving tiny fuel-efficient vehicles or taking jet packs; or it could be in work culture - we could mostly work at home, or congregate in communal work centers that include many companies, and utilize audio-visual technology to communicate with colleagues. Bus routes can be changed easily: rail lines and dedicated bus lines are expensive to build and difficult to alter.

But then there's that one huge hope of the LRT: that we could finally fix up our flawed city planning and get some efficiency in density and placement. You'd think that city hall could affect that through zoning, but they never seem to.


No comments: