Friday, March 13, 2009

Rapid Transit Part 2: First, Do No Harm

Currently, Uptown Waterloo works. While many downtown cores in Ontario are struggling, Waterloo’s uptown is a success. Rapid transit, as it is currently planned, could erode the success of Uptown Waterloo.

If the purpose of rapid transit is to move as many people as possible as quickly as possible, then its very purpose flies in the face of the way people use Uptown Waterloo. For example, jaywalking is not a sin in Uptown: it is part of the pedestrian-friendly, small town ambience that is a big part of what makes Uptown work. Turning Uptown Waterloo into a high speed corridor for rapid transit would be disastrous.

Uptown is ringed by seniors’ facilities, such as Terrace on the Square, Waterpark, Luther Village, the Lutheran Church residences on Willow, the George Street senior residence, and the Adult Recreation Center at King and Allen. There is a concentration of seniors in Uptown Waterloo, many of whom use walking aids. There are also many young people with baby strollers; people in wheelchairs; and many bicyclists.

Rapid transit stops are planned to be large, long barricaded stations that could block sidewalk access. Tracks on King could hinder wheels crossing the street. These problems are preventable: rails must be flush with the road; there must be no barricades around stations.

While in Uptown, the speed of rapid transit vehicles must suit the slow pace of Uptown. We must continue to be able to shut off traffic in our uptown to have street festivals, and have a flat street that is suitable for festivals.

We need abundant parking on King Street and in the Waterloo Town Square parking lot. Street parking is vital for the economic viability of shops on King Street. Parking close to Waterloo Town Square is vital to the viability of the grocery store, which anchors the mall and means that local residents are not car-dependent. Parking is also an accessibility issue; for example, many seniors can drive but not walk distances.

Parking on King Street between William and Erb could be completely wiped out by the plan to have train tracks (for LRT) or dedicated bus lanes (for BRT) down the middle of King Street. If the rapid transit route follows the option to turn west off of King Street towards Waterloo Park, parking in Waterloo Square will be greatly lessened, or at the least separated from Waterloo Square by a two-lane road and railway track. Rapid transit must not be allowed to displace street parking, and rapid transit can't bisect the Waterloo Square north parking lot.

Uptown Waterloo currently has trees and planters that are very attractive. Our current streetscape also allows outdoor cafes. A couple of times a year we shut down King Street to hold outdoor festivals.

The need for wider streets to accommodate the rapid transit lanes may lead to the loss of planters and trees on King Street. An LRT may have overhead wires. The platforms/stations for rapid transit stops are planned to be long and may have barriers around them. Care must be taken to retain all the aesthetic appeal of Uptown.

Whether a loop or two-way King Street route, there are grave issues with rapid transit turning left from King to head west to Waterloo Park: in particular, issues with safety and traffic flow. The current plan is for rapid transit to travel north on King and turn left either at the existing tracks in Waterloo Square or at Erb Street. Both plans will be disasters. If rapid transit needs to run from Waterloo Park to King, then it must run in the opposite direction, so that rapid transit makes a right turn on to King.

The proposed routes from King to the park is also a problem. If rapid transit runs alongside the existing rail line, it will reduce the size of the Waterloo Square parking lot and reduce accessibility of cars to the mall. This will threaten the economic viability of the grocery store and the mall it anchors. This route will probably also require destroying part of the public square the city of Waterloo is currently building. That’s just not acceptable. The other option, directing the rapid transit down Erb Street from King to Caroline, is almost worse, as that is a busy three-lane, one-way street that thousands of residents use daily to get to the expressway and other locations to the east. Running rapid transit down it would reduce flow and make it difficult or impossible for cars to access Albert Street from Erb.

Another turning issue is the Caroline-Allen and Allen-King turns specified in the loop option. Given that regional staff told us that rapid transit needs a wide turning radius, these turns do not seem possible unless the Adult Recreation Center (ARC) is torn down, or at the least if the ARC parking lot is greatly reduced. The ARC parking is already stretched to the limit. If the Region decides to tear down the ARC, they must replace it with a similar facility in the Waterloo Uptown core.

The Caroline-Erb intersection is the connecting route between Uptown Waterloo and Waterloo Park. Running rapid transit across it, especially in the loop plan where rapid transit will run off from the north-west corner in two directions (one route south and one route east) will create a barrier between Uptown and the jewel of Uptown, Waterloo Park. There may be a way to run rapid transit through this intersection without turning it into a nightmare, but we should accept the concept of rapid transit in Uptown Waterloo only on the condition that this issue, and the others I've outlined, will be fully addressed by rapid transit planners.

Just a couple of miles along King Street from Uptown Waterloo is downtown Kitchener. When I was a kid Kitchener had a great downtown. I remember going Christmas shopping there every year. It was full of all kinds of shops, the best bookstores in the area, department stores (like Goudy's, with its pneumatic tubes for sending cash receipts from all the separate departments), restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, a big army surplus store, and six or seven movie theaters. It was a bustling, successful place, much bigger and better than Uptown Waterloo is now, and it was full of local businesses that had been there for many decades. There are lots of theories for why downtown Kitchener failed: the surrounding neighborhoods were gutted; the anchoring stores became too far apart; the movie theaters were turned into discos; too many social service organizations moved into a small area; and a host of other theories. The things we know for sure are: it failed very fast; and despite decades of smart people spending a lot of money to try to revive it, it has resisted being revived.

The success of Uptown Waterloo is fragile. It's great that we have been able to take it for granted, but now there is a serious threat to the ongoing sustainability of our downtown core, and we must stand up and protect it.



James Bow said...

I certainly believe we need to be talking about these details in implementing the LRT project. Crossing gates, for instance, would be overkill and aren't needed. A transit-only signal at the intersection would be sufficient in allowing the LRT vehicles through. I also think that the best route, following King through to the railway tracks and following the railway tracks up to the Hydro right-of-way, where the tracks cross Weber Street in northern Waterloo is the best way to go. Uptown Waterloo can benefit from this alignment, if the design is properly planned, and I'm not too upset at the idea of losing a little parking. Spadina Avenue in Toronto lost its angled parking when the Spadina streetcar line was installed, but the neighbourhood hasn't noticed the difference. The area has flourished since the streetcar was installed. And, if need be, we can build more parking, perhaps along Caroline Street.

When I said earlier that the rail-line mostly follows the edge of the park, I think of it this way. From Erb Street to the northern end of the station siding, the track runs along the south-westerly edge of the park. From just north of the Waterloo Zoo to Seagram Drive, the track runs along the north-easterly edge. I don't really consider the ballpark, Seagram Stadium and the parking lots east of the track to be part of the park, but more a part of Wilfred Laurier.

Yes, the track and the LRT would cut through the middle of the park from the bridge past Silver Lake to the pedestrian crossing just past the Zoo, but to my mind, that's not the end of the world. The park already operates effectively in two pieces at this point with the railway track that is currently in place. The park to the west of the railway track is considerably more wild than the park to the east of the track, and the number of pathways connecting the two through this area is minimal. Indeed, I can't think of any until you get to the pedestrian crossing at the north end of the zoo. Now, this particular crossing would be important to protect. Crossing gates might be appropriate here, or possibly requiring the LRT vehicles to stop, and proceed when the crossing is clear.

And while I agree that the Farmer's Market spur is a mistake, I think I need to correct a statement you made in the previous post when you said "In addition, the Waterloo Farmer's Market is not even within the Region of Waterloo." It is: the Region of Waterloo takes in the Township of Woolwich, including St. Jacobs and Elmira, and that's where the Waterloo Farmer's Market resides, surely?

And as for transit being an appropriate venue for bringing home a bushel of eggplants, I've managed to carry home a week's worth of groceries by transit both in Toronto and here in Waterloo. Right now, in Kitchener-Waterloo, this just happens to take longer. For those who don't own a car, their choice is to either do this or take a taxi, and for those of us who want to finally get rid of our car, this will be something we will have to consider doing when the time comes.

Yappa said...

Hi James -

A transit-only signal at the existing rail line in Uptown would be located just a short distance from the King-Erb intersection, resuling in cars backing up through the intersection. I'm not a traffic expert but I'm not sure that would work. Reversing the flow of the loop to make this a right turn rather than a left could solve the problem.

Using Toronto as an example is problematic. Business in downtown TO is not going to be hurt by reduced parking. In Waterloo, if people have trouble parking they will probably prefer to shop at the mall or the big box stores.

The point about bushels of eggplants is about economics: how many people will actually take transit. We have to be pragmatic, not idealistic, or we will end up with a white elephant that drains our transit resources for decades.

We may have to agree to disagree on Waterloo Park. The section of track from Silver Lake to the sports fields is a pretty long one, and there is significant park on either side of it. Right now it is bisected by a rail line that have two or three slow-moving trains a day; we are planning to add the equivalent of a two-lane road or two additional rail lines with fast-moving vehicles on each.

I didn't realize that the market was in Waterloo Region. I guess I was confusing city and region... I know that the subdivisions stop at Benjamin Road because the other side of the road is Woolwich.

In any event, I think we have the same goal. I hate that I need a car in this town. I didn't even buy a car until I was 40, and I would greatly prefer not to own one. An equal consideration for me is the health of uptown Waterloo. I think the current plans for rapid transit are a threat to both the health of transit in Waterloo and the health of uptown.

At the same time, I don't think the region is going to be stopped. Rapid transit is coming - and it has all been designed with Kitchener in mind. If the people of Waterloo don't force the region to take our issues seriously, we're in trouble. I have gone to all the public forums, and so far there has been too much hand-waving and not enough serious attention to how to make this work.