Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rapid Transit Part 3: Whether the Concept Makes Sense in Waterloo Region

The defining characteristics of rapid transit compared with regular transit are:

* Few, widely-spaced stops.
* Transit doesn't merge with regular traffic. It is either on rail lines, or if buses, in dedicated lanes built only for the buses.

Rapid transit works when you want to move a large group of people to a small selection of places. Toronto's GO Train system is a successful example. GO picks people up at a few stops in the suburbs, and drops them all off in downtown Toronto. Great idea.

The only part of Waterloo Region that remotely suits the rapid transit paradigm of concentrations of workers is downtown Kitchener, and even in its most optimistic projections it does not have the concentration necessary to support a rapid transit system. We are simply too small.

So what?, you might ask. Who cares if we're too small? It's all about economics. The total cost of just the first phase is estimated to be $500M. Waterloo Region, including Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, has 500,000 people (and already Cambridge has been dropped off the rapid transit route for the foreseeable future due to cost considerations). Some of the money to build rapid transit would come from the federal and provincial governments, but it would still put a big burden of debt on our residents. And that's before the operating costs kick in. It is going to be very expensive to run. If it doesn't attract high levels of ridership then it will drain resources from existing bus routes and we will end up with less transit than we have now. And it simply doesn't look like the proposed rapid transit will attract the ridership it needs - simply because it has so few stops.

Even in some bigger cities, rapid transit has become a white elephant. But I don't think it has even been attempted anyplace with population as low as here. The city of Waterloo has roughly 100,000 residents.

Think of the other things we could do to improve transit in our area: free or 25 cent buses running in a loop in highly trafficked areas; more frequent buses on many routes; more shelters at bus stops; the list is endless.

The best argument for rapid transit is that development will occur around the widely-spaced stations, resulting in densification that will make our cities less car-dependent. I like that idea, and it's the reason I initially supported the concept of rapid transit in Waterloo Region. But look at the proposed stops in Waterloo: Uptown; University of Waterloo; University of Waterloo R&T Park; Conestogo Mall; Waterloo Farmer's Market.

Uptown needs no help in being further densified. Nor does planned growth point towards sufficient office space to support rapid transit; growth is mostly in living space.

Planned growth in Uptown is very aggressive, and it is on track. While condo developments in the rest of the country are stalling, they are booming in Uptown, and selling out before the shovels hit the dirt. Right now we are looking at:

* The 15-storey Bauer Lofts on King at Allen almost completed (includes 157 residences, 43,000 SF retail, 70,000 SF office space).
* the42 condo on Bridgeport at Peppler, currently being built (54 residences).
* The BarrelYards complex at Erb and Father David Bauer Drive (1,000 residential units, two hotels, and 230,000 SF of retail/office space).
* A 19-storey tower and townhouse development on the site of the Ontario Table and Chairs building on Allen at William.
* Another skyscraper condo on Alexandra at Caroline.
* The new Balsillie School of the University of Waterloo, taking up all the vacant land around the CIGI building at Erb and Caroline (11 storeys).
* A doubling of the size of the Perimeter Institute building in Waterloo Park.
* Possibly a Westin Hotel on Willis Way at Caroline.

University of Waterloo
Current plans have UW blessed with two stops: one on the main campus and one in the north campus, now called the Research & Technology Park. University students in Waterloo get virtually free transit passes (I believe they are charged $35/term for them, as part of school fees), and so they take transit more than other residents. There are currently several bus lines serving UW, including the iXpress, which also stops at the R&T Park. I worked at the R&T Park and took the iXpress occasionally. I never saw any other non-students on it (the R&T Park hires a lot of UW coop students). The reason full-time R&T employees don't take transit are: they mostly live in subdivisions surrounding the park; there is no place to shop or eat lunch in the park, so they need their cars; they make very high salaries and mostly drive expensive cars; many have children who they drop off at day care or school.

I'm not arguing by any means that we should cancel the iXpress, but adding a rapid transit route through the R&T Park seems nutty. Added to the other reasons why workers there don't take transit, the new buildings in the R&T Park are increasingly far from the stop, and will result in a long walk for almost everyone. That doesn't sound so onerous unless you're walking during the six months of the year that temperatures are frigid and snow is everywhere.

Northfield and Parkside
Someone pointed out recently in a comment that there's another stop planned here. I have confirmed that on the proposed route map I got from the Region, but I don't know the development implications.

Conestogo Mall
Conestogo Mall is a big, very successful mall on the outskirts of Waterloo. It is well-served by current bus lines. It has abundant parking, and is surrounded by subdivisions and by big box stores. I'm not clear why we would spend the big dollars to run a rapid transit route all the way out there. I'm not opposed; I just don't see the point.


1 comment:

James Bow said...

There are two parts to this question, though: we want the LRT to succeed on its own merits, and we want to support a city that limits its urban sprawl. You yourself have pointed out the risk of a major piece of transit infrastructure becoming a white elephant, and that is an important risk to consider. Toronto has an example ready made: the Sheppard subway. The line was conceived less as a means of handling a corridor that was above the capacity of the local bus route, and more as a means of city building.

Now it's important to point out that the line _has_ been successful in sparking a significant increase in density along the Sheppard corridor, but it is operating at 50% of its capacity, and it is unlikely to go far above that. The funds don't appear to be available to extend the line to its natural termini at Downsview and the Scarborough Town Centre, and it is severely complicating the TTC's new LRT plans, adding transfers to what should probably have been an LRT corridor to begin with.

In Waterloo, for the LRT to succeed, it should be built along a corridor which has traffic, and to my mind, that's the route 7 / iXpress corridor. The trip generators along that route -- Fairview Mall, downtown Kitchener, the Grand River Hospital/Sunlife, Uptown Waterloo, WLU, UW, the Tech Park and Conestoga Mall -- guarantee that there will be traffic on the line. Putting it anywhere else in the hopes that "if we build it, it (development) will come" will require us to accept at least a few years of low patronage -- and patronage (and density) may not materialize unless we operate the line significantly above demand during those years. If the LRT operates with headways longer than every ten minutes (5 minutes during rush hour), we'd have to deem the project a failure. At longer headways, you might as well be operating a bus.

To my mind, it is important that Uptown Waterloo be a part of the LRT line because that's a place where a lot of people would like to go. That's where the traffic is, and that's where the LRT has the highest chance for success.

In addition to this, we have the desire to build up densities along the King Street "spine" of Kitchener-Waterloo. It's true that that the route is already denser than the suburbs and that new developments are taking place, but there's more that could be done, especially if the Region expects to add another 250,000 residents between now and 2031. It's also worth pointing out that the LRT could be useful in ensuring that the developments that are now going up are successful in attracting residents.

So, to my mind, the route as it stands is the best in ensuring that the LRT is successful in the short term, and it also supports the city building that we hope to do, to increase density along the King Street spine, easing back on urban sprawl on the fringe.