The Region's rapid transit plans were designed for Kitchener. Kitchener has problems. A fancy new transit line with only a few, widely spaced stops could direct development around those stops, potentially leading to revitalization of an ailing core.
Waterloo doesn't need to be revitalized. All the locations being considered for stops in Waterloo are places that already have plenty of density (present and planned). Worse, the Region plans to run the new transit line right down King Street in Waterloo, turning left at Erb and running against traffic down to the Clay & Glass Gallery at Caroline, where it turns and cuts a wide swath right across Waterloo Park.
It hasn't been decided yet whether rapid transit will be buses or trains. If trains, there will be dedicated and immovable rail lines down the center of main streets. Buses will not be much more flexible, because the region plans to build dedicated bus lanes with curbs down the middle of the street.
The route is also still up for grabs, but for uptown Waterloo it has been narrowed down to two options:
1. A loop that enters Waterloo from Kitchener on King, has one north-bound lane up King, turns left at Erb, runs on the north side of Erb to Caroline, crosses Caroline, and then runs beside the existing rail line through Waterloo Park.
Coming back south the transit would come through Waterloo Park, cross Erb-Caroline and run south on Caroline to Allen, where it jogs left and then right onto King to proceed back to Kitchener. The stops would probably be at King & Willis Way and at Willis Way & Caroline.
2. A two-way line down King Street from Kitchener, turning left either at the existing rail line near Waterloo Square or at Erb, and then proceeding across Erb-Caroline to run beside the existing rail line through Waterloo Park, returning the same way. There would be one stop, probably at King & Willis Way.
The stops are going to be larger than a regular bus stop (60 meters long and 3 meters wide), and may have some sort of barricade around them. There may also be an easement for transfer buses.
There are significant problems with each route.
Any route on King would change the entire ambience of Uptown. A raised rail line or curbed dedicated lane, each possibly with barricades, would have the following effects:
* It would hinder pedestrians from crossing the street. (The Region's response to this is that people shouldn't be jay walking.)
* It will make bike riding in uptown a nightmare.
* It will probably remove all street parking on King Street from William to Erb, meaning stores on King will have no immediate parking - and probably no places to drop off people from cars or taxis, either.
* The city will no longer be able to block King Street for the busker festival and other festivals. Even parades are in jeopardy.
* The many elderly people in Uptown who push their walkers or ride their scooters will have significantly more trouble crossing the street (even at lights).
* Long blockaded platforms will interfere with sidewalks and further hinder crossing the street.
Car traffic will also be significantly affected:
* King Street currently has four lanes of traffic; that will be reduced to two.
* Rapid transit will have priority turning left off of King, so may require gates to be put up where it turns. Gates will go down when a rapid transit vehicle approaches the intersection, just like a train crossing. This means gates on all four sides of the King-Erb intersection, or gates on King at the current railway tracks. Either would cause a traffic nightmare.
* If rapid transit runs along the north side of Erb, it will block one lane of that busy three-lane street. It will block cars that currently turn onto Albert Street.
* The Erb-Caroline intersection, already a mess, will get worse, and may also have to have railway gates.
The proposed routes will have other negative effects:
* The loop that includes a transit line on Caroline will be a nightmare in the narrow part of Caroline between William and Allen, and on the short Allen portion. The only way it will be able to turn at the Caroline-Allen corner and Allen-King corner is to use the parking lot at the Adult Recreation Center (ARC). In fact, it seems impossible that the corner of Allen-King can be negotiated without tearing down the ARC. (Regional employees have said that they can't run rapid transit down the middle of King Street, but must run it along the east curb, because otherwise the turn would be too sharp at Erb. If that is the case, rapid transit can't turn at the King-Allen intersection while the ARC stands.)
* The route down King that doesn't entail turning at Erb means that rapid transit will turn at the existing rail tracks that cross King near Erb. (Rapid transit will not run on the existing tracks, but will be a double-lane road or two rail lines beside them.) This will mean that we have to tear up part of the public square we are in the middle of spending millions to create. It will also put a wide, barricaded divide in the middle of the Waterloo Square parking lot.
* In every route plan proposed so far, rapid transit runs alongside the rail line that crosses through Waterloo Park. This is equivalent to putting a two-lane road alongside the rail line, and it will probably be barricaded. This will be an eyesore and essentially cut the park in two, as trains or buses whip through the park at high speeds.
* The loop proposal will mean that people will have to walk a significant distance to transfer to buses, which will further reduce ridership.
In every route currently on the table, rapid transit enters Waterloo from Kitchener along King. It exits Uptown Waterloo through Waterloo Park, stops at UW, stops at the UW R&T Park (north campus), stops at Conestogo Mall, and has a spur to the Waterloo Farmer's Market. These are the only stops. People who don't live near those stops could take the bus to them, but will likely drive and park. This route is very convenient for students (who get virtually free transit passes and who have strong legs) but are not at all convenient for most other Waterloo residents - many of whom have children or are elderly. But LRT is enormously expensive to run, and will almost certainly drain transit money away from traditional bus routes that go close to people's houses.
If Waterloo must be involved in the Region's rapid transit plans, there are alternatives, but they are not being considered. For example:
* Create bus rapid transit, and abandon the dedicated lanes when you enter Waterloo from Kitchener. Run the buses on existing streets without modification from Union north (to some street to be decided). Use regular bus stops. Within uptown Waterloo, run rapid transit like a regular bus. Have more frequent stops in Waterloo.
* Do not run rapid transit through Waterloo Park. Run it right up King Street to Conestogo Mall. Create a density node at King and Columbia.
* Do not run rapid transit to the Farmer's Market as that is a guaranteed money-losing route. The market is only open two days a week. Plus, transit is not the ideal way to carry home a bushel of eggplants. There is abundant good transit to the Kitchener Farmer's Market. In addition, the Waterloo Farmer's Market is not even within the Region of Waterloo.
* Alternatively, run rapid transit down Weber Street or Westmount Road, and bypass uptown Waterloo altogether.
There has been a highly questionnable public consultation process around rapid transit. Over the last year we had many public forums, but in each one we were told that rapid transit was a done deal and the only parameters to be discussed were route location. Also we were told that "details" like location of stops would be dealt with "later". (For Waterloo, they showed the stop location as a big circle on a map that spanned all of uptown.) Videos were shown of rapid transit systems in other cities - never mentioning that Waterloo Region is a fraction of the size of those cities, and transportation professionals consider that we have much too low density of workers (even in the foreseeable future) to sustain a rapid transit system. None of the side-effects, such as draining resources from the traditional bus system, were mentioned.
Rapid transit is not a project for the far future. The Region is fast-tracking it, and while we still don't know the details of the route through uptown Waterloo or the location of stops in uptown, we are told that the shovels will hit the ground soon. Apparently there is someone very powerful in the Region who sees this as his legacy project (Ken Seiling?) and refuses to accept any opposition. As soon as 2010, the successful small uptown core of Waterloo may be destroyed forever.
Do we need to find ways to make Waterloo less of a car city? Absolutely! Planning in Waterloo has been atrocious: we have far-flung subdivisions and industrial parks, box stores like our latest atrocity, Wal-Mart, at the north end of town, a general urban sprawl that makes a car almost mandatory. But the rapid transit proposal does not do one thing to address that problem. It will probably make car dependence worse as it siphons resources from existing bus routes.
Added to all its disadvantages, rapid transit doesn't provide a lot of advantages. It turns out that it's not that much faster than regular buses, because while it doesn't stop as often, it still has to maintain city speed limits. It provides potential for higher capacity of riders, but it strips away a lot of the flexibility of buses: if transit patterns change, we'll be stuck with the expensive route that is built initially. The only real solid advantage of rapid transit comes if it is rail transit, and that is that the trains will look really cool. That's simply not enough.
What can we as citizens do? Raise bloody hell. The city is going to decide how to respond soon, and while there is a lot of unease in City Hall about the plans, most residents don't seem to understand the changes that are about to come and so they aren't worried. It is not clear whether the city can stop the Region, but we must at least try.