Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rapid Transit Is Poised to Destroy Uptown Waterloo

Few residents seem to realize that a policy foisted on the City of Waterloo by the Region will radically change uptown Waterloo as we know it. If you don't know the details, rapid transit sounds like a great idea: a fast futuristic system that will help the environment by taking cars off the road. However, the rapid transit plan being prepared by Waterloo Region will likely have the opposite effect: it will be a giant white elephant that will suck money away from more highly-used regular bus routes. And it will change uptown Waterloo from a pedestrian-friendly small downtown core to a place with congested sidewalks, traffic jams, no street parking, pedestrian barriers, no street festivals... read on for details.

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.



James Bow said...

Could I have a source for some of these things, please? Because the idea that gates would be required at key Uptown Waterloo intersections surprises me. No such requirement is needed in Toronto. A simple dedicated portion of the traffic light cycle is all that's required to allow streetcars on private right-of-way to make a turn ahead of cars.

Likewise, the lack of stops between Tech Park and Conestoga Mall (not Conestog_o_, which you typed up twice) is also a surprise, for the reasons you already note (the riders have to come from _somewhere_. A stop in the Albert McCormick area has been in all plans that I can see, and is one reason why the iXpress stops there.

I have to say that I'm not opposed to the idea of an LRT line through Waterloo Park. Moves can be made to accommodate pedestrians and the LRT at the same time; pedestrians have coexisted with LRTs and streetcars in Toronto, Portland and Calgary. Following the rail line takes the LRT along the edge of the park for the most part (at its southern and northern ends), and we can slow the LRT down for pedestrian crossings. The time savings of having the LRT use the railway rather than King Street to access both the University and the Mall means that these cars don't have to rocket.

James Bow said...

I should also point out that I've seen no mention of a spur line to the Farmer's Market in the most recent plans. The initial plan called for the Farmer's Market instead of the Conestoga Mall, but that's since been dropped, as far as I know. As you note, the spur wouldn't have the ridership and the destination can be more effectively served with a connection to the Conestoga Mall instead (and possibly the heritage railway offering commuter/parking service)

Yappa said...

Hi James,

I've spent a ton of time on this issue in the last year. I'm on a city hall committee (the Uptown Vision Committee) and the Region has done presentations for us, the last one in December. The Market connection was still in the plans in December. All of my facts come from sources at the Region - but none of the decisions are written in stone yet. Gates are definitely being considered.

I don't know why you say that the LRT will go on the edge of the park - it will follow the rail line, which goes by the zoo, and effectively cut the park in two.

My concern is with uptown so I don't know for sure about a stop on Parkside, but I don't remember it.

I actually noticed I was misspelling Conestogo but I prefer spelling it the original way.

Yappa said...

I should add -

I started being a fan of the LRT, before I knew the details. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Plus, I live uptown close to the proposed route so my property value will increase due to the LRT. Despite that, I can see that it's a bad thing for Waterloo.

Yappa said...

A few quotes from things I have got in writing from the Region:

"The station platform will be roughtly 60 metres long (196 feet) and 3 (9.8 ft) metres wide."

"At certain intersections (eg Erb Street at Caroline Street), with multiple track crossings, gates are being considered for pedestrian and vehicular safety."

"The rapid transit system (rail or bus based) will have an exclusive right-of-way on an elevated surface (approximately 6 inches) with a mountable curb for emergency vehicles."

James Bow said...

"The rapid transit system (rail or bus based) will have an exclusive right-of-way on an elevated surface (approximately 6 inches) with a mountable curb for emergency vehicles."

This is not a surprise and is pretty common for LRT operations, and the local residents seem to get around this without too much difficulty. I mean, it's basically a curb, and if you can't get over the curb in the middle of the street, then you might also have had trouble getting off the curb at the side of the street, so what are you doing on the street?

But pedestrian crossings are the key, here. They can easily be designed to be flush with the tracks, so as not to impede the progress of wheelchairs or strollers. This is what the Region should be looking at. As I said before, crossing gates at intersections would be overkill.

Oemissions said...

People need to quit the car habit. Everything got designed for and
around their use.
I support trains but traffic also has to be regulated.
I am so ant-automobile now that I want all but service vehicles off our pedestrian and cycling routes.
Why does the Health Department allow these noisy, stinky, choking stress provoking things to even operteate in our world?

Yappa said...

Hi 0emissions -

Nicely put! The whole car city thing is frustrating, especially in Waterloo. When I go to Ann Arbor I always wonder why we can't be more like them: Waterloo and Ann Arbor are the same size and are both university towns, but AA seems a lot more innovative and compact.

City staff and politicians have adopted the no-car thing, but unfortunately it seems to (1) mean less parking and otherwise less convenient driving; and (2) mean that this should be imposed only on uptown. Why not run transit to Wal-Mart and cut their parking lot in half? Or cut the convenience of parking at Conestoga Mall?

It may seem like a paradox, but driving makes walking possible in some cases. If Waterloo Square loses its parking lot, the grocery store will fail. If the grocery store fails, then I and all the other people who live uptown and shop on foot will have to get in cars and drive to Beechwood Zehrs or someplace like that. We're having an explosion of condo development in Uptown, and if we can just keep the basic amenities in walking distance of that concentration of people we'll go a long way to reducing car dependence.