Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What I Learned from the Transit Survey

As spokesperson for the anti-LRT group Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST), I was involved in running a survey about transit that included all candidates in the upcoming elections in Waterloo Region. While writing up the results I had to read the responses over and over, and developed some opinions that go further than the usual analysis. Here are my thoughts.

There's a bandwagon and everyone's jumping on it
We received responses from over 100 candidates, and the overwhelming response (95%) is that if elected they will oppose LRT. While knocking on doors, candidates have been hearing anger and opposition to LRT - I know this not just from the responses, but also because I've been knocking on doors and talking to people myself. The issue is going to sway a lot of voters (which is why our survey is so important). I don't know if any candidates say they oppose LRT just to appease voter anger over the proposal, but I do know that on June 24, 2009, every single Regional councillor - with the exception of Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig - voted in favor of LRT. That includes our mayors, who automatically sit on Regional council.

We need to be more concerned about fairness
As is evident from the responses of candidates in Cambridge, the proposed LRT is grossly unfair to Cambridge, essentially leaving it out of the plan for decades. In future, we need to ensure that our regional initiatives are more balanced.

If the LRT was really about beefing up downtowns, why did it go from a mall in Kitchener to a mall in Waterloo? Why not start by going from a downtown core in Cambridge to downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo? Cambridge is bigger than Waterloo, for Pete's sake.

Elected officials should be open to public opinion
Some candidates chose to not respond to our survey because they thought the questions were too biased. This troubles me. Elected officials have to spend a lot of time listening to constituents on all sorts of issues, and the officials should have an open mind. All too often, citizens who make a statement to city or regional council are met with bored looks and zero interest. That's just wrong. We need representatives who listen to us, not get their backs up and freeze us out.

Saying it's a regional issue is a cop-out
Some candidates responded to our questionnaire by saying that they're running for municipal council and LRT is a regional issue, so it's not part of their mandate. I completely disagree. When something is going to have such a profound impact on the municipal landscape, city councillors should take a stand.

For example, I remain dumbfounded that Waterloo City councillors didn't examine the impact of the proposed LRT route on Uptown Waterloo. Examination of the Region's proposed route map shows three Uptown intersections (King-Erb, Erb-Caroline, and Caroline-William) that could become nightmares, and cross-town traffic on Erb could grind to a halt. (In the LRT plan, only one lane of Erb Street crosses King, and it is also a turning lane.) This would affect not only car traffic, but also buses, bikes and pedestrians. And the ensuing mess would almost certainly have a negative impact on the success of local businesses.

City councillors should also have been looking out for their constituents on accessibility issues. With an aging population who may need to rely on transit, there were significant issues such as the long distance between stops, the long distance from LRT stops to their target destinations (notably the malls), the linkages between LRT and bus transfers, and possible problems crossing the tracks with walking aids.

In my opinion the specifics of this LRT plan are bad, in part, because municipal politicians dropped the ball.

It ain't over till it's over
Many people believe that LRT is dead. After all, the whole plan was based on the feds and province paying for it, and they fell short by $250M. I agree it's unaffordable, but I have no illusions that it's over. Our Regional Chair, Ken Seiling, is still fighting for this like it's his life at stake. Sure we could vote him out, but (1) he has no real opposition and (2) he has enormous backing - I think he got about three-quarters of the vote last time.

What Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig said in our survey was, "What is happening right now is that the LRT debate has been deliberately submerged until after the election. The numbers regarding the 230 million dollar shortfall are being massaged, compromises on capital costs are being trimmed and in early 2011, it will in my opinion, be re-packaged and passed by the new council."

There are a lot of good candidates out there
I have been working on LRT for two years now, but I learned a lot from reading the comments of candidates. Many of the comments were thoughtful, insightful, and original - and I say that about comments on all sides of the issue. I was particularly impressed that within Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, almost every candidate responded. What we need more than anything is a truly open, community-wide discussion about how to improve our public transit. I think our local candidates are up for the job.

For the results of the T4ST survey, see



smably said...

If the LRT was really about beefing up downtowns, why did it go from a mall in Kitchener to a mall in Waterloo? Why not start by going from a downtown core in Cambridge to downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo?
I think the answer to this should be fairly obvious. 70% of the projected ridership is in the northern portion of the line (between Conestoga Mall and Fairview Mall, and including the two largest downtown cores). It's already been established that we can't build it from Cambridge to Waterloo on day one if we want it to be remotely affordable. And if we wish to intensify along the route, it makes a lot more sense to build up our transit within the urban areas first, instead of in the no-man's-land between Kitchener and Cambridge.

As for your survey, it was biased and outright wrong in places. As Ken Seiling pointed out, the initial cost is $790 million. The additional $29 million is for anticipated vehicle purchases in 2031 to support capacity expansion. It is not part of the initial capital cost. Please refer to the capital and operating cost analysis.

It's also absurd to suggest that the Oktoberfest parade will have to move. The Region of Waterloo's official rapid transit FAQ dispels this myth. If staff have told you in writing that the Oktoberfest parade will have to move, I'd like to see this, because it is news to me and contradicts the information on the rapid transit web site. Every staff member I've spoken to has laughed at the suggestion that light rail would have any effect on the parade. It's a total non-issue -- the very definition of FUD.

Yappa said...

Hi smably -

I don't know why you focus solely on the Oktoberfest Parade when the question was about traffic disruption in general.

When Erb Street in Uptown Waterloo moves from three lanes that cross King Street to one (which is also going to be a turning lane - see the LRT route map), THAT is going to disrupt traffic.

When all the tons of commuters who drive down Bridgeport and turn west on Erb are met with rail crossing signals that stop traffic in all directions every 3.5 minutes, THAT is going to disrupt traffic.

When the LRT runs kittycorner across Caroline and William, stopping traffic in all directions every time it goes through, THAT is going to disrupt traffic.

Those are just a few examples. I know that many pro-LRT folk are fine with that because they think that traffic disruptions are a good thing that will increase transit use, but consider: it will also disrupt buses, bikes and pedestrians; cars will find alternate routes, flooding our uptown neignborhoods with traffic; and people will find it much more convenient to drive to suburban malls and big box stores, causing economic woes for uptown Waterloo.

In addition...

When left-turns and U-turns will be provided only at specific signalized intersections, meaning people won't be able to turn into driveways or other intersections (with some relief only in downtown cores), THAT will disrupt traffic.

I hadn't seen that update to the regional site about parades (thanks)... but it's not a myth or a lie that there were questions about parades and Buskers. I was told by regional transportation staff that they would be disrupted. Now they say they won't be: but I remain dubious. The Busker Festival covers the width of King Street. Just stopping service is not necessarily going to make it possible, given all the rail infrastructure.

My trust in what the Region tells me about LRT is low. They said that the majority of residents opposed it, and that has been shown to be a big lie.

As to the fairness of our survey, I stand by it. See the email thread with Ken Seiling (in the individual response page, under his name) for our justifications of our figures. We had to provide preambles to ask those specific questions, and we wanted to ask specific questions to get at what the candidates really think about LRT. A simple question about support is ambiguous because it could mean they don't support it at all; or it could just mean they don't support it until the $250M price tag is reduced; or it could mean other things.

People in this region are hopping mad about LRT and want to elect candidates who will oppose it. Just see the letters to the editor about it: Or read the comments in our survey about what candidates are facing as they go door to door.

Finally, getting to your first point: the unfairness to Cambridge really hit home to me when I read the comments in our survey of candidats from there. I suggest you do that. I don't know what the best route is, but I think people in Cambridge have a right to find this plan highly objectionable.

By the way, did you see the press release from Derek Satnik about issuing an RFP for transit ideas? The idea is that the Region provides requirements and asks for proposals. I don't know enough about the issue, but it sounds interesting.


smably said...

The question about traffic disruption states that "the annual Oktoberfest Parade will also have to find another route." I focused on the Oktoberfest claim because it's untrue and it keeps getting repeated -- probably because saying that we'll lose the parade has more of an emotional impact than saying "left turns and U-turns will be restricted at some intersections". I won't debate the other claims about traffic impacts except to say that they show a remarkable attachment to the status quo.

The local portion is $225 million, not $250 million.

TriTAG's candidate survey lists each question and then provides the context afterwards in a section we call "why we're asking". We didn't receive any complaints about bias in our survey, not even from candidates who strongly oppose light rail. Naturally, our questions reflected our views on the matters we care about, but we tried to keep them free of excessively biased language. Do I support traffic disruption on King Street?! Do you support hobbling our transit system by insisting that buses must forever operate in mixed traffic, fighting with congestion caused by single-occupant vehicles? It's an absurd sort of question to ask.

Yappa said...

Well, to be fair, our goal was a bit more ambitious, which was to have some metrics about the stance on LRT of all candidates; and to pin them down so voters could use the answers as an aid to voting. You asked open-ended questions and they were a lot more general.

I wrote one draft of that traffic disruption question that tried to explain the U turns and problems with intersections, and it was just too long and confusing.

In any event, I see you didn't respond to my comments about traffic disruptions. We asked if they support traffic disruptions, and as I've shown, there will be significant traffic disruptions. It is absolutely NOT absurd to ask what they think about it.

Yappa said...

Also, re the parades question.

I didn't know they'd added a note about that in their FAQ. It's a pretty obscure place to add something that so many people are talking about. Plus, as I've said, I don't necessarily believe them.

Finally, it is widely believed that our parades and festivals on King Street are at risk by LRT: the head of the Oktoberfest committee sanctioned T4ST to distribute flyers about it at last year's Oktoberfest because he thought LRT would bump the parade; and as I've said, I was told by Regional LRT people that the tracks would probably cause those events to be moved.

It was in no way deceptive or manipulative to mention the parade. It was done in good faith. I objected to it as an example in the question only because the parade is (to my mind) so much more trivial than the daily traffic disruption that LRT would cause in uptown Waterloo.

Michael D said...

Your question to candidates stated with certainty that "The annual Oktoberfest Parade will also have to find another route."

It is, however, clear, that you had no basis for certainty on this point, and you refuse to acknowledge that your statement was misleading. It is not too late to repudiate your claim about what you yourself say is a trivial matter.

Clinging on to known misinformation for the sake of ammunition reduces your credibility.

As for traffic disruptions - don't worry, they're already here. King Street is nearly a parking lot in Uptown during rush hour. I'm not sure what you're trying to save.

Yappa said...

I did have certainty - we had been told it by Regional LRT staff and by the head of the Oktoberfest committee. In all the uncertainty about this LRT proposal, that was excellent intel.

Since I had already said that, I have to assume that your continuing and increasing attack on my credibility over the Oktoberfest parade is just a tactic to try to undermine my cause.

Re traffic disruptions, the fact that the streets are already busy is the point. If there was no traffic, the ridiculous route through uptown wouldn't be such a disaster. I live in uptown and am very aware of the traffic. I can fully imagine what will happen when Erb-King, Erb-Albert, Erb-Caroline and Caroline-William are paralysed by LRT.

Assuming that those drivers will take transit is just wrong. They won't. They'll flood to all the small side streets and cut through parking lots. Or they'll find places to go that aren't near uptown.

You're not helping the environment, transit or our community by promoting this highly flawed LRT plan. I don't know what we should do to improve transit, but I know that, at least in uptown Waterloo, this plan is a train wreck that must be stopped.

Michael D said...

"I did have certainty - we had been told it by Regional LRT staff and by the head of the Oktoberfest committee. In all the uncertainty about this LRT proposal, that was excellent intel."

"the head of the Oktoberfest committee sanctioned T4ST to distribute flyers about it at last year's Oktoberfest because he thought LRT would bump the parade; and as I've said, I was told by Regional LRT people that the tracks would probably cause those events to be moved." (Emphasis mine.)

You contradict yourself.

As for traffic - I don't really care about moving cars, I care about moving people. If space on the road is dedicated to high-capacity transit (LRT or buses), many more people will be able to get to and through Uptown. Sure, some cars will try to use short-cuts, but there's a distinct lack of good alternative routes through Uptown. (I know, I drive through it often.) Some will use a different way of travelling. Some will go elsewhere, which is fine. "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded" is not a legitimate economic worry - unless you think that people spend money only when they drive somewhere.

"I don't know what we should do to improve transit, but I know that, at least in uptown Waterloo, this plan is a train wreck that must be stopped."

And yet you have the gall to speak for a group called "Taxpayers for Sensible Transit".

You present no solutions for dealing with current and future problems, so I must conclude that change itself is what you're concerned about.

Yappa said...

Hi again -

I'm shocked that you are so cavalier about the health of our uptown. To ridicule the "nobody goes there anymore..." suggestion after what happened to downtown Kitchener? And Waterloo was in the doldrums for decades before it was just recently revitalized. Downtowns all over North America are fragile and vulnerable to Walmarts and the like. Plus we have a giant new box store center opening up soon. This is no joke.

As to the name of my group, I agree with my group that the LRT plan is unaffordable, that it would be a white elephant that would drain resources away from more productive transit, and that people won't take it because it's inconvenient... but the reason I'm fighting so hard against it is because as currently conceived I believe it would destroy uptown Waterloo.

We've been arguing about this for ages; surely you picked up on that before.

Michael D said...

You seem to have missed my point. Your group misleads starting with the name - because there's no "sensible transit" that you're advocating for. You're only advocating against. I'd love to hear an actual, well-thought-out plan for dealing with growth through transit from T4ST - but I'm not holding my breath.

I'm not cavalier about the health of Uptown. If it becomes difficult to drive into Uptown because so many other people are driving in, and even more people are walking, cycling, and taking transit in -- then that's a terrific sign of success. There's no more room for Uptown to grow in terms of car capacity, but there's plenty of room for it to grow with other transportation infrastructure.

Successful downtowns are not fragile, but robust. They work because they have people living there, working there, and shopping there. They become fragile when they are turned into places to be driven through from suburbs, and places that are alive only from 9 to 5. Conversely, it's a lot harder to attract a downtown-dweller to a Wal-Mart on the edge of town. The growth we are seeing now is in people living and working uptown and downtown, and this is exactly what will sustain Uptown.

Waterloo isn't unique in this sense - transit-oriented development and urban infill is contributing to quite the renaissance of North America's downtowns.

Yappa said...

Re my group, as I've said many times, I regret that the entire transit debate has been hijacked by LRT. My focus at this point has to be opposing LRT because it is an adopted policy of regional government. We have said all along that we support buses (it's on our logo), but in terms of suggesting something new I'm more interested in suggesting process than in trying to become a transit planner. Having said that, at the end of my very first comment on this thread I suggested something and nobody seemed interested.

But the rest of your comment starts to get more interesting.

I don't agree completely that there's no room for more car growth in uptown - there is in fact more planned growth with a series of parking garages that are going to be built. Cars are and are going to continue to be a big part of uptown.

But I agree completely that congestion is an issue. For example, when the Uptown Vision Committee (which I'm on) had a presentation of the draft master transportation plan, we raised the problem of all the crosstown traffic on Erb crossing King - all those people coming from the west end subdivisions going to the expressway. It's bad planning to funnel a ton of traffic through an uptown core. There simply needs to be a better route. The new west-side route, Ira Needles, supposedly the west side equivalent of the parkway, is not working - and will get even slower when the new mall is built. If we could get the crosstown traffic away from uptown, we'd be better off.

I live in uptown, and I wish that the increasing residential base would reduce our vulnerabilities, but I don't agree that it has. If parking and traffic become such a mess that people can't park close to the grocery store (as could happen, for example, in the couple of years after the Balsillie School opens but before they build their planned parking structure), then the grocery store could fail. Grocery stores in Waterloo Square have failed several times. That would mean that everyone in uptown would have to drive to the suburbs for food.

I have to get to work, but on the issue of transit-oriented development... LRT is not that. Cities like Portland didn't just hope that houses would get built around stations... they bought up land, worked with developers, forced developers to pay for streetcards around LRT stops... it's good because they made it happen. My objection to our LRT plan is because it's a flawed plan that won't work and that will have unintended consequences - not because of the ideals behind it.

Michael D said...

I did see the bus on your logo. "Buses" is not a transit policy. A request for industry proposals is not a solution. (By the way, if you would like an innovative industry solution for your transit needs, I've also got a bridge you might be interested in.)

Parking garages don't increase space on the roads for cars. You have only to look at King Street during rush hour to see that it's at capacity.

Grocery stores can fail regardless. But let's say that Uptown continues to grow, and congestion gets worse. Driving into or out of Uptown gets to be more of a pain. How exactly do you picture this decreasing the demand for a grocery store? Plenty of people walk and bike to Valu-Mart, Vincenzo's, and Eating Well Organically. The Valu-Mart isn't much of a destination for people outside of the area.

Of course LRT isn't transit-oriented development (TOD) - it's just the transit. The Regional Official Plan, however, provides the context for TOD to occur, by encouraging and requiring a large percentage of growth to be in the form of infill development in the urban cores and major station areas. The major issue with a few transit lines has been that they've not been coordinated with planning; station areas were not upzoned, making it impossible to build the TOD. Here, by contrast, the Region and the cities are being required provincially to intensify, and TOD around the line provides the easiest and most attractive option for the city and developer alike. The new official plan reflects an explicit TOD approach -- rather like Portland, actually.

I'm having a difficult time understanding your position. You say you are for transit, in the form of buses. You want to ensure that plenty of cars can drive into Uptown. But you don't want them driving through downtown -- you seem to prefer that they get around it on a highway. You don't want congestion, but you don't support using limited street space for high-capacity transportation. Is that right?

The only way I can reconcile any of this is that you're simply against growth of Uptown. And consequently you must prefer that the growth take place elsewhere, e.g. on the edge of town. (Since the fact of growth is not negotiable at the municipal level.)

If you are somehow for growth in Uptown, then I would like to know how you can claim to be for transit in any meaningful way if the transit is going to be mired in the same congestion as the cars.

Michael D said...

(In "driving through downtown" I'm referring to the downtown we call Uptown.)

Yappa said...

I hate the word uptown, right up there with The Shoppes at Waterloo Square. I stubbornly used the word downtown until I got on the Uptown Vision Committee and then I just had to give in.

By the way, did you see that applications are open for members of city hall committees?

Michael D said...

I did! Thanks for the pointer - I'll have to think about it.

I'd probably prefer if it were lowercase: uptown [Kitchener-Waterloo]. In not too long I'm pretty sure there will be a midtown as well.

Karen Scian said...


Respectfully, your comments about "city councillors" are offside - we went through a very lengthy discussion with the community re:routing and were able to force the issue with the Region. I know because I led the community consultation process - if you recall the outcomes of the original Uptown Summit. Additionally along with the support of Councillors McLean, Witmer, Freeeman and Vieth - I moved the motion that Waterloo Council refuse to endorse the LRT technology because we didn't agree with it as an absolute... we did not have any information about the technology AT ALL, but was expected to give it the full city endorsement. You know me well enough to know that I'm not a fan of blind faith.

Your concerns about accessibility and intersections are design-stage issues ... obviously not an answer you like, as I've been in the room a number of times with you to hear it.

That all being said - I'll be shocked to high heaven if we ever see a new rail line in the Uptown, unless the federal/provincial money trees reopen.

Yes - committee appointments are opening now. Please submit for something, both of you!


Yappa said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for the comment.

Your depiction of me as repeating things that I have been told "a number of times" are design stage issues is totally off-base.

The route problems in Uptown cannot just be dismissed as "design stage issues". The Region's LRT map clearly shows that with LRT there will be only one lane of Erb Street crossing King, and it clearly shows railway gates at Erb-Caroline. Looking at the map it is clear that the bones of the route are flawed (especially the left turn off King at Erb) and will cause traffic chaos. Those are fundamental route problems and we absolutely must speak up about them.

What I said about accessibility was "there were significant issues such as the long distance between stops, the long distance from LRT stops to their target destinations (notably the malls), the linkages between LRT and bus transfers, and possible problems crossing the tracks with walking aids." Only the last part of that is design stage, and I said "possible".

We were told in committee that the design of the tracks (raised platform vs curbs) was design-stage, but not routes and intersections. I can only remember the "design stage" caveat ever coming up once, so I don't know where this "number of times" is coming from.

I am bothered by your comment for two reasons. One is that you are essentially calling me a liar, and you're misrepresenting the facts. But also, these issues of traffic and distance are absolutely what we should be talking about. We can't just accept a plan that has such large scale flaws without speaking up about it. In fact, we should be speaking up about design stage issues as well, if only to ensure that the design is done well.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

I apologise for overlooking your 9:53 comment, which was an interesting one. Just to clarify, I'm definitely for growth in the uptown (and even if I weren't, it's coming fast and nothing is going to stop it); I'm definitely for much-improved transit; and I think we have to have some form of TOD (and no, I don't think the transportation master plan is adequate).

My main problems with LRT are the traffic disruptions (particularly the ones in Uptown); the combination of running on main roads and stopping so infrequently; the inconvenience caused by the long distance of LRT stops from target destinations; and the high cost. The inconvenience seems to guarantee that ridership would be low. It just wouldn't work.

I have had to concentrate my efforts on opposing LRT, but now that LRT seems doomed T4ST can start adding to the conversation in other ways... and we are making some interesting plans.

I believe there is a huge amount we can do to make our current system work. Short-turning at rush hour; bus-only lanes in congested areas (marked on the pavement, as they do in Toronto); possibly more express routes to different locations; more hubs... I'm turning my mind to the problem.

I don't discount the idea of high capacity transit. The current proposals for LRT and BRT are both too flawed, but better ideas will emerge.

Hell, I'll just write a post about this. I appreciate your comments... they keep me honest and make me think. I feel I have to waste too much time defending myself from unnecessary personal attacks, but at least as a long-time blogger I'm fairly immune to getting my feelings hurt.

Karen Scian said...


Your personal position and your lobby group's position on the LRT discussion has ultimately resulted in exposing one very key and serious flaw in the process - that it was being driven by politics and not tangible information.

Waterloo Council is effectively in alignment with that, by not endorsing the technology - and not playing along with the Region's marching orders to deliver a formal endorsement of the rail project. The active participation by council and our city committees was not warmly welcomed - but I'm perfectly ok with that.

I would also suggest that it is time for the municipalities to take a larger, more demanding role in the discussions about the entire transit system. My part of the city is completely underserviced and the current system of approving subdivisions without a transit plan implementation-ready is ridiculous.

For a number of reasons, I am not convinced that the Regional representatives will back down from the RT, once back in office ... very curious to see how this rolls out.


Yappa said...

Hi Karen,

I agree completely about improving bus service in Waterloo. It is not good, and it has a perception of being not good - which is circular. I'm going to embark on research into what we can do, and I'm glad to hear that our one known Councillor in the next term is on it. :-) I am convinced that the city should not give up on influencing things just because they're regional issues.

Re what will happen, I go back and forth between optimism and pessimism. When I hear both of the main contenders in the mayoral race say that Waterloo voters don't want rail running through uptown (link), I feel pretty sure it's over. When I read the comment by Doug Craig to the T4ST survey (link), I get convinced that Seiling/Zehr/whoever will somehow get this through.