Friday, June 05, 2009

The Problem with Waterloo Region's LRT Proposal

Okay, there are lots of problems. It costs too much. It will continue to cost too much. Once built, it will cost a fortune to change the route. It will drain resources from regular bus routes; it will be a drain on our budgets (and cause tax increases) for decades to come. The route through the core of Uptown Waterloo, turning left across our major intersection and then ploughing through the middle of our major park, is insane.

But the main problem with the Region's rapid transit proposal is that it's rapid transit. Rapid transit means that there aren't very many stops.

Here's an example: between Victoria Street in Kitchener and William Street in Waterloo, the King Street bus route has ten stops. In the same area, the rapid transit proposal has one stop (at the hospital). There's a stop in Uptown Waterloo and then no more stops till the University of Waterloo. This means that to use the LRT, people will either have to drive to a stop, walk a long distance, or transfer to buses. However, there is not even a sensible plan for convenient bus transfer points. And there are no plans for building parking lots near the stops.

Advocates like to say that we all need more exercise. That's true but completely irrelevant. We live in a climate that's cold six months of the year and raining some percentage of the rest. We have an aging population. Many of us have young children. To woo people out of their cars and on to transit, transit simply must be more convenient.

You might think that fewer stops would make the transit rapid. However, Waterloo's LRT is barely faster than the iXpress that currently runs the same route. It still runs on regular roads with speed limits and traffic lights. Being fast and convenient is not even the goal of LRT in Waterloo Region: the goal is to create density nodes and try (for the umpteenth time) to revitalize downtown Kitchener.

Rapid transit is the wrong approach for Waterloo Region.



mdruker said...

"Once built, it will cost a fortune to change the route."

That's the best part. There will be no doubt about the route, so development can actually be spurred by proximity to it.

"This means that to use the LRT, people will either have to drive to a stop, walk a long distance, or transfer to buses. However, there is not even a sensible plan for convenient bus transfer points - more walking."

They will have a strong incentive for living within walking distance of a stop. There is a sensible plan for bus transfers, however. The bus system would be redesigned, with the creation of routes that run perpendicular to the LRT, that would go along important corridors and connect the outlying areas directly with LRT stations. Current routes made unnecessary or shorter by the LRT will contribute buses to allow these new corridors to have frequent service. I'd also point out that fewer stops allow the travel time on LRT between Conestoga and Fairview Malls to go down to only half an hour.

"To woo people out of their cars and on to transit, transit simply must be more convenient."

Which buses are not. The one benefit of a bus is that it really can make a stop in front of your door. But there's never the guarantee that this will remain true. And when you're on a bus, stops contribute to much of the discomfort of the experience -- lurches to the side, rapid braking and accelerating. The convenience of LRT is that the entire route is visible and easily understood, the stops are memorable and few (riders need not worry about missing the right stop), and no schedule is needed. And "convenient" or not, light rail is more pleasant than buses or cars in traffic.

Yappa said...

Hi mdruker,

Thanks for the comment. You make some goodt points.

I agree that the simplicity of route is a bonus. But to have simple routes, you don't need to have infrequent stops. A streetcar down King would be simple and would also be convenient.

As to the encouragement of density nodes, that's a great argument for LRT in downtown Kitchener, which is floundering. None of the proposed stops in Waterloo need any density encouragement. In fact, proposed and approved projects in Uptown Waterloo have already exceeded the province's growth for Uptown Waterloo for the next 25 years.

But this proposal doesn't just burden Waterloo tax payers with a cripplingly expensive transit line we don't need. It also actively harms Waterloo: in uptown Waterloo the LRT is going to go right down King in our uptown core from William to Erb, making a mess for drivers, pedestrians and retailers. To make matters worse, it's going to turn left across uptown's busiest intersection (Erb & King) and then run against traffic on our second busiest street (Erb) before making a total mess of another busy uptown intersection (Erb-Caroline). Then it's going to cut Waterloo Park in two.

But take note that the LRT doesn't touch King Street in Kitchener's downtown: it runs down parallel roads to spare King in the core. Nor does it touch Victoria Park.

I have proposed as alternatives to LRT either a King streetcar or bus rapid transit that merges in with regular traffic through uptown Waterloo (and makes frequent stops from William to Central).

One other point: I suspect that LRT will actually reduce ridership in the region because it will drain money from bus routes and be a white elephant.

mdruker said...

I'm holding out hope that the Uptown routing can be switched over entirely to Caroline, thereby avoiding any issues with King intersections or closures.

The problem with a streetcar down King is that it would suffer traffic in addition to its numerous stops. Consequently, I don't think it would attract enough people to forestall the gridlock that will be in the region's future (which would only make the streetcar slower).

I don't see why money would be drained from bus routes, or why areas currently getting service would no longer get it. Particularly since the combination of LRT and a good bus system is the way to avoid the huge and otherwise inevitable costs of road expansion.

Yappa said...

I agree completely that we need more transit, and we need to attain higher ridership levels. I just don't think the LRT is the way to do it.

It is going to be very expensive to build and operate, and if it doesn't get paying riders then it's going to cost a lot more on an annual basis than predicted - which will affect the budget of Grand River Transit, probably resulting in a reduction in the money that can go to bus transit.

As to Uptown, I haven't heard anything about moving the whole route over to Caroline. Part of the Caroline loop is too narrow to fit two lanes of rails (I'm thinking Caroline from William to Allen and the stretch along Allen, as well as two intersections in that section). But leaving it down King is a disaster for uptown Waterloo.

Ian said...

The model of rapid transit (for traveling long distance) along with local transit (to get you close to your door) is a common idea.
The idea is employed by York Region, which I rode recently (I live in Toronto). They have a bus rapid transit system that runs on normal roads and makes few stops, on top of local bus routes.
It's very difficult to build good transit without some significant population density. A lot of riders are needed to provide a transit service that has decent frequency at a reasonable cost.
I think speed is more important that comfort. Transit that takes a long time is a pain.

Don Buckwald said...

I hope our new Regional Council continues on a path that includes LRT. This is an investment that I'm personally willing to make to create an even better city with continued innovations for my children and their generation. When you look at the real costs involved, which very few actually do, we're not looking at such a major investment. Some infrastructure maintenance would be included in the project and long-term, you're removing cars from the road and the region would require less roads. There is a small but very influential group of people in the ear of those seeking positions on council. Brenda Halloran has already flipped on her support and Doug Craig has the attitude of a 2 year old. If he can't have it, no one should.

Look at some of the success stories from other LRT projects. Please don't become short-sighted politicians who only work for their current term in office. Have some vision for the future and the evolution of our city from a car-centric city that is spreading out much in the way that London, Ontario has done to an intensified city that has a strong core.

For the rest of us who have silently supported this project as rail rather than bus, it's time to speak up to prevent more flip flop politicians like Brenda Halloran.