Friday, November 13, 2009

What LRT Will Do to the Junction of Albert and Erb

When Erb crosses Bridgeport-Caroline, it becomes a one-way street heading east. It is a very busy street, taking traffic from the west end of the city to the Conestoga Parkway, as well as taking people to destinations uptown and elsewhere.

As it approaches King Street, two lanes of Erb Street split off to the left and become Albert Street. At the moment there is an orderly flow of traffic onto Albert. The Region's LRT proposal, however, creates a problem here, because the LRT is going to run against traffic right through the lanes that are splitting off.

Here is a snippet of the Region's LRT map with some annotation by me (you can see the complete unadulterated map here):

Erb Street is one-way with traffic running towards the top of this map. The LRT (represented by a thick pink line) is also one-way but is running towards the bottom of this map, against traffic. Traffic on Erb that wants to split off to Albert will have to cut across the LRT tracks. The LRT is scheduled to run every 7 minutes, but there are no traffic lights to protect cars that have to drive on the tracks towards the oncoming trains. It's not even possible to put a stop sign here, unless they put one in the middle of Erb Street.

I don't know what this will do to traffic flow, but it seems to be extremely unsafe. This crazy plan is going to cause accidents. If it does, the drivers are going to have a good case for a law suit against the city and the Region.

Update: At the 11th hour, Regional Councillor Sean Strickland got the region to change the route so that it will not turn down Erb, but instead run along the railway tracks through Waterloo Square. Consequently, this problem went away.



Michael D said...

Again, I have to preface this by saying that I am not a fan of this arrangement.

However, I fail to see how this left turn across the light rail tracks is much different than a regular left turn across an opposing direction of traffic. If something like a rumble strip catches the attention of a driver, it isn't that hard to see a train coming. (Though it's certainly hard to see one of those turning cars coming around that curve. What a pedestrian-unfriendly place.)

The simplest thing here is to just make it a regular right-angle left turn by getting rid of that curve altogether. Incidentally, I believe that's what it used to be before Erb was made a one-way highway.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

I agree that there are other problems with that junction... I hate the way some motorists peel off Erb too fast, endangering everyone around. There should be a speed bump or rumble strips or police enforcement of the speed limit.

If you look at the map though, cars are actually going to have to drive on the tracks of the oncoming LRT for a little way. This plan is unsafe and just isn't acceptable. If there's some way to change it to a 90 degree turn, maybe that make crossing the tracks better. I don't know. But this plan can't stay.

Another issue is the problem of Erb Street. If you think about it, Erb is the only way to get across the middle of town from the west to the east. As they build more subdivisions on the west side of Waterloo, there are more people who want to buzz over to the expressway. That's partly because the southern route is inadequate; they used to only have Fisher-Hallman and Westmount, both of which are terribly congested, but the addition of Ira Needles and its many roundabouts is just not an adequate alternative to a west-side expressway.

I don't know what all the answers are, but I know that creating traffic chaos in uptown is only going to kill uptown and encourage people to drive further to shop, work, eat and drink.

Michael D said...

The important thing isn't what exactly you're crossing, but the line of sight -- which to me looks just fine.

I do not think Uptown is an appropriate site for an east-west pseudo-highway. Making it easy for people to drive from a far suburban subdivision to a highway on the exact other side of town is, if anything, bad for Uptown. (I have nothing nice to say about new subdivisions on the west side, so I'll refrain. Same goes for the Ira Needles mega-development that will decrease any need for west side suburbanites to drive to Uptown.)

Anyway, Ira Needles with its roundabouts is a much better way of getting to the highway (for southern destinations) than going clear across town with tons of traffic lights. For going from the west end to northern areas, the highway is a huge detour. And needless to say, with light rail there would be frequent bus service along Erb Street that would connect to the train in Uptown.

I don't know where you get the idea that what sustains Uptown is people driving in from distant suburbs, but I strongly doubt that this is the case, nor that that would be a sustainable or desirable state of affairs.

Yappa said...

Sorry - I was unclear. I don't mean that uptown is sustained by people from the suburbs. I meant that Erb is an existing/potential problem for uptown because of the volume of traffic. That was sort of off-topic but my main interest is uptown planning. Anyway it sounds like we agree on that.

What I meant about Ira Needles is that it doesn't seem to be doing the job of attracting drivers to take that route instead of Erb. However I can't say I've had reason to drive it at rush hour so I'm not sure.

Erb just keeps getting busier, and with the new subdivisions and the Barrel Yards and so on and all the uptown condo towers in the works, it looks likely to continue growing in use.

The only way to reduce car use, as far as I can tell, is to raise the gas tax (something I've argued for repeatedly). In 2007 our tax was US$0.28/liter, which is a quarter of what it is in many European countries. The tactic of making driving inconvenient doesn't work because traffic is like water - it just flows to other routes. And to reduce car use we need a good transit system that goes where people want to go.

Michael D said...

"And to reduce car use we need a good transit system that goes where people want to go."

That's my preference for reducing car use, and I strongly believe that the light rail together with high-frequency buses on corridors like Erb/Bridgeport will do this. I wouldn't mind higher gas taxes or highway user fees, but you need the carrot and not just the stick.

Yappa said...

I'm with you on the carrot/stick thing... I wrote about that a while back. For example, to get people on to bikes you need to make safe bike lanes and trails. All to often we hear planners talk about getting people on to bikes by taking away parking spaces, which just doesn't work: they just drive somewhere with better parking.

Not be inflammatory (since I'm glad we agree on something) but my main objection to LRT is that it will drain resources from regular bus lines. That's why the discussions about finances and ridership and so on are so vital. I live in uptown Waterloo and I work in the UW R&T Park, so from a personal standpoint LRT is great for me... my problem is with the plan in the big transit picture.

Michael D said...

I appreciate such concerns, but I really do not think they hold up.

First of all, light rail will substantially increase transit mode share along the central transit corridor. With it and the feeder bus routes, more people will be taking transit overall, which will mean more revenue and more taxpayer support for transit.

The current system is horribly inefficient, with most buses travelling empty -- because instead of going along a corridor with multiple destinations, they wind and wind among some suburban subdivision and then meander to downtown Kitchener, for example. With the notable exception of Route 9, such service is really only for the few who somehow live in suburbia without a car. With such trip length and infrequent service, why would anyone else want to use it?

With the reorganization of many routes to cross-corridor service, these buses will start getting much better use. People will be able to just go to Victoria, or Ottawa, or Erb, and catch a frequent bus that goes along that corridor – connecting with the light rail along the way, but also going across to the other side of town without a mandatory detour and transfer at a terminal. So these routes will be straighter, faster, and more useful to people – which means that they are a much more effective use of the bus fleet, and will be bringing in more revenue per hour and using fewer buses for it. Even the winding suburban routes will no longer need to go as far as a bus terminal, only as far as the nearest light rail stop, so they will be shorter.

So a lot will be offloaded to the light rail, which in turn will be able to carry those people much more cost-effectively. This includes some of the existing service along the corridor, from which buses will be removed to better uses.

All that having been said, I believe the Region has explicitly said they will be increasing the transit budget to cover the additional costs of the system. So it really is not plausible to me that the transit system will do anything but vastly improve in the region with the light rail project. Especially with the Region aiming to seriously increase transit modal share along many corridors, not just the central transit corridor.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

Well put. The little-used bus routes in this area have been a drag on the system forever. I think there are some obligations to provide some sort of service everywhere, but you'd think that there would be more efficient ways to serve them, perhaps with smaller buses, and with better routes and linkages, as you say. There don't seem to be any quick fixes though. This has been a known problem for decades.

Your suggestion doesn't require a fixed rail route - it could be done with the existing iXpress and #7 buses as the central corridor. That would save us many, many hundreds of millions of dollars, and it would create a solution that is more flexible - not just more flexible, but fully flexible, while the LRT is inflexible.

The two factors I can see that favor the LRT are that it can carry more riders and that it's something new that might attract riders.

My quick counter to that is that currently the iXpress buses are small buses and they don't run that frequently. That route is miles from capacity. And I don't think a novelty is worth $750M.

We may never agree on the economics and efficiencies of bus vs rail. In any event, my main concern with the LRT proposal is the effect on uptown Waterloo and Waterloo Park. The current route is a poor compromise of some competing interests. As I've been arguing, it's a recipe for disaster.

My proposal for an RT (with the caveat that I'm no transit planner, so propose this just as an idea) is that we have a BRT that runs in dedicated lanes, but when it enters uptown Waterloo it merges in with regular traffic from William to Central and it stops at least twice on King in uptown. This requires that it doesn't turn left across King in uptown. It should continue straight up King to Conestoga Mall.

Michael D said...

As for the inefficient bus routes, I think the fix is to get as many routes as reasonably possible replaced with useful corridor routes. Everywhere else the inefficient basic service should be provided as a public good.

You're absolutely right that the reorganization does not strictly require a fixed rail route. However, a spine system requires transfers to and from the spine, and many people will be loathe to take a bus to a bus spine. So that would mean substantially less transit use in such a system than otherwise possible – which means more cars on the road.

Though as I mentioned earlier, even with buses such a reorganization would seriously increase travel along the spine corridor, since existing travel on separate routes would be added to it.

The current system isn't at capacity, but that point isn't as far away as you think. Currently there are stretches where route 7 buses run every 4-8 minutes and the iXpress runs every 15 minutes (and actually I hear there are some buses added during peaks). Both of those are even now experiencing overcrowding, so they need more frequent service already. Keep in mind that whenever iXpress frequency gets less than 10 minutes, that will be bring in lots of new riders for the no-schedule/short-wait service. Add in the serious extra demands if that is made a spine for the transit system, and you end up with a hell of a lot of buses running along the corridor. A steady stream of noisy diesel buses going right through our downtowns and polluting our air.

Articulated buses are bigger (though still barely half of the capacity of a light rail vehicle, which can be chained together to boot), but they are just as difficult to enter and exit, especially in crowded conditions. So when buses get up to every two minutes during peak – and this would be a near certainty within the next 10 to 20 years – we'll get buses bunching together, and bus jams like Ottawa sees on their downtown Transitway stretch. The bottleneck is at the stations, where you have smaller, more awkward vehicles that may very well take those two minutes or more to load and unload. Consider how much time one single stroller would add when you're talking about a fairly full bus, not to mention wheelchairs.

But it's not just about capacity. Buses, being smaller (and needing longer dwell times), will require at least twice as many drivers – and labor is by far the biggest expense of transit, making up more than half of GRT's current budget. Fuel is nothing to sneeze at, either, as a well-used bus easily drinks $100-200K of diesel fuel a year (which is an order of magnitude higher than equivalent electricity costs for light rail). And incidentally, articulated buses have higher maintenance costs than regular ones. The result of all this is that per passenger, running buses instead of light rail costs substantially more. So using the iXpress and route 7 as the spine would not save the Region hundreds of millions of dollars by any means.

Michael D said...

Part 2:

Precisely the inflexibility of the rail is a very important aspect in changing the pattern of development. When RIM or OpenText or IBM or Google wants to open a new office, or the University of Waterloo wants to build another new campus (and at this rate, they probably will...), or a developer wants to build a new condo building to house those who no longer want to commute in from Mississauga – it's a safe bet that they will do their damndest to locate near a light rail stop. And so will people deciding where to live, or entrepreneurs deciding where to open up shop. No matter what the actual service, they just won't rely on a bus line – exactly because it is seen as fleeting and flexible.

But while the flexibility feels like it's there, and technically is, it is a bit of a misnomer. Because if a bus line is the spine route, and all the other routes are reorganized to meet it at stations, moving it is a pain in the ass and expensive to boot. Of course, the most serious reason I can think of to want flexibility is to be able to convert to light rail, but it really doesn't seem that doing so is easy. Witness the billion-plus-dollar tunneling Ottawa plans to do to deal with converting its mess to light rail. And that's a really important consideration here, because the buses will emphatically not suffice for more than twenty years at the most – at which point they would become a pressing issue. It will be very expensive to convert to light rail at that point, and there really is no way that the conversion wouldn't make getting around hell, even on those flexible buses. (Of course, a subway could be built at that point, but it wouldn't make sense to spend that kind of money later just to gain us the short-term cheapness of buses now.)

Whew. By the way, the Orléans tramway is a good example of how the light rail could look through Waterloo Park and elsewhere off-street:

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage because I haven't yet been able to get ridership numbers for the iXpress, so I just have to take your word on the over-crowding of it. But I do know (from taking it) that the iXpress uses small buses. Also, it runs every 15 minutes. So you could quintuple (or more) the capacity by using a full-size bus and running it every 5 minutes. You could increase the capacity 10 times by running it every 2.5 minutes. After that you could move to articulated buses - which do work; lots of cities have them - and you could double capacity again. The argument that there's no room for scalability doesn't fly.

In any event, the success of the iXpress seems to be an argument against LRT. If it's so successful, why are we replacing it? I've been reading up on the iXpress (see here) and it is a really innovative new way to run buses. Plus, it cost only a few million dollars to set up.

I don't see any merit to your argument that people don't want to transfer from a bus to a bus. That just doesn't make any sense. The key thing is that they want to transfer as little as possible, and have the transfer wait be as short as possible. Therefore, we'd be better off building a spine that is (1) flexible, so that we can change it when needed to meet demand; and (2) cost effective, so that we don't drain resources from other transit routes.

As to what you say about density nodes, there's a bit more to it than that. Uptown Waterloo has more development in the works than it can handle, and will meet its provincial growth targets at least a decade ahead of schedule.

Re the UW R&T Park stop, it's on the extreme edge/corner of the park, far away from most of the buildings. It takes me 15 minutes to walk to that spot from where I work in the Park, and I feel certain that very few workers are going to be willing to take it. Yet although the planned station location has been public for over a year, no buildings are going up for that part of the Park - they're all clustered at the other end. The iXpress stop is much more convenient.

The entire LRT plan seems designed as another last-ditch effort to revitalize downtown Kitchener (by creating a density node there). Given that other problems in downtown Kitchener have not been addressed, it's questionable that even this billion dollar initiative will save it.

Michael D said...

Hi Ruth,

First of all, the iXpress buses are full size 40 foot buses, whereas articulated buses are 60 foot. Forty foot buses can hold 40 seated / 80 crush load, and artics only increase that to 60/110. (These figures are consistent with all three bus brands in GRT use.)

I don't think it makes sense to look at purely the iXpress, since both the 7 and the iXpress would represent ridership on a core corridor, and would compete for station space. Let's conservatively say there's now a Route 7 bus every 7.5 minutes and an iXpress bus every 15 minutes. That's three buses every 15 minutes, or effectively a bus every 5 minutes. Going to a frequency of 2 minutes would increase capacity by a factor of 2.5, and going to solely articulated buses is another factor of 1.4-1.5. That multiplies out to between 3.5-3.8.

So with current buses pushing capacity during peak hours, we're already reaching over a quarter of the above theoretical maximum bus capacity along certain stretches of the corridor, and that's without a reorganization of routes. Considering the continued rapid growth of the iXpress, that is not a safe amount of room to grow. Note also that increasing service frequency will by itself substantially increase ridership.

But don't get me wrong: the iXpress is quite good as far as bus service goes – and I think that cross-corridor service should be implemented in a fashion similar to the iXpress or even more BRT-like. The reason its success is an argument for light rail is that its success is going beyond its own capacity – and it was precisely started to build the ridership for a rapid transit line that would be able to handle it and that would be justified by demonstrated ridership figures. The iXpress has done that remarkably well.

“I don't see any merit to your argument that people don't want to transfer from a bus to a bus. That just doesn't make any sense.”

I don't really care – and neither should you, if you're talking about the success of a system – whether it makes sense for people to dislike transferring to another bus more than they dislike transferring to a train. The only thing that matters is what people actually do. Go out and (without bias) ask people what they think, and judge the empirical preference for yourself; better yet check the studies that are out there on what people actually do in practice. I am confident that you would find that people are much more willing to take a train than a bus, to take a no-transfer trip over a transfer (and that over two transfers), and, yes, a bus-train transfer over a bus-bus transfer. Even at exactly the same level of service. (I know that for me, each bus ride comes with the potential for queasiness and a headache, and that I'm by far not the only one.)

Michael D said...

Part 2:

A spine that can be changed to meet demand instead of one that shapes demand? That's pretty spineless if you ask me, and would lead to an equally spineless growth pattern.

Regarding Uptown: not every single node needs to encourage development. If the zoning isn't amenable to growth – and the City of Waterloo probably doesn't want to change the look of King Street and the core Uptown area – then development will happen elsewhere. But there's tons of stuff already in Uptown and currently or soon to be under development. It's a major travel node, and will continue to be one.

I agree about the spacing of the R&T Park not being the friendliest. However it seems weird to me that on the one hand you are fighting against the building of light rail, and at the same time suppose that anyone would alter their development plans to accord with the light rail route. Until a contract is in place and shovels are in the ground, development will orient to the infrastructure that is currently there – and that means Hagey Boulevard, which does have the road-side iXpress stop.

I can't wrap my head around the downtown Kitchener revitalization talk. First off, downtown Kitchener is doing damn well for itself if you ask me, and is not in need of paternalistic “revitalization” efforts. Second of all, it is already the largest employment node in the Region, so a transit spine for the Region would be dumb as rocks to bypass it. And third, no one is talking about revitalizing downtown Kitchener. Really. The Region's report isn't projecting any huge increases in the downtown Kitchener core; the report is actually projecting that much more light-rail-spurred growth will take place in places like Northfield (employment), Charles & Ottawa (population), and King & Victoria (population).

Yappa said...

Hi again -

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on many of these points. But I didn't make up the motive of designing the LRT to revitalize downtown Kitchener... it appears in early LRT documents. If I have time I'll try to find quotes and links.

By the way, I should have said that I liked the photo you linked to of the tracks in the grass. If LRT looks like that in Waterloo Park it won't be so bad. I have been imagining the opposite: that there will be tracks and that eventually they'll need to put up a high fence along the rails because of children. But that's just guess work. I wish they would present some assurances of things like that.

Michael D said...

Hi Ruth,

I don't mean to keep this going indefinitely. =)

But, regarding Kitchener: I believe you that something like that may have played a motivating part in early discussions. However, as far as I can see, nothing in the current plans nor in the assessment/justification for them bears out any such focus among the teams working on it, nor among the to-date provincial and federal justifications for funding. I'm referring to everything from the beginning of the Rapid Transit EA in 2005/2006 to now.

I'm with you against fences -- I do not want to see them along the tracks through Waterloo Park -- and neither did the Waterloo Park planners when I asked them a few months ago. A visible and unavoidable (but unobtrusive) barrier with clear crossing locations would do the job just as well. And maybe better, since people would be mindful at crossings, versus assuming that they're safe.

Yappa said...

Hi again -

I think these discussions are really useful. Even though we're on different sides of the issue, the effect of our arguments (if there is any) is to change public transit, and all of us who are talking about the issue should be as well-informed as possible.

Re the iXpress - you're right about capacity. It looked small to me. I now have the figures:

- iXpress seats 38 and has crush capacity of 70
- articulated bus has crush capacity of 120

So if you move from every 15 minutes to every 2.5 minutes you increase capacity 6 times, and if you move to articulated buses you increase it another 75%, for a total of about 10 times capacity. The iXpress carries over 10,000/day today so that allows for 100,000 riders/day. I believe the region's estimated ridership demand by 2031 is 63,000. So if my calculations are correct the iXpress can meet that all by itself.

But as you say, that's only the iXpress. I'm not sure what is planned for the number 7s. Is the region planning to run all the existing #7s when the LRT is built?

Michael D said...

Hi Ruth,

Though local service may be slightly cut back -- I don't know -- it's definitely staying. But in some sense for these calculations it shouldn't matter: either that ridership stays on the 7, or it moves to the iXpress / light rail. So you have to consider both routes on the corridor. (My money is on most people switching to the light rail from the 7. And more switching to the iXpress whenever frequency is increased.)

So again, there are stretches of King Street right now where there is effectively a packed bus at least every 5 minutes during peaks (only counting route 7 and iXpress). You can only increase the capacity there by 3-4 times or so, and that's without taking into account the debilitating effects of increasing traffic congestion. A system that can't handle capacity on a section is a failing system; just ask anyone stuck in a highway rush hour parking lot.