Monday, October 25, 2010

Is LRT Dead?

When I read things like this, I'm sure LRT dead: "Mayor Brenda Halloran said she was surprised to learn how many people in Waterloo do not want to see a light-rail system going through the city. “The ‘no’ to trains, that surprised me. People are totally against having trains running up and down King Street,” Halloran said."

And this: "Jan d’Ailly, a two-term member of city council, said he was surprised to see public opinion sour on the light-rail system approved by regional council. “At almost every single door it is ‘no’ to LRT and that surprised me,” d’Ailly said."

Note that Mayor Halloran didn't say that people aren't willing to pay for LRT: she said they're telling her that they are "totally against having trains running up and down King Street." Opposition to LRT is not all about money. This is not something that's going to be fixed by rejiggering the finances.

When I read things like this, I think LRT is going to be rammed down our throats regardless of what the people want:
[Regional Chair Ken] Seiling let it slip that regional staff were trying to shave as much as $85 million off the cost.

Instead of the region’s original $235 million obligation, he suggested the total bill might be between $150 million and $175 million. And there may be new development charges to pay for it as well.

. . .

The original rail proposal required a regional tax increase of close to nine per cent to cover both operating and capital costs. Such a tax hike appears to be extremely unpopular. Seiling seems to think he will be able to get the new council to back a smaller tax increase of perhaps 5.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. Why not ask voters directly by providing a plan?

We should also remember the current proposal is already a compromise. To save money, trains will only run from a mall in Waterloo to a mall in Kitchener. Cambridge is to get buses. So what will another $85 million in cuts look like? Cheaper trains? Fewer stations? Buggies for Cambridge?

Whatever cost-cutting manoeuvres the region adopts, it seems certain to result in a reduction in ridership and an increase in the tax subsidies necessary to keep it solvent. So as capital costs drop, operating costs may go up in step.

I'm also rather worried by this comment from Cambridge Mayor and LRT opposer Doug Craig:
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. The costs to all regional taxpayers will be significant because the operating costs will be 23 million dollars a year and the capital costs will exceed projected estimates. In other words, it's unsustainable.

As far as I can tell, Seiling has not heard one word of the thousands of arguments against LRT. He seems hell-bent on shoving this idea through. He is motivated by a passionate belief that growth in the region will overwhelm road capacity. What he doesn't get is that LRT will only help with that problem if people ride it. People won't ride something that is even more inconvenient than the current bus system - and LRT is much, much more inconvenient than the current buses. Further, the LRT as planned will greatly reduce road capacity and make traffic much worse. It will not solve the problem; it will greatly exacerbate it.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

LRT Round-up

To see all of my writing about LRT, click here. The list is truncated, but it provides most of the posts I've written on LRT.

Here are some highlights:

What LRT Will Do to the King-Erb Intersection

What LRT Will Do to the Erb-Bridgeport-Caroline Intersection

Jane Jacobs on LRT

Is this the region we want?

In addition, you might be interested in the 100+ letters to the editor against the Waterloo Region LRT proposal, as well as the dozens of articles published in local papers against it.


Friday, October 22, 2010

We need other mass transit solutions

My column in the Saturday, October 23, Waterloo Region Record (link)

No: We need other mass transit solutions
Ruth Haworth

If the Great Light Rail Transit Debate has done nothing else, it has got our community talking about transit. In fact, transit may well be the issue of this election campaign.

In a recent election survey by Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (, 95 per cent of responding candidates said they oppose Waterloo Region’s light rail transit proposal. It seems likely that the new regional council will vote against light rail transit and that will be the end of it.

But the survey had another, even more extreme result: over 99 per cent of candidates responded that we need to improve transit in the region.

If we’re smart, we’ll take what we’ve learned from the light rail transit proposal and debate, and use it to create a better transit plan that will serve our community into the future. I’ll take a stab at taking the arguments on both sides of the issue to see what they can tell us.

The main argument against light rail transit is that it’s unaffordable. The cost to Waterloo Region of well over $200 million is simply too much for local taxpayers to absorb — and typical cost overruns could make that burden much larger. There have also been criticisms that the service is too inconvenient. The long distance between stops means that riders would have to walk further and make more transfers. The distance from light rail stops to nearby attractions, notably from proposed light rail stops to the malls, also means that light rail transit would be less convenient than buses. And the inconvenience of light rail is not offset by any advantages in speed. Light rail transit, running on busy city streets and stopping at all traffic lights, is virtually no faster than what we have now.

By contrast, there’s a lot of room for improvement in our existing bus service, at much lower cost. If we want to woo people out of their cars and on to transit, the total transit experience must become more convenient. That means that the total time of trips is faster, with less transfers and more predictable schedules. We need more bus shelters and better snow clearance around them. And so on.

Another complaint about light rail transit is that it could cause major traffic disruption with plans such as railway gates on Erb Street in Uptown Waterloo. Transit should be integrated with, and respectful of, other uses of roads, including cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The region’s “Plan B” is rapid buses. The rapid bus proposal, which is to build dedicated bus lanes (with curbs) on a route similar to light rail transit, is almost as problematic as light rail. Like light rail transit, bus rapid transit isn’t rapid. The rapid buses are expected to travel at about the same speed as an iXpress bus. What’s the point of spending over $500 million on a single route that is already served, without greatly improving it?

In addition, the rapid bus plan has many of the same problems as light rail. By building physical barriers around bus lanes, we would be creating a route that’s inflexible and disrupts traffic.

Creating an entire route of physically demarcated lanes on major arteries may be a mistake, but we could use the idea in a modified form. We could create dedicated bus lanes in areas where congestion slows down buses, and we could do it affordably by painting diamonds on the road, a system which works well in Toronto.

A major argument for light rail transit was that increased growth in the region will require more capacity than buses can provide. There is a bit of a circular argument here. The region wanted to use light rail to create density nodes in downtown cores and then argued that the resulting large numbers of passengers would require a rail service to move them all. But if development continues to grow as it has been, employment will be scattered across many industrial parks and downtowns, and we can easily service those smaller nodes with buses. We should be identifying those nodes and improving transit service to them.

Another thing I’ve learned from the light rail debate is the importance of being fair to all parts of the region. How could we build such a large regional initiative that essentially excluded Cambridge for decades? If we’re serious about building strong commercial cores, we need to include the downtowns of Cambridge.

If we treated each downtown core as a transit hub, we could create express routes that link the downtowns of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, using the expressway where appropriate. Those linkages could also be extended to more intercity travel, with easy access to buses and trains to Guelph and Toronto.

Those are just some ideas. After we put light rail transit behind us, those of us on all sides of the debate should put our energies toward more productive and positive ideas to improve transit and our community.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

LRT = chaos, says "No" side

LRT = chaos, says "No" side
570 News
October 21, 2010
link to article

Waterloo Region's plans for light rail transit are not without critics. As the region moved forward with the project, a group of business owners, professionals and everyday taxpayers formed into Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST).

The group's spokesperson, Ruth Haworth, calls the light rail plan a case of poor transit planning and poor city planning.

"The problem with this version of LRT is that it runs right through the busiest parts of our town but it doesn't stop very often," Haworth argues. "So there's one stop between downtown Kitchener and downtown Waterloo, for example."

Haworth also describes a scene of "traffic chaos" in uptown Waterloo, given the proposed route through the core. She uses the corner of Erb and Caroline as an example, saying railway crossings that will be used at the intersection will bring traffic in all directions to a complete standstill every three and a half minutes.
Haworth says planners have also put the cart before the horse, so to speak, when it comes to development. She says rather than lay down rail lines and expect development to come to the tracks, the region should develop commercial properties and add rail later to support them.

Haworth cites the new mega mall on Ira Needles as an example of poor planning. "(It's) out there off the transit grid. You (need to) think in advance and prepare in advance," Haworth insists. "I don't know why it is that we seem to have to have sprawl and city and regional councils can't do anything about it. That just doesn't seem right."

Price is another sore spot with T4ST, although Haworth is hesitant to use that as a rallying cry for fear the group's entire message will be lost among the dollar signs. That said, Haworth does not believe anyone in the region truly thinks the $790-million system is affordable. She points to a survey of municipal election candidates by way of support.

"T4ST just did a survey of all of the candidates for the upcoming municipal election and 95% of them said they would oppose it," Haworth asserts. "And that's because of the funding shortfall."

Haworth says T4ST is very supportive of improved transit in the region but she believes there are less expensive ways to go about it. Analyzing bus routes and perhaps even using smaller buses on less travelled routes so that no more "half empty" buses will be "rattling around our subdivisions" is one suggestion she makes.

But Haworth still bristles at the mention of light rail.

"I just know that if we throw all of our resources onto one route and it's a white elephant and it causes massive traffic disruptions, then that's not good."


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Evolution of Communication

The Social Network is a very good movie. The Social Network is an especially interesting movie in that everyone seems to have come away with a different take on the Zuckerberg character. Many see him as a heartless nerd, but I thought he came off very sympathetically. He was driven to create something great, and his success was due to a single-minded commitment to his vision.

That vision was world-changing. Prior to Facebook, the paradigm for online communicaton was email. Email was based on the old business memo. Zuckerberg saw a different way for the world to connect. The reason he was able to succeed so amazingly (unlike many other social network products that fizzled) seems to be an early decision he made to let the users of Facebook determine what it would be, and then to provide the very highest quality for those features.

Thanks to Facebook, the paradigm of communication has changed. Instead of issuing memos we communicate in social networks, with our picture next to our writing and a mixture of broadcast and address. Many children use Facebook as their primary form of online communication. Who knows where it will go next.

Facebook isn't the whole story, of course. There's Twitter and texting and other variations. When historians look back at this period, they will be able to chart the rapid evolution of communication in these still-early years of the wired world. What we do now is nothing like what we will do in ten years.

There is also an evolution in how software products get created. So many of the most successful companies are newly formed, youth-run companies because the staid old companies don't seem to be able to evolve. Successful business is moving towards a much more customer-driven model, which is what Zuckerberg created as an intuitive, naive 19 year old who hadn't been taught how to "properly" develop software. Old businesses try to move towards the new model by adding customer usabilty to their development process, but that's like putting a bandaid on a broken leg.

The fact that Zuckerberg's first social network was a university site to rate the hotness of girls is not a minor point. He developed something that he thought was cool and that he thought other people would find cool, and then he tossed it into the sea and let other people pick it up. He then swam beside them, altering it according to their use of it. You couldn't do this so easily with a product that has to be released, but part of the new business model is creating a product that is fluid and adaptive. It may be why cloud computing or something in that direction is the necessary evolution of software. Downloads and upgrades and new feature lists are all so cumbersome and annoying. In five years we may look back on them as dreadfully archaic, like typewriters.


Friday, October 15, 2010

T4ST Press Release

October 15, 2010

Most candidates in Waterloo Region disapprove of regional LRT plan

Buses favoured by a wide margin, says survey by Taxpayers for Sensible Transit

Local grassroots organization Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST) today released the results of a comprehensive candidate survey ahead of the October 25 municipal election in Waterloo Region. The results show massive disapproval for the regional government’s controversial $819 million light rail transit plan.

T4ST, which favours improved bus service over the region’s light rail transit plan, sent out 168 email transit surveys. This covered all urban and rural mayoral and regional chair candidates plus candidates for city, regional and township councils. The overall response rate was 66 percent. Excluding township council candidates, the response rate was above 80 percent.

Asked whether they supported the region’s current plan, 95 percent of the responding candidates said no. Only one candidate supported the necessary tax hike of approximately 9 percent to pay for light rail.

“These results are crystal clear,” said Ruth Haworth, spokesperson for T4ST. “Voters in Waterloo Region do not want to pay for light rail transit. And the candidates have heard this message.”

According to the survey, 89 percent of the candidates do not support permanent traffic disruptions on King Street or other roads to facilitate a permanent rail line. And asked which form of transit was most appropriate for Waterloo Region, buses were the overwhelmingly popular response: 62 said the existing iXpress system should be improved, 30 wanted a new system of rapid buses and 21 candidates said light rail is the best form of transit for our region.

Haworth said this means regional staff should immediately stop work on light rail plans and begin examining improvements to existing bus service or rapid buses. “Over 80 percent of candidates want better bus service,” says Haworth. “Buses make sense for Waterloo Region. It’s time the region recognized this and switched gears on transit.”

Haworth added, “Our reply rate was very high and we have responses from all candidates in most urban races. This means residents can use our site as a voting aid no matter where they stand on this issue.”

The survey provided a comment section and received many interesting suggestions regarding ways to improve or alter the existing transit system in Waterloo Region.

The complete survey with all candidate responses is available at the group’s website:

For more information, contact
Ruth Haworth
Taxpayers for Sensible Transit


Beware Oktoberfest

I was lured out to Oktoberfest events twice last week, once by free sausages
(yum) and once by free pancakes and sausages (alas, the line was too long). I had a good time at each event, but... there was the music. I enjoyed it at the time. I enjoyed watching the crowd bobbing up and down to polka time. I even enjoyed watching parents teach their kids the chicken dance.

But it's been over a week, and I still have the Pennsylvania Polka stuck in my head.

I made the mistake of emailing my brother about it, and he cruelly emailed back the lyrics.

Strike up the music the band has begun
The Pennsylvania Polka.
Pick out your partner and join in the fun
The Pennsylvania Polka.
It started in Scranton, it’s now No 1
It’s bound to entertain you
Everybody has a mania
To do the polka from Pennsylvania

I sing out of tune even in my head, and I really can't hit the notes on that last line.

I'm a little paranoid about ear worms because I once had Hail to the Chief stuck in my head for two years. That was a rough time. When the Pennsylvania Polka knocks around in my head I have tried displacing it by thinking of the scene where it's played in Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies, but that has just made it worse.

A cautionary tale.


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


Monday, October 11, 2010

Find Out How the Candidates Feel About LRT

The T4ST election survey asked candidates in Waterloo Region some questions about transit. We got fabulous results - over 100 responses, representing almost all of the candidates in Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. (Response rates were lighter in the townships, where it's not such a burning issue.)

The responses were really interesting. I expected the results to be overwhelmingly anti-LRT (and they are), but I didn't expect all the thoughtful, insightful comments - reflecting all sides of the issue. I learned a lot from them.

There have been other transit surveys sent to candidates in this election, but ours is by far the most comprehensive.

So check it out:

Update: Someone just sent me this link, showing that all the current regional councillors except Doug Craig voted in favor of LRT. ...just something to think about while reading the responses. (link)

Update: The pro-LRT group TriTag also did a comprehensive survey. It's more comment-based. Check it out: TriTag transit survey.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Oktoberfest is set to begin again, and with it our annual barrel race (Saturday, 10 am, Waterloo Public Square). This will be the first year we've had the barrel race since we lost our last barrels. The remaining ones were purely ceremonial, piled in a pyramid in front of the CIGI building (formerly the Seagram distillery) at Erb and Caroline. Last year City Hall said the pyramid was rotting and gave the barrels away. Now the spot is part of the new Balsillie School of International Affairs.

(A local theater group has started the Barrel Project to commemorate the barrel diaspora. "While the wooden slats and metal rings may be scattered all over the county, their memory remains..." I kid you not.)

All we have left of barrels is the name of the Barrel Yards development on Erb at Father David Bauer Drive. The Barrel Yards used to be the Canbar lands where whiskey barrels were made and stored. The land is soon to be a complex of apartments, office buildings, retail space and hotels... or at least it will be if reported water table issues can be resolved.

Canbar shut down in 1992, and I can clearly remember when barrels were part of the culture of Waterloo. When you drove down Erb you could see the barrels piled high.

The best part was that after Seagrams was done aging whiskey in them Canbar practically gave the barrels away. Cut in half, they were used in backyards all over town as planters.

If you got a fresh one it would still have whiskey soaked into the wood. When I was a grad student at UW, a popular party drink was called swish. We'd buy a barrel, add some water, let it sit a bit, swish it around, and voila - a large supply of half strength, nearly free, blecchy tasting whiskey.

My dad aged a batch of homemade peach wine in a Seagrams barrel once and brought the whole barrel out for a pig roast. The problem with the stuff was it was delicious and didn't taste nearly as lethal as it was. A large crowd of respectable people became completely blotto very rapidly. (I watched it all, completely sober, because that was my first day of work as a waitress at the Kent Hotel... once again, a story for another day.)

The distillery (and brewery) dominated Waterloo in other ways. All the time I was growing up in Waterloo, you could tell what day it was by the smell - and they were nice smells, or at least I thought so. Certain days of week we could smell the Seagrams distillery at Erb and Caroline, and other days we had the smell from the Labatt brewery (formerly Carling, and before that the Kuntz brewery) at King and William. Everyone had a different description of the smells: some days it was bread, molasses, oatmeal or Raisin Bran, and some days it was martinis.


Sunday, October 03, 2010

Travel Alert

The comments this weekend on Globe & Mail articles about the US State Department's latest travel alert are unanimous in claiming that it is a fraud. They opine that the government is warning Americans away from European capitals as a way to scare the public into voting for incumbents in the upcoming election and as a way to deflect public attention from more important matters, like the economy. Many express amusement that there will be less Americans in Europe creating queues at art galleries and so on.

Canada, the US, and other countries regularly issue travel alerts, and anyone who travels should get in the habit of checking them before buying tickets. They aren't a joke, they aren't political, and they carry repercussions in terms of whether you'll be bailed out if things go wrong. See travel advisories from the US, Canada and the UK.

The current travel alert for Europe does not warn people against going to Europe; it merely describes an ongoing threat and current concerns by European governments, and suggests that US citizens register with a US travel service. I wouldn't cancel a trip because of it, but it would cause me to keep my ears open for possible developments.

There are times when you can take advantage of non-existent but perceived threats. When Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, I immediately made plans for a European holiday. American tourists were terrified of terrorism in Europe that summer and stayed away in droves. I rented a car for three weeks and did a driving tour to French 3-star restaurants. I could walk in to establishments that normally required at least a year's advance booking, and they were grateful to see me. It was quite a trip - mired only by being doused with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. But that's another story.