Monday, February 14, 2011

The "New" Rapid Transit Proposal

Only a few weeks after regional council voted to reconsider the BRT option, the Region has released its "new" transit proposal: Rapid transit implementation options.

Is it new? No. The report provides a dizzying array of 11 options, nine of which are LRT and one of which is "status quo" (AKA inflated estimates of the costs of not improving transit). Some of the options, such as the one to run LRT to St Jacobs' farmer's market, seem to be included just to set up easy targets and divert opposition from the main goal - to push through the original LRT proposal.

The report also sets up dates for new public consultation. If I had any expectation that the consultation would be any more honest than last time, when the region spent a fortune disguising a PR campaign as public consultation, I would make an effort to publicize these. As it is, what's the point.

But that, of course, is just the goal of this latest salvo in the war on Waterloo Region to force LRT on us against our wishes: confuse the issues, obfuscate the issues, wear us down. So, with a tired and heavy heart, I'll repeat a few of the reasons that the vast majority of citizens are against this crazed plan to put a train down our main streets:

LRT is a flawed transit plan that will be a costly white elephant that will bleed resources from useful transit routes, will provide inconvenient service, will create congestion on the roads, and will cause unnecessary increases in taxes.

As Jane Jacobs argues in her book Dark Age Ahead, "fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceded by evidence of sufficient demand." As John Shortreed recently showed, the demand forecast by the Region is wildly overstated. We do not have the demand sufficient to justify a fixed rail route. (I would provide a link for the Shortreed info but The Record is no longer posting certain anti-LRT articles on, a devious tactic that should be stopped. I would be happy to discuss this with anyone interested in rectifying it.)

The report's claims that a BRT would quickly become overused are highly questionable. There are heavily used bus routes in Toronto that operate just fine with heavy use at rush hour. The report's overblown images of an endless line of bunched buses are just scare-mongering.

The LRT proposal is more about creating a flashy legacy project for departing politicians than it is about good city planning.

I am concerned that the ideology behind the LRT proposal is that the way to reduce car use is to artificially increase congestion by creating a route that disrupts traffic. That’s the only way I can think of to explain the route down King, the left turn across King at Erb Street, the disruption of intersections at Caroline-Erb and Caroline-William (in the latter case, the current map has the LRT running diagonally across the middle of the intersection).

In addition, the planned LRT would not be convenient. While the LRT will take away two lanes of traffic on our main arteries such as King Street between downtown and uptown, the stops are so infrequent that the area LRT serves will not be well-serviced. This type of infrequently stopping public transit is suitable for bringing people into downtown from the suburbs, but is not suitable for a transit line that is supposed to service the heart of the city.

If people find transit inconvenient they won’t take it, and then it will not reduce the need for roads at all.

The biggest convenience factors are frequency of arrival and total length of time of trips. Buses, which carry less people, run more frequently. Routes can be extended to require less transfers. And overall time on the iXpress route is similar between BRT and LRT. Meanwhile LRT, being an inflexible fixed route with large carriers, has less frequency and requires more transfers in the entire trip. It is much less convenient.

Buses can be short-turned (run in a loop over the busiest stops at rush hour). Buses can be moved between routes to suit demand. Buses can travel on different routes to avoid slowdowns when there are accidents or other disruptions on the road.

BRT could be an even cheaper option if the route was designated by painting diamonds on the road rather than building curbs around the BRT lanes. There could be a combination of the two techniques: buses could merge with regular traffic when going through Uptown Waterloo, for example (a proposal that was unanimously adopted by the Uptown Vision Committee).

Finally, the LRT route is overly favorable to the university of Waterloo. That helps the Region boost their ridership projections, but since university students essentially ride for free, it does little to help transit revenues. It does very little to meet the stated goals of the proposal, which is to lure commuters out of their cars and on to transit.



Mike said...

'White elephant' implies something that is too costly to maintain, so it makes a far better metaphor for car-dependency than public transit. LRT is costly, but the track need only be laid once. After that, operational costs are lower per passenger mile than buses.

I think your characterization of The Record is unfair. They recently updated the framework of their website, breaking a lot of old links. If anything, Jeff Outhit's continued employment as reporter and columnist of all things transportation suggest the bias runs the other way.

You are concerned about the effects of the system on traffic. Here I think may be the central issue at stake here: the end of the car as King of the Road. Not to say that cars don't have a place, but that they need to be brought into their proper place among walking, cycling, and public transit. As a cyclist, I recognize I'm going to occasionally be inconvenienced whenever the Iron Horse Trail crosses a street because priority is given to cars. I don't like it, but I'm a grownup and I deal with it. Likewise, it's not unfair that motorists might have to wait an extra minute or two for a train to pass. There is no need for motorists to become revanchist.

I think you're picking the wrong city to compare with for a successful bus system when you point to Toronto. Toronto already has a rapid transit system to take the load off buses, known as the subway. It's about 2-3 times more expensive to build than LRT. A better city for comparison is Ottawa, whose BRT system is a victim of its own success. As a frequent user of that system, I could have told you they were over-capacity a decade ago (the 'endless line of bunched buses' should scare us!). They're now having to retrofit in a light rail system (and at great expense, since they want to avoid disruption and go underground downtown) Let's avoid their mistakes and do it right the first time.

I'm not sure where the notion that trains will come less frequently is coming from. From the literature I read, the proposed LRT system will have as little as 7.5 minute headway. iXpress just now is only at a 15 minute headway, so LRT will carry more people more frequently than what we have now.

Finally, the comment about UW. I am currently a grad student, and we certainly do not ride for free! In fact, some students begrudge the fact that they are subsidizing the city's public transit. We do get a bus pass at about a quarter of the regular cost, but not everyone makes full use of it. 5000 students live in residence and have little need to commute to and from campus regularly. Though I've paid for it for several years now, I can probably count on my hands the number of times I've rode the bus (I'm a year-round cyclist, life's more fun that way) But it's worth it for me for the occasional convenience and for the sake of my colleagues who do rely on the system. For folks who drive to campus, it means less congestion around the university and less competition for parking, keeping prices down as well. If only the same attitude could carry over for public transit in the entire region.

Yappa said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

I have been hearing about the end of the era of the car since 1970. I believed it for a long time myself. I no longer do.

I don't think the Record is unfair, although you are forgetting that the Record balances Outhit with Pender, who is pro-LRT. But there are some funny things going on there: try searching for Peter Shawn Taylor on their site, and you'll see that only his non-LRT articles are posted (at least since last September). Also, there's an LRT tab on the Opinions page - click there and I don't think it's a balanced representation of what has been published. But I'm not complaining about the overall coverage. I think Outhit is a great reporter. The Record's editorials make it clear that the Record supports LRT; I think it publishes some anti-LRT articles because it knows that the majority of its readers are anti-LRT.

Re students, I bring them up for two reasons: one is that I don't think the rapid transit route should go through UW. If we follow the stated goals of the LRT, then we should be creating density nodes, and the emphasis on UW stops does not do that, while a route down King (for eg) would. Students, who have much-reduced limited cost passes (apologies for saying they were free), also have young legs and can transfer to the L/BRT. The other reason is that for this transit system to maintain even its current low level of funding from fares, we need to increase the number of fare-paying customers. Creating a route designed largely for UW students does not do that.

I find it troubling (and you may not subscribe to this, but many pro-LRT people are) that there's a notion that we should pay usage fees for roads. That's extremist, right-wing, Libertarian. Our system is to pay taxes to provide common amenities. Taxes should be progressive so that the more you make, the higher percentage you pay. Consumption taxes are regressive and tend to disproportionately hurt the poor. I have written more about this elsewhere, outside of the transit debate.

btw, I didn't own a car till I was 40: an aging population should be considered in these deliberations.

Mike said...

Thanks for responding, Ruth.

I agree that people are not easily persuaded to leave their cars. I'm doubtful, save some massive spike in oil prices, that habits will change without some form of government intervention. I'm not libertarian, nor do I think most LRT supporters are for pointing out the public subsidizing of roads. (Besides, they're asking to spend tax money. Does that sound very libertarian?) It seems to me to be more a calling out of the hypocrisy of pouring a sizeable share of the public purse into an economically, socially, and environmentally expensive transportation system (the automobile) but crying foul when effort is made to spread some of that money towards alternative forms of transportation. It's not that cars are out, but that cars need to learn to share.

The UW issue is an interesting one. What I would say is that you already have a high-density area that contributes a reasonable share of the cost of transit in the region. That would suggest to me is that UW both deserves a share as a contributor and would make good use of the system. I understand the King Street issue, though that idea does seem to show up in some of the region's proposed maps (though I haven't figured out if this was an alternative or a proposed parallel route). I would note that the LRT system as proposed would service both RIM (which appears to have reached its parking capacity) and the R&T park, so you would have coverage of workplace destinations as well as just housing. If you can convince high-tech workers to adopt public transit, you will achieve the desired rise in fare-payers. Perhaps RIM and others might even pay for employee passes to cut back on maintaining their lots.

With respect to an ageing population, I would say it's all the more incentive to give them workable alternatives to car dependency. The laws that keep people who are no longer capable of perceiving or reacting well enough to safely drive from having a license are sadly insufficient. Even if they were though, we need to accomodate these folks with a dignified way to get around.

Yappa said...

Hi again,

I agree with a lot of what you say, but to pick a few nits... :)

There is quite a long time for most people between when they can no longer carry home their groceries and when they're unfit to drive. Probably 20-30 years on average. Seniors rely on cars.

My concern about density nodes is that the route through Waterloo does virtually nothing to halt sprawl or create more density. Uptown is booming all on its own, and needs no help from the LRT (in fact, I believe the LRT jeopardizes the success of Uptown because it will create such congestion.) That's also true of the R+T Park - it is booming, and replacing the iXpress stop conveniently located in the middle of the park with an LRT station in the north-east corner is not going to improve transit for workers there.

I lived for years in Toronto, and it was great to not have to have a car. Here in K-W we have a crappy bus system and terrible planning that makes a car almost necessary. We should be fixing those things first.

The other thing we have is a population that mostly wants to live in the suburbs and drive. Most of the people who disagree with them are young people, and when they have kids most of them get a minivan and move to a suburb too. We live in a democracy after all...

But I agree we need to do smart things like corporate transit passes, better buses, better placement of shops and offices... more carrot, less stick.

Mike said...

Going to add a bit more... I read your post on Jane Jacobs. Part of that quote includes: "In the past, designers of transit systems had usually chosen to locate rail routes by observing which bus routes were most heavily used, a pragmatic method that worked well in Toronto and elsewhere. After it was apparently lost to transit engineers' memories in the 1960's, Toronto and a number of other cities, among them Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, tried rail routes justified by other goals and these have been unable to pull their weights, literally or figuratively."

So Jane Jacobs seems to suggest Toronto's fixed system works well because they placed it along heavily used lines. We're putting LRT where our heaviest-used bus line, the iXpress, currently runs.

So the next point is that Prof. Shortreed doesn't think the ridership will materialize along that line. I know Shortreed's opinion and his credentials, but I haven't seen the evidence that his projections have undergone the scrutiny of peer-review like the MAE's ridership study did. If they have, please correct me.

Yappa said...

Well that's the point though: it may be the heaviest route we have, but its actual and projected ridership is insufficient to support an LRT. An LRT is suitable for bringing commuters in to a core from the suburbs, when the core is of sufficient size - like to GO train in Toronto. For moving people around town, more frequent stops are appropriate.

As to the Region's numbers, John has criticized them for not being transparent. He has tried to recreate them and come up with much lower ridership. He thinks they made a mistake on a number of assumptions, such as double-counting rides when someone uses a transfer. He's not the only one: Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig hired a consultant who examined the numbers and concluded that they were bogus.

Mike said...

Thanks again for responding. I have a few questions. Do you know where I can read this study that Delcan performed? I'm wondering how it stacks up against the expert panel review that stated the MAE was a valid and conservative assessment.

I think a lot of this is a generational issue. This unfortunately often breeds negative stereotypes of cranky change-averse seniors and dreamy impractical youngsters, but I trust we can move beyond petty caricatures. You've stated we need to think of seniors. I agree, we do, but I also believe if we're going to invest in any transportation systems (whether better roads, BRT, LRT, etc.) that will last for 50 years or more, we must consider how the emerging generation will want to live.

Young people today are more likely to have a cellphone than a driver's license. You suggest that as these young people get older, they'll want to settle back into the suburbs. I'm less certain. Some will, of course. But I think there will be a growing shift towards staying in the core. For better or for worse, technology, connectedness, values, and meaning are changing at ever-increasing pace; it can no longer be easily assumed that this generation will revert to the lifestyle of the previous one, if it ever could be said of any generation. (For instance, my grandmother couldn't understand how I wouldn't want to buy myself a car like my father did at my age, I couldn't understand why I'd want one.) The next generation will reduce car use if we give them the infrastructure to allow it.

Yappa said...

I'll try and track down that report and post it. I haven't read it myself and I should.

Re age - I didn't own a car till I was 40. But now I do. The majority of life is between the age of dewy-eyed youth and cranky oldster.

I work in the software industry, so I work with a lot of coop students. I don't see a switch away from the car - in fact (at the risk of sounding like a crotchety oldster), in my youth my peers were much more environmentally aware, activist and generally lefty than today's youth.

Just because people love their cars does not mean that they'll get to keep them, though. With China and India surging economically and demand for oil getting ever higher, we could for the first time since the 70s run into serious oil shortages. I don't know how likely that is, but it's possible.

I agree that we need a less car-dependent city, and Waterloo is horribly car-dependent. The problem with LRT is that it is so poorly planned that it will not help in improving our transit or densifying our city - in fact, its expense is such that it will drain resources from the rest of our transit system and create worse transit.

When people complain about taxes in Waterloo, it's not just the usual anti-tax griping. Property taxes here are already higher than the norm. We can't just keep piling on more increases. I'm not speaking for myself, but for people (esepcially on a fixed income) who are living on the margins.

I suppose I should have written another post instead of going on and on here... :)

Mike said...

Ruth, I managed to get someone to point me to the report. I think Cambridge commissioning the report is kind of like buying a home, but hiring a building inspector first. You're not going to feel you've got your money's worth for the inspection until they've found some problem, so they inevitably will.

The report says "Ridership model, methodology and structure appear reasonable." The main issues it seems to call into question are the choice of a 5-minute longer trip ridership bias for LRT over BRT, stating that the bias with full BRT is closer to 2-3 minutes, and the choice of headway times when modelling BRT. While it's fair to question how that might skew the results, the review doesn't attempt to quantify the difference this would make. Regardless, such an assertion would suggest that BRT ridership estimates are too low, not that LRT estimates are too high. (In which case, concerns over BRT reaching capacity in 15 years are valid.)

The points of concern it raises for LRT's ridership estimates deal primarily with sensitivity analysis. First, it notes a high sensitivity to headways for LRT. This doesn't mean the LRT ridership model is poor, (in fact, I think they are pulling sensitivity numbers from the model) but that it the system to run frequently in order to succeed. The second point is that sensitivity analysis of land use and demand projections was inadequate. That seems like a fair criticism, such analysis should be done, but again, Cambridge's review does not give numbers for the projected likelihood of achieving land-use targets or sensitivity of ridership to those factors, so it's hard to call this one either way.

I'm not sure LRT will drain resources, rather, it will actually help in the long run. Currently, fares only cover about 1/3 of the cost of transit, putting the cost per trip to the region somewhere in the range of $5.00-7.50. For the sake of argument at the moment, let's take financial numbers from the Region's report. It looks like operational costs will be around $0.60 per passenger for both BRT and LRT in 2031. If we look at the regional share of the capital costs over 15 years, the Region's favoured plan is $1.46/passenger, assuming their ridership models are correct. That's a total of $2.06/passenger cost to the region, or $5.31 if you include higher levels of government. But, an RT system is a long-term investment, so it might be better to do a 30-year look at the numbers. There, the regional share is $1.11, total is $2.22.

Of course, some will take issue with the ridership projections. Fine. Let's make an unrealistically low assumption of absolutely no ridership growth, and the initial LRT per-passenger operating cost remains at the 2016 rate of $1.83. For the 15-year analysis, total regional cost is still only $3.94/passenger, total overal cost is $8.65/passenger. Over a 30-year span, the regional cost is $2.92/passenger, total government cost is $5.35/passenger.

We can probably agree that ridership will probably fall somewhere between no-growth and the Region's projections, even if we can't agree on exact numbers. Than means (especially if we take the long view) that the cost-per-passenger on RT will be less than what it costs to take the bus today.

Now, to be fair, I haven't factored in the cost of passengers transferring to and from buses, so for some trips, the price may be a little higher. I don't have data to say what those numbers will be. But given the discrepancy between current costs and possible RT-usage costs, I still think RT comes out on top.

Yappa said...

Hi again,

I'm not dodging your last comment. I need to do some research before I respond. You raise some excellent points - I haven't looked into the numbers enough and want to do that now.


Mike said...

No worries. I realize that I've cited the Region's report but haven't shown my math with their numbers. I've posted the spreadsheet I'm working from here: "L3" is the Conestoga-Fairway LRT option, which I've made bold and shown for both the projected and the no-growth cases. You can tweak the annual ridership growth rates (For instance, you might want to consider the assumption that ridership merely keeps pace with overall projected population growth - that's 1.63%, compared to the projected 4.73% annual growth that's estimated from drawing more people to the core with better transit.)

Parts of my model I wish were better include growth rates beyond the next 15 years, further operational cost savings from adding more cars to trains, and what will happen when buses reach capacity. (Should I model ridership plateauing, or add the capital costs of upgrading to LRT after 20 years?) Feel free to offer suggestions as to how to improve it.

One thing I've already noticed is that the operational costs I pulled from the Region's report are net of anticipated farebox revenues. So, $3-5 is probably a better benchmark than $5-7.50 when considering cost/passenger. Still, I think the numbers favour some form of RT.

EdtheTed said...

I"m a high tech worker and I use the iExpress a fair amount (when I"m in town and go into the office). I think I'd like the LRT because it would be a lot quieter and a more pleasant ride. I've ridden the iExpress for the past couple of weeks almost every day and I'm getting kind of tired of the noise and jerky ride. I'm also tired of it being filled with students so it's hard to get a seat. I like the 15 minute walk I get going to its Grand River Hospital stop on King. I don't think I'd mind that its stop would be a bit further away from work at the research park end because that would give me a 12 minute walk. I do enjoy the 45 minutes of walking I get in per day when taking the bus.

I have to look at the plans a bit more but I don't think there would be a big problem with congestion in "Uptown" Waterloo. There is the Bauer lofts and much more development that would benefit from the LRT. You would lose the current street parking, which I'd miss, but that would help speed up traffic. Instead of two tiny lanes with parking cars interrupting, you'd get one decent sized lane with through traffic. And I don't use King street to commute anyway. I only use it to go to shop or for an event in Waterloo.

So it would be convenient for me. I agree that it probably won't make many people give up their cars but the current system is helping our household to not have to by a second car, and the LRT would improve that.