Saturday, May 16, 2009

Light-Rail Transit

Our region* is proposing a Light-Rail Transit system.

Some people are strongly in favour of the move. LRT has a higher degree of ridership than buses, and it attracts investors. It's a way to lure buildings, residential and commercial, to the core and thereby decrease our urban sprawl. That sounds fantastic.

But others, like Peter Shawn Taylor, aren't convinced. There's the noise problem. And the cost to taxpayers. And the concern that driving will be more difficult (although I think that's a good thing). And Jeff Outhit pointed out in today's Record that the comparisons between LRT and the expressway are somewhat lacking.

My concern is that drivers won't stop driving. Waterloo Region is a car-friendly place. There are roundabouts being added everywhere to reduce traffic collisions (although they may increase cycling collisions), and there's free parking on many major street. It's hard to find a place to lock a bike, and the only bike lane I ever find useful is on one block of Caroline Street. As I walked across an intersection on a green light once, I was almost hit by a car turning left into me. I told the driver, "I have the right of way." She responded, "No. You. Don't." The car is king in K-W.

We can slow down car use by closing off streets, by charging for parking, by getting rid of parking on the streets to offer a dedicated lane for cyclists and buses, by adding more bike lanes with clearly marked lines. Even just adding safe and secure parking sites for bikes can decrease car use. None of these measures, even all of them together, don't cost as much as Rapid Transit.

People will have to live and work near a station to be willing to use LRT instead of drive their car. In a city like ours, nobody will drive to a station, park, then take the rail to work. Driving is just too convenient. It seems pretty certain that we'll be getting a GO Transit Bus that'll take us straight to the big city, but I wonder how many will drive to the LRT station to get to the GO bus, and how many will just drive straight to the GO bus station.

I do live and work near the core, but I walk almost everywhere. When I want to go to the outskirts of town, however, the iXpress bus gets me there quickly and conveniently. The LRT will practically duplicate this bus line. The problem with transit in this city isn't the north-south line, but how difficult it is to get from the suburbs to the east and west.** Those bus lines run infrequently and not always on time, and the timing of the buses has nothing to do with connecting to different lines. In fact it seems completely random.

I know the whole idea is that everyone will migrate to the core. That's a great theory, but our city is pretty packed downtown. It will mean, at least for some, choosing between giving up a house with a large yard in favour of an apartment condo. I'm not sure riding rapid transit is exciting enough for that. (And while I strongly agree with high-density in the core, it's a shame to see some lovely old houses and the old Ontario Table and Chairs being torn down to support our growth.)

I'd rather see an upgrade of our bus lines to allow for easy access to anywhere in the city than a very expensive Rapid Transit line taking over for one bus route. I think the real problem here is that the provincial and federal governments will kick in large amounts to fund LRT, but won't do the same to improve bus runs. Why not? Part of that may be, according to Jane Jacobs, that light-rail grants are "...a federal goody to extend to Bombardier, a Canadian multinational corporation that manufactures streetcars, with headquarters in Montreal, and that this benefit would be well received by Quebec voters, ever a pressing concern of the federal government..."

So really, we can't blame city counsellors for seeing the benefits of this option, for taking the money offered to our city. But we can blame the larger governmental bodies for refusing to help anywhere close to this much to improve bus lines already in place. Perhaps we can also blame our MPs for not having the tenacity and fire and persistence necessary to persuade governments to change this system.


*Do you wonder if the region got permission from Apple to start everything with "i"?

**Sort of. Our main street travels in all four directions.

1 comment:

psystenance said...

This is an old post that I just came across, and I've written a lot about the subject elsewhere. But I'll make a couple of points.

Driving isn't going anywhere any time soon, but congestion will steadily be going up and parking may get more expensive (especially if I have anything to say about it). An explicit attack on the car would result in an immense backlash, and especially if successful would require transit infrastructure investments to handle new transit users. However, you don't need to make driving be horrible to attract people to transit -- another line of attack is making transit more attractive for more people.

Light rail would travel along the already busy central transit corridor, and the bus system is indeed currently being redesigned so that it has frequent cross-town service (that connects with the LRT). Basically the line will take upon itself most of the travel along that corridor, versus having every last bus go to a downtown terminal; transferring to a train will be an easier sell than to the iXpress. And regional policy will soon be mandating that 40% of new development occur in the urban core and at transit nodes. The upshot is that all this grows and consolidates ridership along one corridor, at which point light rail is much cheaper to operate per rider than the buses we have now, and has lots of room to grow. (It also does not pollute the urban core, and is more comfortable -- proven fact! This matters for attracting people to transit voluntarily.)

The reason for the upper levels of government funding these kinds of projects but not more bus service is that they fund capital costs but not operating ones. Capital costs here are large, but they're for an equally large system that will last for many decades before needing any serious overhauls (unlike highways, say). The upper levels are willing to support such projects for the urban intensification aspect, so that development can reasonably funnel itself into core areas instead of sprawling. Buses can't really help there. (Even developers of new subdivisions talk about how green their development will be, because they will force bus routes to divert to their winding roads.)

The whole idea isn't to have everyone move to downtown Kitchener, though many more will live in the central transit corridor. Anyway, there's tons and tons of parking lots ripe for the redevelopment when it comes down to it.