Sunday, September 19, 2010

Another Look at LRT

I'm still surprised by how many people I know who want light-rail transit in the city.  I'm not yet convinced.  And after talking to Jan d'Ailly on my front porch yesterday, I'm all the more solidly opposed.  He told me that the LRT will actually be slower, from end to end, than the iExpress bus by 2 minutes.  So, it's expensive, it'll make a mess, it still won't connect to anyone who lives or works far from the core, and it's slower.

Many people I know who love the idea seem to follow this line by John Shortreed who suggests, "LRT in the last 20 years has become a fashion statement."  They think most people don't flock to buses because of a stigma, because they're yucky.  But they will suddenly ditch their cars for shiny new LRT.  I'm not convinced this attitude represents the majority of Waterloo Region citizens.  Well, mainly because I take the bus from time to time, and that attitude sort of implies that it's kind of a loser thing to do to sink so low as to take a bus.  Funny, I don't feel like a loser taking the bus.  And other people on the bus don't seem so bad either.  And that's a pretty costly trend we're jumping on.  

Shortreed's concern with LRT is that there's just not enough downtown employment to justify the LRT.  That's been my point all along.  Who's going to drive from Beechwood to the LRT station, take the transit to the other end (North-South only) of town, then need a cab or bus to get to work from the station there.  People in this city don't primarily live and work in the core, and there isn't room at the core to re-build enough to entirely change that fact.  Some people are concerned that this city will be huge soon, and how will we move all those people.  But most of those people will still be too far from the core to make LRT their primary transportation.  It's a wide city that needs an interconnected series of buses that all run smoothly together.  We need to raise the status of buses, make them work better, not write them off.

Environmentally, old is almost always better than new.  Sticking with an old gas lawnmower with many years of life in it uses fewer resources in the grand scheme of things than landfilling it for a new electric one.  You could, however, sell it to someone in need in favour of a push mower.  That would be even better.   The LRT demands huge resources to build, that I don't expect will be offset by the tiny bit saved every year by a more efficient engine.   

If the goal is to get rid of cars, then we have to make the city less car-friendy.   It costs nothing to make a dedicated lane on the outside lanes of King Street so only buses and bikes can drive there.  It will make driving down King Street a pain, but that's the whole idea.  The iExpress will be even faster, and biking will be safer.  And if we really want to act like a big city, we need to ditch the free parking mentality of our region.  Everyone expects to park for free on the streets and in the malls.  We don't want to hurt the small businesses near the core, however, so we have to make sure the parking costs are the same or more at the big malls.  If it cost me $10 to park at Conestoga Mall, then taking my kids on the bus or on bikes suddenly looks like a much better idea.

Unfortunately, I don't think decreasing car use is the actual goal however.  There was an article in yesterday's Record that suggests the whole point of the LRT has little to do with moving people; it's all about attracting more people, to "build an urban form."  We all want growth, right?  But we can't keep growing linearly in a finite system with limits to our resources - no matter how many jobs will be created, it's not a system that can keep working.  We need to give up the growth model we've all been enamoured with for the past few centuries and develop a usable sustainable model that keeps population stable instead of ever-increasing, and allows for good living conditions for all instead of always hoping for new and better stuff.

End of rant.  

3 comments: said...

First, a link to my recent blog post about LRT and column from last month.

LRT has more stops than the iXpress, and it would still be faster than today's iXpress. During rush hour the iXpress posted schedule is already a best guess, and increasing traffic will be slowing down the iXpress significantly. The modelling shows the LRT taking 39 minutes from end to end, and the iXpress doing that at 51 minutes in 2014 (projected opening day). Currently the iXpress is scheduled for 43-45 minutes from Conestoga to Fairview.

Cities that have built LRT have successfully been able to attract many regular riders who are not dependent on transit. Being able to do this with high-quality transit is necessary if we are to change travel behaviour. This can and should be done with frequent express buses, but trains further improve the experience for many and attract more riders.

Shortreed's focus on downtowns misses the point. The iXpress / LRT is not a suburb to downtown line, it's a line that hits a whole bunch of major points, campuses, and downtowns. This corridor still has plenty of space (parking lots!), and is provincially mandated to be the site of infill growth (both residential and employment) - instead of directing all of the growth to the outskirts. It's seeing plenty of development right now (some likely helped by the LRT), and the iXpress and 7 are very popular bus routes -- far more so than any suburb to downtown route we have.

The Region has no ability to prevent growth, and is in fact provincially mandated to plan for a population of 729,000 in 2031. Instead of putting all of them on greenfields, it's much better for the environment and for taxpayers to direct growth to the cores. This isn't about creating growth, but about directing it to a corridor that can handle the transportation demand sustainably.

A dedicated lane for buses is a very good thing, but buses alone will not be able to meet demand for travel along that main corridor for very long. If we don't build the necessary infrastructure now, we'll reach the limit of buses and cars in the core within a decade (or not much after that if we go with "BRT"). That's a perfect recipe for growth moving further out, for gridlock, and a really expensive transit system due to high labour costs.

From where I stand, Waterloo Region is doing very good planning for the future, with a new Transportation Master Plan that focuses on transit over more roads (and will work on reducing parking), a growth management strategy with hard limits on sprawl, and a long-term perspective.

Marie said...

Jan had seen stats that suggest it would be slower. We might not have the ability to prevent growth, but I question the universal strategy of trying to create more growth and attract more people. It's an old mindset that has to stop somewhere. When is enough? It's one thing if people want to live here and work and live downtown, it's another thing if we want to try to convince people to move here, attracting them with the LRT.

BTW - all comments are ending up in my spam box - I'm trying to fix that, but be patient if your comment doesn't show up right away. said...

Whatever stats Jan d'Ailly claims to have seen are wrong if they claim that the projected speed is slower than the iXpress. This piece of misinformation is likely sourced from Peter Shawn Taylor, who appears interested in facts only to the extent they support his ideology.

I would expect that LRT would indeed attract some growth to this Region and away from other ones. But honestly, if we're getting more transit-oriented growth here, it's likely preventing sprawl elsewhere. It does not seem likely that LRT would cause people to have more children, though it could certainly make people healthier (walking more) and would decrease the risk of fatalities due to cars.

However -- none of this is in the planning assumptions for LRT. All of the planning is based on a fixed growth projection of accommodating 729,000 people in the Region of Waterloo by 2031, which is imposed from above by Ontario's Places to Grow Act. The projection is consistent with what the Region has seen in recent years. Essentially the primary justification for light rail and all the various policies is that they mitigate the effects of a fixed, large amount of expected growth. With the urban boundary in the new Regional Official Plan, they really are serious about curbing sprawl.