Reflecting On 2013 and the LRT

Last night I left the office and jumped in my car. It was absolutely freezing, almost 20 degrees below. I started to drive home, with snow blowing across the roads and everyone going slow. But my car warmed up, and in 10 minutes I was home.

On the way home it got me thinking. What if it was 2018, and I had decided to take the LRT to work instead? I would have had to walk 15 minutes to the station, wait outside for 5 minutes for the next train, and then take the train for 10 minutes to where I live. A three times longer commute with 20 minutes spent in a blizzard. And as I turned into my driveway, I said to myself: is this really the future we are excited for?

6 months ago I had a pretty visceral reaction to the LRT, going before council and on radio shows to speak out against it. Since then I have had time to reflect: why do I feel so strongly? What is it about the LRT that makes me so upset?

The snow storm made it clear. That to me, the LRT represented an admission that our future was going to be worse than our present. That one day instead of taking a warm, 10 minute car ride through traffic-less streets, I would have to fight my way through a blizzard for 15 minutes, wait outside in the cold for 5 minutes, and then finally be able to get on the train.

And it wouldn’t just be snow. Hot days, cold days, snowy days, rainy days.  All those days where I would have to get to the station, reminiscing the whole way about the days where I could commute in comfort in one third the time.

And yet, I understood. Most people think Waterloo is about to grow. I actually think it is about to explode.  Tech is increasingly becoming the most dominant part of the global economy, and as a result tech talent is becoming the most precious and rare resource in the world. And through some incredible stroke of genius, the UW co-op program, by forcing students to take 6 four month co-op terms before they graduate, has literally created the best source of tech talent in the world. And step by step, the world is noticing. Google opens an office. Square opens an office. Motorola opens an office. Why? Because when you discover the best diamond mine in the world is in some small city in Canada, you want to open shop right beside it to make sure you get first look at every stone that comes out of it.

As a result, I think the region’s growth will only accelerate. I have experienced exponential growth at Kik, and it is a wild thing. Every time you look at the numbers it makes the numbers from 6 months ago seem like a joke. You can’t believe they were so small. And yet, 6 months later, you will look back and feel the exact same way. And so all you can do is try your best to prepare.

This is why I understand. The LRT is simply Waterloo trying to do its best to prepare. Because one day traffic will be a mess. We will need transit. Buses won’t work. Subways will be too expensive. So the only remaining option is to get trains. And we have to start sometime, so we might as well start now.

And honestly, that reasoning does make a lot of sense. It is our only option. But the part that disappoints me is that it commits us to a world where our commute takes 3 times as long and is a heck of a lot more uncomfortable than it is today. Where our future is so much worse than our present.

So what do we do? To me there is only one possible solution where our future can actually be better than our present as Waterloo grows: walking. If I could live, work, and play all within walking distance, and if that walk could be completely outdoor in the summer and completely indoor in the winter, then our future would be better than our present. We wouldn’t have to battle traffic in our cars, or wait in the cold for the train. We would simply walk. Walk to work. Walk to the grocery store. Walk to the restaurant, outside in the summer. Inside in the winter.

This is what I and others have been working on for the last 6 months. To design and build a development that allows live, work, and play all within walking distance. Outside in the summer. Inside in the winter. A walkable Waterloo.

We hope to share more soon.

Could the LRT Cause a (Good for Us) Real Estate Bubble in Waterloo?

This all started just over a month ago, as I posted a petition, spoke before council, and filed a freedom of information request. And it has been a bit of a crazy ride since. But through this process I have spoken to an incredible number of people, and learned an incredible number of things.

One great conversation I had was with Darshpreet, who is leading the Rapid Transit/ LRT project with his team (and is also a very cool guy). The result was an interesting way to think of the project.

My argument has always been that people will only take the LRT when it becomes faster than the car, which is widely agreed to by experts (see earlier post here for some quotes: But the argument has been that even though that is a long way off, ONE DAY traffic will get so bad in Waterloo that that the LRT will become faster, and finally make sense. And when that day arrives, we will look back and say thank goodness we were so smart and put in the LRT all those years ago.

Now, in many ways this did make sense. But it was also depressing. That living in our city in the future will be worse than it was in the past. That driving will have gotten so miserable that we will all have given in and started to take the LRT. Surely this couldn’t be the only way.

But there was another way. A way that is better. And that was walking. If cars were free, and gas were free, and insurance were free, and you were the only one ever to be on the roads, you would never take the LRT. But you might still walk. If it was close enough. And if the weather was nice. Therefore, the question became, how do you design a city for walking? To create a future that was better than the past?

This is where the LRT started to scare me. That it wouldn’t concentrate development, as some said it was promised to do, but instead would spread it out, trying to build 16 downtowns all at once. And that if the amount of resources (dollars for development) that were coming into Waterloo was fixed, by spreading out the resources across all the stations it would take 16 times as long to build 16 great neighoburhoods as it would to build just one. And that was also depressing.

But, as I talked with Darshpreet, I (we?) realized that there was another way to look at it. That if everyone was rational, then yes, all the resources would be spread out and getting one great neighbourhood would be delayed. But what if the LRT could cause people to become irrational? Let me try to explain.

One day, 10 years from now, when you Google “Waterloo” that pin will have to drop somewhere. Yes, right now we have a “corridor”, but in my opinion that is only temporary. You can even see it today, as development starts to cluster/compete around downtown kitchener, uptown waterloo, and the universities, among other places. And eventually one of these places is going to “win” as the downtown of our region, the central place everyone wants to live. And with it will come a big monetary reward.

You could argue that all of these clusters will simply become neighbourhoods all tied together, and to some degree that will be true, but the downtown neighbourhood will be worth at least 10 times more than any other, same as in any other big city (yes, Toronto has lots of neighoburhoods, but the real estate downtown is worth 10 times more than anywhere else).

Right now, it is unclear where that downtown will be. Unclear which will “win”. And so we are in what is starting to look like a very lucrative, high stakes race.

This is where the LRT is actually pretty smart. It will tempt investors to become irrational. It will help create a real estate “bubble” in Waterloo. Where each station becomes like a potential team in the NHL, competing to become the cup. Some stations won’t be able to compete (like Conestoga say), but many will. And whoever eventually wins will have a huge windfall, as the rest of region orients themselves around it.

Right now I would say downtown Kitchener is “winning”, but that is only because of decisions made a couple of years ago (Kaufmann, Tannery, Pharmacy), so there is still plenty of time for other teams to enter and catch up. Perhaps this is why the uptown mall was just sold in the largest KW real estate deal ever. Another team is being entered, and they will compete to win.

So when viewed from a rational perspective, yes, spreading out resources over 16 stations will certainly make it take longer to get to one great neighbourhood. But the LRT just might tempt people to become irrational, to compete, as this is a prize incredibly worth winning, in which case it just might get us there sooner.

Interesting to think about. What do you think?



Seeking Out Experts: Jeff Speck and Walkable City

On this blog I have frequently been attacked for not being an expert, which is fair – yes, there seem to be few flaws in your logic, but how can we know what we don’t know? We aren’t experts. So I asked around for all the best books on cities (I had read a couple years ago, such as Walking Home, but they were all so so). One of the recommendations was Walkable City, which I just finished last night. It was amazing.


Walkable City is a book by Jeff Speck, who is widely regarded as one of the leading thinkers and practitioners on this subject. This was also the most highly recommended book I received, and has received all 5 star ratings on Amazon. You can find it here:


Long story short, it was an absolutely incredible book. Now to be fair I was reading it with a bias. I already knew the answers I wanted to learn. But I was surprised by just how aligned the book was. Below are some of my choice parts.


On trains:


This is the part of the story that the train boosters don’t want you to hear: investment in transit may be investments in mobility or investments in real estate, but they are not investments in reduced traffic. The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce roads or increase the cost of using them, and that is a bitter pill that few pro-transit cities are ready to swallow. … Why take the train when you can drive there just as quickly and park for a dollar an hour?


On buses, and how we should think about transit:


Or more to the point, how do you create a transit-and-walking culture in a place where driving is so easy? It may not be possible. In some of these locations, the bus is destined to be to remain the “loser cruiser”, the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, poor, and infirm. … If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualised as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. … The system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving.


On building a single dense node:


[City officials] are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive. By trying to be universally excellent, most cities end up universally mediocre. Walkability is likely only in those places where all the best of what a city has to offer is focused in one area. Concentration, not dispersion, is the elixir of urbanity.


It was an extremely powerful book, and I can see why it is considered one of the greats. I hope some of you will read it. But either way, here is one expert that seems to agree.

Why the Moral High Ground Makes Opposing the LRT Hard

If somebody came here to read this site, they might think based on the comments that I am the only one opposing the LRT. And yet when I go out into the world I am always quietly approached with the opposite, with people saying how thankful they are that someone is speaking up. Why the disconnect?

It was only in a recent debate in the comments that it finally clicked: anyone pro LRT has the moral high ground. Of course we should drive less. Of course we should take transit. Of course we shouldn’t pave over our beautiful earth. Over course we shouldn’t pollute the air we breathe. Of course we should stop sprawl.

And so it is easy to attack, and hard to defend. Ted, can’t you see how wrong you are? Don’t you love the planet too? But no matter how warm and fuzzy the LRT makes us feel, or how proud we think we will be to look at it and say look how forward thinking we are, it won’t make one ounce of difference if nobody takes it. That is why I am opposing the LRT.

Driving in Waterloo is fast. There is almost never traffic, and parking is almost always free. This is one of the things I love about Waterloo: it is a city that never makes you wait, that never asks you to waste your time.

But one day as Waterloo grows this will all change. Traffic will build and parking expenses will grow. But at that point, our city as a technology hub is already done. We will be just like every other big city, except we’ll have all of the disadvantages but more (same congestion, worse transit) and some of advantages but less (less restaurants, less culture, less parks, less everything). Why would anyone choose to live here?

I believe in Waterloo because I believe in UW. I believe that co-op at UW has created the smartest, most ambitious, most experienced technology new grads in the world. That nobody can touch a technical grad from UW. Not someone from MIT, or someone from Stanford. But if our city becomes just like every other city but less, we will lose them all.

If we want to build world class companies here then we need a world class city. The way to do that is not to put in a trolley and say ha, look what we built! The world will simply laugh. Instead, we need to do something different. We need to be bold. We need to accept that the world is changing, and that the rules are changing. We need to be like UW, offering education but with co-op. Or like RIM, offering a PDA but with wireless email. Because otherwise we will become just like everyone else but less.

Actually, This Train Hasn’t Left the Station

Readers of this blog will now know I have two thoughts on the LRT:

1. That it is a solution that only works once driving gets much slower and parking gets much more expensive. Everybody I have talked to behind the LRT eventually agrees, but assures me that when that day comes 5, 10, or 20 years from now, that I will be thankful we put in the LRT all those years ago. If we continue on our current growth path and do nothing, then I agree, but to me spending all this money so we can then sit back and wait for our miserable and congested future to appear doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

2. That to get people out of their cars TODAY we need to concentrate development around a single node so that we can live, work, and play all within walking distance. This way we can keep the roads fast as we grow while also improving the quality of life. The key question is “how would you do this without government intervention?” I actually think there is a way, and that Waterloo is perhaps the only city in the world in a position to pull it off, but I will wait to share more.

But the key thing I have learned is that we have time. I had an hour meeting last week with Mike Murray, Waterloo Region’s Chief Administration Officer, where I asked what the risk was that budget overruns or reduced ridership could bankrupt our region. His simple answer was “we don’t know, because we haven’t gotten the DBFOM proposals in yet”. In fact, if those proposals come in too high, he said we will simply have to cancel the project, and that the trains will be returned at minimal or no cost. He was confident that the proposals would come in on budget, but it’s like saying you’ve already bought a house before even knowing what the final price will be.

So we have time. Time to come up with a better solution. One which won’t require us to sit by and wait for a congested and miserable future to appear, but one which will keep our roads free while also improving the quality of life in Waterloo. For anyone that loves this city, seems like a challenge worth taking on.

Just Because Everyone Else Is Building LRTs, Doesn’t Mean We Should Too

Waterloo is becoming a big city, and every big city needs transit, so why not just put it in now? This is the one and only credible argument I have heard for putting in the LRT. That even though driving will continue to be faster for many years to come, and therefore ridership will initially be low, that one day, ONE DAY, driving will be slow enough for the LRT to start to make sense. And when that day comes, ten or even twenty years from now, we’ll all look back and say thank goodness we put in that LRT so many years ago.

Logically, this actually makes a lot of sense to me. That we have this unsolvable problem before us, so let’s just do what everyone else does and put in some transit, and then sit back and wait for our congested and miserable future to appear.

But Waterloo, I think we can do better. Cities are transitioning to the post car era. An era where the world is getting more crowded, and roads are getting too expensive to expand and maintain. The simple solution would be to look around and say what did everyone else do? Buses suck, and we can’t afford subways, so the only option left is to put in trains.

But where would our city be if UW took that approach, building just another university without co-op? Or if RIM did, building just another PDA without wireless email? Quite simply, our city wouldn’t exist.

The world is changing, and we have the brand, momentum, and space to go back to fundamentals and design our city almost completely from scratch. A city that doesn’t ask you to choose between stop and go traffic and crowded trains, but a city designed from the ground up to make it most convenient to walk. A city designed to give you the freedom and comfort of a car, without the cost and congestion.

This is our opportunity. To go back to the root problem. To envision something unique, and then to build something bold. To design a city from the ground up for the post car era. Because otherwise I worry we could fall from our current path to greatness, and become just another mediocre city like all the rest.


Weekend Reading Part 2

I finished reading the rest of the Case Study this evening. Here are two other good quotes:


Citing research on rail estimates carried out by the US Department of Transportation, the
authors observe that “for virtually every [rail transport] project the divergence between
forecast and actual ridership was wider than the entire range of the critical decision
variables. Actual ridership was 28 to 85 percent [average 65 percent] lower than forecast
ridership, meaning that forecasts overshot actual development by 38 to 578 percent
[average 257 percent].75 The authors conclude that the accuracy (or rather the degree of
inaccuracy) of demand forecasting is a major source of uncertainty and risk in the
appraisal of major projects.


As the new mayor prepares to hand over Ottawa’s transit planning task to community
volunteers in the new transit task force, it is difficult not to agree with Denley’s verdict
…our highly paid experts and elected councillors have made a terrible mess
of it. They poured millions of dollars and untold thousands of hours of staff
time into a north-south rail plan that the public ultimately did not endorse.
They’ve also spiked all the studies of the east-west rail plans. In truth, they
have no plan, except a plan to spend.


Has anyone else read it?

Weekend Reading – Ottawa LRT Case Study

Hi All,

One last post before I head out. Someone sent me a case study on the Ottawa LRT. I am only on page 17, but so far it is an interesting read. You can find it here:

Ottawa had problems that certainly we won’t, but there were also some similarities. The one that stood out most so far was the section called “Build It and They Will Come?” on page 15. Here it is (emphasis mine):

Despite LRT’s promotion by the city bureaucrats as ‘an ideal and affordable solution for comfortably transporting high volumes of people into downtown cores,’ late in the debate after the contract with Siemens was signed, councillors came to realize that the ‘net increase’ in ridership provided by the LRT was in fact minimal. One report estimated this figure to be as low as 1,500 as opposed to the 40,000 figure often used to justify the project. Rather than a massive increase of new riders who would be attracted to the ‘fast, smooth, quiet and comfortable ride’ offered by electric LRT, the proposed northsouth line would mainly siphon existing commuters who were already using express buses. When doubts began to appear as to the ‘cost-benefit’ of the north-south LRT, support for the project quickly faded.

The rationale for expanding Ottawa’s transit modality to include north-south LRT is based in large part on the city’s forecast of a population explosion over the next decade, particularly in suburban areas. While the city projects an increase of 180,000 in three suburban areas by 2021, other forecasts put the increase at closer to 30,000. The city’s planning director informed councillors that his staff did not have sufficient time to present councillors with updated numbers before transit decisions were made. As Denley points out, “In other words, councillors are expected to make decisions in response to ridership demand that simply doesn’t exist.”

By failing to provide convincing arguments both in terms of added benefits that LRT would bring in terms of improving levels of service for transit (frequency and reliability of service and reductions in commute times), attracting new riders and reducing road congestion, the north-south LRT became a project premised on faulty data and unrealistic assumptions.

I am going to finish reading this weekend, and perhaps we can discuss the doc next week. Would love it if you all took a read too.



Off For the Weekend

Hi All,

I will be off for the weekend, so I won’t be able to reply to posts or tweets. I will be back online Sunday night, hopefully around 9 or 10.

I am planning to write another post at that time. Current topics that have been suggested to analyze the logic behind are:

– Ok. People that bus today will LRT tomorrow, and people that drive today will drive tomorrow. No reduction in cars on the road (see here: But what about people that are moving to the region? What if they chose never to get a car?

– The LRT will help local tech companies attract talent to the area, which they need to compete. This will be hard to use logic to debate, but as someone that runs a local tech company I will do my best to try.

Which one should we start with? Any other topics that are more important to address? Please let me know!

See you all Sunday.