Monthly Archives: July 2013

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.


The Story Behind Why I Decided to Speak Out Against the LRT

If your neighbour beside you was building a house, and half way through you saw compelling signs that he was building it on contaminated ground. Would you say to yourself, oh well he’s already half way there? Or would you go over and suggest he stop and take a closer look first?

A couple weeks ago back at Kik HQ, we we’re talking about how we needed to get more involved in shaping our community. Because if we were going to buck the trend of moving to the Valley and try to build a world class company here, we would need a world class city as well.

On the way out Heather turned to me and sparked this entire ordeal: “Start with the mayor,” she said, “ I’ve heard people say mixed things about her. You need to know who you’re dealing with.”

So this past Sunday morning I decided to take a look. I pulled out my phone at 9 AM and started to search. “brenda halloran disappoints”. “brenda halloran criticsim”. “brenda halloran lacks”. I did search after search trying to find any negatives I could. To find an issue where she had made a wrong choice. And the only thing I could find was the LRT. She voted against it, when ultimately it was approved 9 votes versus 2. Ha, I thought. What a fool. As Waterloo grows we’ll need to add transit to free up our roads. And because we can’t afford subways trains are the only way. Also, doesn’t she know how great trains are?

I set out to prove that she was on the wrong side of the vote. That she had made a mistake. Boy was I wrong.

I started reading everything I could find on the LRT. Trying to prove that Brenda had made a mistake. But the further I went, the further I got from proving her wrong. And after 18 intense hours of research it finally clicked: Brenda might actually be right.

I knew I couldn’t say anything. That it was too late. Hundreds of people had spent tens of thousands of hours working on this project, and speaking out now wouldn’t be fair. But then I read one more article that made me decide I had to speak up. You can find it here:

I sat there alone in my room, in the middle of the night. What should I do? I believed that we were about to make a terrible mistake. That the logic suggested that the LRT was a weak solution at best. And I knew that if I wanted to be heard I would have to say something bold. And I would have to put my face on this issue, something I have been incredibly conscious to avoid my entire life (if you are interested in reading about my story, you can find one version here:

So I looked at the problem in the same way I looked at dropping out of University, or donating the million dollars: either I do or I don’t, and either the decision ends up being right or wrong. And instantly I knew. That if I chose to say nothing, and if it LRT turned out to be wrong, that it would haunt me for the rest of my life.

I then considered others. What would I want done to me if I were in their shoes?

I thought about being someone on my team: Ted we need to focus, we are building such great things. Why do you bother? But at Kik I say we are building three things: a messenger, a platform, and a company. And recently I have already been focusing more and more of my attention on building the company. On our culture and values, and on our incredible team. And on the environment and city we live and work in. Because I know that if we want to build a world class company here, we will have to build a world class city as well.

I then thought about the citizens of Waterloo: this has been such a divisive issue already, and that at some point we need to decide and move forward. And here is this guy, at the absolute last moment, making a big fuss. But as a citizen, I knew that if the LRT turned out to be a disaster, and I found out there was someone who felt strongly that there was a better way, I would be disappointed that they didn’t speak up.

I thought about all the developers: but we have already spent, and now you’re changing the plan? But this is business, and with all reward there is a risk. And in business sometimes you need to sacrifice in the short term, to win big in the long.

I thought about our Councillors: who is this kid who thinks he knows? Why is he trying to embarrass us in front of our region? But I don’t actually think they campaigned against the LRT and then changed their minds because of some sort of conspiracy plot, but because all the emotion around the issue is simply making it hard to really know one way or the other.  And if I were them I would worry that if the LRT turned out to be wrong, and case studies were one day written on when Waterloo let emotion beat reason, I would say to myself “ahh my gut told me this all along, I should have been stronger, I wish someone spoke up”.

And finally I thought about all the volunteers and staff that had poured their lives into this project: please, we have worked so hard, why do you come to us now? For this group I felt most. All these incredible people who love our city and are trying to do their absolute best. But I worried that all their work was based on flawed assumptions. And that if the LRT turned out to be wrong, that they would feel guilty about letting down the city they love, asking themselves for the rest of their lives, “how did we let ourselves miss this?”

And so I decided to let it rip. I posted a petition Tuesday at 2 AM, and then sent it to all the Councillors and CC’d all the press – no point speaking up if your voice won’t be heard. And a storm has been brewing ever since.

My goal is not to stop the LRT. My goal is to make sure there is rigorous mathematical analysis and reason behind the choices we make. We may find that the LRT is right for our city. That mathematically the LRT will solve the explicitly defined problem of “reduce the percentage of Waterloo citizens that drive as our region grows”. But right now I am looking over at my neighbour, half way to building his house. I have taken some samples of his soil, and taken them back to my lab for analysis. I can’t be sure of my results, but I am strongly suggesting to you my neighbour: I think we should stop and take a closer look first.

Using Math to Check Rhetoric

Below is an analysis I posted that came out of a discussion in the comments in another post. I thought I would share.




Hey Sam,


Thanks for writing this well thought out and articulated post. It will help us both understand our thoughts better (I had never previously done the analysis below).


When you say that 200,000 people will be coming to Waterloo in the next 20 years (which I actually think will be low), I agree that they probably won’t live in the country (at least that of course should be the goal). I also agree with the goal of getting dense enough development around each station, because this is what will allow us to get cars off our road, our true goal.


My concern is that the LRT is going to have 16 nodes. Let’s assume that we can dictate that 100% of all future residential and office development will be placed directly beside one of these nodes (unlikely, but a good place to start). Then I believe that means your odds of living and working at the same node will be 6.25%* (although it has been a while since I did math! *edit: note, my math was indeed off originally, I have now fixed it) So that means there is a 93.75% that you will be living and working at different nodes. Now you will have to consider whether you have a car, and if so, whether you’ll take LRT. If you don’t have a car, you’ll be someone that is already taking the bus today, and will take the LRT tomorrow, so no reduction in cars on the road. But most likely you are someone that has a car, so that you can get to places outside of Waterloo like other cities, the beaches on Lake Huron, or for parts of your job. If you were one of these people, assuming both your office and work are right beside their closest node, would you LRT or drive? Well, if you LRT you have to walk to the station (0.5 min), wait for the train (3.5 min average during peak hours), ride the train (X min), and walk to work (0.5 min). So 4.5 + X min during peak hours. If you drive, you have to walk to your underground parking (0.5 min), drive X min or less (almost never traffic in Waterloo today, and most likely not for the next 10 years), and 0.5 min to park. So 1 + X min to drive. If we say X is 5 it will be 9.5 minutes instead of 6. So not only will driving take you less time, but you also won’t have to walk/wait in the hot/cold/rain/snow, and if after work you need to go somewhere off node, you won’t have to go home first to pick up your car. Which will you do? I’d give you at least a 90% chance of driving, but let’s put it at 50% to be safe.


So now we can tally it up. So for every 1000 people living on the corridor, where they both live and work right beside an LRT station, 531 people will take the LRT or walk, and 469 people will drive. Of course, this is best conditions, as many places to live or work will have a significant walks to the station first, increasing the odds that you’ll drive.


But now imagine that you could change the rules in the region, and to stop people from driving you said that you we’re only going to open 5 stations to start, so that development would focus there. Because using the same math then there would be a 20% chance you would live and work at the same node (1/5), resulting in only 400 people taking cars, a savings of 69 cars per 1000. Not bad but not great.


But now what if you took it to the extreme? What if you said you were only going to open a single station for the next year? That you were going to spend 800 million on it, and that it is going to be the most beautiful station anyone has ever seen. That it would make Grand Central Station in New York look like a toy. Do you think any condo developer build such that they couldn’t advertise as being right beside it? I don’t think so. Which would mean that now the chance of living and working at the same node would be 100%, and no one would take cars. A savings of another 400 cars per 1000, with the gracious assumption that 50% of people would take the LRT instead of drive when it would take longer to get there, ask you to go outside in the cold/hot/rain/snow, and eliminate your flexibility should you want to go somewhere off node after work.


I agree that we should be spending money to concentrate development so that we can take cars off the road. But if this is really our goal, we should start with one node and then move out from there. Because then everyone could walk, and no one would drive.


But of course you make a fantastic point. We are made up of 3 cities. So instead of deciding to pick a single node and get an extra 470 cars per 1000 people off the road, we have compromised, resulting in almost twice as many roads, twice as many road crews, and twice as many cars.


This is the problem with rhetoric. That it breaks down once you put it through actual analysis. This is why that instead of saying “we need to add mass transit to be able to handle growth”, we need to break that down into clear goals, and then analyze how the LRT will meet them. Because if we say the goal is to “spend the minimum amount of money to remove the maximum number of cars from the roads per 1000 people we grow” we will quickly see that there are much better options.