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.


9 thoughts on “Just Because Everyone Else Is Building LRTs, Doesn’t Mean We Should Too

  1. Mike Boos

    I don’t think we could say the “everybody’s doing it” argument has been used here. Yes, there has been pointing to other North American cities that built LRT and other higher-order transit systems at times when their populations were comparable to ours. But for the last 50 years of transportation engineering, higher-order transit instead of simply more roads has been the exception, not the rule.

    The layout of Waterloo’s transit corridor is somewhat unique to light rail configurations in North America. Most cities’ light rail could be characterized as ‘suburban commuter’ (although ‘commuter’ is kind of a lousy word-choice), that is to say, they draw people in away from the suburbs into some sort of central employment district. While these systems are often successful, they aren’t very optimal – at the low-density fringes of the network, the trains are empty, but they become very full as they approach the core.

    Waterloo Region isn’t laid out that way. Excluding the townships, we have five downtowns. Conveniently though, most of the ‘central’ stuff, including the downtowns, lies along a central line. As such, the central transit corridor carries a more consistent load as there is a more even distribution of starting points and destinations. So while our technology choice may not be new, the configuration has been uniquely suited to this place.

    City-building usually requires an awareness of the context of where you are. Creating a city from scratch is typically something reserved for oil-rich Middle Eastern countries building over desert. Even the University of Waterloo started as a faculty of Waterloo College (now Wilfrid Laurier University) and RIM leveraged existing technologies like emerging wireless data networks and Microsoft Exchange Server. These innovations were shaped by particular places and contexts; their success comes from how they responded to and contributed to their environments, not by ignoring them as if emerging from a vacuum.

    1. Ted Post author

      Of course – all new solutions are created through minor tweaks of the past: UW being just like every other university + coop, BlackBerry being just like every other PDA + wireless email. I’m not saying we need to invent anything fundamentally new, just that we could arrange old things in a fundamentally new way.

      I guess I would summarize my debate at this point in two ways.

      1 For me, the LRT solution is depressing. In order for it to work, driving will have to get much slower and parking much more expensive. So let’s put it in today, and wait for our miserable and congested future to appear. Part of why I love Waterloo vs Toronto where I grew up is that getting everywhere is so fast. I know I’m not alone, and personally, I think it would be an incredible shame if that changed.

      2 The only way to get people out of there cars in Waterloo TODAY is to make it so they can walk. The only way they can walk is if they live, work, and play all within walking distance. Therefore, the question is “is there a private development that could so strongly attract future development to a centralized node that it wouldnt be drive, train, or bus, but just walk”. I think there is. And I actually think Waterloo is the only city in the world that could pull it off.

      Put another way, if I gave you $800mm with the explicit goal of “maximize the % of living units and jobs within 500m of a single, centralized node in KW region within 1, 2, 5, and 10 years”, where would you put it and what would you build? And no public intervention or mandating allowed, just good old capitalism 🙂

      1. Michael Shao

        I think if we built an above-ground LRT (expensive, but not as expensive as the next idea), or a below-ground subway (too expensive), I would definitely think it would help more. I see this in the Western areas of Calgary – specifically near the Greyhound station. The station is located above the main vein of the highway, and there are aboveground routes that go in and out of the Greyhound station.

        The biggest thing for me is that it doesn’t inconvenience driving, it just offers a better solution for relatively cheap.

        I think I’d switch to transit if gas became so exorbitantly expensive that taking “hybrid public transit” would be unsustainable, especially as a student.

        1. Ted Post author

          Even if we had a subway, would you take it? It still feels like it would be slower than the car for 95% of trips today.

          This is the problem with transit: by definition, it will ALWAYS be slower than an uninhibited car. A car is simply transit built and run exclusively for you. But now the problem is that uninhibiting the car eventually becomes impossible with growth. At which point driving is so slow, that transit becomes reasonable.

          But there is one type of transit that actually can be faster given the right circumstances, and that is walking. If everywhere you wanted to go – work, live, eat, shop, play – was within 500 meters, driving simply wouldn’t be fastest.

          My question is, what would it take to spark a walkable city in Waterloo?

          1. Michael Shao

            Restructuring of the city planning. Make all of the nodes inherently dense, with everything in an area (Costco, Movie theatre, mall, restaurants, pubs, residences), and then expand on that node, much like Toronto, but modern.

            The inherent problem that exists in all currently dense cities is that when they were first built, they didn’t have the technology nor the informational database knowledge that we have available to us today. To make the same mistakes as them by building something like this without thinking of overall city planning is to dishonour their memory, since they knew they did the best they could for their time.

            The question now is, are WE doing the best we could be? There are other ways – but we’re clearly not considering better routes.

            1. Ted Post author

              Exactly. We have the opportunity to look at what others have done, learn from it, and do something different.

              What do others think?

  2. John Shortreed

    Letter to the editor of Waterloo Region Record

    The Ion streetcar has the heroic task to lure 1 out of 7 car users out of their car and choose Ion in order to implement the Region’s plans. This is truly a heroic task and requires good detailed design choices for any chance of success. Unfortunately, recent Ion design choices have not been good and make the heroic task almost impossible. Consider the purchase of 14 streetcars with 56 seats and 250 capacity, so less than 1 in 4 or 25% of passengers in rush hours will have a seat, this contrasts with Toronto where there are 70 seats for the same vehicle. The Ion seating of 25% of capacity compares to 50% seating for the existing bus services in rush hours. This dramatic reduction in comfort makes it hard to attract new car users to Ion, especially when they have 100% seating.

    This reduced lack of comfort came about because while Toronto streetcars have doors only on one side, while Waterloo’s version of the same streetcar has doors on both sides, thus reducing available seating. The issue of number of doors and reduced seating was not presented to public for consideration and likely council did not have the choice and implications presented to them. If council had been made aware of this issue I am sure there would have been questions in council like “why are doors only on one side adequate for Toronto but for Waterloo we need doors on both sides even with a 20% reduction in seats and higher costs?”

    There have been some 5-6 similar “poor design choices” for details of Ion, over the last year, again likely the council was not made aware of implications by staff since they have indicated a lack of experience with streetcar design and operations, and the need for extensive use of consultants. For one more example; in phase I of Ion there will be 50% less shelters for rush hour users of vehicles, compared to existing bus services.

    Some of the design choices can be revisited and better choices made now before vehicles are built, tracks are laid, stop locations are finalized, turning lanes are eliminated, and so forth. Council should look at these important issues that will, if not changed, make their targets for ridership and then in turn their objectives for shaping growth in the region, unattainable. For instance, at little extra cost, and perhaps a cost savings, the basic Toronto streetcar could be purchased with no design changes, except it might be advantageous to see if seating could be increased from 70 seats out of a 250 passenger capacity to perhaps 80 or more seats.

    John Shortreed
    1303, 191 King St. S.
    Waterloo, N2J 1R1
    519 885-4027 or 705 769-3906

    1. Ted Post author

      Thanks for your comment John (for everyone else, John is a retired UW Prof who spent much of his career on his issues, if I am correct).

  3. John Shortreed

    rather a long comment but something I did 3 years ago and addresses issues raised in this forum, realistically a revisit of Ion seems to me not very likely unless the economy turns really bad at all 3 levels of government
    Innovation Corridors for Region of Waterloo

    Initial Draft, December 2009, Version 2.0 November 2010
    Source – John Shortreed please ask for latest version shortree@uwaterloo.ca
    An evolving document. Thanks to all those who have commented

    Innovation Corridor is a Concept and Brand for Waterloo Region to achieve the objectives of:
    reurbanization, economic development, cultural enhancement,
    good jobs, quality of life, and innovation


    The overarching objective is to support and celebrate innovation in Waterloo Region by creating a physical entity, a corridor, that would support ”innovating visitors” by providing a world class experience during their stay.

    The desirable attributes for a visitor are also the desirable attributes for permanent residents and workers who desire a high quality ‘life-style experience’. Permanent workers and residents in the corridors will provide the base demand for the joint services such as shops, restaurants, parks and performances.

    The corridor is focused and concentrated for success in two innovation corridors with the Universities, Research Park and UpTown-Kitchener residential corridor in the North and the Galt Grand River corridor in the South.

    A modified iXpress and new iXdown transit service will reflect, integrate and link the corridors to the spirit of innovation and lifestyle experience throughout the Waterloo Region.

    The corridors would be an outward and visible sign of an innovative spirit and culture
    (Aside – are there any poets out there with a better replacement for’ inward and spiritual grace’ from the King James version?)

    The corridor is an overlay on the existing urban fabric and uses existing governance structures.

    Innovation Corridor – The idea and its elements

    1. The corridors would be both a brand and a physical ‘life style’ corridor in the cities of Kitchener -Waterloo and Cambridge.
    2. The corridors celebrate innovation in technology, the arts, education, manufacturing, society, and lifestyle in Waterloo Region. They promote innovation; international, state-of-the-art, world class innovation. The goal is a world brand, similar to RIM, Blackberry, ComDev and the University of Waterloo.
    3. The “innovation” objectives of the corridors are fully aligned to the mission and goals of Canada’s Technology Triangle and would represent a tangible expression of those goals as a physical presence that can be experienced day by day.
    4. The corridors are intended first and foremost to provide visitors and participants in innovation activities a quality live-work-play experience to enhance their work in Waterloo Region. All decisions about the corridors should be judged against this overarching goal.
    5. The corridors will also provide for a quality ‘life-style’ experience for others who move into the corridors (empty nesters, etc.) and other day visitors who come to experience the life style. These new residents and visitors will provide an economic base for quality-of-life/work/play activities, events and developments.
    6. Physically, Innovation Corridor are linear corridors – in the north starting in Kitchener and proceeding along King St. to Uptown Waterloo continuing north past the Balsillie Institute and Perimeter Institute to the Universities of Waterloo and then on to the Research and Technology Park. In the south the corridor encompasses the existing core of Galt and the adjacent Grand river area.
    7. Innovation corridor north is approximately 7 kilometers long starting at mileage 0.0 in Kitchener with mileage 7.0 at the Research and Technology Park. Innovation corridor south is 3-4 kilometers long and while the exact location of the corridor is to be determined it likely is along the Grand River, and on Coronation, Dundas, and Ainslie streets.
    8. Innovation corridors are ‘tight’, about 5 blocks wide. They are pedestrian scale. The corridors are also an integrated part of the regularly functioning urban area and infrastructure – both the corridors and regular urban life are superimposed, physically and functionally. You can move easily and seamlessly from one world to the other.
    9. The linearity of the corridors provides for simple wayfinding, for example in the north; UpTown Waterloo might be mileage 3.4, PI mileage 3.5, University of Waterloo 5.0, and so forth. Locations of destinations would be easy to relate to because of the linearity of the corridor and the unambiguous designation “mileage x.x”. Navigation is simple, clear and hard to get wrong. The mileage would also be linked to a common name for the area.
    10. Innovation corridors are supported both by walking and “fare-free” transit with high frequency hop-on hop-off service, making for pleasant, quick, and easy corridor movement. The corridors are a pedestrian destination that can be accessed from work, from home, from a hotel, from car park, from walking, on a bike, or from Grand River Transit (GRT) including the iXpress and proposed iXtown.
    11. Once on either the north or south corridors anywhere on the corridor is a maximum of about 15 minutes away, door to door, either by walking or fare free hop on hop off frequent transit service. The essence of the corridor is high connectivity for people to all corridor destinations. The link between north and south corridor is expected to be a little over a half an hour by transit traveling on its own ROW and fully integrated with the fare free transit and new iXtown routes.
    12. The corridors have many ‘theme’ layers and for each of these layers the initial “seeds” are already in place. For example in the north, consider the Prosperity Council’s objectives of culture – from the Center in the Square, to the Conrad center, to the Museum, to Sun Life auditorium, to the Waterloo Theater, to the UpTown Gallery district, to the Button Factory, to CIGI, to the PI, to Clay and Glass, to Humanities Theater, there is a string of locations along the corridor where cultural activities can take place. Similarly for educational institutions, starting with the Kitchener Library, the School of Social Work, the Image Factory, the Pharmacy school, to K-W High School, to International Policy Analysis, Waterloo Library, Clay and Glass museum, to University of Waterloo, etc. In the south existing features include the architecture school, the parks along the Grand River, attractive condominiums, etc. You can easily, along the corridors, identify elements for the themes of Restaurants, Pubs, Skating, Recreation, Spas, Green areas, Bicycle shops, Grocery shops, Student services, Student accommodation, Hotels, short stay housing, and so forth.
    13. Waterloo Park is a jewel of the north corridor. Centrally located and less than 10 minutes away from anywhere in the corridor via the free and frequent transit system, it is a place to go for lunch, for a walk, for contemplation, for meeting people, etc. Think of central parks in other metro areas. Again there is also an existing string of other green spaces that exist now along the corridors including the spectacular Grand River in the south corridor.
    14. The corridors are also proposed to be in cyberspace, on-line in real-time, with information on where your colleagues and friends are physically in the corridor, what restaurants have room for 12 people in 10 minutes (then book one), what is showing next at the Princess Cinema II, streaming video of talks open to your interests, apartments for rent (view rents, tour suites, contact information), what’s on this evening?, art show exhibits, current travel time to Toronto Airport, and so forth – all the things you need to know to take full advantage of living and/or visiting in the innovation corridors. All easily available on your wireless device.
    15. Corridor key gateways/nodes would include transportation terminals (North and South and GO/VIA stations) and many parking lots, hotels, workplaces, condos, and education and research institutions along the corridors. They should be weather proof.
    16. The corridors will be attractive for those outside the innovation sector who just want a ‘cool’ and pleasant place to live, eat meals, shop, and be entertained. Extensive condominium mixed use developments are expected to be attracted to the corridors. They will provide an expanded base to support all the corridor themes. The pensions of new empty-nester residents will be a significant addition to the Region’s economic base, a sort of collateral benefit.
    17. The corridors will become a unique kind of “research park”, one that is part traditional (i.e. that exists now) but partly one that is more open, less structured and responsive to independent initiatives for all sorts of products, tools, techniques, software, inventions, and other innovative ideas and concepts.

    Practical details just for purposes of showing feasibility

    These ideas and concepts would need detailed feasibility design and consensus utilizing traditional stakeholder processes involving; governments, key existing organizations, public, and so forth. For example determination of the extent of the south corridor that is most likely to realize innovation.

    A. The governance of the corridor would be by existing governments of the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo. There would be an independent advisory board that would be based initially on existing organizations with complementary objectives and close association with the corridor themes.
    B. The vehicle movement system is likely bus, using regular GRT buses such as those already on King St. including iXpress, but on their own ROW including underpasses and overpasses as required.
    C. The attached figure outlines a conceptual arrangement of transportation for the corridor illustrating;
    i. Increased stops for iXpress to achieve land development objectives and improve access to the corridors. Stop spacing in the corridors would be similar to existing King St. bus routes.
    ii. Approximate fare free zones in the north and south corridors
    iii. Integration of iXpress rapid transit with the fare free transit in the corridor
    iv. Extension of the iXpress concept to iXtown, cross town service to extend exclusive ROW transit service to the whole Region not just the central corridor
    v. iXpress and iXtown services as well as the King St. routes will, where possible be integrated into the transit service for the corridors to eliminate transfers and provide a seamless ride for corridor access. Ottawa has many similar examples. This may also reduce existing transit costs.
    vi. Electronic or honour fare systems will facilitate the interface with non ‘fare-free’ areas and the corridors and also increase speeds.
    vii. Extensions to outlying suburbs such as Elmira
    D. Two lanes (one lane in each direction) on King and elsewhere on the corridor would be reserved rights of way (ROW) for the buses to keep them moving – one possibility would be middle of the street platforms (at each significant intersection or about 200 meters spacing between stops) with counter flow bus lanes to keep other traffic off the bus way and to keep clear of parking cars, unloading trucks, etc.. This would also allow for ROW without modifying the pavement so parades and other street closing events would have a smooth surface. It is expected that travel speeds for emergency vehicles would be improved since they could preempt the use of the ROW.
    E. Besides exclusive ROW, traffic signals would be integrated and interconnected with the transit vehicles to improve speeds, see for example methods used in Edmonton and also in common use for emergency vehicles.
    F. The capital costs of the corridors and the transit ROW would be staged (a key advantage of buses) but would be considerable both initially and on an ongoing basis. Capital costs for major structures will be needed for RR grade separations, river crossings, grade separation for major intersections, electronic modifications to traffic lights, and so forth both for the corridors and the iXpress and iXtown.
    G. The regular traffic on King Street (and elsewhere on the corridors) is unrestricted. It is expected that traffic congestion along with pedestrian priority measures will slow traffic to be compatible with pedestrians. Cross corridor traffic, delivery vehicles, parking on street, etc. are as usual except there is only one lane instead of two in each direction. The counter flow bus lanes work to keep regular traffic operating without significant restrictions (some left turns might need to be turned into turn right and loop around the block turns)
    H. Development will happen once the corridor is established, branded, and promoted. Special land use controls may, after an initial period, be needed to ensure;
    i. There is sufficient provision for all the appropriate ‘themes’ and their land use requirements, particularly those with larger land requirements
    ii. Aesthetics for pedestrians and for destinations are continuously enhanced
    iii. Corridor Branding and Innovation are strengthened. This may include special incentives in terms of zoning, site plan controls, and perhaps financial
    iv. Innovation is celebrated in art, architecture, landscaping, permitted uses, public art, wayfinding signs etc.
    v. Corridor incubation, similar to technological incubation, should be encouraged even for activities that may be considered strange. For example, day care experiments, new entertainment mediums, enhanced social services, unusual museums, and so forth.
    I. The corridor would need working capital but should be expected to repay a reasonable portion of any costs. The “fare-free” transit zone and improvements to iXpress and iXtown as well as redesign of routes to eliminate transfers, should be the responsibility of GRT based on similar situations in other cities. The corridor investments should on balance be self-supporting which may involve special improvement area taxes similar to those for BIAs (existing BIA legislation might be used to create some of the funding for the corridor). There may need to be joint sharing of costs for the gateway/terminal/nodes between say the corridor, local municipalities and GRT. The proposed $170 million transit terminal in Vaughan, with retail and residential land uses is an expensive example.

    What might the next steps be?

    1. Continue to explore the corridor concept through discussions to refine the proposal and assess probability of success. This step is about 50% completed and this document will be continuously modified to reflect the best available concepts and modify any show stoppers.
    2. Form a small ad hoc development team that has access to the resources such as: innovation needs, urban dynamics, research, design and presentation, planning policy options, how to organize charretts (a hands on stakeholder driven design exercise to develop and refine concepts and key elements of the corridors), etc.
    3. Develop some illustrative graphics and descriptive material to demonstrate the corridor concept as it is refined. These would include refinement of the brand, name, focus, themes, transportation, etc.
    4. Use of a “professional/key informant” charrette to develop options and common design elements for the corridor. Hopefully the charrette would lead directly to an Initial design and implementation policies at least in principle,
    5. Presentation to public forums and governments for optimization and approval in principle
    6. Final design of corridor and implementation policies
    7. Development of an implementation plan including organizational arrangements
    8. Initial designation of the Innovative Corridor brand (or what ever the brand name is) and initial implementation;
    a. GRT routes
    b. Sidewalk upgrades by Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge
    c. Formation of initial advisory committee
    d. Development of planning, operating, and continuous improvement policies
    e. Coordination of new BIA zone with existing BIA zones.
    f. Arrange for initial and ongoing capital and operating costs
    g. Promotion and launch
    h. Work with existing organizations to expand their scope for international innovation


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 + = six

Current month ye@r day *