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: http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/2621462-rail-transit-was-never-up-to-the-public/

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: http://pandodaily.com/2012/07/11/ted-livingston-the-shape-of-canadian-tech-to-come/).

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.

 

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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.

 

 

My Latest Logic

Now that the emotion is out of the way I’m talking to a lot of people and iterating through the logic. Here is my most recent attempt. Any feedback appreciated.

 

After I spoke at council this morning it was really great as I got to talk to several very pro LRT people. In particular I spent almost 2 hours talking to a guy who exited on of the very successful startups in the Waterloo. He actually has a passion for transportation and travels all over the world looking at their systems, and has been working on the Waterloo LRT for the past 6 or 7 years. It was good as we’re able to work through the key hypotheses that would decide its success. To get to the root of why we each believed what we believed.

Once you remove all the emotional fat, the meat of the issue comes down to two issues. 1. Will the LRT increase ridership? and 2. Will the LRT concentrate development, leading back to 1?

On 1, the problem is that they the council is using a “top down” approach to judge the market: Waterloo has this many people, which is this % of the number of people of other cities, which have this many riders, therefore Waterloo should have this many riders. This used to be the way VCs would evaluate start up markets, but today the method is obsolete, as it makes it difficult to take into account absolutely any unique aspects of the situation.

Instead, VCs now use a “bottom up” approach. In this model you start with how you’ll actually reach the customers. So in Waterloo today there are two types of commuters: those that take transit (buses), and those that drive. For those that take transit, we can safely assume that they will also all take the LRT. So no lift but also no loss. For those that drive today, it is very simple to determine who will switch to LRT once it is here: which costs me less time? On the LRT side, the questions are: how long does it take me to get to the closest station, how long do I have to wait for the train, how long does it take me to get to my station, and how long does it take me to walk to work when I arrive? .5 min to walk to the station (right beside Bauer), 2 min to wait for the train (we’ll be opportunistic), 6 min to ride the train (stops), 10 min to walk to work (based on where Kik is). 18.5 minutes. On the driving side, the question is how long does it take me to get to my car, how long does it take me to drive to work, and how long does it take me to park and walk to work? So in my case, .5 min to get to my car, 3 min to drive to work, and .5 min to get to my office. 4 minutes. The issue with LRT in Waterloo is that there is parking close to everyone’s home and work, but almost no one will have a station close to both their home and work. And that there is very little traffic, while trains have to stop at every station. You could argue that one day the roads will be too crowded., slowing down cars while trains remain unaffected. Now the plan shows that this will take 5 years to start to have an affect, but even then my drive would have to be almost 5 times as slow as it is today for LRT to be faster. At which point it would literally be faster for me to walk.

Now your last argument could be that the LRT would be fast enough that it would sell your car. But in a region as isolated as Waterloo, and with a high tech work force like ours that can afford it, I have yet to meet anyone that has gotten rid of their car, even when they can walk to work.

The only other argument is that it will concentrate our development and stop urban sprawl. Again this is based on hope instead of reason. Yes developers are putting up buildings, but they would and will put them up without an LRT as well. Again, we can look at bottom up: those that are in condos today which cause densification, and those that are in houses that cause sprawl. All condos are already being built along the corridor. Not because the LRT is coming, but because that’s where people in condos want to live. If there was a condo in the country, would you move there? Of course not. That’s why you live in a condo. For the people already in the country, would the LRT cause them to move to a condo in the corridor? Again, unlikely. They probably have a family and value a backyard, and that it is cheap, and again because there is no traffic there is really no reason why not. Compare this to Toronto where the AVERAGE commute is 1 hour each way, each day.

Now you could argue that the concentration caused by the LRT will make living near it so much BETTER that people will start to move from houses to condos. But this is also the argument I am making, but is somewhere between 3 and 19 times worse. 19 times worse (longer) if concentration happens evenly over the whole LRT, instead of over just the 1 km I am proposing. Or 3 times if it only happens over the three hubs.

Because if concentration is really the only possible goal left of getting the LRT, I have a much better solution. Let’s take the 800M, pick a spot, and put up 3 CN Towers all side by side. Then I GUARANTEE you wouldn’t get a stretch of condos all the way down King. You’d get every condo CLAMORING to get as close to those 3 CN Towers as you could.

But this of course reveals the problem with politics. What spot would we choose? We are a region consisting of three separate cities trying to be one. But if we want to be one city, lets be one city. Because then we wouldn’t need transit at all. We’d simply put up 3 CN Towers and watch a Walkable Waterloo emerge overnight.

And finally we get to the root problem, at the very bottom: our region lacks vision. Because we are leaving the era of car first cities. A world where everyone wanted and had a car. And entering a walking first era, where people won’t be able to afford or want to drive cars. But where transit also isn’t ideal. 

We are entering a new era of city design and development. And like with RIM beating Dell, it will be the walking first cities that throw out all the rules out and start again that beat out all the car first cities of the past.

This is what I am really saying. That the LRT is a solution for an era passed by. And that with 800 million we would could both the resources and the opportunity to throw out all the rules of the car first era city development and design and start agsin. To be one of the first cities to really build for the walking first era from scratch. We could do what BlackBerry did for cities. If only someone had the vision.