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.

7 thoughts on “Reflecting On 2013 and the LRT

  1. Chris Klein

    I’d like to challenge the idea that a longer commute, out in the elements, is objectively worse (though I’m curious what you’re alluding to). Today seems like a good day to make this argument, because with -22 weather on the walk down to the bus stop, I can say I’m putting my money where my mouth (or keyboard) is.

    First, I’d ask what your commute time would be on foot. I suspect that given the distance, route layout and wait time overheads involved, it’s not a large difference. And in that situation, no matter what the car travel time is, that means transit has marginal value to begin with. For that trip. I’d urge you to keep that in mind.

    In my case, working for a software company that prioritized price per square foot more than a central location, I have the choice between a 15 minute car trip, 35 minute transit trip, or 90+ minutes walking (it’s 9km.) Actually, last year I biked more than any other mode, but that’s another discussion for a month that isn’t January.

    So, I commit to a transit trip that is more than a double, and that has me outside in the elements (particularly in the winter when I use it almost full-time), and I do not view that as worse. Because I’ve made a rational decision to trade some time for money. And rather a lot of money, at least to me.

    Because of this decision, my wife and I are financially much better off because we can keep one car on the road. We used to have two as many couples do, until transit improvements gave me choice. Now, when I compare my entire tax bill to the money saved in car ownership, my taxes could double and I’d still be significantly ahead. That freed up money allows us to have a lifestyle we want, with the side benefit that we pump most of it back into the local economy… usually in the form of restaurant bills! All for the cost of some walking, and some reading twitter and the news while riding a bus.

    It’s quite a hump to get over, cutting a car out of a household. If you’ve been reading Speck, you may remember the section he devoted to the high overhead cost of keeping a car, and the (relatively) low cost of actually using it. Until you can eliminate the overhead, there isn’t much savings (if any) to using transit to serve part of your travel needs, and therefore, there isn’t much benefit. But once you can, there are tangible benefits that, in my opinion, more than outweigh the downsides of time cost and creature comfort.

    A more traffic congested Waterloo certainly has aspects which are going to be worse. But the presence of transit (layered, as it must be, on top of a strong walkable environment) I think will make things better, even if some trips take longer and involve standing outside. For one, it will give people an option to meet their transportation needs much more affordably. For another, it will feed back into the walkability and street level vibrance of our community. To me, the steps we take to build frequent, reliable, first-class transit (LRT where appropriate, BRT and regular buses elsewhere) represent incremental overall improvement, by unlocking choice for more and more people.

    And to top it off? This morning, I wasn’t cold. I realized a while back that there’s nothing colder than waiting for my car to warm up. I’ve started to suspect that the worst of winter is reserved for those who shelter from it.

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Hey Chris, this is a really great comment. Thank you.

      It is true that if you can eliminate a car that you can save money. That said, I wonder how many actually do? I don’t remember the link, but from a comment last year the stat I found was that the average number of cars per Ontario family is actually just over 2.

      But even this said, you have already made this choice. The bus system works for you. What incremental value do you think the LRT will give you over a bus? Also, how many people do you think will make the decision you have once the LRT is built, but that didn’t with the current bus system, and why?

      Reply
      1. Chris Klein

        It’s something I reflect on often. And discussing this in brief is tough– tangents abound. For instance, I’d love to talk about how important the supporting iXpress network will be, and how that network requires a strong spine as much as the LRT will need that network to see its full potential. Another time, maybe. I’ll stick to why I think LRT is good for me, and so important for us.

        But I’ll make this claim off the top:

        If council had decided to go with BRT (and I mean full dedicated bus transitways) in 2011, I would be wholeheartedly supporting that project now even if I felt LRT would have been a better fit. The need to establish higher order transit now, rather than in a decade or two, is more important in my opinion than getting the technology right. Still, the “bird in the hand” sentiment also applies to our current plan, along with the fact that I do think we’re getting the technology right. 🙂

        You’ve commented on how my needs are served by transit now, and some of them are. However, since I have moved twice and had my employer move once since selling off that second car, I’m keenly aware at how much luck and careful planning is involved to maintain that state. (One of those personal moves was largely because I was facing a “move or buy a second car” decision due to my workplace moving.)

        I would like transit to become more useful to my wife and me, especially if we can get to the point where residual car need can be served by carshare. And I would selfishly like transit to become more useful and attractive to others, because there are benefits to me in the long term living in a region with strong transit use. My stance is that shaping growth with intensification and curbing sprawl now will lessen tax burdens and benefit our economy in the future, and I look to transit, as well as walkability and cycling, as tools to achieve this. (They are also quality of life goals of their own.)

        The central corridor is a (perhaps the) critical area of focus, and I’ve been observing the bus load along that spine. I believe there’s a good argument to double the current iXpress 200 frequency, just to provide capacity: at its current level, it won’t attract many more riders because of the load level and reports of passengers left behind that’s common between Conestoga Mall and downtown Kitchener in particular. But we’re already facing bus bunching problems as the various 7’s and 200 get stuck behind each other along King, and there is something like a bus every 2 minutes along University, a critical density for mixed-traffic buses.

        Busways or LRT are absolutely necessary in these areas now if we want to serve more people (and why we want to do that is a separate discussion, I’m trying to stay on topic here). In other words, I think the time has come to turn over surface space to transit.

        In 2011 we saw an all-BRT option for $702M, and an LRT/aBRT option for $818M. These weren’t apples-to-apples by any means (the all-BRT option would be done, Cambrige to Waterloo). But, believing in the need for higher order service and dedicated space, the two things that had me convinced on LRT were:

        1. The qualitative benefits of LRT over BRT (the same doc I linked goes over the region’s claims–I’ve read a lot of material that both supports and rebuts these points.) In the balance I saw the LRT option as being more attractive to potential riders (both along the spine, and for those considering an L-shaped trip along an iXpress connecting to the spine.) Also, weight of evidence pointed towards it being more successful at concentrating development.

        2. A deep concern about the headroom of a BRT system– its ability to meet future demand. The region has claimed that BRT would reach saturation within 20 years. What’s worse, upgrading it to LRT then would not only be costly, but also disrupt the line for a couple of years during upgrade. It seemed to me that success was the worst thing that could happen to a BRT system.

        Choosing between the two, I’d rather build a permanent solution, with greater overall benefit, in stages, rather than put in a cheaper solution that would not serve our long term needs.

        Since then, I haven’t seen the fundamentals shift much at all. On the contrary, I see a lot of evidence that validates the case for LRT. One big question remains: what is it going to cost? We’ll find out, this spring. But the rationale for building it now remains strong, and delaying or choosing to build something else later will not save us much in construction and may cost us a lot in the long term.

        Ask a simple question, get a long and involved answer. 🙂

        Reply
  2. Chris Klein

    Clarification to the above post (curse my proofreading skills). At the top, I mention that I’m curious what you’re alluding to, when you discuss what you and others have been working on for the last 6 months.

    Probably less confusing after that clarification.

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      We have been working on a proposed high density development near UW, that is designed from the ground up to optimize for the pedestrian. In fact, the LRT would be a big benefit for us – the LRT will allow people from all over the region to get to and from the development. That said, I wonder what the LRT will accomplish that buses could not, for a lot less?

      Reply
      1. Chris Klein

        While we share some values (the desire for a human-scale walkable environment, and I think for sustainable approaches to growth) I think there’s a fundamental difference in our viewpoints. Perhaps, even, a complimentary one.

        From what I’ve read from you, I think you want to choose a single place and build it in a way that fits your ideals. You aim to optimize one locale to the greatest degree possible, and leave the surroundings be (or perhaps abandon it entirely.) And I’ll guess you believe it is possible to exert a high degree of control over the shape and form of that optimized node.

        My perspective is, we work with the city we’ve got, and we are equipped to influence and entice rather than dictate change. I agree we can’t transform all of Waterloo region, but we are affected, economically, by the shape and form that the region and all its future growth takes. I like the nodes and corridors model to intensification because we can influence private development to focus in these areas with tools like transit and zoning. I also see cities as being more complex than we can understand, so the viability of planned communities is suspect.

        It might explain why I value transit as a tool to shape development, and why you see greater potential and need to optimize a district.

        Have a good weekend. I’ve written enough here for now!

        Reply
        1. Ted Post author

          Hey Chris, this is really fantastic.

          I guess when I first reacted to the LRT my concern was that if a) all we did was put in the LRT and b) traffic got worse over time, then (subjectively) future Waterloo would be much less enjoyable to get around than current Waterloo.

          The next question became “ok, but what else can we do? Traffic is guaranteed to get worse as we grow. So what other option do we have?”

          I felt the answer to this was “focus on a single node first. Put that $1b into making that one node an amazing, walkable place. THEN focus on getting people into and out of the node, starting with buses with exclusive lanes (all for the cost of a couple cans of paint!)”

          So this is what we started to do. Designing that one node. However, along the way we realized the opportunity is great enough that we could probably build that one node with private money. And that if we could do this, and if it could be on the LRT line, then there would also be a great way to get to and from it. So as an end result, for those living it that node they would have a future Waterloo that is better than today’s Waterloo, and for everyone else they would have a way to get to and from it.

          So at the end of the day, after all this debate, in some ways I am happy about the LRT, as it should make this node more attractive. It is a bit unfortunate that the tax payers have to shoulder the cost, but ultimately not the end of the world.

          Now all I hope for is that this node is done soon, so that just as traffic is becoming brutal in Waterloo I can switch over to largely getting around by foot!

          PS I am a bit curious. Would you mind sharing where you work/ what you do? Really enjoyed your writing…

          Reply

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