By any standards, cyclists in Waterloo should be pleased that Lexington is getting attention right now. Though, cyclists won't be entirely pleased with the proposed alternatives. How you feel will depend a lot on how you perceive the proverbial half-empty, half-filled cup.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
By any standards, cyclists in Waterloo should be pleased that Lexington is getting attention right now. Though, cyclists won't be entirely pleased with the proposed alternatives. How you feel will depend a lot on how you perceive the proverbial half-empty, half-filled cup.
Friday, June 17, 2011
n Wednesday, Erin and I gave away our Ignite tickets because we knew that if we went, our hearts wouldn't be in it, and our eyes would be glued to our phones watching the Twitter feed out of Regional Council.
So, instead, we gave away our tickets and walked down to Regional Council, to watch a little bit of history. And we got that: we got the long, drawn out speeches, the numbing due process, the anticlimatic transition from looking-good to foregone-conclusion to it's-passed, and we had a wonderful time!
Now, it is two days later, LRT is still half a decade away, and it's time get back to our regularly scheduled lives.
Or is it?
I think it's safe to say that I've discovered a passion for a certain set of urban issues. Having taken an increasingly public stand on this major issue-- letters to the local newspaper, letters to our councilors, an opinion blog that's drawn a little attention and even stepping up in front of council to have my say-- it's nice to see this particular battle won and it's nice to relax a little. But I don't want to disengage.
So, I have a passion for... what? Urban planning? Transit? What aspect of this LRT issue drew me out of my shell so effectively, that will drive my future motivation?
The issues of how people move around our city are what interest me the most, but that describes the "what" and not the "why". I think the reason why these issues engage me is that I have a vision for the kind of place I want to live.
In this vision, destinations are nearby and people move freely. "Nearby" doesn't mean everything is up the block, but rather that you can get anywhere you need to go conveniently without assistance or planning. Being able to do this without using a car is critically important: cars have their uses and, but they are expensive and they take away from our freedom more than the freedom they give: I never feel more unencumbered than when I leave my car behind.
I would ask you to think about that for a moment. A car usually allows you to get to your destination quicker and more conveniently than any other mode of transportation, but in doing so you are so shackled to the car that you can't just go somewhere else without it. You park the car, and in doing so, you enter into a contractual obligation to return to that spot, for it is the only way you can leave.
You are also never free from the concern about what happens to your car. It could be stolen or damaged, or it could be ticketed. If you've traveled with passengers, you are probably responsible for their return as well. You can't have a drink without worrying whether it inhibits your driving ability. You usually can't leave your car parked somewhere overnight. So taking a car defines your schedule, your responsibilities, and your behaviour.
It's interesting that most people experience a sense of freedom when they get their first car, but that is often because they deal with inadequate transit, or cities that have sprawled because of car use, to the point that you can't interact with it the way you want without a car.
So to me, if you must have a car to get to your destination, you cannot move freely. Nor is anything nearby , because you live on an island where the sea can only be traversed by your car. Granted, the trip may be short, unless your car is broken or the wife has it or there's no parking or gosh traffic sure is heavy at rush hour or you have no license, in which case your destination is effectively unreachable.
When it comes to the freedom of moving around this city without a car, we really end up with only a subset of our urban area where this is possible. Transit does cover most of our city, but it's designed to provide a minimal level of service to a maximum amount of people for minimum cost. And moving away from that is going to take a long time-- LRT will not solve it in and of itself, any more than the stud frames of your house help keep the snow and wind out on their own. LRT is meant to massively reduce resistance to movement along its route, extending the area that people can tolerably reach, be it by LRT alone or by some combination of train with bus, bike and walking. And because of the way we are laid out as a city, LRT provides capacity in the zone where car-free movement will build, and build, and build. It does, however, need its supporting network of express and neighbourhood buses.
But I digress. Months of LRT proselytizing takes its toll and the LRT debate has seen a lot of points taken out of context.
I see Waterloo Region becoming an area where enough of the cities become accessible to car-free movement, and as a result, sustain a critical mass of car-free life. And that has secondary benefits: urban form becomes driven by needs that are not based on the car, and evolves to better suit people instead. Everyone, not just the automobiled elite, enjoys an independence of movement. Demand may make housing more expensive, which means more apartments and less detached homes, but people enjoy a better lifestyle because they spend much less on simply getting from one island to another.
And it forces people to deal with others face to face. A car and a suburban home allows us to abstract away the entire world, and when we rage on the road, it's because we don't perceive other drivers as real human beings. I'm certain this promotes a worldview that puts self ahead of everything, no matter the cost.
Finally, without question, a car dependent place is ugly. The infrastructure and land use patterns that support the car is physically repulsive to me.
So I see reduced car dependence as a way to transforming the environment around me. I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist though-- I haven't even touched upon air quality and health and all that jazz. I've been happier in places with worse air than KW (as unlikely as it sounds)-- downtown Toronto, where I had all the freedom that a metropass and a subway station around the corner provides, or Hong Kong, where as a teenager I could cross the city on my own for virtually nothing. The freedom of those times is indescribable. And certainly, those are metropolises, and Waterloo Region is not... but then, building a suitable transit system and changing our places to benefit non-automobile users are steps to take on the way to our becoming a major city, not things that must wait until we are.
So the things that help our environment edge away from its old, car-dependent form into a more human-friendly one, those are what drive me.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
So, now my confessions:
1. I laboriously thumb-typed the whole damn thing on my phone while watching hockey and assuring my partner in Loonage, Erin, that I was "literally almost done" at least three times. Welcome to the creative process! Perhaps it's true that being forced to slow down results in a better end product.
2. I'm really regretting, as the readership numbers are climbing, that I didn't finish the LRT primer whose first two parts I wrote two months ago. It feels like failing to keep your house clean when all your friends drop over unexpected.
Wow, what a day! Thanks Mike, and thanks to the other retweeters. It's a funny feeling, when you strike a chord. It resonates.
Monday, June 13, 2011
(Late edit: Mike Farwell of 570 News did me the inestimable honour of asking to use parts of this post as an introduction to his broadcast as a guest host of the Gary Doyle show. Turns out, he liked it so much he read almost all of it on the air! If you'd like the "audiobook" version of this post, visit this link and listen to the start of the podcast.)
It's a good time to take a moment and reflect on the remarkable local developments in the LRT story before Wednesday's vote. The last nine months or so have been transformational, whether I consider the community or myself.
Prior to the leadup into last October's municipal election, LRT was not an issue. The public consisted of the very few who knew and supported the proposal, the very few who opposed it, and the vast middle who was quietly apathetic. But something happened on the way to the polling date... the opposition to rapid transit got their message out.
And in the absence of any other voice, the very simple message-- This is risky! Disruptive! Expensive!-- became almost viral.
I don't question that local politicians got an earful at the door. Especially if you consider the kind of filtering mechanism is in place when you go door-knocking through low-density neighbourhoods, and the ease with which a cost-and-risk narrative finds traction. Still, we didn't see any massive shift in council or mayoral membership. The discontent vocal minority hadn't been large enough to define a council mandate, but boy oh boy did they get noticed.
And so, council reacted. Bringing in a BRT reevaluation became a political necessity. Staff had to engage in "value engineering" and despite a significant pricetag reduction, they hurt the optics of that achievement by building in inflation (I think to protect a cost-contingent federal contribution.) Optics were also in play when staff released almost a dozen LRT alternatives, and just one BRT option.
Anti-LRT media had a field day. Their advantage is the perceived safety of the status quo and the superficial simplicity of their message, if your audience doesn't take the time to research their own opinion.
But in the background, in the deepest, darkest depths of twitter, and facebook, and on newly minted blogs (like this one!), something was starting to change. Initially we had been frustrated and disbelieving at hidebound reactionaries who seemed to be awfully confused or dissembling in their criticism. Now, we were starting to worry that maybe it would work...
Realization set in, in myself, in others... we would have to be heard. TriTAG had started, but the silent supporters who approved of their effort started to clue in that they couldn't sit on the sidelines.
I think there are dozens of us who have gone from having an opinion to being very vocal with it. I have a hard time thinking that when this issue dies down again, that we all will clam down again. LRT has galvanized civic engagement (both for and against, to be sure.) Whether it passes or fails, I hope that this is a watershed moment for Waterloo region's twenty- and thirty-somethings.
Wednesday's vote is not so far away. And I'm starting to think we may see LRT move ahead after all. Opponents claim that they're being railroaded (heh) by councilors whose minds were made up, but I don't think that's it. Most of council knows this is right because despite the naysaying and magnification of flaws, the case for LRT is very strong. But they needed to hear it from enough constituents. In the absence of our reluctant voices, some would shelve their better judgement in the face of a one-way public sentiment.
But even so, we don't know what will happen on Wednesday yet, and we can't forget the twists and curveballs that groups like T4ST and reporters like Outhit and Taylor have contributed, and how very close they came to defining our reality.
After last Saturday's rally, Jean Haalboom, one of the few supporting councilors willing to stand up for rapid transit and LRT, said to a few of us that we can't just drop this issue on Thursday if this vote passes. We have to keep on it. 2014's municipal vote could become a last-gasp money-burning cancellation movement if we go silent again after the immediate fight is won.
Most of us support LRT because we're thinking about the future, right? Well, it's time we take the long view. LRT doesn't get delivered if and when Council votes yes. In the years to come, we need to shepherd it home.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
I attended the initial meeting for the proposed Spur Line multi-use trail tonight. Interesting experience. The thrust of the meeting was to get the major vision, issues, and details from the public on the table so that they can be considered in detail.
The Spur Line trail's study area runs along the rail spur from King St. South in Uptown Waterloo, to Ahrens St. West in Kitchener:
View Spur Line study area in a larger map
The Region wants to put in a multi-use (pedestrian, cycling, etc.) trail next to the rails along this section, as there is already an ad-hoc dirt trail in place, formed over the decades by the many users of this area.
The reassuring part was that most people there seemed to genuinely want to see this trail go through, as it would be a valuable link in our trail network. I share this opinion, as I live within a short stroll of the trail near its middle, and use it to access Uptown Waterloo frequently. Today I even used the trail in the other direction, which led me most of the way to Regional Headquarters, where the meeting was held!
Still, there were many issues raised, and there are some interests that are in conflict. Lighting and safety concerns of users on one hand, against the light pollution and noise and privacy worries of abutting landowners on the other. And complexities abound even on issues like this: it was raised that all-night lighting could give only the illusion of late night safety.
I think some of the most interesting twists involve the rail line itself, and I heard a lot of conflicting opinion:
- The Region owns the spur, but CN operates it and GEXR uses it. (If you live in Waterloo near the rail line, you probably know the slow chemical train that comes through a few times a week.) Planners are assuming that it will remain in use.
- The City of Waterloo's long term goal is to see this line shut down.
- The lease could be up as soon as 2014, or maybe it's 5 years.
- Closing the line entirely may be practically impossible due to some process where you have to show that no one wants to operate on the line.
- Closing the line entirely through renegotiation is in the Region's interest if LRT goes forward, as through Waterloo Park and northward it would save the project a ton of money.
I also learned more of a (harmless) derailment of the chemical train not long ago, caused (ostensibly) by Len's Mill's practice of shoveling their snow onto the rails. Also, Len's Mill parking appears to encroach on the Spur land itself, as does the paved surface of a number of other businesses. A lot of people are in for a surprise.
The Spur land is theoretically 20 metres wide for most of its length, which means that there should be room for the 6 metre "train envelope" and the 4-5m needed for the trail. In places this looks like a challenge, but overgrowth and encroachment shrink the apparent space. Still, I think it's safe to assume that a lot of property owners are making informal use of space they don't own, and this will need to be resolved. I'm betting that a number of misplaced fences may get ripped out, to the dismay of the nearby owners.
Another twist: widening and realignment of Weber St. But that part appears to be well in hand, with widening plans proceeding with the trail in mind. A regional rep described the intent to provide crossing assistance in the form of an pedestrian island at the point of trail crossing.
Still, over all the attendees were positive. More than one stated that their desire to see this become a proper trail stretches back decades. There are complications with the LRT project's potential impact on the rail corridor in general, and the sheer ludicrousness that we still have a train full of ammonia and sulphuric acid trundling through the Waterloo core, but the rough outline could see something ready for construction as early as 2012. Wouldn't that be something?
I appreciate Strickland's desire to revisit a routing decision in Uptown Waterloo, but I don't think it can help us. Karen Scian's words on 570News have been very powerful: she points out that ten months were spent studying Uptown routing options, and the current one was unanimously supported by city staff after taking all input into account. I have to admit I initially liked the idea of opening up the routing discussion, but it's one of those ideas that looks great on the surface, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny. We must ask ourselves some questions:
Is the route perfect? No! It is somewhat awkward. There have been vocal opponents to the routing, though many of them are also vocal opponents of rapid transit, and others simply gainsay study findings.
Can we improve on it? I doubt it. The first thing to do is to look at the rationale behind the current routing, and if you cannot find a fundamental flaw with it, there is no point in spending even more time and effort rehashing the same facts over again.
Which leads us to: Is it good enough? I believe so. The City of Waterloo certainly believes so.
To me, this is like reopening the entire LRT/BRT issue earlier this year. You have a well thought out plan in front of you, and it makes recommendations based on the requirements and constraints. If you don't change the inputs, and you can't identify any mistakes in reasoning, you shouldn't expect the results to change. You can only waste time and money.
And in the search for the mythical perfect solution, we may cost ourselves the satisfactory real one.
In Mr. Strickland's defense, however, I will add that his other motion-- to involve Infrastructure Ontario-- appears to have a lot of merit.
Also, Mr. Wideman's motion to mitigate LRT costs by committing upcoming windfalls from debt retirement and uploading is an excellent idea! It's a money shuffle, but an important one. It reduces the tax hit, and it ensures that this money-- which some people optimistically believe would result in a tax break, but I think is unlikely-- cannot be reappropriated for another purpose. Ironically, allocating it to LRT now may be that tax break people may otherwise not get a chance to see.
Finally, Andrew Dodds of ViewFromThe42 also made a good point that if communication in this whole process were better, we'd be able to more easily see the reasoning that goes into the decisions at each stage. And that could prevent this sort of re-analysis paralysis that we've had to endure.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
And there's a big difference between hammering out a first draft and delivering a polished final version. That part took substantially longer. I even ended up writing a second speech with a different focus, and then tossing (most) of it out when I read it through from top to bottom and realized that while on the surface it said what I wanted to, it "flickered" on its way from start to finish. Vital links were missing.
It probably didn't help that when I wrote that draft, we were on our way through a second bottle of wine. I think I found the point at which I couldn't hang a sensible argument together anymore, and the frustration sent me away for another glass and to enjoy the last light of that glorious evening to watch urban bats out on the deck with Erin.
Most challenging of all, however, was dealing with the fact that I had a tremendous amount I wanted to say, but a personal mandate here to try and deliver a message that was unique. Council would hear a reiteration of staff facts, figures and conclusions from other supporters. The disconnect, as I saw it, was between dry facts and visceral instinctive understanding. What does the effect of transit improvement on lifestyle change look like at a personal level?
And that's where I felt that I could contribute. iXpress on its own isn't going to have the broad transformative effect we need, but it has affected some, and Erin and I are among them. And that's where having an archive of six years' worth of LiveJournal was extremely helpful: I have posts written about my perspectives and experiences going through that phase of transit adoption.
Still, there were things that I had to cut out of that story. For all that iXpress serves as a proof of concept for a higher order transit line, I wanted to talk more about its limitations:
1. iXpress, as a bus service, doesn't register on our radar. It did not prevent my workplace from moving from its old location on Parkside and Weber to where it now resides out at Northfield and Bridge. (This move partly precipitated Erin and I to relocate so that I could access a different bus to reach it.)
Even though there was some transit use at the old location, our office did not deem access to iXpress to be different than access to the wandering neighbourhood slow bus that is the 35. And we gave up on what would be a fabulous location in an LRT world.
2. I no longer take iXpress, even though I could. I frequently opt for a 35 to 7 connection at Conestoga Mall but never a 35 to iXpress connection. The reason is that iXpress isn't so quick anymore, because it has tremendously long loading times around the universities. It also remains absolutely cheek-to-jowl past Grand River Hospital. I can sit safely ensconced by a window for that trip, but disembarking is a difficult and annoying and elbow-inhaling and knapsack-dodging affair.
iXpress definitely has more headroom available to it, as it is only now moving from 15 to 10 minute headways, and could reasonably double its capacity one more time. The key thing is, though, that its capacity end is already in sight-- not helpful for long term planning. And my experience would be echoed by others. A crowded bus is not a transit attractor.
I felt that these were important points to make to Council but I just couldn't make them fit without breaking the flow. So I decided to stay focused on the story of how I got to where I am, and accept that I wouldn't get to say everything I wanted. And from the commentary I've heard since, it sounds like I made a strong point. Certainly the Record borrowed from my speech this morning, and the twitter pundit feedback was very positive. Of course, with the latter comes the warning about preaching to the converted...
It was a tremendous experience, though. A decade on stage gave me the confidence and my voice, years of workplace idea evangelism gave me the words, but I was still a bundle of nerves and freezing cold from the stress response (and, as well, the overactive air conditioning) until I was done.
And then, there was beer.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Good evening everyone. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you all. I appreciate the time that Council is putting into hearing us out, especially in light of how many have chosen to speak over these two nights!
My name is Chris Klein. I’ve lived in KW for exactly half of my life, since arriving here to attend the University of Waterloo. My spouse, Erin, is also a UW grad, and before that, an alumnus of Galt Collegiate in Cambridge. Today we live in Kitchener, literally on Waterloo’s border: our property abuts the city line. I’ve worked in the tech industry here for over a decade, and am currently a manager at an engineering software company in north Waterloo. And I am a transit user.
Over the past few months, we have heard support for LRT from numerous groups: Communitech, the KW Chamber of Commerce, Canada’s Technology Triangle, Sustainable Waterloo, and Barnraisers, to name a few. Organizations with an interest in the economy, environment and development of Waterloo Region seem to be overwhelmingly positive on LRT, because these organizations see benefit from a project that is expected to improve each of those things. And yet, this level of support does not translate over to the people of Waterloo Region who would be asked to pay for it. There, we see broad division in what the best alternative for Rapid Transit is.
I think this is entirely understandable. It’s a hard sell when you ask us whether we want this big “thing” that will cost lots of money and maybe help “us”. Like the organizations I mentioned before, people look at how they would benefit from this. We are all driven by self-interest.
I could talk about curbing sprawl and the costs of inaction and how reduction of car traffic benefits drivers and so on, but none of that is “real”. The problem is, many people oppose this plan because they just don’t see themselves using transit. So it’s very easy to dismiss any community benefit as dubious and suspect. For a large percentage of our population, the price tag is the only thing that is real.
I’d like to address those who have no use for transit and can’t imagine how we will find riders. I want to relate how I went from being a full-time driver to a transit user right here in Waterloo.
I used to be ignorant of GRT, having dismissed it in 1998 when I graduated university and bought my first car, the kind of falling-apart junker that only a starving ex-student could love. But it was my car, and after that I never needed a bus. Fast-forward a couple of cars later to 2005, when I lived in Belmont Village. My spouse and I both had our own cars then, and both drove to work and everywhere else, every day. But, someone at work told me about a new bus that was starting up in just a few weeks that I might be interested in, so I looked into it. That new bus, of course, was iXpress.
I learned that this bus would run only every half an hour (can you imagine that?), but it could pick me up at Grand River Hospital and drop me off fairly close to work. With limited stops it could do that trip in reasonable time. I would have to walk twenty minutes to make it work, but... it looked like it was worth a try. If I could handle it, then maybe we only needed one car. Selling mine would mean a lot of money back in my pocket-- a big deal, since we were saving up to buy a house.
So, I tried it out. To my surprise, I learned that I preferred taking transit, because it was less stressful. I was happier on days I didn’t drive. It took longer, door to door, but the benefit of not having to fight traffic every day, just sitting and reading on my way to work outweighed that.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that iXpress was a lot more relaxed back then. You are not guaranteed to sit anymore. You’re not even guaranteed to find room on the bus anymore.
But I digress. By the following spring, I had weaned myself off of my car, so I sold it. Erin and I have been a one car couple ever since.
The following year, we based our home-buying decision on accessibility to transit, and today we still live within walking distance of Grand River Hospital, because the equation is simple: anywhere off of the central corridor would require us to buy that second car back.
I remember a chance encounter with an ex-boss on the street on my way to the iXpress stop. When he found out I was taking the bus, he looked at me like I had two heads and asked “Why would you take the bus?” I think my answer surprised him. “Because I can.” Talk about a stigma against transit, the sort of thing we need to shake for it to be embraced.
So there it is. Better transit attracted my ridership and influenced our choice where to live. It unchained me from my car, and turned me into a user of, and now advocate for transit. I’m not alone: Better service has almost doubled Grand River Transit’s annual ridership over the last decade.
You might call us a template for what we want to achieve on a much broader scale. Transit improvement influenced us to reduce our car use and move into the core. If you want to magnify this effect, we need a more attractive transit system than what we have now, and if you attract that ridership, we will need more capacity in the central corridor than BRT can provide. Light Rail offers both of these things.
If it were up to me, I would see Light Rail from end to end in this region, and the entire proposed express bus network to support it, all in place in the next 5 years. Light Rail without a supporting system is a little like an expressway without regional roads, and some criticism that we’re scaling back other transit expansions to make this more affordable is justified.
But no matter which comes first, we will need Light Rail capacity very soon. “Option L3B” is not a perfect plan, but it is a good one. It is the one revolutionary step we must take that can be followed with much less disruptive, evolutionary ones. And there will never be a better time for us to take this step. We have the support of the Federal and Provincial governments, and we should not test their patience any longer. As our population grows, the cost of this improvement will grow out of reach, especially if our dilly-dallying costs us this financial backing.
If you think LRT is a hard sell when we cover just ⅓ of the cost, imagine the uphill battle we’ll face if we must draw the full cost from the Region’s coffers. If you support LRT but only on the condition it includes Cambridge from day one, we may never see it at all. If this Regional Council cannot bring itself to support this project now, our best opportunity to start a fundamental shift away from the car and away from sprawl will be lost.
But if you do vote in favour of this project, and we build it, I think that you’ll find that the division in this community will fade. The surest way to build support for LRT is to build LRT, and the support will come from those who are lured out of their cars by transit improvement, like I was, and who learn that they can make transit work to their benefit.
On June 15th, please vote in favour of Light Rail. Thank you.