Wednesday, June 1, 2011

LRT Delegation Speech

Tonight, I did something I'd never done before: spoken in front of a government body. The following is the text of my speech in support of Light Rail in Waterloo Region.

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.

1 comment:

  1. That's pretty good! I don't take public transit because of where we live and the fact that I work everywhere (including Toronto), but I'm definitely in favour of LRT. Yes, it has a price I'm willing to pay as a driver for less traffic on roads, less wear and tear on roads, less construction on roads (in the long-term) as a result (I hope), and I'm hoping that when Chris (my husband) and I do buy a house, perhaps we can buy something in the core and make use of the LRT ourselves so we can do away with our car!