Sunday, October 26, 2014

Election thoughts, LRT thoughts

I haven't posted here in a long while, because as the election got rolling, most of my energy went towards TriTAG, who I have been working with since 2012. Once again, we have a big LRT fight.

In the last few months, we've seen the rise of a well-funded anti-LRT crusade led by Jay Aissa. And as a result, it's the same old battles, the same old wounds reopened, and a lot more vitriol and no small amount of misinformation and unfounded arguments.

TriTAG's efforts this election were meant to be focused on the 2014 Election Candidate Survey, which has been very successful so far. That was back in the optimistic early days when we thought the election might be about tackling new issues. As time went on, it became clear that we needed to "mythbust the election" to deal directly with some of the myths being peddled by the crusaders.

On the eve of the election, I thought I would say a few words about why I got engaged with the LRT issue years ago, and why it continues to be the most important battle to win.

In 2011, we faced a choice between two very different solutions for "higher order transit". One was bus-based, and the other was rail-based. Despite the fact that LRT is more expensive, it appears to achieve its goals better: namely, shifting more people to public transit and also shifting development to focus on intensifying the core. It also provides better long term value by providing the capacity we'll need in a couple of decades.

I agreed that LRT was the better option, and that formed a large basis for my support. I also knew that to be successful, LRT alone isn't enough, but we need an entirely redesigned transit network supporting it. The fact that ION is not meant to stand alone and knowing what the central corridor would need to properly support a better bus network also made me favour it. But I also knew something else: that Light Rail would become a symbol for Waterloo Region. A symbol whose importance should not be dismissed.

We have a big problem in North America. We just don't really believe in transit. The car is king, and we can't really even conceive of how that will ever change. But time moves quickly, and as we've spent the last 60 years sprawling our cities ever outward, we need to spend the next 60 reshaping them to be viable, livable places.

Much more so than a rapid busway, light rail is a visible sign that we can alter a city's trajectory. It will be on almost every stock photo for the region, for UW, for Uptown and Downtown. It will quickly become an indelible part of our identity, and we will not tolerate anything less than success for it. Which means that LRT will open up the region to ongoing transit improvements. It will shift the attitudes of the entire population. That shift in mindset will also translate into ridership.

Whereas-- and here's the kicker-- it's unlikely that Bus Rapid Transit would be allowed to succeed.

Had we chosen BRT in 2011, I would be supporting it today. But it would face an uphill battle. The problem with BRT is its flexibility: a busway is a busway, sure... but too often, BRT systems are often watered down during the design phase. I have no doubt we'd face pressure here to cut the dedicated busway where it would be needed most. It's possible that the very definition of BRT, as a rapid bus operating on its own right of way, might even be rewritten by politicians unwilling to displace cars at all.

LRT, on the other hand, is much harder to erode. It stands a better chance of surviving to deliver on its promise.

I doubt that many of the anti-LRT crusaders are anything but just anti-transit. They'll tolerate what's there now, but if they can kill LRT while talking up BRT as "a much better option", I have no confidence they'll deliver anything like "gold standard" Bus Rapid Transit.

Helping Waterloo Region make a shift towards better mass transit is why I've been fighting so hard. We're really the first city in Ontario rolling out what transit expert Vukan Vuchic (see his Waterloo speech here) calls "medium capacity transit". LRT can bridge the gap (in terms of capacity, speed, and cost) between buses and subways, and there are half a dozen cities in Ontario that could benefit from it. But Toronto, which needs to get on building multiple LRT lines as the only affordable way to address its transit woes, has really poisoned the discussion with "Subways, subways, subways" and muddying the difference between LRT and mixed-traffic streetcars.

So it's on us. We can show the cities like London and Hamilton and Mississauga and Scarborough just how LRT can work. We can give form and value to something that some just can't imagine until they see it in action.

But first we have to finish building it.

Please vote on Monday. Vote for leaders who will make LRT a reality. A lot is riding on this train.