Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why LRT? Part 1 - Goals

This is the first of a multi-part overview on LRT in Waterloo. Like any complex topic, it takes some time to get through, so I'll spread it across multiple posts and link them together. I hope you'll bear with me, and if you have questions, comments or criticisms, please comment below.

So, one of the things I've been meaning to do here is to go into detail about the Region's transit plans, and in particular about the Rapid Transit proposal. It's obviously a big deal for Waterloo, and it's easy to oppose a major expenditure that looks risky and disruptive if you don't understand the reasoning behind it. Is this a white elephant in the making? Or is this a critical piece of our future growth?

Full Disclosure

I've been behind the Rapid Transit proposal for some time, and in particular have supported LRT as an alternative. There are many reasons for this, but I'll get one out in the forefront at the beginning: I do expect to benefit personally from transit expansion. The combination of Grand River Transit and the decision by both 'Loons to live in a central, walkable location has enabled me to be only part-time reliant on one car. I see transit improvements as a way to minimize my own car use, especially for commuting where a car just sits uselessly in the parking lot.

On top of that, being within walking distance of a proposed RT stop, I could expect to see my land value increase. Of course, that's only if one of the central arguments for Light Rail-- that it drives intensification-- holds true. And it also means I should expect my taxes to go up disproportionately in the future.

So, that's where I'm coming from.

What are we trying to accomplish, anyway?

Where to begin? How about with what we are trying to accomplish in the first place.

The Region of Waterloo expects to see 729,000 residents by the year 2031. This forecast, made in 2006, is so far right on track as we clocked in at around 545,000 at the end of 2010. The difference the next twenty years will make will be like adding another City of Kitchener inside the Region's boundaries.

Unless this growth is planned, accommodating these new residents will cause all three cities to sprawl out past their countryside borders, something the Province of Ontario doesn't want us to do. Places to Grow is a 25-year plan to handle this new growth while reducing sprawl. This means intensification: adding density to our neighbourhoods and places of work. In other words, grow upwards, not outwards.

But there's more to it than just zoning for higher density. More people living here means more people trying to get around. And with our current car-centric transportation model, that means a lot more cars on our roads.

Costs for road expansion in the next twenty years have been estimated at $1.5 billion-- not to mention the disruption and destruction caused by road widening within the city. But we can avoid some of the financial cost and the worst of the environmental effect, if we change how people get around.

If we move some trips from car to transit, the number of cars will still increase, but by a much smaller margin.

Goal 1: Reduce car usage

One of the Region's main goals with Rapid Transit is to reduce congestion. No-one is expecting us to transform into a transit-centric city overnight. The goal is simply to reduce car use rates by providing alternatives: over twenty years, the Regional Transit Master Plan wants to move transit from a 4% share of total trips to around 15%. In combination with other initiatives, the overall auto driver/passenger share would move from 85% to 70%.

It's the difference between being simply car-centric, and virtually car-dependent. But even if things go to plan, most of us will still get around primarily by car. Many of us will have other options, and all of us will benefit from a better transportation network.

We will also save about $500 million in road expenditure savings, not to mention avoiding the road expansion that money would have bought us. (Side note: another local blogger asked the Region what those additional road expansions would be, and got some answers. Take a read, he paints a grim picture.)

Goal 2: Shape our growth

Another main goal of the Region is to drive intensification into our core areas, instead of letting it happen haphazardly in low-density areas. The more we grow upwards in the core, the less we overload suburban road networks. And if these core areas are well served by transit, people living and working here will have less overall need to get around by car.

One of the main tools the Region has for shaping growth is transit. But in this area there is a difference in the mode of transit chosen. In particular, Light Rail has demonstrated in many cities to drive intensification around its stations. Even in its current stage, LRT is already driving growth around the planned station sites. Most material I've found points to LRT having a large advantage over BRT as a growth catalyst. (Including this article, which is a pretty even-handed LRT/BRT comparison.)

So, by investing in transit, the Region aims to direct growth to areas that can be better served by transit, and in doing so reduce the impact of that growth on our road network.

That's all for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll go into more detail on why LRT over BRT.

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