After the recent municipal elections, the Region of Waterloo’s transit plans are scheduled for review. After all, Rob Ford is cancelling Light Rail in Toronto. We should do the same here. </sarcasm>
I don’t believe that anyone is really suggesting that we should stop our light rail plans because of anything Toronto is saying or doing. A large part of the controversy appears to be due to the funding from the provincial government, which was less than expected. With the remaining expenses to be carried by the Region, local residents are crying foul, especially those in Cambridge, who would be getting rapid bus transit while Kitchener and Waterloo would get to ride the shiny new rails.
The alternative now being reconsidered, is rapid bus transit for all three cities. Those backing this plan suggest that ridership levels will be insufficient to support light rail, and that increased bus transit is more flexible. While it may be true that ridership will need to grow, I remain doubtful that rapid buses would have the desired effect of building up the city core.
An important question is how either project will affect transit through the rest of the cities. Rapid light rail is obviously limited to the central core. It can not be rerouted, although in the future additional lines could be built. What we can help for is the bus lines to be rerouted to feed into the central rail spine. Ideally, a bus will also go near my home, instead of a half hour walk away. I have doubts about the ability of rapid buses to alter the bus lines. Without the increase in urban densities, will rapid buses be able to build ridership fast enough to outpace traffic densities?
Last month, there was a little commuter challenge in the Waterloo Region, in which Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr, Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran, and 570 News announcer Mike Farwell traveled by Hybrid car, bus transit, and bicycle between Waterloo Town Square and Cambridge City Hall, where they were met by Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig. The results were mostly unsurprising. Transit by car is clearly the fastest, completing the journey in 33 minutes. The trip by bus completed in just under an hour. What did surprise me was that the cyclist arrived only fifteen minutes after the bus.
With the recent announcement by the federal government, promising up to $265 million dollars for the regional rapid transit plan, involving rapid light rail, I think it’s worthwhile mentioning that some areas of Waterloo Region don’t have bus service at all. When I attempt to use Grand River Transit’s trip finder to plan a trip, entering my location can’t even find me a bus that goes nearby. Using Google Maps, I find out that the nearest bus route is a half-hour walk from my house. I’m inside Kitchener city limits, and this walk would be along developed streets. It’s not like I’m walking through the woods to Grandma’s house here.
The remainder of the route would still take another hour to an hour and a quarter to complete a trip to the University of Waterloo, near where I work. I can complete the drive in under a half hour, less than the time required to walk to the nearest bus stop. Waterloo Region council can talk all they want about how awesome the rapid light rail will be, and how it will encourage higher density development along the core of the region, but until a bus route comes near my neighbourhood, I won’t be using it. Waterloo Region is still very much an automobile oriented community, and tossing money at light rail is not going to be the quick fix that some members of the community is suggesting.
What the rapid light rail plans can provide is a fast central corridor, which will supposedly build up the core of the cities. The city then needs to work on bus lines that link up to the rapid light rail line as quickly as possible. If a bus could get me from my neighbourhood to the light rail in a reasonable amount of time, the regional transit system could then start to become competitive, at least in my mind.