Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Waterloo really does bike!

There's a lot going on in Waterloo for bikes. And I'm not just talking about Waterloo Bikes (though they'll come into it). Maybe when they took the fluorine out of the water, they put something else in, because change is afoot in Waterloo-- real physical change, and change in perspective.

Uptown Protected Bike Lanes?

Let's start with the changing attitudes. I've raised the Uptown Streetscape improvement plan before but this fall it came back to the public with a preferred option. One that included bike lanes and reduced traffic lanes. That on its own really says how far we've come! We can actually talk about converting uptown's King Street away from a 4-line thoroughfare, into a complete street serving all users.

But, as proposals go, it wasn't perfect. It's the barest of concessions to bikes and doesn't really provide a welcome cycling environment to attract serious use. So Graham Roe of Waterloo Bikes, as well as yours truly, both spent some time going over the possibilities of protected bike lanes in uptown Waterloo. I put together a detailed post up on TriTAG's blog, which led to a CBC radio spot to discuss the idea. Also, a lot of great conversations during and around the public consultation.
Protected bike lane on Kinzie in Chicago

Graham has carried it further. He has spoken to the issue on radio as well, and even started and promoted a petition that edges towards one thousand signatures.

I think we've moved the needle on this one. But that is largely because it is an idea we're ready to seriously discuss, and a lot of people are realizing they'd bike if the infrastructure was accommodating. This matches what other cities have discovered-- just how many people would move around by bike if they felt it was safe and convenient.
Courtesy: Transitized

And when you throw in a study which demonstrates the rise of alternative transportation in our uptown core, we can paint a picture of a city in transition, both in thought and action.

I might have accused Waterloo in the past of losing its mojo. It seems reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

But wait... there's more.

Waterloo Interior Loop is a Real Thing, except for the Loop part

The city of Waterloo presented its latest public information centre on the so-called Interior Loop that I posted about before. Details and boards from the latest PIC are available on the city's website here.

Options have been condensed to concrete proposals and intentions. While the "Loop" aspect of the Interior Loop is still lacking a key piece on its north side, the rest of the trail has received very detailed, systematic examination.
Just two of two dozen points of improvement.

We see consistent crossing treatments, strong signage, trail infill, realignments and surface improvements. All to create a navigable, accessible trail. It's hard not to like, but easy to underappreciate-- this kind of systematic standard-setting usually just doesn't happen.

Okay, so there's still a failure to address the Weber St. crossing of the Laurel trail north of Lincoln. Only marginal improvements will be delivered there this time round. But on the other hand, we have real improvements that will be delivered in 2014, and are already budgeted.

Some of the expected (by me) local resistance to trail improvements has not emerged. In fact, I've heard support for the all-important resurfacing of Hillside Park trail from local residents along warnings about flooding problems that need to be handled.

Winter maintenance is still not on the cards, though.


Columbia St. W and Lexington Road Upgrades

Waterloo continues to knock off deficiencies in its east-west network. Out in the west end, a $10M widening project will add lanes, roundabouts, sidewalks and "raised" bike lanes to Columbia between Fischer-Hallmann and Erbsville. This marks the first use of raised or separated bike lanes in Waterloo. There's some chatter about whether the 4-to-2 lane adjustment makes sense on this stretch, but I'll leave that for others to worry about. Hopefully Waterloo also learned to do bike lanes and roundabouts better than this dangerous setup.

East of the expressway, Lexington Road may see new sidewalks, bike lanes, and a multi-use trail between Davenport and University. The Public Information Centre for this is on Wednesday 11th December at Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church (details). Can these changes be carried through successfully? It may depend on the reaction of residents on Lexington who may prefer to keep their streetscape as-is, if nobody else shows up.

I'll show up. Preserving "the look" and even a few trees can't trump basic human accessibility on foot. We're talking sidewalk on just one side, after all.

Of course, all this leaves an elephant in the room: the stretch of Lexington/Columbia between Davenport and King-- across the expressway, through four massively overspecced lanes, past a nasty choke point at Marsland and through busy Weber. This will be the hardest to deal with, but as I've pointed out before, the most necessary. Waterloo has already blinked once, but as the rest of this corridor comes together, it gets harder and harder to ignore.

What I'm wondering: with a proposed south-side multi-use trail east of the expressway, has someone tipped their hand? Does the city have something up their sleeve for overpass improvements? Has MTO softened their stance on bridge changes to improve walking and cycling?

What about Kitchener?

That's what's great about living in these twin cities. We have two (or four, including Cambridge and the regional government) chances to see good things done well. Of course, it's also two (or four) times as hard getting broad sweeping improvements through region-wide. You take what you can get.

Today, though, Waterloo gets the spotlight. They're bringing some really positive change forward, and more exciting change seems tantalizingly close.

Let's make it happen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Waterloo Trail Improvements - summary

These are based on my recollections and conversations at the open house Wednesday.

The "Interior Loop Trail" (contest to come up with a name!) was the showcase of the proposal, and was generally positive, though with some caveats.

Link to PDF

Overall, it's ambitious (as trail improvement plans go) to address this route so systematically, and with (according to staff) a lot of potential for change to take place even in the next year. Creating a loop enables a lot of different trips, not just back and forth from uptown, but from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in the north. Improving the quality and consistency of the trail, and taking a serious stab at wayfinding aids, are also welcome.

In addition, a lot of intersections and crossings would be improved. Not a huge amount of detail here, but again the term "systematic" really jumps to mind. Virtually every trail segment and intersection has been looked at.


As you can see, it won't be a "loop" for a while. In the north is a large section that remains to be worked out, with a couple of possibilities (working out an agreement with Waterloo Inn if/when they redevelop, or following city-owned land close to the highway). But they're still conceptual.

Another small gap lies in Uptown, in the King St. area, though that's not surprising given the LRT construction plans. Also, LRT is responsible for delaying surface improvements in Waterloo Park. But, the same project may yield opportunities to extend paths and trails along the rail corridor up to Northfield and beyond (...St. Jacobs?) This intriguing possibility was raised by Jan D'ailly, chair of the Waterloo advisory committee on active transportation (WACAT).

Other noteworthy items:

Carter and Mackay streets (between Weber and University on the south-east side of the loop) are being proposed with sharrows. I had a discussion with a staffer about whether this was appropriate or desirable. These streets are very low volume wide residential streets, with sparsely used on-street parking. It could be that sharrows will be benign here, and useful wayfinding devices. It struck me as an odd context to apply sharrows in, though.

The proposed trail crossing at Weber/Mackay is still a work in progress. A couple of options were presented. This crossing will be a challenge, but also of great benefit.

Big picture:

The trail system in Waterloo is still disjoint and inconsistent, but this proposal would be a major step in bringing it together if it is followed through.

For cycling, the way we should look at the trail system is as a place where very casual or novice cyclists of any age should feel comfortable and confident to ride. Unfortunately with all of the current breaks, bad intersections and lack of signage, they are not so appealing. When a gentle trail is interrupted by 4 lanes of speeding traffic without any crossing, it is effectively a dead end for many people.

The city of Waterloo should be congratulated for attacking this problem. It's not a perfect proposal, and it's not a complete solution. But as incremental improvements go, this one is bigger than most.

Now we need to see it happen. And that's where we come in: to provide feedback and shape the proposal, and then to be willing to speak to council about the benefits it will bring.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Waterloo Trail Improvements Open House: TONIGHT!

The City of Waterloo is proposing big trail improvements over the next few years. There is an open house on the trail improvements tonight:

Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Waterloo City Centre (City Hall)
100 Regina Street South

If you walk or cycle in the city of Waterloo and in particular on the trails below, you should check out for more information and drop in tonight!

Original PDF here

Note: For those with sharp eyes (it's come up a couple of times) University Avenue at Carter/Hillside Trail is not listed for crossing improvements because a crossing island is already planned there for 2014 as part of regional road reconstruction.

But don't let that stop you from coming down to the open house! This proposal deserves support and maybe you can help provide some constructive criticism.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Welcome back, Mayor Craig

It's refreshing to see Mayor Craig back in the transit debate. None of the councilors deserved to have their voices silenced, especially both the project's biggest critic (Craig) and its biggest supporter (Seiling).

Still, I was surprised by Craig's approach to this issue. He has proposed, essentially, that we should find out how much money it would cost to waste taxpayer's money. It was a curious idea, but the more I think about it, the more I realize Waterloo region is lacking a certain something that every other level of government has displayed: we aren't wasting incredible sums of money by cancelling projects.

Nobody in our region has blown hundreds of millions canceling gas plants. We haven't set a giant pile of money on fire, like Ottawa did, canceling an O-train extension and then having to spend billions more on a replacement plan for LRT just five years later. And Mr. Craig pointed it out himself-- "Toronto is cancelling things left and right"-- we have a long, long way to go before we can match the Big Smoke's ability to pile taxpayers' money into trucks, drive it off a cliff into the ocean and never see it again.

But with inspired leadership like this, we can get there. Mayor Craig says we can still cancel this rapid transit project that has remained stubbornly on time and on budget. His plan will make us a true Ontario city, stagnant and short-sighted, and we'll find out exactly how much money we can spend to get absolutely nothing.

Or perhaps not completely nothing. After all, that money will buy votes in the next election. And by gum, if that's not worth it, then my name ain't Douglas Craig.

This was originally written for the Record, but it seems they have an editorial which makes all the same points, in the same order, maybe with less sarcasm and more polish. Perhaps there was some cross-pollination... I don't mind, but I like my version better.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ions and Anions

It's been a long journey, but Waterloo is getting its trains.

Like this train. Only bigger, and not made of cardboard.

With the signing of a $92.5M deal that was approved by Council on Wednesday, we are seeing the first really big commitment of funds to the rapid transit project. This brings a sense of relief: the project is becoming real.

The project is not without its detractors, of course. Back before the 2011 approval, we had T4ST-- a group of Taxpayers, ostensibly "4" Sensible Transit, but some of whom just seemed to be "4" No Transit, or anything that costs money-- that they could see, of course. Billions on roads pass by uncriticized, but the rapid transit project was a very visible target.

Still, since the 2011 vote, they've largely fallen quiet.

Quiet, like an efficient light rail system whooshing by in a cloud of delicious urbanism.

The news, lately, has been about a certain Ted Livingston, founder of Kik and born-again rapid transit opponent. Ted is an intelligent and passionate man, with a progressive bent and a desire to see a walkable Waterloo (though it's not clear if he means Waterloo the region, or Waterloo the city.) He is strongly opposed to LRT. And his concerns should not be dismissed.

But they should also not be garnering quite as much press as they have. Ted's qualifications are that he's an intelligent and passionate man, and that he's founded a tech company in the region-- well, that puts him one up (well, maybe two up) on me, but it doesn't make him an expert in urban planning.

So far, Ted's approach to the walkability problem has been a very tech-startup approach. In other words, every problem is a technical problem, and every problem can be tackled from scratch. A central thesis of Ted's approach to walkability is to focus all development on a single core within the region, and the expense of everywhere else. Within this single core, everything is in reach on foot, and both driving and transit are unnecessary. So why spend money on LRT?

On top of this, he demands that an investment in LRT should be mathematically justifiable. Now... this may be possible, but it requires agreeing with the goals and strategy driving this decision and that reflect the reality of our region. If those goals are dismissed, the justification holds no weight for you. And Ted is quick to dismiss goals that are based on mobility in a region with multiple nodes and corridors. A region like... ours.

A region that puts its best face forward?

But perhaps Ted has a point. What if we could take a startup approach to city building? With all constraints thrown aside, we could achieve something truly innovative...

... Slight problem: startups usually fail. Startups test risky solutions to problems, and when a solution is a good one, things turn out fantastic for those involved, but everyone is really, really surprised... because it just doesn't happen very often. Success is the exception.

So I hope I can be forgiven for being suspicious of any argument that doesn't allow for who we are and what we have now. Waterloo is an incubator of startups, a place where ideas can be rapidly tested in an environment that welcomes and encourages innovation. As a city or a region, though, it can't be run like a startup gamble. There's a lot more than venture capital at stake.

But still-- business acumen is business acumen, and Ted has it. This lends his words weight. (And we do like a good controversy and narrative, so media has fanned the small flame he has lit.)

But we should also acknowledge all of the other voices of the business community who have spoken for LRT and rapid transit. Google. Agfa. Open Text. Desire2Learn. The Perimeter Institute. Colliers. The KW Chamber of Commerce. Communitech-- the same Communitech that works to create the right conditions for companies like Kik to come into existence and thrive. Even plucky startups like Snapsort, who produced a strongly positive and evocative (and, to be fair, sometimes wildly inaccurate) infographic supporting LRT, proving that it's not just the big fish who have this opinion.

All sorts of people do.

So... that's Ted. Someone who is making a sincere attempt to boil the LRT project down to a single metric, but won't hold still long enough to listen to a chain of reasoning that leads him away from it, and hasn't learned that running a city is not the same as running a startup that can bankrupt and be discarded the moment it goes disfunctional. None the less, I'm still trying to reach out to him. Being for walkability, and seeking to understand complexity (or at least going through the motions), makes him different from other more one-dimensional LRT opponents.

"You remember that one person who wanted us to never invest any money at all for any reason ever?"

Now, let's move on to someone else: Mayor Brenda Halloran. On Wednesday, she chose to vote "no" to a train order that had come in $2.5M under budget. Citing concerns about the cost and our ability to fund social programs, Halloran has decided to keep carrying the anti-LRT torch she held aloft in 2011.

In 2011, that was fine. In 2011, I seem to recall her saying that she would not be obstructive if council decided to proceed with rapid transit. In 2011, she made a decision to listen to her constituents, and there were enough voices to make her vote no. She took a reasonable position in 2011, even if I don't agree with it.

Nor, I suspect, did he.

Fast forward to 2013, and on the table is a vehicle order, procured with imagination and daring, for a price millions under budget. And Halloran voted: no. Even as Councillor Brewer of Cambridge voted yes to bring this project forward while expressing Cambridge's unhappiness about their LRT being relegated to a future stage 2, Waterloo's mayor expressed a desire to stop this process in its tracks.

There is no way to interpret this except as a decision by the mayor to be seen opposing this project. And in doing so-- on a motion that is a shining example of a well-run project-- she has abdicated the ability to hold this project to a high standard of fiscal management and restraint. By voting "no" when things are done well, she will have no influence at all when she perceives something is not meeting her standard. (Unless she can somehow vote "no" twice?)

In other words, I believe she has decided that opposing the project all the way down is better than being a steward of the biggest project in Waterloo region history.

Better for who, though?

Better for this dufus pressing the red button marked "DO NOT PRESS".

Still. It's 2013, over two years since this blog started, and over two years since the big issue that got me interested in local affairs was given the green light to proceed. Today I got to see a tangible piece of the real deal on a trailer in front of regional headquarters; I got to hear the vision and determination of many of our local leaders; I felt like Waterloo region really has seized the opportunity to pull itself out of the sprawl trap that so many other cities struggle in.

We are, after all, a city-- a region-- of innovation. But we're also a city-- a region-- of history and tradition. We build on our rich pasts. We get things done here. And we move forward.

Bring on the Ion.

ION LOADING... [---> 40%            ]

Thursday, June 6, 2013

155 Caroline: deadline approaches, have your say

On Monday, Waterloo council will consider the approval of zoning changes and public land disposal that will enable the construction of 155 Caroline St. and reroute the Iron Horse trail. It is not a development that I have been in favour of, and my thoughts on why were summed up over a year ago here.

And if you want to speak to council on the matter, please see here for lots of helpful links. Do you think this is the right thing to do? Do you disagree? This is a good time to be heard.

As for my opinion, I'll just put here what I sent to the mayor and city councilors. To sum up, I could be talked into rerouting the trail, if there is an overall public benefit. But no such benefit is in the offing, at best what we have faced is damage control.

I am writing to express my concern about the city of Waterloo staff recommendation to dispose of a portion of the Iron Horse trail to allow for the development of 155 Caroline. I believe that the current plan represents a disregard for the public realm, and a missed opportunity for Waterloo to show leadership in developing a better Uptown.

To be clear, I am not advocating that the Iron Horse trail "must not be altered under any circumstances". Rather, I believe that the city of Waterloo has failed to ensure that the disposal of a key piece of public infrastructure results in an overall public benefit.

Developers are free to build within the codes and zoning laws put in place by the city. But cities routinely use variances and zoning changes beneficial to development as "carrots" to encourage development to a higher standard.

The disposal and land transfer of a portion of the Iron Horse Trail is the mother of all carrots. It creates an incredibly lucrative opportunity for the developer. In exchange for a favour of this magnitude, the developer should bring forward a plan that creates a significant improvement for the city of Waterloo and for residents in surrounding neighbourhoods.

Instead, what we have seen is a substandard proposal from a corporation that wants to do this its own way. Its response to numerous concerns and complaints have been to make superficial changes to limit the damage. My own conversations with the developer revealed an unwillingness to change anything meaningful, only to allay (and sometimes belittle) people's concerns.

Since city staff have been so accepting of a mediocre outcome, it falls on your shoulders to reject this proposal and demand better. There is tremendous opportunity to create a development here that is beneficial to all, that creates a sense of place, that follows smart intensification practices, and leverages our investment in active transportation and transit.

Most of all there is a massive opportunity for the city of Waterloo to raise the bar on what it considers good development.

Please reject the disposal of the Iron Horse trail and zoning changes for 155 Caroline on Monday.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pick your poison, Waterloo

On Monday, I visited Waterloo city council to say a few words in support of zoning changes for a fairly unremarkable new development along King Street between uptown and downtown: 220-226 King Street South. Unremarkable in that the building is a fairly simple 6 story mixed-use building, the kind that we hope to see King lined with in the not-too-distant future.

But one of the reasons I wanted to speak was to compliment the developer for seeking the minimum amount of possible parking under current zoning rules. 49 units, with 49 total parking spaces (minimum 1 per unit, and using a formula to get "credit" for commercial parking spaces they would otherwise need to provide.)

The importance of this needed to be highlighted, because (predictably) council was not concerned about the impact of additional residents and businesses on the traffic load on King Street and uptown, but rather about the spectre of parking infiltration into surrounding neighbourhoods if there is "inadequate" parking on site.

Insufficient parking scares people, especially immediate neighbours. This has led to stringent zoning rules across North America: Thou Shalt Provide Thy Own Parking. It solved the parking problem, but how many new problems has this policy created?

A "solved problem".
Residents in the uptown Waterloo area have another big concern these days, one that uptown ward councilor Melissa Durrell has been so keenly aware of that she is putting together a "summit" to deal with it: traffic. Traffic is exploding in uptown. As the area grows and becomes more vital, there have been a lot of complaints of increasing traffic woes, the threat of traffic infiltrating mature neighbourhoods, and resistance to new developments because of the (in)ability of local roads to sustain the extra trips.

Here's the rub: Parking generates traffic. By solving the parking problem and supplying everyone with abundant free parking on site, we've induced a lot of traffic into existence.

"Induced traffic" usually refers to a the way road expansion tends to generate new trips, thus leading to a vicious circle of traffic congestion that is only briefly solved by each expansion. It has been shown to work in reverse, too: freeway removal has paradoxically improved congestion, as traffic just disappears. Low-value trips that had been induced into existence by high-capacity, high speed roadways were no longer attractive.

But parking, in particular free, abundant parking is also responsible for inducing traffic. This article puts it bluntly: "...the demand for driving is elastic, dependent upon the amount of driving and parking space that is made available"

In four years (or less), King Street outside of this new development will be one lane each way. The centre lanes will be replaced by LRT, which will greatly increase their capacity for moving people... but will remove their ability to move cars.

At the same time, we can and should expect many more mid-rise and high-rise developments to focus on the central transit corridor. People are screaming about traffic now. So what can we do?

We can reduce parking.

Recognize this?

Waterloo should revisit its zoning rules and decide whether it wants parking woes or traffic woes. A first step would be to reduce parking requirements below what they are now. The proposed new regulations for Northdale might be a good starting point, OMB challenges notwithstanding... altering the parking calculations there has already provided a development proposal with a lightened parking burden. But what's good for students within walkable distance of universities is good for the general public within walkable distances of urban cores. We really need break below the floor of 1 parking space per residential unit, and provide ways for commercial development to be possible without devoting swathes of land or bags of money to parking.

And we need to take a long, hard look at core development proposals being built with excessive parking. 155 Uptown's upcoming zoning change and land disposition will push aside the Iron Horse trail for about 190 new units, and over 300 parking spots on a network of streets ill-suited to heavy traffic movement. Or how about the proposed 31 Alexandra Avenue, currently planned with 1.5 parking spots for each of the 152 units it would place within easy stroll of both uptown and LRT.

Pedestrian-hostile "parking podiums" like this Kitchener example may become commonplace in Waterloo.

These high-parking developments will encourage a high rate of car ownership among residents. And while I've heard justifications that "these cars will just sit there" from development representatives' own mouths, I don't know how they intend to enforce this behaviour. We should expect that such an abundance of parking will quickly burn up any semblance of traffic capacity we have in uptown.

Of course, if we have a lower rate of car ownership in uptown, we won't just curb the traffic impact of intensification. We'll also see more people out on the streets, more cyclists and more transit users. Local businesses will benefit, and they in turn will require less parking. Ultimately, the space we would have used (and the costs we would have borne) for creating car storage can go to more productive use, and a denser, more vibrant uptown.

In the meantime, if there's pressure for parking, we can treat it like a market commodity and price it until the demand meets supply.


We can follow the patterns of the last 50 years, build more parking than we'll ever need, and live with the congestion and the slow encroachment of cars into every public space. By continuing our car dependence, our attempt to intensify will be derailed, as our road network won't support additional density.

So, Waterloo? What's your poison? Parking woes or traffic woes?

While you're thinking, here's some great graphics about the amount of space parking costs us with new development.

Monday, May 13, 2013

An inconvenient truth about cycling by the rules

Battling cyclist entitlement

The Atlantic Cities has posted an excellent opinion article called "Cyclists aren't 'special' and shouldn't play by their own rules". The author, Sarah Goodyear, points to Chicago enacting higher fines for dangerous motorist actions, but also for cyclist rule-breaking. Praising its even-handedness, she states the following:

I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.

If cycling will truly become mainstream, the author emphasizes, it must shed its renegade/outsider trappings and become a team player in our urban environment. As a cyclist, she sees it as a very personal decision:

I am trying to see myself as an ambassador for bicycling and to break the bad habits I formed over years of biking on streets designed solely for cars. If I am going to fight back against the forces that want to intimidate and marginalize me when I am on my bike, I think that riding as squeaky clean as possible is my best strategy these days. The balance has shifted, and with the advent of bike share, modeling good behavior is going to be more vital than ever. Not just to prove the naysayers wrong, but also to be truly safer riders.

And I agree. I try very hard to bike legally and cleanly in a civil and accommodating manner. I too have bad habits formed over the years of biking in an environment designed for automobiles that I suppress. I sometimes see that desire to have our cake and eat it too amongst other cycling advocates and I try to avoid it myself. And yet...

And yet...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Changing Orbits, Charged Particles and Scientific Principles

No posts for a while, so let's cover a number of topics. Today's topic theme: Science! It's what's for breakfast.

Changing Orbits

I remember the downtown Kitchener of the 90's. Like many long-time residents, this memory has coloured my perception.

In 2007, despite being within walking distance of downtown Kitchener from a house we owned on Cherry St., our lives revolved around uptown Waterloo. Which proved to be an inconvenience because we now faced a 35-40 minute walk to get there. But I remember our first weekend at that place, walking into the downtown, looking for somewhere to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon... and drawing a complete blank.

In 2009, we decided to move-- not too far away, over to Peltz Avenue. Today is the 4 year anniversary of moving into the house we still live in. Our lives still revolved around uptown Waterloo, but my workplace was now out at Northfield and Bridge (and still is)-- transit options had forced our hand.

In 2012, I observed that we were heading into downtown Kitchener nearly as often as uptown Waterloo. The opening of places like McCabes and Firkin paved the way, we re-discovered the Boathouse, and then later in the year Imbibe became a frequent attraction.

Fast-forward to a Sunday afternoon's walk home from the Boathouse last weekend.

A Sunday lunch and pint overlooking the lake. What's not to like?
On that walk home, we observed that we're now downtown Kitchener for our dining options most of the time. Uptown hasn't quite fallen out of favour, it just has less to offer (apart from patios... so we may see a summer resurgence.)

Then, we stopped off to opportunistically check out an open house on Heins Street, very close to Victoria Park. And it was tempting. And I realized: the constraints to our location (I want to maintain a low car commuting rate to allow us to share just one car) is loosening due to transit improvements! The rerouted 35 (it'll be renamed 6) provides immediate benefit for direct travel to work. The new iXpress routes allow for better connections to Waterloo destinations off the mainline. And, of course, LRT is coming.

Taken together, it made the idea of living closer to downtown Kitchener-- its attractions and its renewal-- much more appealing. We aren't exactly raring to move. But this is an eye-opening realization.

Speaking of LRT...

Charged Particles

It'll be called "ion". Well, what can I say?

I'll say that I really don't care as long as they don't get it wrong. The name is okay.

I'll tell you what I do care about: this result from the branding telephone survey. It's not about the name, it's about 305 random people's perceptions of the Rapid Transit project:

Whoah. That's 47% favourable to 23% unfavourable. People who are still carrying on with the narrative that "nobody wants LRT" need to consider the distinct possibility that they are in an echo chamber, convinced their voices are the only ones.

(Since the theme is Science-- and apparently breakfasts-- I'll point out that this confidence interval calculator shows that 305 random participants is enough for a usual standard in survey confidence: answers are +/- 5%, 95% of the time. Even on a regional population of 550,000. Unless there is something flawed in the sampling method, with margins like this, it is extremely unlikely-- much less than 5%, to be sure-- that unfavourables are greater than favourables, let alone close to it.)

Okay, let's move on from statistics. It is one of my least favourite sciences.

Scientific Principles

Oh irony. Looks like we're still on statistics.

Kitchener has decided to try sharrows on King Street (along with a number of other measures.) These sharrows are an important step to encourage better road sharing between motorists and cyclists.

I spoke to council and wrote about this topic on behalf of TriTAG. The sharrows are important, but what really gets us excited is that Kitchener is going to measure the effects of the change with cycling counts before and after!

And why shouldn't they measure? We want to know if this sort of thing works. We want to know what works well, and what doesn't, so that we can use that information when choosing future improvements... or to fix and correct flaws that are keeping good ideas from reaching their full potential.

Just last week I was cycling on King St. in downtown Kitchener, taking the lane. Sharrows or no, the legal right exists to take the full traffic lane if there is not enough room for a car to safely pass. The sharrows merely remind everyone about the expectation.

The funny part was, traffic was moving so slow that I went to the sidewalk and (also legally) walked my bike to my destination and it was faster. But that's something you can do when your conveyance doesn't weigh two tons or is the size of small room.


I can't make this section title fit with the Science theme, but everyone likes bonus Science. Since starting this post, I discovered that the City of Waterloo is restarting its Uptown Streetscape improvement project. This project is looking at how to fix the situation in Uptown (north of Erb) where traffic lanes are of substandard width and sidewalks are narrow and crappy in the urban core of the city. It could (and in my opinion should) result in the removal of 1 or 2 traffic lanes.

This change makes complete sense to me, because King Street south of the Town Square will only have 2 traffic lanes in just a couple short years due to the Rapid Transit construction. So why continue with this fantasy that we can have a major arterial road through the pedestrian heart of the city?

This project was going through consultations in 2010, but was suspended in 2011 because the details of RT project would affect things so much. But now the project is restarting. We should soon hear news of new public consultations.

Waterloo needs only look a few kilometres down King Street for the inspiration they need. Kitchener has done a fantastic job with their King reconstruction, and the model could work in uptown.

And on that note, I'll wrap this post up.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Encouraging Developments

Edit: video was moved to a new location, link fixed.

It's sometimes hard to spot concrete evidence of actual progress in our community on a week-to-week, month-to-month scale. But if you look closely, the signs are there. Kitchener-Waterloo is evolving.

A major obstacle in the face of intensification-- namely, mandatory parking minimums in new development-- is starting to erode. There are two reasons why parking minimums are so damaging to urban areas:
  • Vehicle use is ultimately a function of the space devoted to vehicle storage. An oversupply of parking encourages car use over other modes, even when that contributes to congestion and when a car is not necessary for certain trips.
  • People love free parking, but the cost of providing it is high: borne in construction costs for buildings which must provide parking structures to hit their target density, or more often just borne in wasted surface space that spreads a city apart like stretching at a piece of fabric. This decrease in density, in turn, makes the city less navigable without a car.
Ever been to the Sunrise centre? Have you parked at one store, shopped, and then driven to your next stop within the same plaza? I know I have. And the reasons are (a) there is an incredible abundance of parking that I can get close to each store, and (b) the incredible abundance of parking pushes all of these stores so far apart around a windswept, concrete expanse that I don't want to walk. These traits apply doubly for the ironically named "Boardwalk".

The blight even divides Uptown from surrounding neighbourhoods.

Cities in North America have mandated parking minimums built into their zoning rules for virtually every use, on the logic that a new development will increase the need for parking (which is often true). But parking is created in such quantities, and for singular purpose, that taken as a whole there is vastly more parking than we need in virtually all parts of our communities. And often when parking is tight, there is still plenty of supply available, but a territoriality (Parking for Customers Only!) that precludes using it.

That's just the supply side, and I'm not going to touch the demand side beyond suggesting you google "The High Cost of Free Parking" by Donald Shoup.

Back to KW.

This massive Sun Life parking lot straddles the border of Kitchener and Waterloo.

We're not yet at the point where our municipalities are ready to sit down and say "fine, no parking minimums". Our downtowns are (in my opinion) quite ready to let the market drive the amount of parking a new development should provide, but our governments are not ready to make the leap even for our densest, best transit-served areas. But the good news is, we are inching closer.

The Transit Hub at Victoria & King

Aiming to combine LRT, bus, GO, VIA and Greyhound all at the same location-- along with residential and commercial uses, the block bordered by King, Victoria, Duke and the CN tracks has (I believe) now been zoned with a reduced parking minimum of 0.7 spots per dwelling unit for the residential use. (There will also be parking for other purposes at the site.)

This is important, because it will mean that many new residents at this location-- possibly the most accessible location without a car anywhere west of the GTA in Ontario-- will purchase units without a parking spot at all.

It also sets a precedent that Kitchener is open to negotiating on parking minimums. If the market doesn't justify a certain level of parking, developers will be happy to forgo the expense of it, and it appears that at King and Victoria at least, these conditions are expected to exist.

Interestingly, diagonally across the street is the One Victoria development. The company building this, too, is seeking reductions in parking minimums. If there's anywhere in KW this is justifiable, this corner that has access to All The Transit has got to be that place.

Now all the downtown needs is a supermarket.

Meanwhile, what's going on north of the border? Last we checked, Waterloo seemed to be struggling with its priorities, as the 155 Caroline project edges ever closer to approval, bringing to Uptown an overabundance of parking and a rerouting of the Iron Horse trail. In addition, the University neighbourhoods are sporting many a stucco-clad monstrosity, building after building of 5-bedroom student slums driven by existing zoning rules that drives a 1 parking spot per apartment minimum.

But wait... change is afoot. The first fruit of Waterloo's new Northdale zoning rules (which aren't properly in effect thanks to appeals to our ever-meddling OMB) are on the horizon.

300 Phillip Street, Waterloo

A new development is being proposed at the Ontario Seed location for a property package along Phillip that also reaches to Columbia Street. Four buildings are planned, along with significant surface parking. It doesn't look very inspiring, but it manages to do a lot of things right:

  • Mixed use, providing some actual street presence
  • Mixed unit sizes, with 1, 2 and 3 bedroom units that will have much broader appeal than 5-bedroom dormitory apartments
  • A reduced parking requirement of ~0.65 spots per unit. 

Waterloo! I'm impressed! But how is this development possible?

The new zoning rules which (as I mentioned) are not in effect yet allow for a per-bed parking rate of 0.25. This allows for developments that are much more healthy than one full of five-bedroom units. Unfortunately, the 5br buildings we have accumulated will be a legacy we must live with for the next few decades.

The city and the developer have worked together to craft this proposal so that it could be considered as a zoning change. The result is a couple hundred fewer parking spots, as well as a design which brings a good street presence to Phillip and a mix of apartments that are in woefully short supply in this area. Bravo Waterloo.

The Community Building Strategy

The Central Transit Corridor project has published a draft Community Building Strategy report (available on their website). It is an impressive and comprehensive document, covering many aspects of how we can transform our city. A necessary component of the CBS is Transit Oriented Development (TOD), a set of guidelines that will allow central areas to intensify with better environments and a reduced emphasis on automobile travel. This includes reduced parking.

And it is not a moment too soon. The rapid transit project, as soon as it was passed by regional council in 2011, unleashed a lot of pent-up demand for development that had been holding its breath and waiting for a final decision.

Since then we have seen many interesting new developments, but also a few examples that aren't so flattering in light of what our goals are. The aforementioned 155 Caroline, as well as the "Northfield Station" project, are examples of Transit Proximate Development: denser development that fails to take advantage of transit, or contribute to making the place pedestrian friendly or accessible.

The CBS is badly needed: it must become a reality, and survive the transition from strategy to implementation. The sooner, the better.


The municipal staff and councils of Kitchener and Waterloo deserve a pat on the back and congratulation for the positive steps they have taken, but this is only the beginning.

We run the risk of intensifying in ways that undermine our urban environment, and leave us with a city that is still lacking at the human scale. We are in a period of precedent setting, where the pattern of future development can still be influenced by what we do now.

There are many positive steps being taken, and our local governments show they understand the challenge they face. And yet, there is still considerable danger that we will not rise to the challenge, that we let past habits and status quo bind us to obsolete and misguided goals.

Parking is just one small aspect of the complex interconnectedness of a modern city. Our need for it will not go away, but we must learn the difference between feeding this need, and legislated gluttony. All things in moderation, and that definitely includes parking. Otherwise, we are going to have a lot of trouble staying in shape... and getting around.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Waterloo GRT Improvements: Modified!

Heads up: the previous post on this topic contained a description of the proposed 2013 GRT improvements that has since been modified.

Here's the new map:

You may need to click through to see it in detail, or view the original PDF.

One big change: the 201 iXpress will not run to Blackberry campus. Instead the 202 iXpress will extend from RIM campus to Conestoga Mall.

This is a bit of a surprise, but the lesson is never assume something is final until it is final. Even this plan may be subject to change, based on public feedback, online or at one of the PCCs:

Monday, March 1812 p.m. to 4 p.m.
University of Waterloo
Student Life Centre, Great Hall
200 University Ave. W., Waterloo
Tuesday, March 194 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Kitchener Waterloo Bilingual School, Gymnasium
600 Erb St. W., Waterloo
Thursday, March 21 (This PCC will include information on the proposed 2013 Fare Change)
4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church, Chapel
245 Lexington Rd., Waterloo
Friday, March 22 (This PCC will include information on the proposed 2013 Fare Change)
12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Wilfrid Laurier University
Fred Nichols Campus Centre, Concourse
75 University Ave. W., Waterloo

 Happy travels!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Waterloo GRT improvements

Attention: Details of this post are now out of date. Please see the updated details here.

The latest regional council Planning & Works agenda contain details of GRT's proposed service improvements for later this year. I wrote about this previously when multiple options were being presented to the public. They've taken in the feedback, and are now coming back with a single proposal for public consultation.

And, it is good. Very, very good.

(You'll probably need to click through to see it legibly.)

Grand River Transit has taken feedback to heart, especially from those of us who encourage them to look for opportunities to move our transit routing strategy away from hub-and-spoke and towards grids. Here's how they have done so:

  • Route 35 provides very direct north-south service along Bridge and Lancaster, with time-wasting loops cut out.
  • Route 6 trades its Downtown Kitchener destination for Uptown Waterloo, and interlined with the 5, it provides a solid east-west gridline.
  • Route 31 runs virtually all of Columbia/Lexington right across town: it no longer enters U of W campus.
Of course, there is also the major addition of the University Avenue express, which doesn't quite stick to University Ave in the west end but still cuts an easily understood path across town. 201 iXpress is also extended, to cover the densest portions of Columbia before turning towards Conestoga Mall and Northfield. This route is a little ideosyncratic but may improve the usefulness of this route that currently looped back at the universities.

And crucially, each will cross the LRT line, though some work must be done to provide a sensible transfer at U of W campus.

Overall, this is a solid set of improvements. But like all route changes, it will inconvenience some who may have located themselves to benefit from the existing route structure. Still, many of them will still have access to transit, and new alternatives available. And many more will be in a position to take advantage of transit. For instance, one coworker of mine has already happily observed that his home near Columbia/Westmount now has transit options to our workplace near Bridge/Northfield.

(These improvements are extremely good news for Bridge/Northfield, especially in light of plans to develop a multi-use node at this location. Large portions of the surrounding area will have transit access to this point, though it remains to be seen if people will take advantage of it in this very car-oriented suburban part of Waterloo.)

Good job GRT!

If you want to read more, TriTAG has a writeup on the proposal here. Also, here is the list of proposed stop locations for both iXpress routes, mostly sticking to their 400m stop placement minimum:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Celebrating Waterloo the Good

It's very easy to write a post when something gets up in my urbanist junk. I see red and the words flow. Recently I've been pretty critical of our municipal governments.

But here's the thing: by and large, and more so than most anywhere else in this province the region of Waterloo gets it so very, very right. I'm proud to live here, and it is the general positive direction we are in, and the vision this place has, that makes me happy to get involved. Because a man has hope living here.

Here's a couple of things, just from today.

The region got hammered by a ruling from the Ontario Municipal Board, the entity that former BC premier Mike Harcourt has called a "medieval abomination". The OMB has sided with developers-- who often direct much more legal resources at OMB hearings and seem to (almost) always come away with the upper hand-- against the region in its bid to limit greenfield development (i.e. sprawl.)

But the region is not going to take it lying down, and will appeal the ruling. I don't know if they'll win, but it will cast a stark light on the OMB's heavy, undemocratic hand in municipal planning. If nothing else, we'll go down fighting for principles.

Let's not forget, as quoted in the appeal article: the region of Waterloo has maybe the most aggressive growth management strategy in Ontario. It is the only municipality that is defining a countryside line to limit sprawl (and this, too, is going to be the subject of an OMB ruling.) We are blazing a trail. The Ontario "Places to Grow" act is based in no small part on the work done by local governments here in this region.

Along these very lines, today the Central Transit Corridor project presented to regional council on its draft community building strategy, apparently published just a few days ago. (I got listed as a stakeholder, thanks to one day in May I got to work with them on the Midtown vision.) It is pretty inspiring stuff, not exactly a prescriptive document but a descriptive one of where we can go from here. And it's heady stuff. The stuff cities are made of.

On a much smaller scale, today council decided to put aside the quantitative analysis by staff and support a pedestrian signal crossing at Weber and Wilhelm, where some major widening is happening and the Spur Trail will eventually intersect. The Mount Hope - Breithaupt Park neighbourhood association went to bat, and councilors took a more strategic view of the situation and almost unanimously supported aiding pedestrian movement across a widened Weber.

As a bonus to all of this, some measured progress is also being made on pedestrian infrastructure for the vision impaired.

So, let's not all be doom and gloom? I want to compliment the region for getting it right and heading in a positive direction.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Budget Pain and Bad Decisions

This is a tough year for budgeting, and the mantra must be "everybody feels the pain". While I, personally, would willingly sustain a higher tax hike to keep moving forward, many disagree. Council had to strike a balance between the two. Certain regrettable, but understandable moves have been made, like the delay of the long-awaited Spur Line trail ($3M in capital savings).

Other decisions are less understandable.

The "200 iXpress" is the kind of transit success story that is the wet dream of municipalities struggling with road expenses. It has grown in ridership from a couple of thousand a day when it launched seven years ago, to over 14,000 a day last year. Ridership has driven repeated frequency improvements, from half hour to 15 minutes to 10 minutes, and these frequency improvements in turn have driven ridership growth. It's a virtuous cycle, and a beautiful example of the critical importance of frequency in transit.

A typical busy day for iXpress

The 200 is a route that has been noted as seeing not only high peak volumes, but healthy off-peak ridership. Because many (if not most) of its buses are standing-room only for at least part of its route, it must be financially a star performer. It sees strong student ridership, obviously, but also strong "choice" ridership from people who recognize a good service and will adopt it over other alternatives.

And it serves a route that will become rail-based in less than five years. An ambitious step by the region in search of a better way for its citizens to move about.

In the face of this blistering, searing success, last night regional council voted to cool things down. For July and August, iXpress frequency will drop back from 10 minutes to 15. This move will save the average household a whopping $1.46. (estimate TriTAG)

There are two negative consequences we must consider from this move.

Virtuous to Vicious 


The justification for lower frequency is lower summer ridership. There lies the temptation to "optimize" the line for these months, to trim a few hundred G's from the cost of providing the service. But that justification ignores the effect of frequency on ridership. We're breaking the virtuous cycle in place, and possibly running it backwards. 

Reduced frequency will reduce ridership, because the service is not so attractive. For some, it will not be there when they need it, without looking for a schedule, and this will turn them off. This, in turn, will offer justification to further frequency reductions if you are looking for short-term cost cutting measures.

We've seen this penny-wise, pound-foolish tendency before: bus wraps.
The region has stated in master plans and megaprojects that it wants to not only increase transit use but multiply it. It needs to keep its eyes on this goal, but budget pressures this year have caused its attention to wander. After implementing plans that will increase household tax levies by $20 a year, why put the success of those plans at risk for the price of a Tim's medium coffee?



Another justification for lower frequency has been put forward (pp.76-77):

In July and August 2012, during the midday period, iXpress trips experienced peak passenger loads greater than 35 approximately 3 times per day (4% of trips) and did not experience loads greater than 60 passengers (maximum capacity).
(...)By reducing the frequency of service from 10 minutes to 15 minutes on Route 200 iXpress during the midday in July and August, 24% of midday trips would exceed the GRT off-peak service standard of a full seated load (35 passengers). In some cases buses would leave passengers waiting for the next bus. This would occur on average twice a week (0.5% of trips).
In fact, as I understand it (from Councilor Mitchell's tweeted clarification) the approved cut was in fact all day and staff indicated that buses would leave passengers behind twice a day.

In other words, at the one point of the year where iXpress is providing enough capacity to not fail its passengers, council has decided to "optimize" service so that it provides an acceptable level of failure.

No rider left behind?

This is deeply troubling on two counts. Firstly, unreliability is one of the most costly flaws in transit, that has a disproportionate effect on turning people off using it:

One statistic in the study stands out in particular and should give transit agencies pause: More than half of the riders said they had reduced their use of public transportation specifically because of its unreliability. Most of them didn't just make fewer trips overall; rather, they switched to other modes of transportation to fill the void.
These words should freeze councilors' hearts. But the second troubling evidence is that council seems to discount this deliberate unreliability as an issue. They seem to believe there is an acceptable level of service that involves leaving people behind every day.

These would-be passengers will get a clear message that the region has little regard for its transit users. And they will abandon transit, if they can.

Silver Lining


It seems as if council has lost the plot. When the pressure is on, the region's long term strategy to shift itself towards a more sustainable (i.e. affordable) future model is put in jeopardy by short sighted penny-pinching. But all is not lost.

I would expect that the consequences of council's decision should be obvious and easy to demonstrate. In fact, the councilors who voted for this cut should be prepared to get an earful from the transit users denied service. There should be no surprises, or ambiguity about cause and effect. We should see ridership negatively affected, complaints increase, and no small amount of public ire directed towards this decision.

And then we can remind council of their goals, the LRT system they have hung their hat on, and that their small cost-cutting victory of today is putting their large victory of tomorrow at risk. I hope we will see good sense eventually prevail. Neither council nor the people of Waterloo can afford to damage the conditions that will make LRT successful, the same conditions that have doubled transit ridership in the last ten years.

If nothing else, we will be shown that, when attracting people to transit, there is no room for an "acceptable level of failure".