Friday, November 14, 2014

Removing barriers to cycling

I've found that I've been doing a lot more late-season cycling this year than I have in the past, but only under certain conditions. What shapes my decision making is educational when it comes to understanding what makes cycling appealing to more people year-round.

The question of year-round cycling, or even full three-season cycling, is one I wonder about a lot, and written about before. Generally speaking, I don't cycle in winter. There are exceptions, including one trip to Vincenzo's on a sunny, sharply cold day (I ended up taking some paper napkins to line the holes in my helmet because I'd got the windchill equivalent of an ice cream headache.) Or the time I biked to uptown during an incredible January thaw and ended up getting my bike's brake and gear lines wet, and therefore frozen solid for the rest of the winter.

What I've learned is I have two major impediments to winter cycling-- and neither of them are temperature. The biggest single impediment is light (or lack thereof.) The second biggest is biking on snow and ice. Studded tires can go a long way to making small amounts of snow and ice tolerable, but I don't have them because once the time change sets in at the start of November, I'm no longer willing to tolerate cycling home on Lexington Road in the dark, so I haven't invested in them.

So that's where my recent increase in cycling, often in the dark, has been so interesting. It's because I've had multiple trips a week that aren't to work (as most of my cycling travels take me) but to the vicinity of U of W, either for theatre rehearsals, or for curling (at KW Granite.)

This trip is about half the length of my work commute, and often in the evening. A bike commute makes the trip about 20 minutes on my terms, whereas transit takes 30-40 minutes and with poor frequency in the late evenings or on Sunday, especially when I'm trying to get home. And if the car's available, a trip to campus has to contend with paying for parking.

I've also found that cycling to work, and then using GRT bus bike racks to get me and my steed to the UW area for evening commitments, to be a viable option.

So the bike has made a lot of sense, even as the weather gets colder and sunset gets earlier. The trip is simple, and pleasant-- side streets through the Mary-Allen neighbourhood and Uptown, then up through Waterloo Park. There are good bike racks both on campus (though theft is common there) and at the Granite (custom-built bike racks in the outline of curling rocks!) Even at 9:30pm last night, with temperatures around freezing and a chill wind, I'm finding the ride to be pleasant and comfortable.

The lesson here is that cycling conditions and trip length really affect my willingness to hop on the bike, regardless of the amount of light. A 4km bike ride through Uptown and on trails on a freezing November night is tolerable (even pleasant) but a 9km bike ride knowing I have to survive the Lexington Road expressway crossing is not. The length itself is not such a big deal, but the combination of that major barrier and the conditions of Hillside Trail are deal-breakers.

Of course, this is all quite temporary. It's November, and soon the snows will be here. Even my shorter evening trips will become untenable: the Waterloo Park trail will be a rutted, icy mess in between infrequent clearings, and can't be relied on. It will be the barrier that hangs my bike up for the winter.

Which brings us back to the same old same old when it comes to encouraging people to bike: we need  a comfortable environment to cycle in. But everyone has their own particular "deal-breakers". I will tolerate cycling on Lexington Road until it crosses a perceived-risk threshold when the after-work commute gets too dark. Others view it as a year-round deal-breaker. For trips without that kind of major barrier, some will happily jump on the bike but only while weather is warm. Others might bike year-round except for the lack of winter trail maintenance. A hardy few will tough through anything.

Each little improvement we make to the cycling network enables a few more trips for a few more people. Just looking at my usual trip corridor, the Hillside Trail paving will be one less barrier to those whose bikes (or backs, or wrists) can't handle the rough loose surface. Finally providing bike infrastructure across the expressway at Lexington would allow an entire neighbourhood to connect to the rest of the city. Examples of this kind of barrier removal opportunity can be found city-wide. They all build on each other.

And the role of transit in providing support to someone's travels by bike shouldn't be underestimated. Whether it's a flat tire, surprise inclement weather or a change in plans, a bike rack on the front of a GRT bus or within an ION light rail vehicle gives people confidence they'll be able to get through their day without a car, even if the unexpected strikes.

And this is the way we shift travel mode share. An improvement at a time, a few people at a time, and individually, as we learn what we are capable of, where, and when... without being tethered to an automobile.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The nonsensical protest around Hillside Park

Protesters against paving Hillside trails, ironically standing on a spot where they've already been paved for a decade. (photo credit: James Jackson)

I recently read about protests against plans to pave the trail surface in Hillside Park, and I am disappointed. While the residents of Ferndale Place raise a legitimate concern about how city staff notified people about upcoming work, the complaints that a few unhappy citizens are bringing forward just don't make sense. 

One complaint is that upgrading the trail surface will ruin this park as a natural gem. As a daily user of the park, I can attest that the park is a beautiful natural oasis, but less than two years ago it was a muddy construction zone filled with heavy earth moving equipment. If the park can survive a sewer replacement, it can withstand a paved trail.

Sewer reconstruction in Hillside Park: where were protesters then?

Furthermore, worries about "environmental damage" completely ignore the current reality. I saw gravel trails washed out by stormwater three times in 2014 alone, and countless times before. After each incident, heavy vehicles truck in tons of new stone and sand to repair dangerous washouts that are sometimes a foot deep. With each new storm, this material is spread into meadows and silts up the creek. A hard trail surface will permanently solve this problem and prevent injuries.

Storm runoff gouged this gravel trail down to the foundation layer in 2014.

What is lost in these protesters' message is how Hillside Park's degraded, loose gravel trails make it inaccessible to many in our community. Paving the trails will improve accessibility for all: in wheelchair or mobility scooter, with stroller, as well as on bike or on foot. Virtually every other city park provides paved trails without diminishing the natural environment, including Forwell Creek Park which directly connects to Hillside, so that they are not a barrier to those of us who struggle with mobility challenges.

The concerns of a few residents who don't want any changes need to be weighed against the needs of everyone. Accessibility must trump aesthetics. Hillside Park is a public space, not a private backyard.

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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Help us reshape our Uptown

City looks at segregated bike lanes for Uptown
Waterloo councillors agree better infrastructure needed for cyclists
It's really quite amazing, isn't it? Enough to leave you thinking that we are on a road to a more human-friendly city, and that public engagement can have a real impact. But we're not there yet.

The Uptown Streetscape Improvement project originally started as a lighting replacement project but has grown quite a lot since. It was shelved for a few years while we answered the LRT question (and finalized the design). If the project hadn't been put on pause, though, we'd never have contemplated the current proposal for wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes.

But over the last few years, our collective consciousness seems to have absorbed some lessons from around Waterloo region and beyond. Streets in our city do not need to be designed for maximum car throughput over all other uses anymore. Instead, we need improvements to the pedestrian realm. We need cycling infrastructure that welcomes everyone, and not just a hardy few. Our main street should support these things, and that means big change for King St.

The current proposal for Uptown (interpreted by Mike Boos)
Some people, in particular a few notable business owners, would prefer to minimize changes. And there is an argument to be made for Uptown: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Uptown is a raging success, so why tinker? It's reasonable to be wary of the effect any change in parking and car access may have on a business's bottom line

But change comes anyway. By 2017, King Street South will be transformed from a 4 lane arterial to 2 lanes with transitway. And even before the arrival of LRT, our travel pattern is shifting: trips along King that are by car have dipped below 60%, with transit, walking and cycling making up 41% of the mode share at peak times.

And this is despite the fact that Uptown is actually broken and needs fixing. Cramped and worn sidewalks. Substandard lanes that are straddled by the many GRT buses that move through, constricting traffic. When free-flowing vehicles meet a dense pedestrian realm, the results are sometimes fatal. Plenty of bikes on the bike racks, but precious few on the street as cyclists avoid the lanes and instead opt for side streets or just the sidewalk. And yet, Uptown thrives! It does so despite these flaws, not because of them.

So let's imagine how much better it could be if King St were welcoming and accessible to all users.

Two lanes of traffic where four exist now means those lanes can be wide enough for the vehicles that use them, as well as providing enough extra room for emergency vehicles to move up the middle. This, along with a slight reduction in parking spaces (less than 1% of Uptown's parking supply!) provides the room for wide sidewalks for the many pedestrians, with the opportunity for sidewalk seating at cafes.

In addition, there is room to make a protected bike lane connection along King all the way from University to Erb. This will link Wilfrid Laurier University and the many apartments popping up along King to Uptown, while the LRT project will provide bike lanes (albeit unbuffered) through to downtown Kitchener. The Iron Horse and Laurel trails are nearby, along with the future Spur trail and planned crosstown on-street cycling links. These interconnections provide a useful cycling network within reach of the majority who are interested but concerned about using the bicycle for short trips.
A Chicago example of how a protected bike lane fits in the urban core.

And for those businesses along King whose owners are concerned about the effect these changes may bring, I would urge them to consider the upside. There are two to three thousand more residents coming soon within 500m of the King St. corridor who will live in buildings with low parking ratios and they will have easy, convenient access to Uptown thanks to these improvements. They'll be a virtually captive market for uptown retailers, in fact.

Automobile access will still exist, but pessimistically drawing a straight line from "reduced traffic lanes and parking" to "depressed business" ignores the realities that (a) drivers still arrive to King St. businesses on foot (even if they parked down the block) and will be influenced by the state of the pedestrian realm, and (b) once a potential customer is in the car, the Uptown business may have already lost as Uptown is now as close, or far away, as our malls and box stores. The key for success in Uptown is to be as accessible and welcoming as possible to people who have the option to not drive, because these people are growing in number.
And it's not so weird.

These people have a right to shape this city as they want. Businesses in Uptown are stakeholders in the streetscape redesign, to be sure. Their needs and concerns must be listened to. But they must be weighed against the needs and desires of all who live, work and play in Uptown Waterloo, as well as taken in context with the growing body of evidence that our city cores can be "complete streets" and vibrant and successful.

We have a unique opportunity to turn Uptown's King St. in to the kind of Main Street that Waterloo deserves, and with an project lifetime of 25 years, this kind of opportunity only comes around once in a generation. At the same time, we're recognizing both the need for walkability and for cycling infrastructure that the average person finds welcoming, and how these strengths tie in to the adoption of transit and the reduction of traffic congestion in a region that has grown by leaps and bounds. The stage is set.

A lot has to go right for the proposal to become a reality. Project staff need to feel confident about recommending this proposal, and that requires vocal popular support at the May 29th Public Consultation Centre. The city of Waterloo council needs to endorse the recommendation, and then (because it's a two-level project) the regional council needs to approve it. All of that could happen by this fall, if we are willing to speak up in favour of it.

So speak up. This is local, direct engagement with a real potential to shape this city in a positive way. How much more incentive do you need?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Cost of a Costco

Edit: This post produced a... vigorous twitter debate, in which a critical friend made a few points. The chief point to concede is that a Costco may well be a good use for this site, infrastructure costs notwithstanding, especially given Costco's positive employment track record and the absence of other grocery stores out at Ira Needles. Also, the factors that led to the growth of big box stores out on Erb's Road were put in place years ago and may now be immutable.

And I can't disagree with that. What brought me to write this post was not "Costco is evil!!1!" but that we are seeing the engines of sprawl in action right in front of us, along with many of the downsides that come with it. What we should be concerned about is how we aren't doing enough to check the momentum of this outward expansion. Wilmot Line is the current west side boundary for urban expansion. It will only hold if it is strong enough to withstand the pressure. Reducing the pressure is as important as strengthening the line.

With that, I return you to the post as originally written...

A lot of people are discussing the prospect of a new Costco store on the west side of Waterloo, across from the landfill.

Between 1998 and 2000, I worked for a very small software company located in a converted house that lays just within Gate 1 of the landfill. (Unsurprisingly, the company's product was designed for waste management.) At the time, when I would drive my rusty '86 Honda CRX home, I would turn out of the gate, drive east past Westhill Drive, and the edge of the city was the recently expanded KW Bilingual School at the corner of Erb and Erbsville.

The amount of change in this area is remarkable. Both Westhill Drive and Erbsville Road are disconnected remnants of their former selves, as Ira Needles Blvd. is the main west side artery. The line of houses that faced the regional landfill in mute testimony to the foolishness of their purchasers (or so we joked at the time) now sit behind a new, even closer residential subdivision. And snuggled up to the landfill property are massive commercial developments, the largest of which is the Boardwalk. This euphemistically named strip of windswept parking lot and box store at the foot of Mount Trashmore II is as large as the entire downtown core of Kitchener.

And yet, Waterloo's expansion seems hardly content to stop here, and is about to envelop the landfill. Costco sees an opportunity in our growing region. With one busy store down in Kitchener, an expansion of the chain to Waterloo makes a lot of sense in principle. As retail employers go, Costco has a history of being very good to its workers. Why wouldn't we want them to come in with another store?

But Costco's expansion plan is bringing our community's sprawl problem into focus. Three football fields' worth of farmland stands to be paved over and built on. A massive lot with over 900 parking spots will be installed, presenting new environmental challenges as development creeps ever closer to the sensitive west side moraine. And as Waterloo councilor Vieth (among others) has pointed out, this development will strain the ability of our current roads on this side of town to move traffic.

It's worth considering that a bulk goods store like Costco is not the kind of place you'd expect many people to hop on a bus to go to. Costco's business model depends, as so much of our development pattern does, on its customers providing their own transportation in the form of cars and trucks. And yet, as is also evident in so much of our development pattern, our infrastructure is being stretched and strained, and ultimately the great commercial developments of the west side (of which this Costco would be the latest) are being subsidized as we expand roads to meet the traffic demand they generate.

Even as our regional government fights private developers in court to retain the right to draw our own urban boundaries, and redirects much of our growth inward where it requires less new infrastructure, it's clear that developers want to race to the "countryside line", which on the west side is Wilmot Line (map). And that is because greenfield development is easy and profitable. Given ample space and without historical site contamination risks, and with minimal pressure to design a working neighbourhood that isn't car-bound, it's not surprising that sprawl is so often the answer to the question of how to meet the market for growth. Forcing growth upward, rather than outward, takes substantially more effort and planning.

Unfortunately, this new westerly development could become a nucleation point for the next round of suburban sprawl. But the fault here isn't Costco's. It's ours. Yes, we're investing in our cores to make them viable sites for future growth, and to make our region more sustainable and affordable. But that's only part of the equation. We also need to curb our outward expansion, and put rules in place that force new heavily-trafficked commercial developments to be located more centrally, and more accessibly. And when a business comes along that's built on selling goods cheaply in large warehouses and parking lots on the edge of town, perhaps we should be a little more thoughtful about the infrastructure costs their presence will impose upon us.

If we don't take a deliberate approach to managing our growth, then the so-called countryside line will be just a brief hurdle in Waterloo's outward expansion. The environmental costs will be substantial as we'll need to reach towards the great lakes for our water, and when the infrastructure costs come due, it'll hit us hard in the pocketbook.

How many bulk boxes of chicken wings is that worth?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why is it a war?

Well, it's approved.

Committees, lawsuits, submarine motions and council votes. Letters to the editor, blog posts, newsletters, emails to reps, calls to action. Misinformation, disinformation, feet in mouths and FUD. Meetings, phone calls, rumours and mysteries.

Done. For now, at least.

All of this is about establishing the foundation for a better transit system, the basis for moving around the region for the next half a century. That's all. Seems like so much struggle for such a comparatively simple thing. Why is it such a fight? How are we so conflicted about this?

With everything happening around us, how can we look each other in the eye and say "no, we don't want to react to change"? How do we consistently get stuck on this simple topic of how to move people around and make a war out of it, while we give a free pass to all the other monumental costs that come with civilized society?

What makes us so mad about transit?

We need to work this one out. Today we've cleared the hurdle, but it was a close run thing. We face many of the same hurdles to come.

How can we keep making progress on this track if we are at war with ourselves?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Transit for Cambridge: everyone's on board, almost.

Councillor Jane Mitchell recently laid out why Cambridge is where it is when it comes to transit, and why Mayor Craig's motion to area-rate Cambridge out of paying for LRT (rationalized as Cambridge isn't "getting anything out of it") displays an astonishingly selective memory on his part.

As Mitchell points out, Cambridge's transit has been pulled up by its metaphorical bootstraps since the region took it over. Before then, according to Cambridge regional councillor Brewer, it was raided for funds whenever things were tight. Since the formation of GRT as a regional transit entity, Cambridge has seen a huge service increase (more than doubled) while ridership in Cambridge has more than tripled.

It seems like Cambridge residents are interested in transit. It seems like the region is interested in bringing transit to the residents of Cambridge. But is Cambridge's own leadership interested?

Read Councillor Mitchell's post.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reading for comprehension

First off, I Am Not a Lawyer. I do, however, practice reading for comprehension.

For those of you wondering about a certain Waterloo businessman's threat of legal challenge against LRT, based on the claim that it violates the region's current official plan, I offer you this:

11.2.3 The Regional Municipality of Waterloo, in conjunction with Area Municipalities as appropriate, will promote increased transit ridership, walking and cycling and reduce the need to make trips by automobile through such means as:

a) the provision of rapid transit service within the Central Transit Corridor with linkages to other transit corridors and nodes;


That's from "Amendment No. 26 - Introduction of New Transit and Rapid Transit Policies and Mapping" to the Regional Official Policies Plan. This is the plan in effect right now, as the new regional official plan (which also provides for rapid transit) is in legal limbo due to the appeal of an OMB challenge. The amendment was approved and adopted in 2007.

The claim against the region is that this rapid transit project violates Section 24 of the Ontario Planning Act which basically says all public works must conform with the official plan. The claim seems built on the fact that the new 2009 plan provides for rapid transit but it's not in effect, along with an impression that the old plan does not provide for rapid transit.

So what's the deal? Is there something else up this person's sleeve? Hard to rule out the possibility that sufficiently motivated lawyers may dredge up some loophole, but at the same time it beggars belief that a public project could be so easily tied up by a single disgruntled citizen with lawyers in tow. Especially a public project like this, more than a decade in the making.

What's worse, this person can still attempt to pursue this case, and our tax money will be spent defending it.

Well, the regional government is acting like there's nothing to be concerned about. I hope they're right. We've waited too long for this.

Edit: this CBC article includes a legal letter that states,

"The ROPPA 26 rapid transit policies currently in effect contemplates a further official plan amendment. Accordingly, entering into a contract which commits the Region to the construction and operation of the LRT does not conform to the existing policy framework."
So they're claiming that this part of the plan can't be pursued without the contemplated amendments, and the new plan is not in effect. I took a look. Amendment 26 says:
"This amendment will be implemented through the future approval of further amendments to this plan, amendments to the affected area municipal official plans and the approvals process for development applications in areas where application of the new and/or revised policies is appropriate.(emphasis mine)
Does that mean we need more amendments before rapid transit is enshrined in the official plan? The lawyers writing that letter seem to think so. But arguments about Oxford Commas aside, there's a lot of wiggle room in the bolded text above.

I'm sure lawyers will be getting a workout.

Edit again: Waterloo Chronicle has a statement from Chair Seiling regarding the region's opinion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

For want of a sidewalk

Okay, I admit, I'm not one to tolerate cognitive dissonance in others for very long. I want to dissect it until the internally conflicted belief or viewpoint is cut open for all to see. I can cut pretty deep, too.

And occasionally, I do it to myself (and that's what really hurts, as the song goes.) In a fit of honesty, this time I'll do it out in the open.

Last night, I spoke at Waterloo city council on behalf of TriTAG, generally supporting a plan that will see Lexington Road gain new bike infrastructure, and sidewalks on one side of the road where none exist at all today. I did take some time to talk about how sidewalks on only one side are "a compromise" and "the bare minimum" but generally we gave Waterloo a pass. A mature neighbourhood, after all. Limited budget. It's understandable.

And who wants their kids walking to school along this?

At the same time, mood among TriTAG members has been far less charitable towards the city of Kitchener. In January, city council there decided to go against staff recommendations and cancel plans for adding sidewalks to the unimproved side of Glasgow St. after local residents showed up to make their case against it. Yesterday, council chose to defer an item regarding sidewalks on the bare side of Palmer and Kennedy streets, near the Courtland Ave. Schneiders plant. The item will be revisited on Monday so that local residents have more chance to react.

On their own, these two data points show a disturbing trend: Kitchener city council seems willing to be pushed off sidewalk infill projects on streets that already have some minimal infra.

You probably see where I'm going with this, but I should get one thing out of the way before I get to the meat of the matter. Sidewalks on both sides should be the goal on all city streets. Basic pedestrian infrastructure that accesses all destinations are the first steps to creating a walkable city, and missing sidewalks on one side are a barrier to this. The busier the street (and Glasgow is quite a busy street, complete with transit service!) the more important this becomes. The people who you see satisfied with sidewalks on just one side are not the people who you should be thinking about when you eschew access to the other.

Nothing says "Make transit welcoming" like a bus stop on someone's lawn.

Right! Now that we've got that out of the way, I'll address the elephant at the room: it's not fair to excoriate Kitchener councilors for failing to implement second sidewalks on Glasgow St. when I give a thumbs up to Waterloo for a plan that falls short of providing second sidewalks for Lexington Road. Furthermore, deferral on Kennedy and Palmer is not cancellation.

So to councilors Glenn-Graham & Davey and mayor Zehr: I apologize. In speaking to each of them, I learned that they all intended to uphold the pedestrian charter and approve additional sidewalks unless there are real legitimate reasons not to. Okay then. We'll see how Monday plays out, but I should have given the benefit of the doubt.

Still, I am concerned that Kitchener has opened a Pandora's box, because new sidewalks are always a hot-button issue. One one hand, we need a rich pedestrian network to make a place walkable and we benefit from it. But on the other, sidewalks on our own property are a maintenance burden (because the public will to pay for municipal sidewalk clearing in the winter has not been there) and backfitting sidewalks in mature neighbourhoods often comes at the cost of mature trees, to say nothing of landowners' sense of ownership and privacy.

While Palmer is quieter than Glasgow or Lexington, it does connect to the Iron Horse Trail.

Furthermore, we made a mess of things a couple of decades ago, going through a phase of extreme car-centrism where we talked ourselves out of a lot of sidewalks. So we're playing catch-up more than we should need to.

So there's a strong local incentive to fight sidewalk infill tooth and nail, despite the fact that we benefit as an inclusive, equitable society to get those missing links corrected. If a city government makes its values crystal clear-- we will fill in sidewalks when the opportunities present because we will provide pedestrian access to all parts of the city as a basic right-- then expectations are set, and those who insist that the city compromise its own values for their personal benefit will not be able to disguise their true motives.

If instead, the city seems willing to grant exceptions if pressed, they will be pressed every time this topic comes up. I think Kitchener will see that for Kennedy/Palmer next week, and with other projects in the future.
What's special about this stretch of Stirling, that we kick pedestrians over to the other side?

Councilors who come to the table with the mindset that sidewalks on both sides of the street are not always a necessity are missing the point that even cases they think are marginal may be worth supporting because it will make the entire strategy easier to defend. They should consider sidewalks on both sides of the street as the expected outcome of any project improving the area, and compromise on that principle only under very extraordinary circumstances. Sidewalk infill should not be done only when it's convenient and nobody minds, or we will all lose.

Would that viewpoint make Kitchener councilors view Glasgow St. differently? I don't know. Should we expect it to change the Waterloo plan for Lexington? At least there we saw a concerted effort to mitigate the impact of one-side sidewalks, but fundamentally these two situations are not that different.

I don't think we should be satisfied with either situation. Waterloo got a pass because they demonstrated forward motion, bringing minimal infrastructure where it was completely absent, but that doesn't change the fact that they compromised. And as for Kitchener? We need to trust that councilors will stay true to the city's pedestrian charter, think critically about each project calling for sidewalk infill... and not lose sight of the big picture.

Trust, but verify. The first test will come Monday.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Light Rail approaches its last big hurdle

In 2011, I blogged extensively about the decision-making process that led to the approval of Light Rail in Waterloo region. That decision set in motion years of groundwork required before construction could start in earnest. But planning and preparation is almost complete. It's almost time to build!

The bids for construction are in. On March 4th, the rapid transit team will bring their recommendation to the Planning and Works committee. This will be the point at which we find out who the preferred bidder was, and what construction cost will be, and whether council intends to approve it.

There has been a vocal element in our community who has campaigned non-stop to derail this plan. While some of them are simply concerned about the amount of money being spent, a considerable number will say pretty much anything to tarnish the case for LRT, including outright misrepresentation of how the system works and welcoming cancellation penalties some kind of  perverse morality object lesson.

Transit crowd at Conestoga mall wait for a train "from nowhere to nowhere"
And yet, as I wrote for TriTAG recently, the fundamentals supporting LRT have never looked stronger. Go ahead and read that if you'd like to learn more about the change that has happened so far. Basically, the short version is: service is expanding. Ridership is booming. This is working.

The new reality along our central transit corridor

But it's also important to remember that LRT is a key element in a multi-faceted plan to grow Waterloo region in a smart and sustainable way. The affordability of our community in the future depends on how we build now. We face a decision: grow up, or grow out. The Active Transportation Master Plan is up for council approval this month, and it is focused on providing the region with better walkability, and the ability to make short trips on foot and by bike. The broader Regional Transporation Master Plan, which includes a transit network redesign to coincide with LRT, aims to flesh out a transportation network to give thousands an alternative to driving.

But LRT is the single biggest (and admittedly, most costly) piece of the puzzle, and the one with the highest level of expectation tied to it. It is not meant to just serve demand, but also to shape our city to generate it. By providing a high quality level of service, convenience and permanence, Light Rail is already drawing lots of interest for people to live and work along its route and closer to downtowns.

1 Victoria, one of many developments green-lit after LRT approval

This growth in our core translates into fewer greenfield subdivisions, which directly improves our traffic situation within existing suburban areas. It also lowers the overall reliance on transportation by car, which again means less demand on our road infrastructure, and fewer costly expansions. By shaping our growth in this way, LRT will cost less than doing nothing at all because we don't actually have an option to "do nothing at all".

Now, this one light rail line is not perfect (I've criticized aspects of it before) and it will not change the world on its own. As I said before, there are other pieces to this puzzle. They are all important. But it's safe to say that LRT is the linchpin. Without it, everything else we do will have much more muted success. If we blink now, it will be many years before we get a do over. We'll eventually find ourselves drawn back to something like it, because of the fundamentals and the way our region is laid out. But it will inevitably cost more, and we will be fearful of taking the steps we have to, because of our failure to face the future.

Public support of LRT in 2011

I, for one, would like to stop talking about LRT. Having approved it twice, there's no good reason for council to change their minds this third time. But the vocal minority grows more vocal and strident, and they still offer no real solution of their own, only the false reassurance that nothing will change. Someone has to say something. But I look forward to having construction underway, and to be able to step back and tackle new challenges.

Council approved LRT in 2009, and as seen here, in 2011 (to great appluase)

So, if you support this plan, please, contact your councilors and tell them.

If you're on the fence, or wonder why I keep going on about this, I urge you to recognize this: We have a thoughtful and progressive regional government that are trying very hard to prepare Waterloo region for the future, with a vision that very few other cities aspire to. It's part of our culture here, to be industrious, to adapt, and to innovate. Ultimately, we have to be ready to sign off on the plan, and take the next step.

LRT is our next step. It's a big one. Come with us.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The tragic problem of local speeders

There's been some friction regarding Auburn Street in Waterloo between the city and the local residents regarding traffic calming measures. This post is not about that.

This is about Councilor Mark Whaley's quote at the end of the linked article, regarding the problem of drivers speeding along this residential street:
"We know that most of the speeders are those who live in the neighbourhood. It's frustrating."
How could anyone be speeding past that obvious "children playing" sign?

 This touches off something I remember from a Kitchener city council discussion on raised crosswalks for Williamsburg Road. Council observed that because 92% of traffic was local, the speeders must be among the same local residents calling for traffic calming. Some people have expressed the sentiment that instead of calling for traffic calming, local residents should just drive slower in their own neighbourhood.

It's obvious, isn't it? It's despicable that someone would speed in their own neighbourhood, on the same streets their own kids may be crossing. If we could only get people to see that, they'd drive slower and more carefully, at least on their home turf. Right?

But that idea leaves me feeling a little hollow. Why, for instance, is there not a similar outrage to drivers who speed through the neighbourhoods of others? If it's despicable to endanger your own kids, why is it not considered as bad (or worse) to endanger a stranger's family?

And then, of course, there's the troublesome issue that asking people to drive more slowly... doesn't work. Nor does arbitrarily reducing speed limits (at least, not without taking other steps.) We tend to drive on streets at the speed we feel comfortable at. On wide open roads with no parked cars, gentle sweeping turns and few obstructions, we naturally drive fast-- often faster than the posted limit.

It doesn't matter where we are, and whose kids are crossing the road. Perhaps near home, our comfort level goes up with familiarity, and we speed up a little, take corners we've taken a hundred times before a little faster. But we can't stop that by wishing it away.

(UK DOT 1987, via SRTS)

Unfortunately, as the cliche goes, speed kills. If we could reduce vehicle speeds, especially on neighbourhood roads, not only would accidents be more avoidable, but they'd also be less lethal. So how do we really get people to slow down?

The answer lies mainly in the design of our streets, and the ways that design can influence our behaviour. Some design measures, like speed bumps, have serious unintentional effects in impeding and damaging transit and fire vehicles. But other measures exist: steps like narrowing the roadway, providing crossing islands, or reducing crossing distances at intersections with neckdowns can cause us to unconsciously drive a little slower.

Neckdowns make crossing easier and turning vehicles slower. (via Streetsblog)

The presence of on-street parking in a tighter environment also contributes to an instinctive lightening of the gas pedal. Unfortunately, in suburban neighbourhoods, that can be impeded by the design of the houses themselves reducing the amount of room to park along the curb.

It's important to note that these measures can all help, but we don't really have a silver bullet. There has been growing talk in North American cities that we'd be better off with a 30km/h speed limit (as well as the predictable knee-jerk reactions against it) but that's the cart, not the horse. To actually be able to change a city speed limit, the streets in our city must first bring traffic down to that number by design. Which helps explain why complete streets, and rightsizing of overbuilt roadways, are all important.

So it's good to note that while some measures have been rolled back due to residents' objections, some of the Auburn Street calming measures (such as raised crosswalks) will still proceed.

Even then, traffic calming won't be enough on its own. A family member has pointed out his tree-lined, parking-lined, narrowed and speed humped street with a 30km/h speed limit as a place where, despite all these measures, some people still drive like idiots. Maybe these measures help to alleviate the problem, but they can't solve it.

It looks pretty nice. Maybe there's a Reckless Drivers Anonymous up the road?

So maybe, for lack of any magic bullet improvement, we should still ask people to drive safely. It can't hurt. Can it?