Numbers Definitely Add Up for Light Rail Transit

He’s said it before, and he’ll say it again: John Shortreed likes buses. You might say he even wrote the book on the subject! Mr. Shortreed is a retired civil engineering professor, who worked for decades within the context of the post-war transportation planning mindset. During the tenure of Mr. Shortreed and other transit planners of the same era, streetcars were replaced with buses, transit use plummeted, highways got built through downtowns, and sprawl became ubiquitous. And actually, it’s not really true that he likes buses, since he’s publicly admitted that he doesn’t “have time to take transit” (though he lives next to the Route 7 mainline). Is this really someone who is fit to give transportation advice for the 21st century?

But he’s written his screed against light rail, and it deserves a response, so I will provide one by considering his points one at a time.

“LRT ridership will be 50 per cent to 100 per cent more than the iXpress, or fewer than 20,000 LRT riders per day in 2031, not the 56,200 estimated by the region.”

This is a pretty silly way to start. As I wrote in my own Record column on the subject, iXpress ridership has grown dramatically as service has been increased, with ridership doubling twice in just four years of its existence. Right now average weekday ridership levels are around 8-10,000 or more, and that’s with service only every 15 minutes. It’s actually rather likely that with a service increase to every 7.5 minutes (the proposed light rail frequency), iXpress ridership will double to at least 20,000 by 2014, the time light rail is expected to be opened. (The local Route 7 mainline service has over 15,000 riders daily, of which many will be attracted by frequent express service.) The light rail will also provide faster, more reliable, and more comfortable service than the iXpress, and it will have several more stops. In addition, the bus network is being redesigned to have frequent cross-corridor service connecting to the line, in some cases using it in lieu of central terminals. So there will be substantially more riders on the LRT at opening day than the 20,000 we could expect from just the iXpress. As for 2031? The province is planning for 40% population growth in the region by then, with the new Regional Official Plan making clear that a large proportion of that growth must take place in the urban core and at transit nodes. In effect, that will double (or more) the population and employment along the light rail corridor. So the figure of 56,200 riders per day in 2031 looks eminently reasonable — without even factoring in peak oil.

“These larger “comparison” cities, have major sports stadiums, train stations, and convention centers on the LRT as well as large downtowns. The comparison cities are all much bigger. Waterloo region is much smaller, but with higher estimated LRT ridership.”

Mr. Shortreed believes that transit serves exactly two purposes: mobility for those who cannot drive, and commuting from the suburbs to a CBD (central business district). Incidentally, the latter transit purpose also happens to describe the overwhelming majority of transit lines built in North America in the last half century or more.

Of course, that’s not actually how transit is used in Waterloo Region. Most of the routes really are from the suburbs to a downtown. But most of the ridership is on the routes that go between multiple important destinations or along important corridors — iXpress and routes 7, 8, 12, and 52. The light rail system for Waterloo Region will actually be a better system than most out there, because it never goes out to the suburbs. Stations in the first phase will be located at (from north to south): a large mall (an important transit anchor), industrial employment lands and residential area, a large office employment node and residential area, a large university, a CBD, a large hospital and future mixed-use zone, an intermodal transit terminal and part of a CBD, a CBD centre, further part of CBD, an industrial and minor commercial area, a large residential area, and a large mall and transit hub. The line will serve a corridor that is already home to a large number of destinations of all kinds — not limited to employment at one end and residential at another.

It’s quite likely that the downtown Kitchener stations will be particularly busy, but Mr. Shortreed’s point is valid: the CBD isn’t all that huge. But the other side of the coin is that destinations are spread along the entire length of the line. It is worth considering the light rail as something of a modern version of the interurban Grand River Railway.

As for those comparisons with other cities: First, Canadian cities have higher transit use than American ones. Second, those lines are generally much shorter than the planned light rail. Lastly, planning policy is important to ensure that growth does occur near the line — which is being accomplished here by the Regional Official Plan, but which is absent from many prior North American systems.

“How can you compare Waterloo Region with cities 3.5 times larger?”

Who cares about the number of people living in suburban sprawl away from transit? What is important is how much is served by the line, and in Waterloo Region it will be a high proportion. Similarly, it matters not how many will ride such a line in other areas, but how many will ride it here. As a counterpoint to Mr. Shortreed’s comparisons, Calgary built its light rail when it was about the same size as Waterloo Region is now, and the C-Train now averages over 200,000 riders a day.

“I did a ridership survey on the iXpress from Fairview to Conestoga Mall and return at the 7:30 a.m. peak hour, on a fall weekday. My study found 9,000 daily riders, consistent with the region’s estimates. The majority of riders were students. There were very few choice riders.”

Perhaps at Mr. Shortreed’s age, more people look like students than actually are such. (Though students can also be choice riders.) My recent field report used a morning peak screenline on both the 7 and the iXpress, and while I found more going by bus from Kitchener to Waterloo (presumably towards the universities), the opposite direction actually had over 2/3 of that number and proportion of transit riders. Students are an unlikely explanation for trips from Waterloo to Kitchener in the morning weekday peak, and from the data it is clear that the appeal of the iXpress is not limited to students. As for that last bit about choice riders — I have to wonder if Mr. Shortreed thinks you can tell by sight.

“For example, few iXpress riders now go to the research and technology park, and since the proposed LRT station there will be five minutes further away than the iXpress station the low ridership will become less. Yet it is argued that LRT will support the high tech industry.”

The R&T Park is a suburban-style office park and not a transit-friendly destination. That said, it’s nowhere near fully built out, and once light rail starts construction new buildings will gravitate towards the station. But this misses a larger point, which is that this station would be very close to the (more dense) RIM campus and other employment on Phillip Street. So it’s probably a better location even in the short term.

“For example, while the LRT has one station in the 2.4 kilometres between downtown Kitchener and Waterloo stations. The existing bus system has 10 stations and provides much better service to entice offices, apartments, shops and other development to locate in the King Street Corridor.”

To break that down, that’s 1.2 km station spacing, or a maximum of 600 m to get to a station if you’re already on King Street. The stations are Uptown Waterloo, Grand River Hospital, and King & Victoria (which is not an iXpress stop). By “existing bus system” Mr. Shortreed means the Route 7 local service, which runs every 7 minutes or better during the day. According to his logic, no one should ride the iXpress, with its even wider station spacing, minimal time advantage over Route 7, and much worse frequency (every 15 minutes during the day). And yet, as my field report showed, the iXpress carried 40% of riders across the King Street screenline. It is clear that those riders do not agree with Mr. Shortreed about what constitutes better service, and I’m sure there would be more such riders with the iXpress at 7 minute frequencies, and certainly with the more comfortable and reliable light rail.

“By setting aside LRT, a ‘suburban commuter’ transit solution then other more viable and cost effective ‘community building’ transit solutions will emerge.”

It’s fitting that Mr. Shortreed ends by showing his poor understanding of the light rail proposal and of the urban structure of Waterloo Region. This will not be a suburban commuter line, and it’s questionable whether the suburbs will be producing all that many transit commuters in this region any time soon. What the line will be is a frequent, fast, and comfortable transit option for travelling along the dense (and densifying) urban spine of Waterloo Region.

3 thoughts on “Numbers Definitely Add Up for Light Rail Transit”

  1. As your group accurately points out, GRT buses are overcrowded and aging. Developing a LRT system on top of these existing deficiencies seems ludicrious. At what point should realistic considerations of Quality of Service and future operating costs trump the aspiring big-city mentality?

  2. Matthew – operating costs for LRT will be lower than meeting the demand for transit along the central transit corridor with regular buses.

    Parts of the central transit corridor see buses every 3-4 minutes already – and that will be growing. Labour is the biggest part of operating cost, so being able to run a light rail vehicle (or two) with one driver can replace 3-6 buses.

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