Sunday, June 12, 2011

Will it be "Waterloo" for Light Rail or Light Rail for Waterloo?

"Tranzwatching in Waterloo - Kitchener - Cambridge, Ontario, Canada

It has been described as North America's smallest metropolitan area to attempt light rail, indeed it is probably the first city under a million residents in metropolitan population in any western country to advance modern light rail planning to the "ready to go" stage.

This is the place locals call "k-w" - the three contingent Canadian cities in a row that have tried but never pulled off amalgamation, Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge in Ontario. The Waterloo Region, encompassing all three independent cities and some smaller rural towns surrounding localities has about 500,000 residents. It has become one of Canada’s fastest-growing metro areas, and is expected to expand to 725,000 citizens over the next 25 years. Current population density [= potential passengers per stop] in Waterloo and in Kitchener is about twice that of urban Christchurch, if figures in Wikipedia sites are based on the same criteria [how and where density is defined is always a tricky one!].

The region's public transport system, Grand River Transit, unites the area with a network of routes including the iXpress - an express service operating along the central spine of all three cities, with only 13 stops and seventeen intersections where traffic lights stay green longer or go green earlier in favour of approaching iXpress buses, reducing the number of actual stops made.

The iXpress system is to some extent seen as a fore-runner of light rail along the same corridor

Grand River Transit currently carries 14.4 million passengers a year, not a huge patronage by Candian standards - compare recent annual ridership figures for the smaller cities of Victoria BC, 22 million or Halifax NS, 19.5 million* - but the elongated shape of the cities combined arguably can favour light rail as a realistic system to foster land use intensification with-out adding congestion.

As with big ticket public transport projects anywhere in democracies, it has been a long hotly debated process, spanning nine years, with research and public information provision costing $7 million. Finally however, on this coming Wednesday, 15th June 2011, the Waterloo Regional Council will make the final vote on whether light rail, and associated bus and "adapted bus rapid transit" systems go ahead.

Yesterday's issue of the local newspaper The Record carries what appears to be an excellent, carefully thought through series of articles, avoiding polemics and just laying out all the factors being considered [in a sidebar beside front page story]. For those interested in light rail in New Zealand the Waterloo Region's process probably represents the best match case likely to be found anywhere.

At $818 million for 14 km [this factors in inflation to 2014 and some bus support systems and peak service frequency of seven and half minutes headway] this is also probably the least expensive new light rail system being built in an urban area anywhere**. Land values in the region do not seem high (one article puts average house price at $254,000) and one would imagine Canada would have access to steel, home built train technologies, skill bases and other resources more readily and cheaply than NZ can import.

The Record itself, in its editorial makes clear it fully supports light rail and the corridor of universities and enterprises and new condos springing up the editor describes indeed suggests a linear system like light rail could work well. This said,  the final imagery - "A bus pokes down one road. On the other, a sleek train rides on twin bands of steel" is typically biased; the very terminology suggests it is based an old fashion [i.e current!] bus systems and/or North America's half hearted bus rapid transit systems, rather than what could be created, city-wide,  for $818 million of supportive bus infrastructure and fully electric (no overhead) quality bus pathways in Light Bus Network configuration.

Whether the result is the decision to go ahead - I imagine this is more likely - or not, the articles in The Record, and associated studies etc would seem to offer a model of process and factors to consider for our own situation here in Christchurch - particularly it might be said for those who deem such a technology relevant to Christchurch's shape but rarely advance any concrete proposals or figures!


* The bus system [and one small ferry] in Christchurch, NZ with a metropop of about 390,000 carried 17.1 million passengers in the year 2009/2010. Christchurch is expected to grow to about 440,000 population by 2021

**The other CANZUS cities (of 125 cities 300,000-1 million metropop) actively planning/building light rail;
Honolulu 32km $US5.6 billion; Gold Coast City 13km $954 million.

A list of all North American LRT systems planned  is available at The Transport Politic.

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