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Waterloo Region’s low-tech transit future

“Can our billion-dollar LRT survive Uber and automated cars? ”

What does the future of public transit look like?

For current residents of Waterloo Region, the future appears to look like a bunch of empty tracks designed to make driving more awkward and confusing.

Assuming our missing trains do eventually arrive, however, our region will soon have a brand-new, billion-dollar light rail transit system meant to put us at the vanguard of a public transit revolution.

Across the country, LRT is promoted as the forward-thinking solution to transit and urban development in many medium-sized cities. Citing Waterloo Region as its model, Hamilton is now embarking on its own billion-dollar LRT scheme meant to revitalize its dreary downtown. Surrey, B.C., is planning a $2.6-billion LRT. The same goes for Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

The trend is so pervasive that London was recently complaining of being the largest city in Canada without rapid transit. In short order, London received government funding for a $560-million rapid bus network.

One vision of the future of transit: enormously-expensive infrastructure projects. But this isn't the only possibility.

Last week I visited Innisfil, a town of 37,000 south of Barrie. You may already know it as 'that Uber town.' Last year Innisfil made international headlines when it scrapped plans to build a small two-bus transit service and instead partnered with ride-sharing app Uber.

Rather than spend over $600,000 on buses, Innisfil figured it made more sense to spend $150,000 subsidizing Uber rides. Trips to and from certain destinations, such as the arena, employment district and library, cost just $3. Other rides get a $5 discount; when destinations coincide, riders double up.

A transit system that picks you up at your door and takes you wherever you want to go for the price of a bus ticket is an addictively attractive proposition. The town faces no capital outlay and no risk its transit budget will be wasted on empty buses or trains.

The program has proven so successful that last month the town rolled out a major expansion. "We are hearing from people that it is a totally life-changing experience," says Deputy Mayor Lynn Dollin.

There are obviously many differences between Innisfil and Waterloo Region. But issues of scale aside, these two communities reveal two starkly different visions of the future for public transit.

On one hand, a 19th century-style, capital-intensive system that forces riders to travel on fixed routes at fixed times. On the other, an on-demand system that takes riders door-to-door and requires only operating dollars.

Which option would you prefer — as a passenger or taxpayer? Which best emphasizes Waterloo Region's high-tech aspirations?

In the U.S., many transit systems are already partnering with ride-sharing companies such as Uber as an alternative or supplement to traditional buses or trains. Arlington, Texas, for example, recently got rid of its existing bus system in favour of an app. The arrival of autonomous cars will further speed this trend away from rigid old-school transit systems toward services with much greater flexibility.

Of course, Uber is unlikely to put the Toronto subway out of business: the volume is simply too great. But in smaller cities already less reliant on public transit — ridership is falling in Waterloo Region — ride-sharing technology has enormous potential to steal business away from conventional buses and trains, even without an Innisfil-style subsidy.

A recent academic study asked "Is Uber a substitute or complement for public transit?" It finds that in big metropolises, Uber helps commuters get to and from major transit spots. In smaller cities, however, "our results indicate Uber reduces transit ridership." And those smaller cities, the authors note, "are almost always university towns." Sound familiar?

Similar worries about the clash between Uber and LRT are popping up in Ottawa. In a delightful turn of phrase, Ottawa Citizen editorial writer Tyler Dawson observes "it would be clownery of epic proportions if Ottawa built an LRT and nobody rode it," given that vast advantages in convenience of Uber.

Waterloo Region's billion-dollar Ion is a massive transit bet against the dominant trends in demographics and technology, says Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board's bus transit and intelligent transportation committees.

"Based on past experience, most metropolitan areas with fewer than one million people cannot justify a light rail system because of size and development patterns," Feigenbaum says. Going forward, he expects the prospects for light rail to get even grimmer as Uber makes its presence felt. The eventual arrival of autonomous vehicles will be the final death knell for fixed rail systems outside major metropolises.

"It's a problem," Feigenbaum says of the current mania for building expensive LRT systems in smaller cities. "Automated vehicles using software to facilitate car pooling − that's where transit is going." This suggests the Innisfil approach may be the best way to avoid epic clownery in municipalities the size of Waterloo Region.

Feigenbaum admits an argument can be made for bus rapid transit, as in London, if only because it's cheaper and more flexible. "When automated cars do arrive," says Feigenbaum, "with BRT at least you can redeploy those buses somewhere else." With LRT no redeployment is possible. We're stuck with it, whatever the future holds.


#microtransit #brt #transit #LTC #shift #autonomous #mobility

London, ON, Canada

©2018 by London Transportation Alliance.                   Photography Credit Scott Webb