Light rail transit suitable for high-tech hubLRT as much a symbol of the future as a cost-effective and practical way to get around

Oped - April 7, 2011 - By Cherise Burda

Published in Kitchener-Waterloo Record (April 13, 2011).

A rising international reputation combined with a robust high-tech and rebounding manufacturing economy. It all adds up to population growth and more cars on the road in Canada's technology triangle of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge.

With increasing congestion and a growing population comes the need to expand transit in the region. The regional planning authority has drafted potential transit strategies that include light rail transit between Waterloo and Kitchener. While some area residents have expressed concerns about the cost of developing such a system, a far better question is what the costs of inaction will be.

Traffic congestion already costs the province billions of dollars annually. Goods and people stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic makes for neither a productive nor efficient economy. We could try to solve this problem by building more roads, but experience demonstrates that as fast as you build new highways, increased traffic clogs them up.

On the other hand, building transit can help immediately relieve congestion. A photo the Toronto Transit Commission created a number of years ago comes to mind. It illustrated what would happen if each rider of a single streetcar was in individual cars — the cars covered an entire city block.

However, LRT is an extra step beyond streetcars. LRT can move more passengers at higher speed and, moving swiftly in its own lane outside of traffic, makes it a highly efficient — and comfortable — way to move people through urban areas.

Is Kitchener-Waterloo well suited to this kind of technology? Absolutely. The Conference Board of Canada ranked the region number four for urban density among mid-sized Canadian cities. Furthermore, LRT is effectively being used in suburban areas of Edmonton and Calgary, which have lower densities than the corridor being examined for Kitchener-Waterloo.

Additionally, LRT offers significant benefits over the current backbone of the area's current transit system, belching diesel buses. These benefits include attracting even more jobs and increasing land-values. LRT is a self-fulfilling technology. Their high-tech rail aesthetic and speed will attract new riders to transit where a bus will not

The environmental benefits of light rail also shouldn't be ignored. Transportation is the fastest-growing source of air polluting and climate destabilizing emissions in Ontario. And a lot of these smog-creating and lung-irritating emissions are released right in our community at nose level, making them even more harmful.

On a cost per passenger kilometre basis, light rail is the most efficient way to cut these emissions dramatically. The Regional planning authority found that by 2031 an LRT would cut more than double the pollution of a rapid bus.

Every commuter who chooses to ride the rails rather than driving their car reduces the amount of smog-causing air contaminants by 90 per cent.

Best of all, both the provincial and federal governments are standing by with funding to support transit in this region. How often does that happen? Yes, the region itself will also need to provide its share, but for once municipal government doesn't have to go it alone.

In the end, however, the only thing that will really take a big bite out of congestion is enhanced transit. Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge companies will tell you that the competition to attract the best talent for their companies is fierce — and getting fiercer.

Taking this leap will help the region grow into a true international hub for innovation and not get cut off in the growing traffic around talent acquisition. An LRT is as much a symbol of the future, and where this region is headed, as it as a cost-effective and practical way to get around.


Cherise Burda

Cherise Burda was Ontario director at the Pembina Institute until 2015.


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