REPORT #1,133: Between 2006 and today, the rational for rapid transit in London shifted from creating a better public transportation system to development a different kind of city. While those concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, there are concerns London is drifting that way.
Monday, Dec. 7, 2015 – LondonOntario
In the beginning, rapid transit was seen as the way to save London’s public transportation operation from its own success, and in the process shift more people out of their cars and onto the buses.
In 2006, when then general manager Larry Ducharme first proposed the concept of BRT to city council, it was to provide a backbone around which London Transit could be reorganized.
BRT stands for bus rapid transit, an idea perfected and immensely successful in South America. Running on dedicated traffic free lanes with frequent service, the BRT would allow London Transit to realign its other buses to feed these new super-express routes.
Somewhere along the line that shift got shifted away from saving public transit toward building a different kind of city. While those concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, there are concerns London is drifting that way.
While London Transit has been publicly supportive, privately there are worries London’s big Shift will give them the shaft, that scarce funds needed to provide better public transport will be shifted towards covering the loses of the light rail line between Fanshawe College, Western University and Masonville Place is expected to suffer for perhaps its first 20 years.
How did all that happen?
Good question, although it did not unfold in secret. The proponents of light rail as a way to give London some world-class buzz have been open and public about their ideas since at least the fall of 2009.
That’s when John Fleming, the city planner, and Sean Galloway, now the city’s manager of urban design, rolled out a concept map of modern streetcar lines running from the airport to Lambeth and Riverbend, from Masonville to White Oaks.
At the time, they acknowledged streetcars aren’t again going to rocket through city streets anytime soon. But as part of our transportation planning for the future, we should see them as a viable option, we should start thinking about where they would run and begin clearing those right of ways, they argued.
Flash forward six years. City council has just given unanimous approval to the principle of a hybrid rapid transit system that includes light rail – modern-day streetcars, in effect – from Masonville to Fanshawe with the sharp turn at or near Dundas downtown, and fast buses from White Oaks to Wonderland-Oxford via the downtown. Total cost, about $900 million.
Lambeth and Riverbend, not to mention Byron, Westmount and Argyle, will just have to wait, perhaps a long time.
Rapid transit in some form – with BRT essentially still it – was written into the city’s master transportation plan of 2012. The argument laid out was that taxpayers could save a ton of money if more Londoners could be convinced to park their cars and take the fast bus. Fewer cars means fewer costly road projects.
The theme was burnished some more in the London Plan, unveiled in 2014 – although not yet approved by council. City planners made the striking point London could save almost a billion dollars over the next 50 years if the city grew up more than out. And the way to do that was through a better, faster public transportation operation.
Shift geared up shortly thereafter, with the city’s engineering and planning departments in the drivers’ seats, not London Transit. No one should have been surprised when their recommendation was the hybrid with emphasis on light rail.
The light rail component, a report to city council last month claimed, “can have a greater impact on the city’s image as a top tier city in North America. . . . The city image benefits of LRT can also apply to our institutions, helping them to present a world-class image, being connected to one-another and our regional-provincial transportation hub by light rail.”
In fact, when Mayor Matt Brown made a request to the provincial government for funding he actually asked for enough money to cover a total light rail system – $1.2 billion.
London is prepared to put up $125 million toward its new system. That other levels of government would be prepared to pay the remaining 90 per cent for the complete light rail system seems unlikely; for that matter, even picking up 86 per cent of the hybrid system seems overly optimistic.
For comparison, you might want to check out Larry Cornies’ very revealing piece in Saturday’s London Free Press. He points out Waterloo Region is putting up 31 per cent of the cost of a light rail line that will connect the cities of Waterloo and Kitchener; the feds contributed 32 per cent, the province 37
Those numbers sound far more realistic, but where are we going to get another $154 million?
Meantime, while plans continue to develop no other level of government has yet said yes to our request. Waterloo Region waited six years for a promise in writing. In the end the deal was sealed mostly because that region is expected to grow by 200,000 people in the next 20 years. London’s projections for the same period estimate population growth of 71,000.
That’s a size that suggests London should follow Ottawa’s example and start its transition to rapid transit with the BRT. The capital city rolled out the fast bus model in 1983. Only now is it expanding into light rail.
That may not be a real Shift, but it does sound real smart.
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