Time for high speed rail in Canada

As part of the federal election, the Green Party has challenged all parties to agree on a few fundamental improvements to our economy, environmental, and society. I couldn’t agree more with Elizabeth’s ambitions for high speed rail: it’s time.

Given the billions of dollars that the Conservatives would like to spend on F-35 jets, we can certainly afford this investment. This is not something we can outsource; the jobs for building such infrastructure are right here, in the communities that will be served by high speed rail stations. Many of the companies that build these systems, and the equipment that runs on them, are headquartered right here in Canada as well.

High speed rail will drmatically expand the talent pool for employers, meaning they get a better shot at finding the ideal person to fill every position for a highly productive economy. This is because the commuting range is doubled or tripled. This also allows train travel to compete with both driving and flying for trips over medium distances (between one hour’s drive and one hour’s flight), reducing congestion on our highways and at our airports. Of course, the lifestyle that such infrastructure provides is attractive to the kind of highly mobile global talent that our urban regions need to compete.

There are many more reasons why high speed rail is an ideal investment. Personally, it’s quite simple: I want to ride a 21st century system.

Comments to the RofW Rapid Transit study

Here are the comments I submitted to the Region of Waterloo Rapid Transit team…

“My choice would be Option L9, all LRT, or L9 adjusted with termination at Ainslie Street and Conestoga Mall (without service to St. Jacobs). The most expensive option is to wait. I would project that costs of such infrastructure will rise quickly, as will the costs of automobile dependency for potential riders. We urgently need this kind of investment in our community. We must act with ambition, and make the best use of the generous funds available from provincial and federal sources. As a resident of Kitchener, my region includes Cambridge and I agree with many residents there that they deserve to see rail in the first phase (what a dynamic way to inspire transit mode share growth in their city). Rail provides the best results for my tax dollars, moving passengers more cost efficiently and with less pollution. It is just what the developers who invest in our community need to inspire core area intensification, and it is what will attract and retain highly mobile talent for our future economy. Building any section of the RT corridor with a short-lived BRT or aBRT is wasteful and lacks vision. I am confident that once the LRT is in service, our conservative ridership projections will be rapidly eclisped, and (as has happened in so many other communities) neighbours in other areas will be arguing for the next line to serve them.”

So, there you have it, my position in a nutshell. Looking forward to the process wrapping up soon so that we can get some construction jobs underway. To learn more about Rapid Transit plans in Waterloo Region, check out their website.

Worth Repeating: The region needs to get on the commuter train

Here is my final contribution to my one-year (2010) term on the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed December 17th. Quick note on the headline: contributors don’t write them – so yes, I know that LRT is not a commuter train. Of course, feel free to get on the GO trains as well. Thanks to everyone who tweeted this about on the day it was published. Apparently I saved the best for last. I certainly enjoyed the time on the CEB, and wish all the best to this year’s contributors!

(http://www.therecord.com/opinion/article/301276)

“The region needs to get on the commuter train

Standing with hundreds of my fellow citizens on a chilly afternoon in Uptown Waterloo, I found myself startled by the need for a Rally for Rails in our community. How did the so-called “debate” on this issue manage to get derailed?

It doesn’t matter how often we hear that light rail transit is too expensive; repetition won’t make it true. Are the costs high? Absolutely. The project will demand investments in the hundreds of millions. It would be foolhardy to forget that this price tag pales in comparison to the billions we would otherwise pay to accommodate new and widened arterial roads, or a bus rapid transit system that would need to be replaced with rail not long after the cut ribbon hits the ground.

It doesn’t matter how loudly it is asserted that the system will just run between two malls. Could it be said that the Conestoga Parkway just runs between St. Jacobs and New Hamburg? It seems those of us living in between those points find some use for that indispensable piece of infrastructure. The new light rail stations will be within walking distance of a great portion of existing jobs and residences, and will further concentrate development in our core areas.

It doesn’t matter that the arguments against light rail are simple, and the arguments for it are more complex. It may be easier to attack the proposal, but I’d rather take a few minutes to hear the complicated and accurate side of the story.

What matters is that we have a serious and rare opportunity to shape our community in ways that will protect and enhance quality of life for many years and even generations to come. We cannot pay for an endless supply of roads and sprawling suburban form that stretches our civic services to the limit. We cannot afford to lose the local farmland and watershed that sustain us.

What matters is that light rail transit, and the urban form it inspires, is just the kind of boost our economy needs. It will be less costly than the alternatives, keeping our related tax increases in check. It will provide real attraction to developers who are able to invest billions of dollars, creating vibrant spaces for our homes and workplaces. With it, we will be the kind of community that can attract and retain the best talent, and their employers.

What matters most is that we have allowed our discussions on the issue to be guided by the frequent, loud, and simple arguments instead of the truth.

With light rail transit, life in our region will be less costly, more convenient, and less polluting. Light rail will provide a desperately needed core for a revolutionized bus system. Fed by higher frequency bus service, and additional express routes, many of which are already budgeted for outside of the rapid transit program, light rail will finally allow us to graduate to a fast and linear transit system we can all be proud of and imagine ourselves using.

After a multi-year public engagement process, careful analysis by respected professionals inside our municipal staff and beyond, and with more funding from senior governments than we would normally enjoy, we have an excellent plan. If anything, it is a first step of many on the path to a responsible vision for sustainable transportation in our community. It should not need a rally; it is strong enough to stand in the spotlight of honest evaluation, if we have the desire to seek and hear the facts on the matter. The train is coming, and we should all be on board.”

Imagine: “Except Waterloo Region”

Just imagine what would be possible if we went beyond simply keeping up with the good practices of other municipalities. I believe we have the capacity to become an exemplary community that will inspire leaders throughout Ontario and across Canada. Wouldn’t it be great to force people distraught with the general state of our health, wealth, and ecology to add “except Waterloo Region” to the end of their exasperation?

“Ontario has terrible air quality in the summer, except Waterloo Region.”
“No major Canadian city has been able to eat mostly local foods in season, except Waterloo Region.”
“North Americans are so darned addicted to their cars, except Waterloo Region.”
“If Ontario gets another recession soon, it’s going to hit employment very hard across the province, except Waterloo Region.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? What can we expect if we stand out among other municipalities? We’ll be able to attract even more highly talented neighbours, and their employers. The value of living here will be reflected in the value of our homes, and in the increased capacity for quality municipal services. In all the many ways we can measure quality of life, we can imagine improvements that are possible when we have the proof of living in the finest community around.

More importantly, the allure of these benefits will engender a spirit of friendly competition among our peers, and bring other governments to follow our lead. We can leverage our own success in becoming a green, healthy, and comfortable community, and bring our province and country along for the ride.

That’s the kind of community where I want to live.

Do you like your bike trails scrambled or over easy?

Since moving here ten years ago, I have been a regular cyclist on the Iron Horse Trail. This is a critical piece of infrastructure for our local sustainable transportation system, and so is a frequent target of complaints from trail users. It needs to be wider. It needs to be marked for pedestrians on half, and cyclists on the other, to better serve both users. The connections at either end (Ottawa Street in Kitchener and Caroline Street in Waterloo) need to flow more easily and safely onto other cycling routes. Perhaps most perplexing, though, is that for a trip along the whole length of the trail during a weekday, a cyclist can expect to spend half their time waiting for motorised cross-traffic at major roads. Here are two suggestions for relief that could make us all feel a little more sunny side up, and a little less burned.

Scrambled

The intersection of Courtland and Stirling is a perfect place for a Pedestrian Scramble. StreetsWiki has a good description (with images) of this signal innovation from traffic engineer Henry Barnes. The traffic would flow in one direction (along Courtland), followed by a signal to allow pedestrian and cyclist crossings in all directions (including diagonally), then the other motorised traffic flow (on Stirling), and another scramble crossing.

The reason this works so well is that most pedestrian and cyclist activity at the intersection is diagonal. The trail terminates at two opposite corners, and the other two corners are home to the GRT bus stops.

For a great time lapse photo of the scramble signal in action at Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, check out the Spacing site.

Over Easy

I think the argument could be made for pedestrian signals at trail crossings, as well as more use of pedestrian islands so that trail users only have to cross one direction of traffic at a time. Signals could even be timed for a comfortable cycling speed, so that a non-stop trip could be made along the length of the trail.

What is called for at first is a pilot project using crossing guards in the summer. For a few months between one school year and the next, we could employ a handful of crossing guards, with all of their existing training and experience, to shepherd cyclists and pedestrians across the major trail intersections with no more than a twenty second delay. If it works, increasing the use of the trail, then we can make the investment in signals and crossing islands.

Worth Repeating: Driving to work may cause planning problems

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed June 18th:

(http://news.therecord.com/article/730072)

“Driving to work may cause planning problems

June 18, 2010

By Jason Hammond

When my friends and I pass a major construction site, one of us will often remark, “Oh look, they’re installing a mess!”

Development is messy. Bring in heavy equipment, and before long all sorts of dirt and dust end up floating away on the breeze and choking passersby. Sometimes, as in the recent dispute over the Lang Tannery demolition proposal, it is the politics of development that is messiest of all.

The debate at Kitchener city council meetings and in this newspaper has had the positive effect of bringing many citizens, including myself, to a deeper engagement with our urban heritage. We learned about the past of the Lang Tannery, the present of the adaptive reuse being implemented by the developers, and the future of both parking provision and the pedestrian experience in our downtown.

It appeared at first to be a simple issue of heritage versus parking. We would knock down historical buildings, put up a gravel parking lot, and lose our recent momentum toward a more vibrant, sustainable and dynamic downtown. Of course, projects guided by public policy and millions of dollars are rarely so simple, and assignment of blame for the situation quickly became hard to pin down.

The first suspect was the developer, Cadan Inc, who has transformed the first site of the Tannery from a dilapidated complex of factory buildings to a rediscovered space that will focus the working lives of hundreds into a key area along the region’s central corridor. The tragedy is that they believe, likely in concert with many of their prospective tenants, that a lack of immediately available free parking would be the automatic termination of success for the project. So, the result is that the second site is sacrificed to bring the first site a better outlook for survival.

Of course, I wouldn’t be excited about knocking the buildings of the second site down in favour of parking if I owned the property, but I do not. It appears that the necessary steps have been taken to satisfy the official processes that would guide the development, so we are introduced to the second suspect: the city.

After extended public engagement to develop the official plan, we have a document that captures a common vision for the evolution of our community. Our neighbours have given their opinion, with the hope that the end product will prevent our urban changes from heading in the wrong direction. Among the assertions available in the document: protect heritage buildings, and avoid surface parking. Whoops!

Unfortunately, it is not this citizen-driven vision that directs staff as they process requests for such projects. The “applicable law,” as it is known, is the zoning bylaw. These bylaws do not always reflect the official plan, a consistency challenge that is likely unmet by a great number of communities across the province.

What to do? It seems that everyone is just doing their job. Perhaps a core problem is how we get to those jobs. Most of us drive to work alone, and much like the development approval system, it just seems to be the way things went yesterday and will likely go tomorrow.

Municipal staff, elected officials, developers and employers all have key roles in shaping our community. By combining their efforts with adherence to new priorities, we can allow the latent radical shift in commuting behaviour that awaits improved options. As the dominance of parking demand in the Tannery project has shown, how we are able to find our way into a neighbourhood has one of the greatest impacts on how it looks when we get there.

Jason Hammond of Kitchener is the president of Grand River CarShare.”

YKF? Why not?

The Region of Waterloo International Airport (YKF) has the released the results of their online new destination twitter contest. As you can see, Halifax is a top choice, which was a safe bet all along.

The ability of local travelers (and the tourists we attract) to fly directly in and out of the region is very attractive, and helps to boost our economic vitality. Service levels are increasing, with Bearskin growing again from four to five daily trips to Ottawa (having launched the route with three just a few short years ago). WestJet is also flying new seasonal service to Vancouver, but you’ll remember that the “seasonal” service to Calgary was eventually made a permanent fixture given early adoption and passenger volume.

There is a serious environmental challenge to deal with, as well as the impact of noise on nearby properties. Flight has a bad wrap for emissions, and is often unaccounted for in international negotiations on climate. I hope that with the new Aviation Program at the University of Waterloo, our community could become a focal point for research into improving the environmental performance of flight, and keep the world connected without doing damage to our atmosphere.

However, until rail service is improved (you can trust there will be future blog posts here promoting high speed rail), we can expect passengers to choose flight, especially for distances beyond the Windsor-Quebec Corridor. That being said, if you’ve never taken the train to Vancouver, or Halifax, I can heartily recommend both adventures!

If the choice is flight, we can at least eliminate the trip to Toronto for trips served at our local airport. To better support the Region’s investment in this facility (including the new Combined Airport / Fleet Maintenance and Firehall Services Facility), we need to begin serving the airport with Grand River Transit.

Such service could also link Breslau to Kitchener and Cambridge via Victoria Street and Fountain Street, with possible connections through to Conestoga College. Not only would this serve both flight passengers and airport employees, but the route would represent a continuation of the commitment to connect our Townships (begun with the current service to St. Jacobs and Elmira).

Our airport is a critical element of both our economic health and our transportation infrastructure. Let’s help it to succeed, and do what is needed for all our major services: demand the best performance, while delivering the resources that make excellence possible.

Eating our way out of sprawl

The Fertile Ground team
This is Andrew and Angie, just two of my farmers; and it’s good to know your farmers.
Perhaps the most powerful focus for the local consumption movement is what we really do consume: our food. Many of us are familiar with various arguments in favour of local food. It can taste better and be more nutritious. There are three other primary benefits that I’d like to highlight today. My vision is that we can develop strong relationships between farmers and eaters and create a Waterloo Region where four townships feed three cities. Tasty, tasty policy.

Local food is a sustainable transportation choice, just as much as carpooling to work, or cycling to a friend’s place on a weekend afternoon. Did you know that our very own Regional staff at Public Health have done important research into food miles? Kudos to Marc Xuereb, also a founding member of Grand River CarShare! Food represents an enormous portion of the world’s “stuff” that we burn through every day. However, much of this resource use is unnecessary when we eat local organic foods.
When we grow certain crops for bulk markets far away, on land that is less than ideally suited, it requires chemical support. Monocultures are also a pest’s dream (they have an endless supply of their favourite victim plant, with no pesky interruptions). There’s also the packaging, the extra water for irrigation, and so on. All of this must be shipped and pumped. Then, the product itself is shipped through the whole value chain, processed, packed, distributed, retailed… and then it finally comes home to your table. The 100 Mile Diet was Waterloo Region’s “One Book, One Community” selection in 2008, so I’ll presume that I can move on.

The second important factor is that this represents an enormous opportunity for more local green jobs. Waterloo Region Record reporter Terry Pender recently noted that some local farmers are already converting their land to locally destined produce, to support our growing urban farmers’ markets.
When we keep our diet local, we will also keep our food budget local. This means more stable and lasting income for our local farm families, giving them a brighter future and a deeper connection to each of their urban neighbours across the region. Perhaps the best way to provide real resilience for our farmers, and share what Angie calls the “inherent risk of farming,” is Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). There are many CSA operations locally (Fertile Ground, reroot, Transpire Organic, Garden Party, etc.), where you pay the farmer at the start of the season, and enjoy your share of the bounty.
Picking up local veggies by bike.
So, here’s the big deal that is discussed most rarely. I am a firm believer that Community Supported Agriculture can finally put a halt to our sprawling ways. By eating locally, we begin to truly value and respect the farms that surround us. That’s not a subdivision waiting to happen; that’s dinner. Working in partnership with programs to inspire developers to invest in existing urban spaces (light rail transit, brownfield incentives), and restrict them (strict countryside line for planning regulations), the ultimate backstop for sprawl prevention is thousands of local food eaters declaring their support for our farmers. This also addresses the need of farmers to retire securely, knowing that their land is more valuable growing three square meals, not three car garages.

Worth Repeating: End of the Oil Age

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed February 22nd:

(news.therecord.com/article/673100)

“End of the oil age is clearly on the horizon

February 22, 2010

Jason Hammond

Transportation makes up an enormous portion of both our household expenses and our collective carbon footprint. The way we navigate our way across Waterloo Region today is so comically inefficient it has to be considered the low hanging fruit as we struggle with the dual economic and climate crises.

We all remember the gas price increases that made news before the recession set in 18 months ago. Data from MJ Ervin & Associates, a London-based consulting firm that tracks gas prices, provide a wealth of information about what Ontarians have paid for a litre of regular unleaded fuel. From 2001 to 2008, prices increased an average of 7.5 per cent each year. The basic reason is simple: global demand is through the roof. Of course, as demand crashed in the recession, so went the price.

If we look forward to a strong economic recovery, we can also look forward to returning to that path of high fuel prices. By 2014, with business as usual, we would be paying $1.70 per litre. Considering that the global supply of oil is peaking, prices could rapidly go much higher. For our climate stability and air quality, the true cost is disastrous.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out in the New York Times a few years ago, Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani had a habit of noting that the stone age did not end because we ran out of stone. Likewise, Friedman adds, the oil age will not end because we run out of oil. It is clear that we are already in the transition to cheaper, greener alternatives. The best route to success for our local economy today is to navigate this major shift in an exemplary fashion, and as early as we can muster.

Waterloo Region is positioned to move beyond total dependence on such increasingly expensive fossil fuel energy, but there is a long way to go. A report by the University of Waterloo and the Region of Waterloo states that more than 80 per cent of area commuters drive to work alone. That leaves plenty of room for improvement.

There are a number of helpful and necessary infrastructure improvements on the way. In the next few years, we can expect more intercity train service, and a major shuffle of local Grand River Transit bus service as a rapid transit spine redefines our transit experience. However, not all shifts take years, massive investment, or new technology. All too often, the necessary shift is one of political will and reform of our collective habits.

Whether we are concerned about transit service frequency, access to cycling trails and lanes, a vibrant and welcoming pedestrian environment, or any other sustainable transportation solution, there is a universally effective response. We must heartily use what we already have. Even once a week at first, we can take the time for an evening walk through the neighbourhood, a transit ride to work, or planning a meal with local, organic, and seasonal food. Only by voting with our feet can we prove both the need and the benefits to our neighbours and elected officials.

More than that, we can all take the opportunity to add our own morsel of change to the menu. As our lives become healthier, less expensive, and less impactful on the natural systems that sustain us, we owe it to our community to share our secrets of success with our family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and decision makers. Together, we can respond to the end of cheap energy with the end of our total dependence on it.

Jason Hammond is the president of Grand River CarShare.”