The time is right for LRT transition

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Winnipeg was built on light rail transit. At its peak, 400 streetcars rode 200 kilometres of track, carrying 60 million riders per year. And almost immediately after the streetcars were replaced with buses in 1955, the debate began over bringing back light rail transit (LRT).

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Opinion

Winnipeg was built on light rail transit. At its peak, 400 streetcars rode 200 kilometres of track, carrying 60 million riders per year. And almost immediately after the streetcars were replaced with buses in 1955, the debate began over bringing back light rail transit (LRT).

From a proposed subway in the 1960s to a monorail dream in the 1970s to both phases of the Southwest Transitway in the last 30 years, debating light rail transit has been a Winnipeg tradition for almost seven decades. Last week, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) added his voice, suggesting the rapid transit lines proposed in the Winnipeg Transit Masterplan be light rail instead of bus.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was chosen for Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway largely for its lower cost and increased flexibility, with buses being able to run along the dedicated corridor and then move seamlessly to regular on-street routes. BRT is efficient, faster to implement and more affordable than light rail.

BRENT BELLAMY PHOTO

Riders board the C-train light rail in Calgary. That city, like Edmonton and Kitchener/Waterloo, implemented its first LRT lines with a population of about half a million, significantly less than the 800,000 people in Winnipeg today.

So why the never-ending discussion about a more expensive rail system? The simple answer is that a train is not a bus.

There are many opposing viewpoints about the merits of rail versus bus rapid transit, but one that is difficult to challenge is the superior ride quality that trains provide. The smoother, quieter, more comfortable ride results in an image of rail that cannot be matched even with fast, modern buses.

Rail is perceived as first-class. No LRT system is advertised as being convertible to BRT in the future, but almost all BRT systems advertise the reverse. Basing a transit system even partially on image seems superficial, but this can have a cascading effect with real-world implications.

The elevated passenger experience of a train has demonstrated greater ability to convert more drivers to riders and attract a broader social demographic compared to BRT systems. A study completed for Metrolinx, the government of Ontario’s transit agency, compared the relative benefits of an LRT or BRT line between Mississauga and Brampton. Because of rail’s increased ability to convince drivers to leave their cars at home and take transit, the study estimated building LRT would result in 40 per cent fewer automobile kilometres being driven compared with BRT.

A similar study for Hamilton projected that 60 per cent fewer automobile kilometres would be driven. This reduction in driving came with corresponding reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, traffic congestion and infrastructure maintenance, and an increase in road user safety.

In most instances, LRT has also proven to be more effective than BRT at inspiring Transit Oriented Development (TOD), a key consideration for cities making rapid transit investment. When a system is effective, residents and businesses will want to locate near transit stations, which can spur new development and increase adjacent property values.

Cities can use this to target locations for infill development and urban renewal. Metrolinx has found people are willing to walk about 20 per cent further to a rail line than a busway, resulting in a larger catchment area for growth. A study for a new transit line in the Waterloo region anticipated the greater attraction to LRT would increase adjacent land values by $370 million, compared to $75 million with BRT.

It is often believed the magnitude and permanence of light rail infrastructure can create a perception of stability and public commitment that reduces development risk and inspires greater private investment along an LRT line compared to a busway. There are examples of great BRT systems inspiring TOD, but the perceived permanence, elevated image, higher ridership demand and more diverse rider demographic have resulted in a long list of light rail systems being highly effective catalysts for growth and development.

Light rail is a particularly interesting idea today, as Winnipeg Transit begins transitioning to a high-frequency transit model. The new scheme will create a feeder system of buses on local streets that takes riders to main corridors, where they will transfer to a high-frequency primary network. The success of the system will rely on the effectiveness of these primary rapid transit lines, making them ideal for light rail.

No longer requiring BRT’s flexibility, the higher capacity, faster speeds, improved comfort and greater schedule reliability that light rail offers over buses would ensure the system is effective, convenient and able to attract increased ridership.

Cities across Canada are recognizing the role light rail can play in elevating the perception and experience of public transit. This can attract new riders, advance quality of life and social opportunity, inspire investment and development, reduce carbon emissions and improve civic competitiveness.

There are currently 18 light rail projects under construction or in development in Canada, and Winnipeg will soon be the only city in the country’s 10 largest without light rail. The federal government has become a willing investment partner, and with changes already happening to Winnipeg Transit, the moment might be right to finally end the debate and join the more than 50 cities across North America that have invested in LRT, transforming the image of our city and redefining public transportation for the next generation.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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