On Waterloo Region's Car-Dependency
Part 2: The Good News

Grand River Transit

The picture above, by Dan Kukwa, is of a Grand River Transit (ex-Cambridge Transit) bus in 2001, during the period when two colour schemes (Kitchener Transit and Cambridge Transit) were being merged into one.

This post has been crossposted to the Waterloo-Wellington Bloggers Association

In part one, I talked about the frustrations of living in a car-dependent city, and how close Waterloo Region is to throwing the shackles off. This post talks about what the region has done right in the past few years, and what journeys are possible without an automobile.

If you compare Grand River Transit to the Toronto Transit Commission, you’ll likely complain. Most buses come every thirty minutes, even during rush hour. Routes meander through neighbourhoods and trips take twice as long to complete by transit as they do by car. However, for all its faults, the current public transit agency for the region has come a long way since I moved to Kitchener in 1991. Indeed, back in 1991, it didn’t exist.

At that time, public transit was a local rather than a regional responsibility. The City of Kitchener operated Kitchener Transit, and the City of Waterloo contracted to Kitchener Transit to extend its services north of the Kitchener-Waterloo boundary. More than a few people noticed that service levels in stingy Waterloo were lower than that seen in Kitchener.

Further south, the City of Cambridge operated Cambridge Transit. Most buses did not operate past 10 p.m. and Sunday service was rudimentary, at best. Worst of all, though Cambridge and Kitchener shared the same boundary, though there were significant trip generators for both towns on that boundary (Sportsworld and Conestoga College), there was no bus connection between the two cities across that boundary, and little inclination to build one. To travel between Kitchener and Cambridge, one had to board a Trentway-Wager intercity bus, and the only concession to local traffic they offered was a free transfer to either Kitchener or Cambridge transit, as long as you provided proof that you’d ridden transit at the start of your trip.

Part of this was the ambiguous relationship Cambridge had with the Region of Waterloo. It wasn’t happy being amalgamated into the region when the region first formed in 1974. Part of this was mall envy, as Cambridge feared that a connection with Fairview Mall would cause downtown Preston to dry up, and Kitchener feared similar things from Cambridge Centre. But as the Region grew, so too did trips between homes and jobs across the boundary, and gradually local pressure increased to bridge what was seen as an increasingly silly gap. Finally, in 2000, public transit was shifted from a local to a regional level of responsibility, and Kitchener and Cambridge Transits were merged into the region-wide Grand River Transit. Before long, direct public transit connections between Kitchener and Cambridge, including the limited stop iXpress service.

The regional government spent a lot of money increasing service levels in Waterloo and Cambridge to match the Kitchener standard. Some politicians have complained about the spending, but the increase has raised ridership by as much as 25%. These increases, however, pale in comparison to the benefit just the connections between Kitchener and Cambridge offer. Suddenly residents in both towns had access to jobs that weren’t available before. Increasingly, the Region of Waterloo is being seen as a region, rather than two isolated and stand-offish cities.

And while service on most routes remain at anemic thirty-minute frequencies, more are operating at 15 minute intervals during rush hours, with service on King Street operating at five minute intervals or better. And while it can take twice as long to take transit as it does to take the car, the iXpress cuts down travel time and makes most of the urban areas of the region accessible.

In terms of inter-city travel, Kitchener-Waterloo already benefited from strong connections to the City of Toronto. Indeed, I half-jokingly referred to this as a major attraction to living in the Region, rendering my relationship to my old home town of Toronto as similar to that of a grandparent: you get to love and cuddle the grandkids all you want, until they start to smell, then you go home. Despite cutbacks to VIA Rail in 1991, it is possible to use the train to commute to work in downtown Toronto (I know this because I did it for six months back in 2000, and still do occasionally). Greyhound bus service is frequent and often operates as a near express between the two cities, with travel times of roughly 90 minutes.

As a car owner, I’ve often made use of Highway 401 to head into the City of Toronto, but now, as gas prices increase or as the weather gets bad or congestion increases, I’m finding that I am leaving the car home more and more often. With careful planning, VIA Rail or Greyhound offers convenient and inexpensive service between Toronto and Kitchener for day trips and commutes. Public transit in Toronto is also good enough that you can access much of the city from Union station. If your commute to Toronto is to a destination outside the downtown, you wouldn’t want to do this every day, but for special occasions, this still works well.

Similar service exists through Trentway-Wagar (Coach Canada) between Kitchener and Hamilton, giving commuters access to GO Transit’s Lakeshore line, and moderately easy connections between this city and the cities of Burlington, Oakville and MIssissauga.

So, all in all, public transit in the Region of Waterloo has good bones. It’s possible to leave the car behind on occasion. Unfortunately, frustrating gaps remain that make public transit something of a chore. This will be the subject of my next post in this series, so stay tuned.

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