On Waterloo Region's Car-Dependency
Part 3: The Bad News

Grand River Transit

This photograph is entitled Last Bus and is by Jeremy Ladan. It is used in accordance with his Creative Commons license. This article has also been crossposted to the Waterloo Wellington Bloggers Association group blog, and comments can be made there.

In the first part of this series, I talked about the desire on the part of certain citizens of this region to live car free, and in the second part I discussed the positive steps the region had taken in improving its public transit access in the past twenty or so years. In this part, I’ll highlight some of the challenges that remain and, more frustratingly, areas where the region has taken a backwards step.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been privileged to give a presentation on transportation to the grade eight students of The York School in Toronto. As the editor of Transit Toronto, I’m one of a list of speakers providing their take on the issue for the benefit of a project the students are working on.

In my presentation, I point out to them that, though I am an advocate for improved public transportation, I still own a car. I have nothing against car ownership. I think the automobile is a wonderful luxury that everybody should enjoy. I just wish it would remain a luxury only, and not become a necessity of life.

Think about your neighbourhoods, I tell the students, many of whom come from suburban climes with inadequate public transportation. Think of where you live and how it relates to where you shop, where you go to school, where your libraries are, your pools, your friends’ houses, your video stores, et cetera. And then think of what would happen if you or your family no longer had access to an automobile to get them.

And this is not some vague notion, I tell them. I tell them about how my wife, who until a couple of years ago suffered from a debilitating condition called Trigeminal Neuralgia, had her license taken away from the government, because as soon as any doctor or other official within spitting distance of the government hears the phrases “debilitating bouts of pain causing one to black out” and “without warning” in the same breath, it practically becomes their obligation to do so.

It is now two years after Erin has been cured of TN, and she still doesn’t have her driver’s license back. You do need to have gone through a year with no incidents in order to get your license back; the other year is either Dr. Vlad’s mad-scientist attitude to paperwork (“paperwork? what’s that? now where’s that new equipment I get to play with?”) or bureaucratic sticky-tape applied to the feet of civil servants at the Ministry of Transportation. Erin’s going to give them a call today to see what’s what.

But the point is, for the time that Erin was sick and lost her license, to today, she has been dependent on me to drive her anywhere. And this has made her feel sometimes like a prisoner in her own home. This phrase is commonly used in any household where two people can afford one car and one of the two tends to use it for his or her day-to-day work. In situations where we have chidren or younger teenagers in the home, the phrase becomes “a chauffeur mom (or dad)”. Recently, Erin picked up a bike at a garage sale, and used it to ride out to a library to get some time to herself so she could write. The hills were hard, but the burst of independence that this gave her was more than worth it.

(And I should point out that the loss of Erin’s driver’s license is no picnic to me either. I like to drive, and I do like the challenge of long drives, but it is nice to be able to spell each other off. As we are planning to drive to Des Moines this summer, it would be great if Erin could get her license back before then).

So, why doesn’t Erin take the Grand River Transit bus more often? Well, actually, she does. We are not in the situation that some people find themselves in where we’d be terribly isolated if we lost access to our automobile. We’re a thirty-minute walk from downtown Kitchener. We’ve a five minute walk from a bus stop featuring fifteen minute service during rush hour. Erin often picks up Vivian from pre-school and takes her on a bus ride home; it takes about forty minutes, and delivers us close to our door. And before we had the kids, we made do for two years without an automobile. We car pooled with friends, and we took groceries home on transit.

But the forty-minute trip back from Vivian’s school by bus takes only six minutes by car. The bus requires one transfer while the car requires none. Kitchener’s route 8 picks up students from the University and heads down Westmount, only to divert onto Belmont Avenue on the way downtown. Route 12 also travels on part of Westmount Road, but diverts over to Fischer Hallmann and runs up to the Keats Way, lengthening the trip. There is no through service on Westmount Avenue, providing a service to the University that would practically be door-to-door for some. although there are vague plans to get some. To get anywhere in the region, you will likely have to take a bus that will take you out of your way, and then transfer.

This wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the biggest design flaw of Grand River Transit; that being the location of Kitchener’s Downtown Terminal. Although I can see why planners chose to locate the terminal where they did — in the middle of Kitchener’s long and thin downtown, rather than at either end — it does make for some frustrating commutes.

Consider a trip that I might take from my house to Uptown Waterloo or the University of Waterloo. At first glance, it might seem straightforward: take the Victoria Street bus (either route 19 or 20) towards the downtown, transfer at King Street to the 7 Mainline bus, and head north. And plenty of people make this transfer. However, the official transfer between 7 Mainline and the Victoria Street buses is at the downtown terminal, and Victoria Street buses must turn right onto King, travel south three blocks to Gaukel, then turn right again to make the one block jaunt to the terminal. Taking this full trip means doubling back over an eight block stretch.

If you are transfering from the Victoria Street bus to the King Street bus, this isn’t much of a problem; you can get off at Victoria and King, cross the street to the King Street bus stop, and be assured that a 7 Mainline bus will be along within five or ten minutes. Going the other way, however, is more problematic, since buses on Victoria Street travel at thirty minute intervals throughout the day (and fifteen minute intervals at rush hour). So, what do you do? Do you get off the 7 Mainline at Victoria and wait as long as 30 minutes for Victoria Street bus? Or do you continue on to the terminal, and run the risk that you’ll arrive just as the Victoria Street bus is pulling out? And what about transferring to the iXpress for trips north? Again, you are forced into doubling back.

Similar problems occur at the east end of Kitchener’s downtown, by Market Square. If you’re arriving from Fairview Mall, do you transfer from the 7 Mainline to 8 University via Weber, 15 Frederick, 1 Stanley Park or 23 Idlewood at Market Square? Or do you brave the three block jaunt to the downtown terminal? This is made all the more frustrating given that King Street between Frederick and Francis compresses to just two lanes, and buses crawl along this stretch.

It is a shame that we can’t have two separate terminals at either end of the downtown core, with some frequent, rapid connection between the two.

As frustrating as the location of the Kitchener Downtown Terminal was, at least it used to offer smooth connections between local transit and inter-city buses. Emphasis on “used” to offer. In the fall of 2008, Greyhound Canada made the boneheaded decision to suspend ticket sales at the downtown terminal, forcing riders to trek a new terminal that being set up at Sportsworld. This makes catching the bus to Toronto a lot less convenient for those of us who don’t have a car, or don’t wish to drive to Sportsworld. At least with the Downtown Terminal, you could be sure of using, on average, one city bus to complete your trip from the transit centre to your home. Not so with Sportsworld, which can only be accessed by buses from Fairview Mall. And just what are people travelling to Guelph (which doesn’t access Sportsworld) supposed to do?

It seems Greyhound has acknowledged the foolhardiness of this arrangement by stationing someone with a wireless credit card machine to issue tickets, but if they’re going to do that, why not just reinstate downtown ticket sales?

Mind you, there is some blame to be laid at Grand River Transit’s door as well. GO Transit has announced that bus service between Milton and Kitchener will start this October, and it will likely serve park ‘n’ ride stops along Highway 401. It seems to me very likely that this service will terminate at the Sportsworld complex rather than continue on into downtown Kitchener. If this is the case, perhaps it’s time for the region to add a stop on the iXpress at Sportsworld, so that anybody who has to transfer at the downtown terminal need only take one express bus to get to the Greyhound ticket office, instead of transferring to yet another bus at Fairview Mall.

Connections are also a problem between Grand River Transit and VIA Rail, which runs a popular commuter service into Toronto’s Union Station. Accessed only by the half-hourly Route 18 bus from the downtown terminal, passengers from other services again have to double back. I either travel to the corner of King and Victoria and walk the remaining blocks, or take a taxi.

These little inconveniences are what keeps cars in the driveways of most people who would otherwise happily do without them. I have lived in this region for eighteen years and have lived relatively car-free for almost ten of them, so I know that one can live in the region without one. The region still has a long way to go, however, before it offers mobility approaching a level of what people enjoy in larger, more transit and pedestrian friendly centres like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. Fortunately, steps do appear to be being taken. More on this later.

If you wish to comment on this piece, please head on over to this post at the Waterloo Wellington Bloggers Association group blog.

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