• Bus Rapid Transit, an Argyle Neighbourhood Viewpoint

    As chair of the Argyle Community Association, I have been pressing the City of London to hold public information sessions on the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan outside of the Central Library and in neighbourhoods where people live.  This week, BRT information  FINALLY came east of Highbury, when the Argyle Community Association hosted city staff at an information session at Clarke Road Secondary School.

    What I learned in trying to get people to attend was that people feel that this is a done deal, that there is nothing they can do to stop, change, or improve it. They feel nothing they have to say is genuinely going to be listened to.

    Londoners need to know this plan is not carved in stone. Yes, council has approved the preliminary plan, but that is a long way from final.

    A series of open-house meetings are coming up on the staff recommendations for routes. Recommendations are expected to address:

    • Whether dedicated BRT lanes will run along the curb or in the centre of the road,
    • What amenities bus shelters will have,
    • Where the turnaround points will be at the ends of routes,

    The city will seek more public feedback on the recommendations before they go to council. It will be up to council to approve the recommendations or reject them and direct staff to rework them.

    The Environmental Assessment process is not complete.

    There is still a $200 million dollar funding gap, as the federal government has yet to make a firm commitment to fund the project (And while the current provincial government has said it would fund $170 million of the project, on June 7th Ontario elects a new provincial government).

    And, of course, on October 22nd, Londoners elect a new city council. The Bus Rapid Transit project will take many years to complete. Eventually we will pass the point of no return regardless of changes in governments or political desire. However, without a single shovel in the ground, we are nowhere close to that point.

    So what did I take away from the meeting?

    First, London needs a “smart signals” traffic light system that allows for time of day changes in traffic patterns, and can be adapted in real time to adjust for both planned and unforeseen circumstances like road closures.

    Second, the “Rapid Transit Corridors” will supposedly free up existing capacity to be redeployed elsewhere. So maybe that neighbourhood bus now comes every 20 minutes instead of every 60 minutes. That would be a good thing for first/last mile riders.

    Leadership from Councillors Josh Morgan and Virginia Ridley nearly a year ago directed staff communicate to the public the preliminary plan for how the existing transit service will connect to the rapid transit network. But despite that, no such plan for our neighbourhood routes was available. We were told it’s “under revision”.  Basically the message we heard was “trust us.”  Without a plan to look at, residents are very skeptical.

    This is a BIG concern for Argyle residents. Many feel their concerns and needs are taking a back seat to Fanshawe College students who are largely here only 7 months a year.

    Third, residents are skeptical of the costs. The city has built in significant contingencies, but with the costs of expropriation, construction delays and cost overruns, people in Argyle are worried about their tax bills. And, those are the capital costs, not operating costs. When asked what the impact would be on transit fares and ongoing operational costs, people were told that every effort was going to be made to keep the fares close to what they are now and that gas tax transfers and development charges would make up for new costs. Frankly, many people don’t believe that.

    For me personally, the biggest issue is something I’ve said since day one: there are no “park & ride” facilities in this design. In fact, when I raised this issue city staff told me “We don’t want people to drive, park and get on transit. We want people to take transit from the beginning of their trip to the end.”

    We also heard that staff doesn’t consider parking infrastructure to be “city building.”

    I disagree. One of the greatest difficulties in getting people to see transit as a convenient alternative to the car is the “first/last mile” problem. No matter how well designed a transit system is, it can never be “door to door service.”

    There are people who will use cars for part of their travel and transit for another part of their travel if it is convenient and easy to do so, but they aren’t going to sacrifice an hour of their day to do so.

    When I visit Ottawa for work, I often stay with friends in Kanata. In the morning my friend and I drive to his son’s daycare, conveniently located next to the Park & Ride.  We leave the car there and take the bus downtown to the Parliament Hill district to work. Later we take the bus back to the Park & Ride, pick up his son, get in the car and then stop to pick-up dinner, perhaps make a stop at the LCBO or run another errand before going home. The bus is the best option for part of our trip, but not all of it.

    From St. Thomas, Thorndale, Ilderton, Dorchester, Ingersoll, and other locations, thousands of people drive into London for work each day. Many spend hundreds of dollars for downtown parking spots. Those folks are potential transit users, if we make Park & Ride from the outskirts affordable and convenient. That isn’t part of the BRT plan. It should be.

    Admittedly, there is no perfect plan. But, the best plan in the world isn’t worth the paper it is written on if you can’t convince the public that it is going to make a positive difference for them.

    Convincing people of that means you might have to make some substantial compromises along the way. The BRT plan has already done that with the elimination of the Richmond Row tunnel and moving to the “couplet” loop around Queens Ave and King St. in the downtown instead of trying to run straight down Dundas. Still, many people still aren’t convinced this is a good plan for London. What I hear again and again is that this appears to be a plan to serve Western and Fanshawe students who come and go year after year, not a plan that will improve the daily transit service or experience of the people who settle down here to build a life, family, and community.

    This is not a call for scrapping the entire BRT plan. It has some strong elements that could benefit London as a community. But strong cities are made up of strong neighbourhoods (and it is embarrassing to have to explain to city staff that the Old East Village and Argyle are two different neighbourhoods). So far, this plan doesn’t speak to how neighbourhood needs are going to be met.

    With an election coming, the Bus Rapid Transit plan is far from “case closed.”

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