light rail “for dummies?”

A polarizing summary of "facts" about a light rail debate in Waterloo, Ontario has popped up in an Atlantic item by Nicholas Jackson.  After an introduction in which Jackson seems to confuse intercity high-speed rail and intra-city light rail, he invites us to admire a graphically rich presentation Waterloo light rail advocates.  It's at the bottom of this post. 

I cite this not to take a position on light rail transit (LRT) in Waterloo.  (I'm certainly open to it, and am following with interest a similar project in similar-sized Victoria, BC.)  I mean only to offer a useful illustration of the dangers of almost all "pro vs con" or "this vs that" or "with us or against us" framings of a question, in which all distinctions are reduced or distorted to fit the quarrel at hand.

Commenters are encouraged to nominate their favourite absurdities out of this piece, or to defend them.  Mine are mostly (but not all) in the table partway down.  Did you know light rail lines seem to cause high-tech companies to sprout decades before the line opens?  Did you know that regionwide populations of Ottawa and Waterloo can be compared to city limits populations of other cities, as convenient?  And what exactly can we learn from knowing the population of San Francisco in 1904, when they opened their first light rail line?  Might the absence of cars in that year make the cases hard to compare?


Snapsort's LRT for Dummies Infographic

This is well-intentioned, and perhaps in late stages of debate it's unavoidable.  Again, my response to it is not a view about light rail but rather about the style of argument, which assumes (contrary to this) that rail-bus distinctions overwhelm all others, and explain so much of the arc of history.

UPDATE:  This post isn't about the Waterloo light rail debate itself, but here are some sources on the subject:

The Region's Plan:

36 Responses to light rail “for dummies?”

  1. In Brisbane June 8, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    So, why wasn’t skytrain assessed?
    Number one question:
    What’s the frequency?

  2. In Brisbane June 8, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    Number two question:
    What pphd (passengers per hour per direction) does this place need? The capacity graphic only presents vehicle capacity, whereas we should care about throughput which is vehicle capacity x headway
    Brisbane’s South East busway reaches 15 000 pphd in peak hour in Class A ROW, and 8000 pphd in Class B ROW (Cultural Centre busway ~ 180 buses per hour)

  3. In Brisbane June 8, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    I hate to venture into dangerous territory here, we often see LRT vs BRT debates but what about public transport vs freeways/arterial roads?
    When DO you build a road? It seems almost like a article of faith that all roads are bad bad bad…

  4. Christophe Jemelin June 8, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    My favourite absurdity is capacity illustrations… Take a Flirt regional vehicle, mix with a Bombardier tramway (where will you put 450 passengers inside ???), and compare it with a coach, and not a BRT ;-))
    Second favorite : if BRT is really separated from traffic, why will it take 12 more minutes to operate in 2031 ?
    References :–belgium?docID=0901260d8000be27

  5. Danny June 8, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    I really hate how people use the word infographic for nothing more than a few numbers represented by pictures. Did we really need you to line up 45 little stick figures so we could visualize how many more stick figures fit into a LRT vehicle than a bus? How about just telling us how many fit?
    The word infographic should be reserved for graphical representations of information that allow you to derive information that would be poorly communicated in any other way.
    Anyway, this “infographic” should really be called “LRT propaganda from Dummies”.

  6. Leo June 8, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    LRT’s been in the plans for a decade or more, there’s federal funding for the LRT proposal, and since other places in the province (Toronto, Ottawa, maybe Mississauga, maybe Hamilton) are building LRT there’s an opportunity to piggyback on vehicle orders.
    Bringing up an alternate technology at this point is a great way to get nothing built.

  7. anonymouse June 8, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    My favorite absurdity is mentioning San Francisco’s LRT and citing tech companies like Apple, Cisco, eBay, Intel, Facebook, and EA, which are in the suburbs as much as 40 miles away from the nearest Muni Metro station. By that standard, it’s not really going too far to say that the Waterloo region already has not just light rail but also a subway network, it’s just 60 miles away in Toronto.

  8. David in Ottawa June 8, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    You do realize, don’t you, that Waterloo has been subjected to a barrage of pro-BRT anti-LRT propaganda for several years now? They’ve even brought in some people from Ottawa’s BRT lobby to try to convince Waterloo to repeat Ottawa’s mistakes. The anti-LRT nominally pro-BRT faction hosted an event at a location with lots of parking and their notices for the event told people how to get there by car but not which bus routes to use. Nearby Cambridge* even went so far as to hire the same consultants who are responsible for the transit mess in Ottawa to write a report on rapid transit in the region, which naturally favoured BRT. I’ve seen particularly egregious claims of the sort that LRT is not suited to the linear urban form of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge since the region has no single downtown when, in fact, LRT is even better suited to this arrangement than it is to a downtown-oriented ‘commuter’-style system (e.g. Calgary). Compared to all that, the infographic looks pretty tame, even with its absurdities. It also goes a long way to explaining why something like this was produced at all – frustration with the delaying tactics of the BRT lobby has probably reached its limit amongst some people.
    On region-vs-city limit populations, I don’t see any problem with the Canadian cities in the list. The population of Calgary proper and the region of Calgary when LRT was first approved would be very close. A little less so for Edmonton, but still pretty close. So the population figures of the Canadian cities in the list are all comparable for the purposes of the exercise.
    In the spirit of fairness, I’ll point out that they got the entry for Ottawa in the chart wrong. The O-Train did not cost $3.2B; it cost $30M. $3.2B is the estimated cost of the LRT project to replace the Transitway, which has yet to occur.
    *Is there something about places named Cambridge and BRT? For its part, Cambridge UK has a monumental BRT cock-up on its hands in the form of a still-non operational guided busway built on a former rail line. Perhaps Cambridge MA will be next…

  9. Michael D June 8, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    As a strong advocate for the light rail project in Waterloo Region, I’m not going to defend this infographic. It was one-off effort by a small company passionate about the project, but not sufficiently familiar with a lot of the facts. My advocacy group, the Tri-Cities Transport Action Group (TriTAG) did not get consulted on much-needed fact-checking.
    Regarding the BRT points above: this corridor, and particularly its most important part, goes through old sections of two towns which do not have any wide streets. It would be politically and technically very difficult or impossible to get anything more than a two-lane transitway through here. So the kind of BRT that was considered was a two-lane busway. The capacity issue is based on not being able to get signal priority for buses more frequent than every 2 minutes, with buses jamming up as a result.
    The project is not designed so much as a “mobility improvement” (which it still would be) but as a way to preserve mobility through Waterloo Region’s central transit corridor as the region gets another 200,000 people added to its 540,000 over 20 years. That’s the kind of growth the region’s been seeing historically, and the province is mandating the region to plan for it. Most importantly, the province is mandating a large proportion of new growth to take place as infill, particularly in this central transit corridor.
    Incidentally, I was rather shocked to see a presentation at last week’s public meetings reference Human Transit and talk about mobility improvements and technology focus (which points are not true here), while complaining about the impact on car traffic of dedicating space to transit.

  10. M1EK June 8, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    David in Ottawa already posted everything I would have, except specific to the region. Jarrett, it’s ridiculous to take issue with this when every BRT project on our continent is sold with far more misleading stretches than this one LRT project has attempted.

  11. Glenn June 8, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    Jarrett, The Waterloo Region plan is alot more nuanced than BRT v LRT and embraces many of the issues you discuss in this blog.
    The region has three major communities, the city of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. The cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, which date from the 19th century are adjacent and are one city in all but municipal governance, have narrow streets with a lot of business with street frontage in the two down towns. Cambridge, which was created in 1973, was an amalgamation of Galt and several smaller communities. As such, it’s down town is very car oriented with a main street being a wide arterial road with large parking lots adjacent to the street.
    The region’s plan is for a BRT in and to connect Cambridge with Kitchener/Waterloo (KW) and an LRT through KW. The L/BRT systems will then have a high frequency bus network crossing at the L/BRT stations to provide city wide coverage.
    The region has experience with high frequency buses. Six years ago they started “iXpress”, which runs a route, more or less, now proposed for the L/BRT included more distance between transit stops, 15 minutes or better service and real time wait times at each stop. This has been a successful service with healthy and frowing ridership.
    The opposition comes from two camps. Cambridge ratepayers who want the LRT on the BRT segment now. LRT is proposed for this segment in the future if ridership is high. The second source of opposition comes from people who do not want a lanes of the narrow streets in KW to exclude cars. They using cost and a BRT v LRT debate as a stalking horse for their advantage.
    The Region’s Plan:
    Glenn – Toronto, ON

  12. Jarrett June 8, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    @all. Thanks for comments up to now. I am not taking a position on Waterloo LRT at all, just using the infographic as an example of quite typical exaggerations and mistakes that happen once the debate has become “binary” in the “you’re either with us or against us” sense. I’ve updated to add Glenn’s useful links.

  13. Brian June 8, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    San Francisco did not have the advantage of “the absence of cars” in 1904 as you claim. Here is a video of conflicts between cars and light rail in San Francisco in 1906.

  14. Nicholas Barnard June 8, 2011 at 10:26 am #

    I find it funny how they consider Seattle’s initial rail line to be the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel at 2.1 km.. They completely neglect the fact that all the rail that was built in that tunnel was never used, and was ripped out and replaced when the rest of the line was extended.. Knowing this detail is misrepresented it makes me wonder about the rest of it..

  15. Sylvan June 8, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    Jarrett, I can’t help but think you’re shooting fish in a barrel with this post. The infographic wasn’t put together by transit advocates — it was created by an enthusiastic (perhaps over-enthusiastic) local tech company and it’s not at all typical of the advocacy that’s being going on here in Waterloo Region. I think you’re wrong if you are claiming that this debate has become a binary one. In fact, most of the transit advocates here are arguing for a mixed LRT-BRT system along the spine, supported by a network of crosstown express bus routes. I’d say that the debate has been relatively free of rail boosterism. (The Aerobus people, on the other hand…)
    I guess it seems to me that the point you’re making here is blindingly obvious: when people are passionate about a subject but haven’t taken the time to research it thoroughly, they tend to make factual errors. That’s true in any field.

  16. Ryan G June 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    I love how most if not all of the facts have opinions and speculations in them (if there are any facts in the fact blurbs), plus all the incorrect data (in the first text block, the definition of BRT is buses separated from traffic, yet they talk about the effect of traffic slowing down BRT). It’s obviously a pro-LRT item, but it’s so full of lies and half-truths that it really is for dummies only. Anyone with half a brain should be able to see through all the crap. I guess when you’re putting together something like this you literally pull only from the studies you want and take only the data you want out of context.

  17. Michael D June 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    I’ve explained above why BRT in the context of Waterloo Region would be indeed slowed down by traffic. You can’t get signal priority for a bus every two minutes, which we would need to keep things moving on a hypothetical at-grade busway in Waterloo Region’s central corridor. There would also be dwell time issues at busy stations.
    This corridor is the busiest one for transit in the region, and has overcrowding issues on both the local-stop Route 7 bus line and especially the iXpress – which is the mixed-traffic, express bus precursor to the LRT. By the end of this month, portions of the corridor will have a bus every 4 minutes on average per direction throughout the day, with more during peaks. Few of them will have empty seats.
    There’s a lot of urban infill development going on already, and tons more on the horizon, with the population / employment of the downtowns likely doubling within 20 years. So there is some urgency in getting in place a system that can handle the demand in the medium- and long-term. Of course, the extra perceived cachet of rail over bus also helps in Waterloo Region’s aims of attracting as much of the new growth as possible to the central corridor and enforcing its long-term countryside line.
    I’ve actually been disappointed that there have not been any actual BRT advocates in this debate in Waterloo Region. Maybe it’s because this corridor and the travel demand isn’t really well suited to a BRT pattern. But regardless, most of the people here talking about BRT are really talking about it as cover for opposing the hard choices of prioritizing transit; when pressed, it turns out that they also oppose any kind of dedicated at-grade corridor for transit, and often think money is better spent on roads. (There is also Cambridge, which would not be getting LRT in the first phase, and which would prefer a single technology for the corridor, regardless of capacity issues elsewhere.) My group is supporting this LRT plan, but will be pushing for meaningful BRT elements on other corridors and trying to get them added to the plans for the roll-out of an express bus network here.

  18. Alan Robinson June 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Thank you for reporting the differences between the local debate and the perception of it given in this post. However, this post is accurately characterizing the debate that Mr. Jackson at the Atlantic is promoting, using Kitchner/Waterloo as an example.

  19. Michael D June 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    “…yet they talk about the effect of traffic slowing down BRT”
    Er, above I talked about traffic is a factor for BRT, without looking again at the infographic. The numbers in that are actually comparing LRT to status quo – the existing mixed-traffic express buses, which are already starting to get stuck in traffic.

  20. John June 8, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    I barely got an inch into that graphic before I ran into a problem:
    “GOALS OF RAPID TRANSIT: Combat urban sprawl, creating a compact and sustainable urban centre. Connect with existing intercity buses, GO Transit, and VIA Rail.”
    Um, don’t get me wrong, all worthy goals there, but how about something about MOBILITY?!? Shouldn’t “Getting people to their destinations in a timely, efficient manner” be considered a primary goal (if not THE primary goal) of rapid transit?
    Oh man, I could nitpick over this thing for hours…like the part where they say BRT “limits investment”. I think what they were trying to say was “limited investment” (compared to light rail), because “limits investment” would suggest that a barrier has been placed on local investment because of the construction of a BRT system.

  21. teme June 8, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Generally speaking, just monetary benefits (“295M$”) with absolutely no explanations drive me nuts, and this is by no means limited to transit. I don’t know who came up with the idea of summing All Good Things in one figure nor I do believe anyone is convinced by them.
    Still, transit has land use benefits, monetary value can be estimated them and they can be huge, so I don’t disapprove as such. But why not take some space to explain that if more people can travel more housing and more offices can be built, and that better transit makes places more desirable… and then drop the numbers.

  22. Nikko P June 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    The author actually posted this infographic to reddit, including a sub-section for Waterloo and a sub-section for transit. The comments grilled him pretty well.

  23. anonymouse June 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    @In Brisbane, the question of when to build a road, and where, is an important one that I think needs to be addressed with considerably more system-level thinking than it is now. A road, by itself, is not very useful: its usefulness comes from its juxtaposition with other roads and elements of the car transportation network, as well as with its surroundings in general. It’s fairly rare that the road itself is the destination, so each car trip served by that road will necessarily have to use some other elements of the car transportation system, including other streets and roads and freeways and parking spaces.
    All too often, new roads are built without too much consideration of their context. New roads are extended into the suburbs, which are nice and traffic free, until new suburbs are built, at which point the older suburban roads become congested with traffic from the new suburbs, and the cycle of sprawl spreads ever outward. New freeways are built into downtowns that don’t have the parking for all the cars that they can bring in, so half of downtown is torn down in an attempt to provide parking and induce suburbanites to drive to the other half.
    The same general concepts of system-level thinking apply just as much to transit, by the way. Instead of parking, you have to think about station access and the walking environment at the ends of the trip. And you need to think about how any new transit line will interact with the existing transit network and the environment in which it is built.

  24. JJJJ June 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    Not even worth discussing.

  25. Eric O June 9, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    I agree with @anonymouse. We would use our time productively debating system-level strategies for mobility. But that would require multi-layered thinking, hah. I’m guessing that if frequency and transfers were more central in our focus, these binary simplifications would sure look like a lot of wasted effort!

  26. BBnet3000 June 9, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    LOL, you could also conclude that it took 80 years for the first computer companies to open offices in San Francisco from when they built their “light rail”….

  27. Dexter Wong June 10, 2011 at 1:53 am #

    My favorite absurdity is when all alternatives of a transport project have been discussed thoroughly and a technology has been chosen, the opponents demand that everything be rehashed again until it is to their liking (then nothing gets done).

  28. TransitPlannerMunich June 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Every society has the transit system it deserves. When I read the posts here then North America clearly deserves the bus. And if it makes you happier, go ahead and call it BRT. And try to copy Bogota and Curitiba in that way. The Bogota BRT system by the way has a price tag of 3 times more than an average new line in Germany or Spain per kilometer, by the way.
    In Europe we prefer to be “backwards” and obviously stupid and invest in new rail systems.
    So go ahead and make fun of the people who are pro rail on your continent.
    There is only one bigger city in Europe that I know that stopped a new light rail project: Hamburg. Everyone else here makes now fun of Hamburg and the head of Hamburg public transit (Hamburger Hochbahn) tries to explain desperately that a BRT system demanded by the politicians is more expensive and less attractive. The politicians dream about “Europe’s best bus system” but in fact all they want is something that does not affect car traffic and is so cheap as possible. What it is not.

  29. Mikko June 14, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Christophe Jemelin:
    “My favourite absurdity is capacity illustrations… Take a Flirt regional vehicle, mix with a Bombardier tramway (where will you put 450 passengers inside ???), and compare it with a coach, and not a BRT ;-))”
    Well, the longer variant of the Strasbourg Eurotram (I think about 45 m long) has a nominal capacity of 370 passengers, 92 seated. Karlsruhe operates trains of two 37.6 meter-long double-articulated units that have 100 seats and space for 115 standees each, such that the total capacity is 430 passengers. I have no idea whether the local laws in Waterloo allow 75 m long vehicles on the street or whether they’d be otherwise practical, but 450 passengers is a distinct possibility from a purely technical standpoint. To compare this to a typical non-articulated bus in the graphic is disingenuous, of course.
    “There is only one bigger city in Europe that I know that stopped a new light rail project: Hamburg.”
    It would be pretty safe to add Helsinki to the list. Helsinki has an old tram system that has operated continuously for more than a century, but it has been developed only minimally since 1950s and the resources have been put into heavy rail instead. A modern orbital LRT line similar to Stockholm’s Tvärbana (but much cheaper to build because of easier geography) was initally planned in 1990 and slated for immediate construction in 1994. Unfortunately the man pushing for it at the top level of the city’s transport agency retired and his replacement was a heavy rail metro advocate. The monies went to a metro extension and the orbital line was finally opened only in 2003 as a sort of a bare-bones BRT. It has been suffering from overcrowding ever since (currently about 30 000 passengers per day) and the conversion to LRT is constantly on the agenda, but even detailed and favourably reviewed preplans keep getting postponed in favour of heavy rail projects elsewhere.

  30. TransitPlannerMunich June 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Well, on the other hand a city of the size of Helsinki has, with a network length of 80 km for the tram and 20 km for the metro, already a nice system. I used it and I had a quite positive impression. When you compare the situation with nordic cities like Stockholm, Kopenhagen or Hamburg who got rid o the tram Helsinki made a good job keeping and improving it. Nevertheless extensions are certainly always good.
    But to say that a BRT line should be converted into LRT is opposing the general view of this site that bus/BRT is as good as LRT. If not better… Even if I am among the dissidents here with my pro-tram-view.

  31. Mikko June 15, 2011 at 1:38 am #

    “Well, on the other hand a city of the size of Helsinki has, with a network length of 80 km for the tram and 20 km for the metro, already a nice system.”
    Helsinki actually also has 55 km of purpose-built double track for local rail services that carry about as many people daily (56 million per year) as the metro. The system would likely be called ‘S-Bahn’ in Germany, as would be the the metro, too. The distances between stations are relatively long and the most recent class of metro trains are, in fact, a larger version of Berlin’s S-Bahn train units.
    The trouble with the metro is that it’s a very heavy rail one, with some of the largest metro trains in the world in a relatively small and spread-out city. The metro depends on feeder busses and forces a lot of people to make a transfer. It was built very late (opened 1982), after replacing a surface LRT plan in the 1960s, and the start of the construction missed the construction of a lot of the suburbs it’s meant to serve. Hence the alignment is mostly along a motorway and many of the stations are not well placed with regard to the density of residents.
    The western 14 km extension that is currently under construction is completely underground in an area of Espoo that would be considered suburban by density anywhere else in the world. The official cost is about 800 M euro at the moment, but when all is said and done, it’s pretty sure to exceed the one billion mark. I.e. a billion spent on an underground metro with 7 stations (over 50 M euro a pop) in a very spread-out, mostly suburban area. For the money, the whole place could have been criss-crossed with LRT lines that would offer direct services instead of transfers from feeder buses.

  32. Mikko June 15, 2011 at 1:39 am #

    “When you compare the situation with nordic cities like Stockholm, Kopenhagen or Hamburg who got rid o the tram Helsinki made a good job keeping and improving it. Nevertheless extensions are certainly always good.”
    Stockholm’s metro was initially developed from tram lines. It has a more sensible dimensioning and more flexible track geometry compared to the Helsinki metro, and it was built at the same time as the major suburbs, which it serves very well. It’s true that Stockholm got rid of their surface trams and they’re now re-introducing them at a cost. The way Copenhagen got rid of its trams is a total travesty. They sold off a hundred essentially new articulated trams for pennies, with next to no public discussion. I suppose they’ve been able to make up for it with a great S-Bahn system and bicycling on a massive scale.
    Helsinki, too, made a decision in the 1960s to get rid of the trams, but the city was forced to continue operating them because the metro project was late by a decade, turned out to be massively more expensive than projected and ended up being very limited in scale for that reason. There was a major corruption scandal related to the metro, which was meant as a reference project for the trains, made by the Finnish manufacturer Valmet. The trains were the state of the art in the late 1970s, but Valmet never sold any outside of Helsinki. The decision to kill the trams has actually never been officially reversed. The city simply kept maintaining and even developing the tram system bit by bit. Currently there are plans to build a major extension – complete with a 1 km long bridge – to a new residential area, which would really mark a new start for LRT in Helsinki.
    “But to say that a BRT line should be converted into LRT is opposing the general view of this site that bus/BRT is as good as LRT. If not better… Even if I am among the dissidents here with my pro-tram-view.”
    Well, it’s quite clear that something needs to be done done to Helsinki’s orbital line (branded ‘Jokeri’), since the busses are overcrowded and the current headways cannot be maintained at all in rush traffic on this 25 km long line. It’s not uncommon to see three busses run bumper-to-bumper. For some reason the busses are not articulated. The city has tested both single- and double-articulated busses, but it was never able to get a satisfactory deal on them from the bus operators. Larger rubber-tire vehicles might help temporarily, but the growth potential for the line is such that the conversion to LRT should be a no-brainer. The city planning board actually already recommended moving on to detailed final planning in 2009, but the transit agency “wanted to explore bus alternatives further” (read: the heavy rail people wanted to block an example of modern LRT in Helsinki).
    The plans for the LRT line can be seen on the now-dormant project website at (in Finnish, but there is a map).

  33. Chris, Public Transport June 16, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    Congratulations to the Grand River region for winning light rail by a vote of 9 – 2! As I believe this will be the smallest metropolitan area in North America with a light rail line, let us hope that the bus service will not need to be cut to pay for its operation.

  34. Andrew June 17, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    Obvious error: The Muni Metro does not serve any of the high tech companies listed under San Francisco in this graphic. All the listed high tech companies are in the Silicon Valley area, which is a ~50 miles south of San Francisco. Although there is a light rail system in San Jose it has not been terribly successful. Only a handful of the employers on this list are served by light rail, the rest are nowhere near the light rail system and accessible only by car or (often infrequent) VTA bus.

  35. Omar June 27, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    The point of the comparion with other cities semed more like “look at what they have; we should have it too.” In terms of the list of employers, there are heavy rail options (BART, Caltrain) that might have been worth mentioning, but the point of the graphic was to compare light rail systems. Surely some poetic license must be allowed in making a rhetorical argument like this.

  36. Van Guy June 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    Probably a pet peeve here, but in addition to the previously noted deficiencies, maybe they could have gotten someone who understands the distinction between “fewer” and “less” to proofread this thing?