Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

To LRT or Not to LRT, That Is the Question

“You both make a strong case!”

Dear Winnipeg,

Looks like it’s time to talk about LRT, aka Light Rail Transit.

Or as they’re also sometimes called, trams, tramcars, streetcars, trolleys, urban trains, or trainsit.

[Ok, that last one’s not real, but I think it might catch on…]

Nothing seems to stir public discussion in Winnipeg quite like LRT. As Brent Bellamy said in a recent Free Press column:

“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).”

— Brent Bellamy, “The time is right for LRT transition”, Winnipeg Free Press

The most recent round of debate started about three weeks ago when Councillor Mayes mused in the community paper that Winnipeg should consider building an LRT line in his ward on St.Mary’s Rd. The Free Press did a follow up article shortly after, where the Councillor added his reasoning:

“(Light rail) would attract more people. I think some people who wouldn’t ride on a bus would ride on a train.”

— Councillor Brian Mayes, in August 9th, 2022 Winnipeg Free Press article

The article also quoted Councillor Browaty, who sits on the Public Works committee, saying he is against building LRT.

“To build a (light rail) network that would actually be serviceable, that would actually go far enough out to be useful, it’s too expensive. I still think a better investment in time and resources is to provide more frequent service to more places throughout the city network.”

— Councillor Jeff Browaty, in August 9th, 2022 Winnipeg Free Press article

So which side is right? Well, both of them actually.

[Wait, I agree with both Councillor Mayes and Councillor Browaty? I think I’ve been getting too much sun…]

The heart of the argument seems to be whether we should be focusing our time, energy and money on LRT, which provides a superior rider experience, OR on faster, more frequent service, which also provides a superior rider experience.

As each side presents their case, inevitably someone will ask, why not both? And everyone will nod in agreement and click the heart icon.

So, why not both? Because money, that’s why. We don’t have any.

That means we have to choose one. And I bet you’re really keen to see which one I think we should choose. Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but the answer is… neither. [Oooh, twist! This is sure to be a shocking and emotional episode!]

Let’s get into it, folks!

It seems the most common argument in favour of LRT is that it isn’t a bus. And, not being a bus, it provides smoother, quieter, more comfortable rides while projecting an aura of “first-class” service, as opposed to the low-rent service seemingly provided by a bus.

In short, some people who wouldn’t ride on a bus would ride on a train.

The streetcar system we had in the 1950s carried more passengers per year than our bus system did in 2019, despite the metro region having doubled in population since 1955. Are buses too low-brow for us?

Rail is a superior experience to the bus, true. And that superior experience will help attract riders to transit that a bus experience won’t. Also true.

But the major issue with that line of thinking is that the people who won’t ride a bus but will ride a train are not the low-hanging fruit we need to be going after. Around 80% of trips taken in Winnipeg are taken in a car right now. We simply don’t need to be scraping the bottom of the barrel to attract the toughest-to-attract new riders when there are plenty of fish ready to jump out of the barrel entirely with much cheaper interventions.

Transit expert Jarrett Walker calls this elite projection, the “belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”

Proof that a lot of people will take the bus, even if it’s not a train, is Vancouver’s 99-B line. The 99-B is just a bunch of accordion buses that come every 90-seconds to 2 minutes during peak periods, travelling on nothing more than 14.3 km of diamond lanes.

Despite these humble conditions, the 99-B is the busiest bus route in North America, having higher (pre-pandemic) ridership than the entire LRT networks of the cities of:

  • Ottawa ON
  • Buffalo NY
  • Seattle WA
  • Cleveland OH
  • Norfolk VA
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Tampa FL
  • El Paso TX

Combined. [I know!]

That’s right, a 14.3 km strip of diamonds painted on the roadway outperforms 76.8 km of light rail. The difference in the cost of acquisition per rider is insane. [In the membrane, insane in the brain!]

They’re only now turning part of the route into light rail, and probably only because once you start running accordion buses more frequently than every 90 seconds, it is basically a train.

Ah, but that’s Vancouver, home of the most humble, unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth people this side of the 49th parallel. Not like those fancy, highfalutin, Grey Poupon-eating Winnipeggers who are too good for the bus.

Except when they aren’t though. You don’t need to look any further than any Jets or Bombers game to find droves of Winnipeggers taking the bus. Buses are packed in these cases, even with Winnipeg Transit running additional service to meet demand.

Clearly, many people here will take a bus. Under the right circumstances.

Luckily, running more buses more frequently can increase ridership at a much lower cost of acquisition per rider than LRT. And the very cool thing is that the newest Winnipeg Transit Master Plan calls for just that, with its network redesign.

As a transit engineer explained it to me, every time a bus has to make a turn on its route, it adds, on average, about 1 minute of travel time. If you can straighten the route by removing, say, 5 turns, you’ve just added 5 minutes of frequency to that route. Basically for free.

The new network, the culmination of work that began with Jarrett Walker’s visit to Winnipeg in 2017, does exactly that. It goes to more places people want to go, more frequently, without using any more resources. Winnipeg Transit staff deserve a huge kudos for this work.

And while it would be great if they could just flick a switch and have it working tomorrow, the reality is it takes a bit of time to implement. The new network requires adding bus stops where there weren’t any before, drawing up a driver schedule with 1,000+ shifts per day from scratch, and a bunch of other small but crucial details that make transit work. This will take about two years… so we’re looking at 2024 or 2025. But it’s coming!

And all at bargain basement cost. The cost of acquisition per additional rider for this upgrade is very low, and therefore the ROI on it is very high. But that was the low-hanging fruit. After this, adding more frequency to get more ridership is going to cost more money. More for buses, more for driver salaries, more for maintenance.

So we shouldn’t invest our scarce dollars there while there are still some low-hanging fruit left to be picked elsewhere: on the part of the trip that happens outside of a bus. This is where our transit investments need to be focused going forward, because that’s where the lowest cost of acquisition per rider is right now, and therefore the highest ROI.

Transit works at its best as a walking accelerator, by connecting places that people walk in. And I’m sorry to say it, but there are no places in Winnipeg that are great places to walk. Sure, there are maybe a handful of places that are okay places to walk, and a ton of places with good bones, and therefore the potential to be great places to walk. But as it stands, today, we have exactly zero such places.

So before we worry too much about high speed connections between places, we need to focus on making places that are worth connecting. Places that people like to be in, where walking is not only safe and easy, but also enjoyable. Places that put people walking at the top of the priority pyramid, instead of places that are literally designed to kill them.

And doing that is super cheap, and often free: street trees, benches, wider and better sidewalks, slowing traffic, and changing our zoning to eliminate parking minimums, as well as allowing the next increment of granular, small-scale, mixed-use development to happen by right.

A transit system that connects one stroad hellscape to another is never going to be well-used.

Because it doesn’t matter how fast, frequent, clean, safe, sleek, sexy, creamy, crunchy, nougat-filled or vanilla-scented your bus or train is. If you have to cross a river of molten lava to get to the stop, you’re not taking transit. On a bus or a train.

I’ve said it before, sidewalks are transit infrastructure because transit doesn’t work when the bus (or train) can get to the stop, but the rider can’t (or won’t). And our sidewalks are the lowest-hanging fruit right now. Fixing them requires recognizing that we need to undo many of the car-centric choices we have made over the years.

Things like our sidewalk snow-clearing policy.

For example, in my neighbourhood, the one block the elementary school is on gets priority sidewalk clearing, as does the one block the church is on. But none of the other sidewalks in the neighbourhood do.

I’ve always wondered, how do they think people get to that one stretch of sidewalk that doesn’t require the surrounding stretches of sidewalk to be cleared? Do they think people just magically materialize beside the church or school, Star Trek-style?

Actually, yes. The assumption in our sidewalk snow-clearing policy is that pedestrians materialize onto that segment of sidewalk after emerging from the car that brought them there.

That doesn’t work for people using transit. All the sidewalks have to be cleared from origin to transit stop, and from transit stop to destination (and sometimes in the middle of the trip, from transit stop to transit stop).

Or how about the way we force our potential transit riders to walk through lakes of water and slop every spring, and every time it rains, just to be able to cross the street? I mean, humanity had that stuff figured out at least 2,100 years ago. But Winnipeg today? Not so much.

Ancient Pompeiians had raised crosswalks to prioritize the movement of people on foot. Modern Winnipeggers “prefer” to drive. I wonder why?

Not to mention the fact that people walking haven’t even been allowed at our city’s premiere intersection in nearly a half century!

The reality is that this is really basic stuff, cheap stuff, and we’re getting it all wrong.

Yes, there are cities that have seen success with LRT, but we can easily point to as many, or more, LRT failures. And the places where LRT is successful are also the places where buses are successful. Because they connect places that are great to walk in.

When we consider that every conversation about rapid transit in this city always includes the subject of park-and-rides, that tells us we are not ready.

The basic math is that really great transit generates high land values around transit stations. But park-and-rides surround those stations with the lowest-value land use: free parking.

Connecting a non-place (parking) to a great place (whatever is at the other end of the rapid transit line, presumably) is saying that we can’t even think of two great places to connect, much less the many great places that are required to make a transit system successful.

Of course LRT projects an aura of success in a place. But do we want to look successful, or do we want to be successful? That doesn’t mean forgetting about LRT necessarily. Even if we got the ball rolling today, it would be at least a decade before any LRT line would be open for business. We can make a lot of progress making great places in that time.

But we need to get started right away. And there are a lot of things we could do, even this weekend.

The bottom line is it’s okay for our dreams to be big, but it’s important that our actions to get there be small. That’s how you build a successful transit system, and a successful city.

Love you muchly,

Elmwood Guy