London UK considers BRT and light rail


London embarks on a year-long effort to plan transportation needs for the next 20 years.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in development at stake, politicians and bureaucrats have begun to debate how Londoners should move around in future and how the city should grow.

Already, some advocates of cars, buses and light rail seem on a collision course.

Deputy Mayor Tom Gosnell dismisses the idea the city should consider building a light-rail passenger service to stimulate development along rail corridors. Light rail, he said, is for cities with populations near one million, not smaller cities like London growing at a snail’s pace.

“Light rapid transit — our grandchildren can worry about that,” he said.

City planning is done every five years. But this time there’s a twist — a growing belief the choices made about how to move people affect how the city grows.

That change in focus is being pushed by city planners who see transportation as a tool to create vibrant communities where homes, retail and services are all an attractive walk away.

Planner John Fleming and urban designer Sean Galloway point to Charlotte, N.C., where 6,000 residential units have been built or are proposed near stops of its two-year-old light rail system.

“(Transportation planning) is not just about meeting existing needs. We need to look to the future,” Fleming said.

But it’s clear not all have the same vision.

Gosnell questioned whether city hall should be directing development.

“How much involvement will there be for the private sector on where they want to invest?” Gosnell asked.

Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen said city hall needs to focus more on maintaining and expanding roads already too burdened by traffic.

“The belief that most families will use transit is not realistic,” he said.

Also concerned is a commissioner at London Transit, Coun. Harold Usher.

London Transit wants dedicated traffic lanes for express buses — rapid bus transit — and the preferred routes and nodes in which they intersect are different than shown on a map of light rail drawn up by city planners.

“Bus rapid transit — that’s what the public is thinking,” Usher told city planners last week.

Those differing views make a challenge out of creating a transportation plan, said the official with that role, city road chief Dave Leckie.

“There is paradigm shift to make streets more into people places rather than just a conduit for vehicles,” he told the city’s community and protective services committee.

“I’m not sure where to take it through the transportation master plan . . . I’m struggling with how much weight (this) has from council.”

Where some see conflict, Fleming sees a chance to discuss how choices about transportation will shape London’s growth and its neighbourhoods. Though the map created by planners isn’t a blueprint, it’s a starting point.

“Light rail transit would be a major benefit to the city. It makes sense to phase it in,” he said, adding there could be a transition from express buses to light rail.

Unlike motor vehicles, a train channels people to specific and limited places. And where it stops, there’s the potential to build an exciting mix of homes, business and public space where people want to live, work and play.

“It can attract significant (private) investment,” Fleming said.

Though buses stop, too, their routes can change overnight — and that lack of permanence doesn’t create incentives for investors.

Where buses stop will be different, too, Galloway said.

A bus might stop at a mall to serve the flow of shoppers, but Galloway sees that as a poor choice for a train. He wants stops in places where pedestrians — not cars — are king.

“London is at a critical moment, moving to the next phase of becoming a bigger city,” he said.

That step — building a light rail passenger service — has been already taken by regional rival Kitchener-Waterloo and may be taken as soon as January by Hamilton.

Kitchener-Waterloo, which began planning in 2002, plans to spend $790 million, and hopes upper government funding could enable service to start in 2014.

Hamilton is expected to decide soon whether to create a line for express buses or a light rail.

If London is to compete with its own vibrant neighbourhoods, light rail should be part of that evolution, Fleming said.

He has a supporter in Coun. David Winninger.

“I don’t think we can wait until we have 800,000 people to be well-positioned for the future,” he said. “If we don’t start planning now, the train will have left the station.”

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