Graphic by Lena Yang

Tight squeeze

Graphic by Lena Yang
Graphic by Lena Yang

Is there enough room for all of us on Waterloo’s roads?

H.G. Watson

King Street and University Avenue, based on traffic alone, is the most dynamic crossroad in Waterloo Region.

An average of more than 40,000 cars, buses, pedestrians and cyclists make their way through the intersection on a daily basis. The number seven and iXpress buses, amongst other routes, pass through frequently as they ferry students and residents from one end of the city to another. Along University Avenue, you’ll find one of the region’s major bike lanes, taking cyclists west towards the Iron Horse trail, the main local artery for riders. It may not be the busiest place in the city, but it’s where you’ll find every form of transportation available.

While other municipalities squabble about the best options for transit, Waterloo has committed to an aggressive plan that includes putting Light Rail Transit on our streets by 2017. The way we get around is changing quickly.

Waterloo Region likes to boast that it’s attracting a new population of professionals who run the start-ups and incubators that get us noticed by The New York Times, amongst others. Are these people changing how people move around the region? It seems in many ways that Waterloo is a car city. Some estimate that over 80 per cent of residents are still consistently using their car to commute.

But a small, yet increasingly vocal, group of people are championing mass transit, cycling and walking as alternatives for our growing city. One of the key issues for them is prevening accidents that have become too commonplace.

Duncan Clemens is an advocate with TriTAG, a citizen advocacy group for alternative forms of transportation in the region. He says that when it comes to placing the blame on someone, we’ve become used to the idea that a pedestrian or cyclist could be hit and might be at fault. “Cycling in and of itself is not inherently dangerous activity,” said Clemens. “It’s dangerous because people and infrastructure make it dangerous. The way roads are designed, the speed of vehicles that are surrounding it; that’s the only reason it’s dangerous.”

Clemens, who continues cycling during the winter, knows that people believe it’s too risky to be on the road. With the right maintenance he thinks it would still be safe for anyone to go biking at any time of year. Still, he admits that hopping on his bike in Waterloo takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. “It’s the same risk-taking attitude people take towards extreme sports.” But there’s little chance a less-confident biker would feel at home on the roads.

Cycling and walking are only two parts of the transit puzzle. The other is mass transit. Mike Boos is also an advocate with TriTAG. He’s done his own statistical analysis on the number of times GRT busses service certain areas. Some parts of Cambridge and south Waterloo get almost no service on Sundays. “It’s difficult to justify that transit market when you have a system where if you’re living in that part of town, nine times out of ten you own a car,” he said. “You’re not going to get a revenue return from the ridership.“

For Clemens, transit users and drivers can be divided by social class. “Take a look at the ridership on transit now,” he said. “It’s primarily low income and students; people that don’t have a choice. They take transit because they have to take transit.” Clemens wants people to shift to thinking that they don’t have to drive, even if they can. “Trying to achieve that in smaller municipalities is key.”

While services like GRT or the Region may rationalize a lack of bus service or crosswalks with a lack of demand, Boos points out that sometimes you simply have to create it. “People don’t walk there now because it’s simply dangerous,” he said, referring to Weber and Wilhelm Streets, where Waterloo city council recently voted to install a crossing signal. “Traffic [analysts] look at their models and say its not warranted because we don’t have the pedestrians here. [But] you don’t have the pedestrians here because the models have led you to build these roads in such a way that pedestrians don’t go there.” Boos points to the King Street revitalization as an example where pedestrian traffic increased due to a redesign of the area.

The region is aware of the demand for more options. Bob Henderson, manager of transportation engineering for the Region, is in charge of planning some of these changes. The Region seriously looks at intersections where a high amount of collisions occur and try to make the intersections better. “For example, Ottawa and Homer Watson was a regular high ranking intersection in the region,” Henderson said. “So a project team was put together to review those collisions in detail and ultimately recommended a roundabout to improve collision history and reduce injuries.” The roundabout, still in the design stages, will tentatively be in place by 2015.

However, the city does not publicize which intersections are the worst for pedestrian or cyclist injuries. The annual collision reports do account for how many personal injuries take place at each intersection. Where the number is high, Henderson said, the Region looks at the collisions on a case-by-case basis and makes recommendations.

When a cyclist or pedestrian is struck, it’s hard not to wade into the political ramifications of their injury. In Toronto, where cycling is hot-bed issue, ghost bikes sprang up to remember those cyclists killed on Toronto streets. Deaths of both pedestrians and cyclists triggered coroners inquests released in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Both inquests recommended that municipalities adopt a “complete streets” approach; widened sidewalks, pedestrian countdowns, bike lane networks and separated lanes for cyclists.

Most telling: both inquests determined that a vast majority of cycling and pedestrian deaths are preventable.

Henderson is aware of these recommendations. “We’re putting together a cycling network for a number of reasons,” he said. “One to improve safety for cyclists, but also to encourage mode shift: getting people out of their car and onto their bike to get to work or wherever they’re going.” The plan has the backing of regional council.

The Region is also in the middle of a serious study to encourage alternative forms of transportation. Walk Cycle Waterloo submitted the first draft of the Active Transportation Master Plan last November. Although it still awaits final approval, the plan advocates for better access to transit all around. This, coupled with plans for the LRT, may provide the answer to the transit woes faced by the region.

But for people wanting to make the switch away from cars now, they may be put off by systems that are overburdened. “That can limit people from making that choice if they have an unpleasant experience,” said Boos of the crowded GRT. “From what I’ve read, the main cause of people trying to make the choice and then rejecting it is unreliability.”

These discussions have extremely serious implications, especially if you’re amongst the people commuting without a car.

Take King and University. It’s the place in Waterloo you’re the most likely to get hit if your primary mode of transportation is your own two feet. Over the last five years, 28 collisions causing injury took place at that intersection. Of those, at least nine involved pedestrians.

Every year or so, it seems another story pops up about a major accident at that intersection. In 2011, six pedestrians were struck after two cars collided as one made a left turn. At the time, one of the witnesses — Richard Gonzales — called the accident “pure negligence.” Just a few months prior, another pedestrian was struck at the same intersection and sent to hospital with critical injuries.

When 52-year-old Barrie Conrod was hit by an SUV while biking on a rural road outside of Waterloo last May, 600 cyclists — including his wife who was with him when he was struck — turned out for a memorial ride in his honour. They too, placed a ghost bike at the spot where he passed, a reminder that pedestrian and cyclist is ever more important.