My three-year-old and I recently did one final long bike ride before winter. Normally, we put the bike on the back of our car and head out to one of the many rail trails in and around Waterloo Region. But on this day, we decided to take our bike on the train and explore Guelph.
Before we set out, I had to carefully consult the GO Transit timetable. While there is a growing number of trains along the Kitchener Line, there are still only 10 per weekday. Off-peak, they run at irregular intervals and there is no weekend service. Studying the schedule, we could either do a two-hour, or a five-hour ride in Guelph. We opted for the former and spent a wonderful couple of hours riding beside the city’s beautiful rivers and along its rail trails.
Such a trip would not have been possible a short time ago. In 2011, GO train service was extended from Georgetown to Kitchener, but in the early years there were only trains to Toronto in the morning and back in the afternoon. While these rush-hour trains still dominate the schedule, there are now some off-peak trains in both directions. Advanced planning is required, but it is possible to visit Guelph for a few hours and vice versa.
I’ve used these off-peak trains a number of times in recent months. Considering they didn’t exist a few years ago, it always strikes me how many others use them as well. They are never crowded — neither are the rush-hour trains these days — nor are they empty.
Several others got off the train in Guelph and, on the return journey, my son and I were joined by about 10 other people waiting for the 11:04 train back to Kitchener. Some, like us, were travelling for leisure, while others clearly looked like they were heading to work. Without this train, these journeys either wouldn’t have happened, or would have been by car.
In transportation planning, there is a well-establish concept called “induced demand.” Decades of research have clearly proven that adding new roads creates new traffic. This means that when highways are widened the benefits are short-lived and within a few years they become clogged again.
The provincial government recently spent more than $110 million widening Highway 401 between Highway 8 and Hespeler Road, and last week announced that construction will soon start on the new Highway 7 to Guelph, which will cost at least $80 million. But history shows it won’t be long before these routes are as congested as before. The 16 lanes running through Toronto are evidence that creating more space for cars does not solve the traffic problem.
But there is good news when it comes to induced demand: it also works for transit. More trains and more buses creates more demand for transit, more riders and more journeys. That is why it is incredibly short-sighted to look at the comparatively few people using transit between Kitchener and Guelph today and conclude that there is no demand for improved service.
The Lakeshore West line demonstrates how this works. Over the years, the schedule improved from hourly, to half hourly, to a train every 15 minutes, with ridership growing every time. In 2019, it carried more than 33,000 people per day. Kitchener station is also a good example: as new trains were added to the schedule, there was a 29 per cent increase in passengers between 2018 and 2019, the second highest on the entire GO network. Image the possibilities if we had a departure every 30 minutes!
Seen from this perspective, it makes absolutely no sense to build a new highway between Waterloo Region and Guelph when there is very little transit between them. We need transportation choices for the thousands of people who commute for work or school, as well as those travelling for leisure and the huge untapped potential for tourism in our region.
Let’s get more trains before we build more lanes. An hourly or half-hourly schedule would be hugely transformative. If that is not yet possible by train, then buses can fill the gaps to create a schedule that makes transit frequent, attractive and competitive.
None of this is rocket science. If you build more roads, you get more traffic. If you provide better transit, you enable people to leave their cars at home, create new journeys and open up new possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. This was true before the climate crisis, but it takes on a greater sense of urgency now.
Highway 7 expansion, the proposed Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass: none of these projects align with the challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change. Better intercity transit does.
Instead of creating a future that locks us into automobile dependency and never-ending traffic congestion, let’s imagine the kind of communities that are possible when fast, frequent and reliable transit connects them.