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Density goals, LRT not desirable goals in Waterloo Region

Recent discussions about a spate of condo developments in Kitchener and Waterloo, located along the proposed LRT route, indicate some backward thinking when proponents talk about how the developments will help the train line. Officially, the argument goes the other way – increasing densities is the sole rationale for the unneeded LRT – but what we’re hearing is closer to reality.

As in Toronto, trains (surface or underground) are a solution to a gridlock problem. In Waterloo Region, there is no such traffic problem, so the goal is to create one by increasing densities and allowing developers to reduce the amount of parking available.

Proponents say increased density is needed to deal with a growing population. The alternative is more sprawl and loss of farmland. Those are two things to avoid. A better alternative – a shrinking population that would eliminate such pressures entirely – is never discussed.

Growth, unsustainable in the long run, is a fairly widespread economic stance, one that planners want to apply to the LRT. The results will largely be negative. Property values have increased along transit lines established in other cities, though the density issue has met with mixed results. What has happened, however, is that gentrification of previously low-income neighbourhoods, the kind of core areas sliced through by rail lines, drives up prices and drives out those with lower incomes, precisely those who might actually use public transit.

Those with money to invest in such properties do well. Those displaced, well, they don’t fare so well. And everybody else pays for the over-budget and under-used transit system courtesy of their taxes.

The approach adopted by the region won’t provide better transit or be cost-effective. It will, we’re told, reshape land-use patterns. That’s necessary due to sprawl. In order to curb it, municipalities need policies to limit land use. They need to make developers pay 100 per cent of the costs of expanding: all the roads, all the infrastructure, all the soft costs. That’s not going to happen, so we get sprawl and we all pay for it. By going along their current route, municipalities end up sending mixed signals: encouraging sprawl, and then punishing those who live in those newly-developed areas.

The overall goal is admirable. Compact, mixed-use communities modelled on the best of European examples would be ideal outcomes, countering the North American suburban expanse that’s been the norm for several decades. There’s a big if, however, as the gamble – let’s be clear, they’re planning to spend a great deal of your money on this bet – remains something of a long shot.

In Europe, densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America.

People actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here.

The kind of development endorsed by the province’s Places to Grow legislation and embraced by LRT proponents here, would be wonderful if what we got was something comparable to European cities. Trouble is, that ideal isn’t likely to translate here, the land of vinyl siding, asphalt and big-box retail.

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