A Letter to Council: Great Cities Have Great Transit; But Not Necessarily this BRT

By Jay Ménard,

Tonight and tomorrow, our elected representatives will discuss the future of the BRT proposal. As I had a few hours to kill waiting in a hospital today, I wrote one final letter to all of them for consideration and sent it to them earlier.

I present it to you below.

“Dear councillors,

This BRT issue presents an interesting challenge for many of you. I encourage you to vote to send this proposal back to the drawing board. And I’d like to support my argument by starting by quoting one statement — and ask you to read on carefully.

‘Great cities have great transit.’

That is true. But nowhere does it state that BRT, or the system that we’ve proposed currently will lead to great transit. I have posted regularly on the challenges with the engagement process (see links below), but what’s most concerning me is that we are putting the cart well before the horse here. Both advocates and detractors of the BRT proposal agree on one issue — we want better transit for the city.

The problem with defining the last step first (as we have with the proposal to approve the BRT plan this evening) is that every solution thereafter must be retrofit to justify that initial decision, instead of being weighed solely on the basis of being the best solution for its users. The problem you create by approving the BRT corridors as proposed is that all future answers will be to the wrong question. Instead of answering, ‘What’s the best solution to improve transit in London?’ the question will have to be framed as, ‘What’s the best solution that justifies the investment in the BRT corridors?’

Those two, while not mutually exclusive all the time, are certainly not the same question.

The advocates for BRT, including many of you on council, will say that route revisions and service improvements will be part of future phases of this project. But that’s absolutely the wrong way to do it. Instead, it’s important to understand what we have in the system, repurpose and maximize our current investment and resources, and develop a system that works as well as it can first. Then we can see what service improvements have been made, what’s worked, and, if necessary, what new technologies and rapid transit options we need to have to improve the service and meet demand.

Currently, we don’t know that. And if we approve the process as it stands, we never will.

The goals of improving transit are to increase reliability, encourage change in transportation patterns for users (both existing and potential), and improve traffic flow for all users. However, one could argue that we’ve already seen vast improvements in reliability and access with the advent of dedicated buses to and from Western to downtown and the express routes. Those are solutions that don’t require the substantial BRT investment, but have made an impact. Reimagining the entire route, with the focus on ‘how do we optimize what we currently have’ can meet those goals: it can improve service levels and speed; it can increase reliability; and it can make transit an attractive option for many people.

There’s just no shiny, political-career-defining benchmark to point back to in order to say we did something. What there will be, though, is a legacy of good fiscal management, prudent thinking, and a council committed to focusing on delivering the best solution for people’s actual needs. The shiny toy won’t exist, but a foundation for growth will be built — one that’s strong, fiscally prudent, and focused on doing things the right way instead of retrofitting to chase a flawed dream. That’s a foundation, as a politician, that I’d like to build my legacy upon.

The current transit system, with the proposed BRT fix, is akin to building a golden path to a beautiful front door — yet ignoring the giant holes in the other three walls of the house. You don’t build a house from a shiny roof down. You built the strong, unsexy, less-dynamic foundations. Why? Because that shiny roof will crash if the supports around it aren’t built properly. Yet that solid foundation can support multiple stages of growth, dreams, and visions for years to come.

Sure, you may not get your smiling face in the paper for the cheesy grip-n-grin staged photo at the groundbreaking. But amongst Londoners who care about long-term sustainability, respect for process, proper inclusive engagement, and solving the problems of the majority of Londoners who need it — including disabled and those working through more challenging economic situations who need to deal with the reality of transit, as opposed to those privileged enough to focus exclusively on a vision built in their own image — the legacy you will leave behind will be a strong, solid, long-term and effective solution.

Let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s properly reach out to users. Let’s examine the challenges we face now, see our opportunities, and maximize what we have. And then, and only then, do we build for a future — not one based on hopes and dreams, but one that’s based on a proven market and need.

Thank you for your time and attention to this message. Thank you for the dedication and effort you’ve put into this project so far. I know you have a lot to consider and I do hope you take the time to get this right. For all of London.

Sincerely,

Jay Ménard”

And if you want some older reading material… I even found a post from back in 2007 that may be of interest!

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One thought on “A Letter to Council: Great Cities Have Great Transit; But Not Necessarily this BRT

  1. Brent Sterner

    Agreed. Agreed! AGREED!!!

    Now it seems to me that the existing “system” that needs to be optimized consists of…
    Basic infrastructure. ie the roadways and the traffic signalling system
    Vehicles using this infrastructure. ie the bus system and private vehicles (motorized and non).

    What can the city do optimize each? I don’t know but I have some ideas…

    Optimize the way roadways are upgraded. Perform the work when traffic is at a minimum (overnight).
    Get the roadblocks out of the way. Stopped busses. Traffic signals that have no idea what is going on. Reduced lanes when not required.
    Make public vehicles operate as a true “system”. Make transfers work. Make the schedules work. Penalties if they do not. Make it more expensive to the city if the system does not work as designed than if it does.

    How do you get there? Lots of work for sure. But Microsoft used to run a program affectionately know as “dog food”. When the system engineers developed and built the next revision of an operating system, with input from everyone in the group, everyone in that group was forced to use the result. ie eat the dog food. It was in everyone’s best interest to get his piece of the meal “right”. I humbly suggest that everyone employed by our city, from the mayor down to the lowest paid employee on the payroll, be forced to use our public transit with no exceptions. No private vehicles. None. Zero. Absolutely everyone. If the system isn’t working, every city employee eats the same dog food as everyone else. Do you think this might increase the nutritional value in the meal?

    Thank you for the opportunit to feed back into the system. Regards,

    Reply

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