The argument for LRT to Langford

By Aaren Madden, November 2012

MLA Rob Fleming thinks LRT would tame sprawl in the West Shore and attract business investment.

The late 1980s were volatile times politically, here in BC, on the world stage, and particularly in the Fleming household. Rob Fleming’s older sister had strong, left-leaning opinions that she impressed upon him. Their father stood decidedly to the right; Mom was a “Trudeau Liberal.” (Pierre, that is. He’s not sure where she stands on Justin yet.) Imagine the lively dinner conversation on the day when, in “grade nine or ten,” young Fleming announced he had joined the NDP. 

“MLAs come from all walks of life; there is no one path. It’s not like everybody in the legislature was on the debating club in high school—I just happened to be,” quips Fleming, now the Environment Critic and NDP MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake.

His route to the dome on Belleville Street was a fairly direct one. After earning a BA from UVic, he worked for a communications consulting business and spent two terms on Victoria city council. Throughout, he has been a strong advocate for public transportation. As chair of the UVic Students’ Society, he was instrumental in implementing the first universal students’ bus pass system at a university in Western Canada. 

It became an example of transportation affecting how places take shape. At a 10th anniversary celebration of the U-pass’s implementation in 2009, Chris Foord, co-chair of the Capital Region District’s Traffic Safety Commission, praised the pass for reducing traffic flow in the region and increasing transit usage. Consequently, the university could replace parking lots with actual buildings, added Gayle Gorill, UVic’s vice-president of finance. 

Today, among myriad other interests and concerns (certainly the Enbridge pipeline proposal chief among them), Fleming continues to believe that public transportation will build the kind of city we need to address climate change and nurture the economy. Although those goals can seem mutually exclusive, Fleming is sure that proper planning of transportation infrastructure can achieve both. 

He’s not alone. It’s a common tenet among planners these days that zoning for density along transit routes is the way to create compact, livable communities. Indeed, it’s one of the cornerstones of Victoria’s new Official Community Plan. 

That kind of thinking, Fleming says, is more important than ever: the Vital Signs Victoria 2012 report showed that greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation, which accounts for over half of total emissions, has risen by about 250,000 tonnes from 2007 to 2010. 

Fixing that, Fleming believes, will take a train and a long-term view. “I think LRT [light rail transit] is the biggest intervention we can make to reduce vehicle source emissions in the region. There is that from a climate action perspective, but I think one of the most compelling reasons for LRT is how this region could grow and shape itself for the next 20 or 30 years. Without LRT you are going to see sprawl and development that is not part of what modern city building should be about,” he argues. 

But ours is not a completely urban context. In these pages, there has been concern that an LRT line to Langford would actually encourage sprawl and diminish opportunities for density closer to the core. Plus, the study the current LRT proposal is based on uses projected growth figures for the West Shore from before the economy tanked and real estate went with it. Is that growth still inevitable?

Fleming thinks it is, though he admits it may take decades: “We are surrounded by 270 degrees of water with the peninsula, and the inner core here; it’s a north-south sprawling community.” And while “we are in a fairly calm period right now,” he notes, “We had a very ambitious level of home building in the West Shore in the ’04 to ’08 period; we will be in a cycle like that again. The question is, as a region, wouldn’t we be better off if we had more certainty around delivering on the promise of LRT infrastructure to shape that next building boom? I think the answer is ‘yes.’” Addressing growth in the direction of the West Shore, he feels, is more urgent than starting with an LRT line to the university where development exists already (though he does agree it’s worth looking into for the future). 

As for an LRT to Langford compromising density, Fleming feels the opposite would occur. There are many pockets of the core that council has eyed for development—Harris Green, parts of Douglas and Blanshard, Rock Bay. “That’s where people are going to want to live. That’s where you are going to be able to get on a bike, walk; taking the car would be the last thing you did,” he says. Movement along a line would become an easy mode of travel and stimulate the region as a cohesive whole. Density will arise around Tillicum and Uptown on the route as well, he predicts: “If there is LRT service within a five to eight-minute walk, that is going to be a significant motivator” to developers. It may even allow for more affordable housing, says Fleming, “because you can have more compact, efficient developments; more rentals, homes that are multiunit developments. Land costs are cheaper.”

Fleming also argues that current roads are beyond capacity. He’s heard that some businesses, if they have calls to make in the West Shore, don’t bother leaving downtown after one pm unless they want to pay workers to sit in traffic. “It affects our movement of goods and services already,” he says. “I suspect we will be talking about very expensive interventions with the McKenzie overpass—car-oriented infrastructure—in the May 2013 election.” While it may help with traffic flow, it will not help to reverse emissions figures, says Fleming.

Neither will the fact that bus ridership has actually decreased recently. Service rationing is making people late for classes and appointments, so if they can, they opt for a cheap used car instead. “Public transit has to be reliable, available and it has to be a reasonably pleasant experience,” Fleming states, adding that those improvements need to start with existing services. 

Looking ahead, Fleming muses, “It would make such a powerful statement to have a city the size we have with LRT, and see what the types of employers and investors we are trying to attract to this region think of that.” Sure, it’s much larger, but look at Portland, he urges. Intel’s plant there employs thousands, but needs only provide parking for dozens. 

“Not to go on about Portland,” he says, “but it’s probably the only city that European planners come to look at in North America for transportation investments. They have grown something like 40 percent in population since 1980, while consuming something like four percent of their land in the region. That’s what we want,” he argues. 

Right now it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. It’s beyond costly at $1 billion, and our population is not quite there. “If it’s not affordable and puts the region in a debt position that is onerous and the business case isn’t there to service that, then it shouldn’t be done,” Fleming allows. “However, if the benefits can be elaborated on and we can establish a way to partner with the federal and provincial governments…” he trails off. Perhaps anticipating a not-so-distant future, he adds, “At some point we are going to get a government that cares about climate change and has progressive views around transportation infrastructure.”

Speaking of pleasant public transit experiences, Aaren Madden has heard tell of a particular bus from Sooke to downtown wherein all passengers engage in a singalong. Urban myth?