With a special public participation meeting marked on the calendar and many heated discussions, it’s safe to say Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), is the hot topic in London, Ontario.
Amanda Stratton, the founder of the London Transit Riders Alliance, attended meetings at Centennial Hall and the Wolf Performance Hall. She said that it’s “no surprise” that people are expressing concern.
“It’s people that are worried. They’re worried that they’re going to lose their lawns. They’re worried that their business is going to be blocked by construction,” she said, “their arguments aren’t always sound, but that’s what’s to be expected when people are genuinely scared for something that’s important in their life.”
London’s current transit situation
The London Transit Riders Alliance is an advocacy group for the Forest City’s public transit riders. Stratton said that there are some issues with the current transit system, such as overcrowding, a lack of bus frequency, and lack of service hours.
“In a lot of areas in the city, people still, especially on weekends, are an hour between buses which is extremely inconvenient.”
She said that the LTC has some “great ideas” for improvement, such as putting the number of the bus on the back of the vehicle.
Stratton also felt public transit riders face stigma, but she hopes BRT will encourage ridership.
“I don’t think just passing rapid transit will do anything to destigmatize it, but I think that’s part of creating a community where there’s not an idea that just a certain kind of people use transit, and I think that’s a lot of the rhetoric that we’re seeing,” she said.
She added she supports BRT because she thinks it will bring better transit for every rider. Stratton encourages riders to learn how BRT would affect their daily commute. She would also like to see anyone with questions or concerns address them at the upcoming meeting.
“I hope they bring those forward.”
Possible alternatives for BRT
Council approved a motion to examine accommodation for businesses along proposed BRT routes. Ward 11 Councillor Stephen Turner suggested examining business maintenance during construction, what mixed traffic on blocks of King Street would look like, and possible Community Improvement Plan funding for the businesses on Richmond Row and King Street.
Ward 11 Councillor Stephen Turner suggested examining business maintenance during construction. He also wants city council to see how mixed traffic would look on blocks of King Street, such as the Budweiser Gardens and Covent Garden Market area. He also brought up possible Community Improvement Plan funding for the businesses on Richmond Row and King Street.
Turner added that after construction, he could see BRT bringing more traffic and potential customers to businesses. He said council will do as much as they can to make sure businesses are still accessible during construction.
“Most of the roads that we have to reconstruct for rapid transit are going to have to be reconstructed anyway, regardless of whether we have rapid transit or not.”
Council approved the motion.
More concerns arise
Many Londoners addressed their concerns and support at Wolf Performance Hall.
Kelly Scherr, the city engineer and managing director of Environmental and Engineering Services, proposed two alternative BRT routes. One would run from downtown to Riverside Drive and Wharncliffe Road. She also proposed a couplet on Queens Avenue and King Street.
“We’ve heard loud and clear there is a desire to have more discourse on those routes,” Scherr said.
London Transit Commission General Manager Kelly Paleczny said it’s planned to eliminate overlap between current transit routes and “the rapid transit corridors.” An uproar from Londoners followed.
Craig Glover, who has lived in London since 2001, addressed his concerns regarding accessibility for the proposed Richmond tunnel. He has a family member with past mobility issues. “I know what it’s like for somebody to not be able to access places they want to be able to access.”
“When you look at the services that are available down Richmond Street north of Oxford, you’ve got banks, dentists, those kinds of services. South of there, you’ve got restaurants, bars and shops that people are going to want to shop in. I think one stop over a 900-meter stretch is a major concern when it comes to accessibility on the surface.”
However, there was also some support for BRT. London resident Scott St. John, who moved back to the city three years ago, said he’s on board.
“I think there will be disruption, but I think it’s a forward thinking idea and other cities around the world have implemented it with great success.”
DownShift waited outside the venue after the meeting.
“Many cities would kill to have two shopping areas like King Street and Richmond Street ,” member Stephen Lehman said.
“If this goes through, you’ll see businesses leave downtown either by relocating or going bankrupt.”
An owner of three Richmond Street businesses, Lehman predicted that the “general retail” stores would relocate to the malls if BRT were implemented. “That’s where people want to go with their cars.”
What City officials think of the feedback
Ward 13 Councillor Tanya Park and Ward 6 Councillor Phil Squire facilitated the meeting.
“I heard the different opinions loud and clear,” Squire said. He added he was concerned over statements that council already made their final decision on BRT.
“That’s news to me. If other people have made up their minds, then that’s unfortunate, but I think it’s really important to hear from the public.”
Paleczny also found the feedback valuable. However, she felt Londoners consider BRT separate from the rest of transit plans. “The plan is to improve transit system-wide, so not just the services on those corridors, but all of the roads will see improvements.”
Discussing BRT with provincial and federal leaders
Council discussed transportation and housing with London and area MPPs and London MPs during two Corporate Service Committee meetings.
Ward 5 Councillor Maureen Cassidy said discussion between council and the public about BRT’s benefits would improve.
“This is for everyone and it will make for a better city.”
London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos heard many concerns from constituents in the area. During the meeting, he mentioned the red DownShift signs on Richmond Row.
While Fragiskatos passes concerns to council, he clarified he’s not in the position to make the final decision on BRT.
“No federal MP is in the business of drawing lines on a map, that’s not what we’re here to do. We’re not here to tell cities how their transit projects should proceed and how they should look.”
London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews said in a media scrum that the Ontario government is on board with BRT. However, she added it’s up to the municipal government to make the final decision.
“London needs to do what London needs to do.”
There will be a special public consultation meeting at Budweiser Gardens on May 3.
Feature photo by Emily Stewart