Commuting for the Common Good

Downtown London has the John Labatt Centre (the “jail”, I think it’s known as), and Hamilton its Copps Coliseum. Sundry dreams of replacing Kitchener’s Aud, and inevitably the subject of a location for it, contain the seeds of a dilemma: build on the outskirts where land is cheap, in a sea of surface parking, or struggle with a central site that brings citizens and event visitors alike to the heart of the community.

Guelph’s solution to the issue was pure serendipity. Commission a study of various locations for a replacement to Memorial Gardens, throw in the combination of failed mall, the vision of an overreaching developer, City guarantees, a dash of reality, and “voila”, the City owns a perfectly viable sports, small convention and entertainment complex in the heart of the community (with a few twists and turns!)

Waterloo has, admittedly, its centrally-located Recreation Complex, but the decision regarding Rim Park took another approach than reinforcing the vibrancy of the Waterloo core. Let’s not dwell on the twists and turns of that project, set down in reams of court documents and electoral ballots. Let’s just look at the location decision.

Years ago a Waterloo taxpayer riding the transit system to its last stop tried to hijack the bus, to actually get the driver to take him far enough out of the City to see what he was paying for, Rim Park. No kidding! I read it in the paper! No transit route actually went there at the time, and Mayor Woolstencroft was overheard to say that transit wasn’t an item that got much priority in the location decision. It got me thinking. With speedskating season upon us, and our family once again making the long trek to Rim Park three times a week, it’s reminded me again that the decisions we make in the pursuit of the cheap, “greenfield” solution never seem to include the long term costs.

Let’s take Rim Park as an example. Bear with the math for a minute.

Voodoo Math 101

Forgetting the outdoor fields, we’ll concentrate on the four ice surfaces, two basketball courts and three soccer fields. Maybe 6 hours of activities each day, say 250 days a year? An average of 20 people using the surface each hour. Give or take, (and at least in an overly optimistic business plan, if not in reality) that’s 270,000 car trips to Rim Park each year. Over the life of the facility (hopefully 50 years, given a few repairs and renewals) that’s 13.5 million trips.

Voodoo Math 102

Rim Park is a 7.5 km drive from the centre of Waterloo at King and Erb. Using incredibly silly assumptions about how easy it is to get around in this Region, and gross generalizations about who is using Rim Park’s facilities, let’s consider the commute we’ve set up with that location decision.

If the facility is used by Waterloo residents only, and it sits about 7 km from centre, in the far upper corner of Waterloo, AND users are equally dispersed across the City, AND nobody carpools, AND we don’t make too many mistakes with all this, then I figure the average commute to Rim Park for each user is about 8 kilometres. The same calculation for a location in the centre of the City is 4 kilometres. So the “difference” we can assign to the location decision is 4 km. Commutes go there and back, so 8 kilometres in total!

Voodoo Economics (with apologies to Mr. Reagan)

Assuming the minivan with the hockey bag in it gets 10 km to the litre, and the litre of gas is $1 CDN, and we drive the extra 100 million kilometers involved with the choice of Rim Park’s location (13.5 million times the eight kilometre “commute difference”), then we’ve spent $10 million dollars on gas alone.

Could we have picked up a site in the core of Waterloo for $10 million more than that cornfield cost? Likely.

Would that central site hold its value if Rim Park and the Recreation Centre created a powerhouse of leisure, conference and event possibilities for Waterloo’s core? Absolutely.

Would children be able to get to those ice pads and ball courts using public transit, helping to create ridership and cut our subsidies for 50 years to come? You bet.

Would all those hockey teams have to jump in the car during all those tournaments to visit the same ersatz roadhouses they visited two weeks ago in Mississauga, or would they sample some uniqueness and authenticity within Waterloo’s core (large LCBO excepted)? I suspect the latter.

Had I been asked to contribute a few dollars a year to buy a valuable site for Rim Park, rather than a few more dollars a year to drive to a cheap one, I’d hope that I’d choose some exciting possibilities for the heart of my community, and save a few bucks. Not that I was asked, mind you. I live in Kitchener.

Oh, I see. My turn next. Hopefully any decision about a new Aud for Kitchener will keep the commuting costs in mind. The lure of cheap land to park the very cars needed to get there is a no-win proposition.

Locating our high schools using the same logic might help with that school bus bill we pay each year. Teenagers taking anything other than public transit to get to high school makes no sense at all, and yet our school boards’ choice of high school locations is driven by the same lure of cheap land involved in the Rim Park decision. The dislocation between the transit system and our high schools is no laughing matter. It costs us big time.

Let’s locate our major institutions for a larger efficiency. Our forefathers knew better. The taxes, the gasoline purchases, and the cost to our environment all come out of one pocketbook.

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