The transit isolation of Waterloo Region

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The Waterloo Region (Guelph too) have had huge gains economically and in population in the last 20 years but it is still a region relatively isolated from the main economic driver of the province, Toronto. I think this isolation has allowed the region to build it’s own identity but as the 401 becomes slower and slower the option for two income families to stay in the region will no longer exist.

The lack of viable commuter options to and from the Waterloo Region also discourages people that enjoy being connected to and more likely live in the increasingly vibrant and young downtown (labeled Creative Class but if you don’t like the label, I think it is the next generation of professional people/families) core of a city like Toronto. Those people are of the professional class companies in the Region desperately need to keep being successful or even grow past the startup stage. This isolation limits the success of the region and I would go so far as to say provides an opportunity for Hamilton to be the place to start and grow a company (and a family) over the longer term (20 years or so) where there are constantly improving and robust transit system (and easy access to Buffalo airport).

Public transit is a big issue to some in Canada at the moment. Rail is just a part of it but the rail system mess in Waterloo Region is a symptom of the larger problem. Something as simple as reliable, cost effective, frequent, and fast (same time as driving or better) should not be that difficult given it exists in Brantford.

The rail system that isn’t as good as Brantford

The communities of Waterloo Region and Brantford + Brant County offer a fairly good comparison:

  • Waterloo Region is roughly a 110 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 24min drive but I don’t know a time during daylight hours that it is possible in under 2 hrs.
    • Population of the Waterloo Region is closing on 520k
  • Brantford is roughly a 105 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 20min drive
    • Population of Brant County + Brantford is roughly 130k

These two places are basically the same distance with the big difference being Waterloo Region’s economy and population. Both are West of Toronto and Brantford sits in the bottom left corner of a map between Waterloo Region and Hamilton Region. Related is this research on Canada and how suburban it is, very cool maps and information to gain some perspective. When we look at rail access to Toronto though there are huge differences.

For example, Monday November 12th, 2012 as the travel date:

Waterloo

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 40min
    • leave at 9am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 5:40pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just under $30 a round trip
  • GO train takes 2 hrs <- 2 HOURS!
    • leaves KW at 5:50am and 7am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:45 and 5:45 pm (so no evening events for you!)
    • just under $30 a round trip

Brantford

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 10min
    • leave at 7:30am and 8:50am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, or 7pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just over $30 a round trip
  • No GO service

To cover roughly the same amount of ground takes 30 min longer from Waterloo Region. Round trip that is 1hr more out of your day but VIA has recently cancelled the commuter train from Waterloo Region along with the late train. They put GO train on their site as an alternative, it takes nearly an additional 30 min longer to get back on seats not designed for that length of time. That adds almost 2 hrs of commuting time in one day from Kitchener over Brantford which are the same distance to downtown Toronto by road!

Both places lack flexibility for commuters to the Region from the east and returning in the later evening if you were to just go in for a dinner/date night or need to come back later from work. The workaround for commuters in both Waterloo (63km drive, 1hr drive) and Brantford (46km drive, 30 min drive) is Aldershot Station ($16 return GO train ride). The difference in drive times makes it not much of an option for Waterloo folks unless it is a daily commute. There is no workaround for those going to the region of Waterloo from the east.

The 401 is an ever increasing mess and that isn’t going to change

It is no secret that Toronto has a traffic problem. Transit is starting to improve but even Toronto politicians seem incapable of planning for the future around transit despite the continued suburbanization of the city. This exacerbates the issue for Waterloo as it puts pressure on the professionals that are couples (or not) to choose downtown living or living near rail corridors in order to avoid the carmageddon on the highways. My bet is that Waterloo Region is not an option for most of them at the moment.

Waterloo needs to fix its growing islotion from Toronto (both downtown and Pearson airport) that will become an increasingly dire problem for economic growth. I don’t believe that the traffic problems in Toronto will drive employers out of the core of the city to the suburbs, I think it will move them to the core of another city that has an increasingly active airport, is closer to the border with the US (and Buffalo Airport), and tight transit corridor with Toronto – Hamilton.

The train issues shouldn’t be issues but they are because there is no political champion in Waterloo Region that seems to be legitimately concerned that it can take 3-6 hours out of someone’s day to pick someone up at the airport never mind go downtown Toronto for a meeting.

Step 1 is simple, get a train service that is at least on par with a small town just south of the region. The only people that can do it are our politicians, someone needs to show some leadership.

A talk on business productivity

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Yesterday I had the oppertunity to participate (a little) on a panel hosted at the Accelerator Centre that was to talk about the opportunities for Canadian Businesses to boost their productivity. Other panel members were:

  • Dr. Sherry Cooper, Chief Economist, BMO Capital Markets
  • Tom Jenkins, Executive Chair and Chief Strategy Officer, Open Text
  • Paul Summers, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Clemmer SteelCraft Technologies Incorporated
  • Mike Klopchic, District Vice President, BMO Bank of Montreal
  • Moderator: Iain Klugman, Chief Executive Officer, Communitech

The discussion was opened by a report from Dr. Sherry Cooper that covers the very high view of productivity and opportunity in Canada. Essentially we have closed the gap or are leading in most categories over the US but productivity is low (or measured in a way that makes it seem low). From the discussion an important bit of information was brought up that essentially said the numbers are deceiving because the way it is measured is likely skewed by combination of things like the rising Canadian dollar.

Fascinating stuff. Encouraging stuff. Dr. Cooper sees Canada in an extremely strong position economically for a number of reasons ranging from having the strongest banking system to having had only a mild recession compared to everyone else. A position it arguably has never seen itself in before.

We have some weaknesses however: attracting, retaining, and building talent.

Tom Jenkins brought the discussion to investing in people, the number of positions open locally, and the importance of that. Paul Summers (a very interesting and understated local business leader) made the point that he has ~350 staff, most of their business is in the US, and just in time manufacturing is difficult when all your product has to cross the Peace Bridge. He believes the talent is here, equipment is a minor expense, and overall he weathered the recession quite well.

My contribution: Waterloo has the talent at the University but everyone else knows it. Getting those students engaged locally is key and that is where VeloCity fits. A point I didn’t bring up is that the same talent Tom Jenkins is trying to bring to Open Text is attracted to a lot of the same things the students are: local culture, more urbanized environments, social life, etc. The other thing students and professionals are interested in is something Dr. Cooper mentioned as a strength the US has — specialized economic zones that are full of opportunity in a general professional area. The opportunity in those areas is that people can switch jobs, build expertise, and spread knowledge throughout the area without having to uproot everything.

What I think? Investment in productivity is less about the organization and more about the community. Invest in the infrastructure, build strong economic cores, and highlight diverse cultural development on the local level.

I didn’t contribute a lot to the talk. Four opinionated people with two extremely high level people amongst them with only an hour is hardly a place to get into a deep conversation where I might get more than my 0.02 into. However I think it was great of Dr. Sherry Cooper to take the time to explain her vision of the state of Canada and Tom Jenkins for defending the Canadian work ethic and way of life.