Over the past several days, I have had the great and humbling reminder of what it is like to not have a car when living in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. I see this as a reminder that the urban infrastructure here was not designed to support the lifestyles of the poor, the young student, or the newly immigrated.
When I lived in Woodstock Ontario this past summer, it was terribly easy for me to walk everywhere – I didn’t even need a bike. Within minutes of my home along the centrally-located Dundas Street, I could reach several grocery stores, fitness centers, shoe stores, clothing stores, second hand stores, a library, pet stores, nature trails; I could go on. In my current location in Kitchener (along Courtland Avenue), however, I have access to a fraction of those services and they are located much further away.
I am very happy to try bicycling around Kitchener to stay physically active. Yesterday, I bicycled to the library and picked up a pile of books. I have also biked along the Iron Horse Trail to get to Waterloo. But let me disabuse everyone of the notion that this trail or this region are safe, attractive, or enjoyable when moving around by any means other than a car.
First, I do not feel safe while I’m out bicycling or hiking within this region. When I’m out on the Iron Horse Trail, I have to cross every major road that bisects the trail, as well as limp my bike over major intersections and diagonal train tracks. Further, the trail begins and terminates in random spots and has recently been cut back to allow for a multi-million dollar condo development in Waterloo. When I’m bicycling or hiking along regular roads in and around the region, I feel unsafe and unimportant because the physical transportation infrastructure prioritizes cars and trains (see The Record newspaper here and here). Clearly, we are privileging cars and trains over the physical activity levels and safety of our citizens.
Second, I do not find the Iron Horse Trail or other walking paths in Kitchener-Waterloo to be attractive. Bicycling or hiking along the Iron Horse, one only sees concrete, the backs of decrepit industrial buildings, and a hideous channelized stream (Schneider Creek). Compare it to the Thames Valley Parkway (TVP) in London in distance alone and you’ll be amazed:
- Distance of the Iron Horse Trail: 5.5 km (3.4 miles)
- Distance of the Thames Valley Parkway: 40 km (24.9 miles)
The TVP effectively links nodes around the city, accommodates a wide variety of uses, goes through attractive natural areas, and does not cross major roads. This is purely anecdotal (and emotionally biased) evidence from someone who has used both trails and hiked in both cities – but I can tell you that I much prefer London’s “Forest City” slogan over Kitchener’s non-existent one.
Hence, I find the hiking and bicycling experience in Kitchener-Waterloo to be distinctly unpleasant and frankly, dangerous. I like bicycling, and not having to drive, but I don’t want to have to buy expensive bike equipment just so I can get around safely.
Needless to say, these perspectives have coloured my perspective of the entire Kitchener-Waterloo region. It’s quite obvious to me that affluent employees of Google, RIM, and any one of our major universities or colleges can get around fine and thus love Kitchener-Waterloo; but I am not one of those people, and I must urge people to think twice before they praise the walk, hike, and bicycle-friendly nature of this city.