Bus rapid transit: Here’s a cheat-sheet on the just-revamped plan for London’s $500-million BRT system

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It’s a $500-million project designed to keep thousands of cars off London roads and avoid a gridlocked future for the city.

The revamped plan for city hall’s bus rapid transit system, years in the making, was approved by council this week. So London — the largest city in Canada without any rapid transit — has moved closer to making it a reality.

But what does that mean for the average Londoner?

Thousands of details, from the design of the stations to the toll on green spaces, need to be ironed out in the coming months and years.

And city hall, heavily criticized for ineffective public consultation, is calling for more citizen input.

Residents will have their chance to weigh in — on upcoming decisions, not the already-approved parts of the plan — during a public review period launching Aug. 3.

But make no mistake: this isn’t just about buses. Really, it never was. It’s about replacing sprawl with intensified development. It’s about avoiding a city clogged with traffic. And it’s about politics — of course.

It will likely be the key issue in next year’s municipal election. It may also dictate how London grows, or doesn’t, for decades to come.

City hall is moving ahead with a revamped version of London’s biggest-ever project — here’s what you need to know:


Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a network of high-frequency buses running on L- and 7-shaped corridors bisecting London, with downtown as the fulcrum. It’s about increasing London’s “people-moving capacity,” city engineer Kelly Scherr said. The buses would travel the city on four main routes — at peak times they’ll be coming by every five minutes — and carry riders to destinations including Western University, Fanshawe College, and spots near both Masonville mall and White Oaks Mall. The “rapid” is a misnomer: it’s not about speed, but reliability.


Four routes. Thirty-five stations. One downtown focus. It’s going to take time — close to a decade — to build out the entire 24-kilometre BRT network that extends to all four sides of the city. Construction could begin as early as 2019, with an expedited and scaled-down northern route that would utilize regular roads before the dedicated lanes are built. “It would give people a taste of what rapid transit might be like,” project director Jennie Ramsay said of the “quick start” arm of the project. Creation of the four main corridors would follow, with overlapping three-year construction periods between 2020 and 2028.


London will be knocking on doors for the cash needed to bankroll the $500-million construction. With the business case approved, city hall can continue talks with the federal and provincial governments. London needs $200 million from Ottawa and $170 million from Queen’s Park to flesh out the contribution from city hall, which is capped at $130 million. The payoff? There are plenty of skeptics, but one city hall analysis states London could reap $1.18 for every $1 spent on the BRT system.


There will be four central stops downtown, all near the intersection of King and Wellington streets. The most interesting part about that? The hub was initially set for King/Clarence — which would have required a road widening that developer Tony Graat said imperilled a big-ticket development at what’s now a vacant lot at the northwest corner. He then filed a $50-million lawsuit against city hall. Moving the hub, however, may have major implications for the Graat lawsuit. Here are the basic details of the dedicated lanes of the L and 7 lines:

North: Travelling between downtown and Masonville Place: Clarence Street (to Central Avenue, behind the Victoria Park bandshell) and then onto Richmond Street to Western University’s gates. It would then run through campus to Western Road, then back up to Richmond Street before reaching its northern end-point near Masonville Place mall.

East: Travelling between downtown and Fanshawe College: King Street from Wellington Street to Dundas Street; east on Dundas to Highbury Avenue; north to Oxford Street to its east end-point, Fanshawe College.

South: Travelling between downtown and White Oaks Mall: A straight shot down Wellington Road, starting at King Street and ending south of Bradley Avenue, with a potential park-and-ride extension even closer to Hwy. 401.

West: Travelling between downtown and Wonderland Road: West on Queens Avenue; continue onto Riverside; north in mixed traffic on Wharncliffe Road; west on Oxford Street to Wonderland Road.

Downtown: One-way lanes surrounding the core on Ridout Street, King Street, Wellington Street, Queens Avenue and Clarence Street.


The BRT system will include 28 high-frequency buses. The fleet could be electric, or a diesel-electric combination. Coun. Bill Armstrong pushed an environmental case when the master plan was debated this week. “It gives us an opportunity to work towards changing from . . . dirty diesel to clean and green electric,” he said.


They’re a headache for drivers, but that’s nothing compared to the havoc trains could wreak on this BRT system. Without a tunnel beneath Richmond Row, there’s just no way to get around the trains that block Richmond Street several times a day. BRT isn’t about speed, it’s about reliability — and train-related delays pose a threat that could gum up the entire network. For example, if buses travelling at five-minute intervals are stopped by a 12-minute train delay, they’ll be back-to-back and there’s no way to un-couple them. Council voted to axe the tunnel when bureaucrats withdrew their support, citing a ballooning price tag. Fans of the original project were furious; critics are still not pleased. In short, nobody’s happy.


A park-and-ride location could be created at the south end of the BRT system, near Exeter Road and close to Hwy. 401. That facility would be close to the edge of the southern route, offering visitors to London an opportunity to pull off the highway, park, and jump on a bus to the downtown core. It’s also an option for commuters from neighbouring communities like St. Thomas. The entire system “will make transit a viable option for people that aren’t using transit right now,” said Coun. Maureen Cassidy.


This could be tough to read for London fans of light rail rapid transit: City council long ago ditched plans to build it here — going instead for the cheaper bus-only rapid transit option — but Waterloo Region has pushed ahead with LRT, and it’s already paying off. More than $2 billion in private development has popped up along the route, including $1.4 billion in building permits last year alone, according to the Waterloo Region Record newspaper. And a train hasn’t even run yet. “Hardly a week goes by when there isn’t another announcement for another project,” Waterloo Coun. Tom Galloway told the Record. Remember, rapid transit isn’t just a transit project — it’s a planning tool to attract infill development. Developers are drawn in by the permanency of rail lines. Bus routes? Not as much. And the end of the Richmond Row tunnel means any local light-rail dreams are all but dead.


Politicians are staking their claims at the front of the rapid transit bus. Long a political plan, the BRT system — or the fight against it — will almost certainly be the central issue of the 2018 municipal election. A mayoral-gunning pair of Pauls — former police services board member Paul Paolatto and 2014 mayoral runner-up Paul Cheng — have already made moves to suggest they’ll wage anti-BRT wars in the lead-up to the next election. Paolatto’s made it clear he’d run on a platform to kill the plan, while Cheng called BRT a “fraud” at a May public meeting. Cheng also called London “a village.” Is it possible Matt Brown will be the only candidate running on a pro-BRT platform? And if so, is it really so hard to see him winning a second term?


The plan is not without its opposition. Residents have taken to social media and op-ed pages to share their displeasure, while a group of downtown merchants — the most vocal naysayers of the BRT plan — banded together under the Down Shift banner. Down Shift, headed by Joe Kool’s owner Mike Smith, has hammered the project, though their tactics have been frequently slammed, with one rival calling them “nasty.” They’re not going away. First, they were angry that the project was going too fast, and city hall slowed down. Then, they were angry about the tunnel, which council has cancelled. Now? They’re mad about the price tag. In a comment on their anonymous Twitter account, a Down Shift member this week called BRT “the biggest waste of half a billion (dollars) we have seen in (London).”


After taking heat for a startling lack of communication about the BRT project in its early days, city hall is gearing up for more public consultation by hiring a communications team, updating the shiftlondon.ca website, and posting hard copies of the plan at library branches around the city. “We’ve learned the hard way on consultation, and I hope that we’ve learned,” said Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert. An official 45-day public review period runs Aug. 3 to Sept. 18, but it’s not really an opportunity to re-open debate on approved decisions like the BRT routes. Instead, it’s a chance for residents to weigh in on upcoming parts of the plan that will form a preliminary engineering design. The official assessment process is expected to unfold throughout 2018, wrapping up with a report to the Ministry of Transportation in the summer and a decision by the Minister. “This is a long-term project, and we’re committed to delivering it for London,” said Ramsay. Somewhat surprisingly, the city plans no public meetings during the 45-day period that starts next week. 

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