Urban living (1/3): Kitchener/Waterloo

Posted by Patrick Lam on Saturday, December 25, 2021

Table Of Contents

I’ve been back in Kitchener for about two weeks, was in Montreal for a week and a half before that, and was in Wellington for most of 2020 and 2021. Here’s a series with some thoughts about how these cities are now. It’s early winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The weather in Wellington doesn’t change enough to affect transport, though day length varies. (In other words: Wellington doesn’t really get a proper winter! Kitchener/Waterloo sort of does, and Montreal definitely does.)

I also was in Quebec City for a few days but I don’t really know enough to comment. All I did was look up the most urbanist neighbourhood one could live in. That neighbourhood, around Avenue Cartier, seems promising. But Quebec seems to have a lot of highways, which are inimical to urbanism.

Unflattering early winter in Québec City.

Capsule summary

For the things I was doing in each place, Montreal was the hardest without a car; Kitchener and Wellington are both fine actually. Let’s investigate further. This is all dependent on my travel patterns and, of course, the current state of the pandemic.

Is Downtown Kitchener a 15-minute city? Wikipedia says one needs “living, working, commerce, healthcare, education, and entertainment”. Pretty much; see below.

One thing about the 15-minute city is that specialized interests are, well, specialized, so they might not be met in the 15 minutes. Because KW is smaller, the specialized interests that are present aren’t going to be too far (but of course there might be some that are missing).

Introduction: Kitchener

Kitchener City Hall, and King St on Christmas morning (sharrows are not bike infrastructure!).

I got back to Kitchener as Omicron started to be a thing. In other words, I have eaten inside 0 restaurants. My situation in December is that I’m homeless. Fortunately, I’m staying in a unit at the Kaufman Lofts that is between tenants (thanks J!) and spending the days chicken-sitting in the Central Frederick neighbourhood, just out of downtown Kitchener. Sometimes I go to the University and sometimes I go to the climbing gym. I’ve been to the mall once (to get a SIM card) and to MEC Kitchener once.

I’ve driven my car, taken the LRT, walked, and biked around. I’ve also combined the LRT and bike on a trip, which is much easier than on a bus.

Downtown Kitchener (DTK) is compact. I was filling out a citizen engagement survey about what to do with the Charles Transit Terminal and I couldn’t really come up with amenities that are totally missing.

Daily amenities

  • Bagels: Used to be Rise and Shine bagels 5 (NY-style) minutes from my place, but the guy retired. There aren’t any easy good options anymore.
  • Groceries: The Kitchener Market is an important source of groceries for me. But it’s only open on Saturdays, so needs some planning. (Normally I go to the Sobey’s 200m from my place in Waterloo.) Recently, Marché Leo’s opened. I guess it’s not cheap, but it is conveniently located. Prepared pastel was disappointing. Shoppers Drug Mart is also an option. And a bit further, though not really in Downtown Kitchener, you have Central Fresh Market and Belfiore’s Valu-Mart at Frederick Mall. I kind of feel like there’s still a gap in terms of everyday affordable groceries downtown.
  • Library: An important public amenity. The Kitchener Public Library is nearby.
  • Museums/concert spaces: There’s THEMUSEUM which I never go to and Centre in the Square which I occasionally go to.
  • Restaurants: There’s a good collection of restaurants, most of which I won’t dine in right now, because pandemic. (Shout out to Bánh mì Givral Deli; Nova Era with the best pastel de nada I’ve had in 2 years; and Rainbow Carribean Cuisine with its Jamaican patties. All these are good for take-out.) It was good to see that many of the places I liked in 2019 were still there, though not Gilt.
  • Climbing gym: Grand River Rocks Kitchener is very reachable by either LRT or bicycle; or, a half hour walk from Kaufman, basically across the whole of DTK and then past the market and a bit further. The Waterloo location is closer to my place, but I haven’t been there yet, and it’s bouldering only.
  • Judo club: Currently theoretical, but maybe relevant again in the future. Google says 12 minutes from Kaufman and 20 minutes from my place.
  • Other retail: The Fairview mall is a bit further from downtown Kitchener. Bicycle and LRT are viable. Boardwalk is terrible. I basically won’t go there unless I absolutely have to. I tried to bike there once. I succeeded, but it wasn’t much fun.

There sure are a lot of cannabis stores in Downtown Kitchener now.

As for the other parts of the 15-minute city: you can’t get fancy clothing in downtown Kitchener; there are high schools and the hospital not far away, as well as lots of doctors on Frederick St. One could complain about a lack of a stadium; the Aud is 19 minutes from the Kitchener Market, but the walk is not engaging.

Work

The University of Waterloo is, of course, farther from downtown Kitchener than my place in Waterloo. My normal bicycle commute to work is shorter than commuting from downtown Kitchener. An LRT commute would be viable, but more expensive and involving slightly less exercise (though 10 minutes of biking isn’t that much).

I did bike to the University last week against the wind and it took 40 minutes on my folding bike, which is longer than I expected. Google says 10 minutes from my place and 17 minutes from Kaufman.

I also thought about my spouse MP’s old workplace out in the boonies near Strasburg and Bleams. It would be a pretty feasible 25 minutes from the Kaufman Lofts, and less from further south. Though she isn’t planning to work there again.

Proper bike infrastructure on University Avenue (though not on my commute).

LRT

The rides that I’ve taken haven’t been that long. The end of the line, at Fairway Station, to the University of Waterloo, almost at the other end, is longer than it needs to be, at 34 minutes. (The 15km/h segment on Mill is somewhat infuriating). But usually one would ride half that. As I wrote above, taking a bike on the LRT is convenient. I did that to get to MEC from the University, after having biked to the University.

The LRT is just across the street from the Kaufman Lofts. It’s about a 10-minute walk from my place, unfortunately.

Bike infrastructure

There’s a bunch of new segregated bike lanes around Kitchener, in addition to the Iron Horse and Spur Line trails which were there when I left. That includes downtown Kitchener and also multi-use trails on Courtland near MEC, although with some bad gaps. It feels like we almost have a network now, especially thanks to the City of Kitchener. I haven’t explored around quite enough to say where we should add more connections, but there are good ways of getting to many places.

I heard the pandemic bike infrastructure was really convenient, but was subject to bikelash and didn’t get renewed, unfortunately.

I’m not sure about the suburbs. I don’t usually go there that often.

Crayon the chicken; I did not miss this.

Car

I’ve used my car twice while I’m here. Once, because I needed it to put the winter tires on. The other time to carry some heavier e-waste out to Thrift on Kent. Generally not needed day-to-day.

I would need it to get out of town, though. Definitely for Conservation Halton areas and also for the Beaver Valley. There’s no real option there. Toronto is pretty reachable by transit and usually better, but I wonder about the COVID risk (even with an N95) versus the car crash risk. Not clear. As always, depends on the amount of community transmission.

Getting out of town

Two years ago to the day, I wrote about travel options from Waterloo. The Kitchener line is 20 minutes faster to get to Union Station now due to Metrolinx track upgrades particularly near Guelph, and competitive with the old VIA Rail time: 1h40.

For the purpose of this post, though, we can note that the current VIA Rail station is close to downtown Kitchener; even more so for the future King/Victoria train connection. That is basically out the door from the Kaufman Lofts.

Where can you go? There’s the Beaver Valley and, a bit further, Lion’s Head, at about 2-3 hours' drive. Toronto is 1-2 hours away, and then there is Algonquin Park a few more hours after that. To the west there’s London and farmlands. And to the south there’s Niagara.