Overhauling Edmonton’s Transit System

When Statistics Canada released information about Canadians’ travel habits in 2008, I was disappointed – yet not surprised – to see Edmonton singled out as the most car-dependent city in the country. While both fuel prices and environmental concern are on an upward trend recently, neither seem to have made much of a difference with regard to transportation in Edmonton.

Why are Edmontonians so reliant on our private automobiles? Part of the reason is our urban form – as road congestion has increased, our solution for the past several decades has been to build wider roads, bigger freeways, and more overpasses. However, there’s a growing awareness in transportation planning circles that widening roads and building more freeways inevitably leads to more drivers on the road, and, ultimately, more congestion.

As a car-free Edmontonian, I spend a lot of time thinking about the roles walking, bicycling, and riding transit play in moving people around our city. This inspired the Transit Riders’ Union of Edmonton’s Transit Challenge, which has seen city councillors riding the bus three times since the last election for one week periods. The hope being that councillors will learn both the strengths and the weaknesses of the system and make more informed decisions when voting on transit and transportation related issues (unfortunately, out of the five participating councillors, none have yet represented a ward north of downtown).

Council’s recent push to expand LRT is certainly a good start. The opening of the South LRT extension to South Campus coincided with a 7% increase in year-over-year, system-wide ridership, and we should see even greater gains over the next year with Century Park and Southgate now online. However, while city council has now designated routes from downtown to West Edmonton, Mill Woods, and the St. Albert border, they have so far been unable to secure all the funds to build the extensions. To keep this momentum going, the next council will have to pressure the provincial and federal governments to step up and while reassessing city-wide transportation funding.

I praise these ambitious plans, but it is also imperative that we look at the system as a whole if we want to build a transit system that Edmontonians can actually rely on. The majority of Edmonton’s current bus routes date back to a service reduction that occurred in the mid-1990s, meaning that the transit system is designed to save money rather than provide service. In order to reach the most people with the fewest number of buses or transfers, even major routes are meandering and circuitous. They aren’t quick or efficient, nor do they encourage people to leave their cars at home and take transit. As a city councillor, I would push for a serious overhaul of ETS’ route network to facilitate improved service in terms of frequency and service hours.

Edmonton has also lagged behind in giving buses a leg-up over other traffic with relatively simple and cost-effective strategies such as bus lanes and bus priority signals at traffic lights. Faster service means higher frequency with the same number of buses. While we wait for tracks to be laid, these types of measures can also be combined with all-door boarding, proof-of-payment, and limited stops (usually in the places where future LRT stations will be constructed) to build ridership and improve service on these future LRT routes as a precursor, and fine tune supporting service before the LRT even opens. Other cities have adopted a similarly inexpensive models, such as Vancouver’s “B-Line” routes.

Edmonton’s lack of late night transit is also a barrier to many people switching to transit as their primary means of transportation. Edmonton is not a sleepy small town – we are part of a metropolitan region of over 1 million people. Yet Edmonton Transit currently wraps up service by around 1AM on any given day, earlier than Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and even Hamilton. It hardly makes sense in a city with vibrant entertainment districts in areas like Whyte Avenue and Jasper Avenue, and where countless workers work shifts that start and end at all hours of the night & day. People will not take transit if they know that they cannot rely on it to get home, and thirty dollars for a cab at the end of a minimum wage shift is unacceptable.

These are only parts of the transit expertise I would bring to the table at council, and transit is only part of the solution to reducing Edmonton’s dependence on automobiles. In future posts I’ll discuss what more I believe we can do to get Edmontonians walking, bicycling, and taking transit.

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