Public Transit in Edmonton
Efficient public transit is key element to Edmonton's future growth in reducing congestion, reducing greenhouse gases and increasing mobility. The Edmonton Transit System has the largest departmental budget, $382.6M yet serves only 9% of the transportation needs of the city. New transit systems like the $608M South LRT will only serve an additional 6,000 new riders* by 2010 as the city grows by 6,000 every four months. What options are available beyond more buses and more LRT?
*SLRT ridership projections are 36,000 trips/day peak, or 18,000 round trips. It is estimated that 12,000 currently use buses and 6,000 will be new riders. Peak ridership is based upon surveys done in mid-September on week days. Ridership falls considerably during the summer, on weekends and holidays. The capital costs in building the $608M SLRT will exceed $100,000 per new rider.
Transportation systems are the most influential element in the design of cities. A 150 years ago, buildings utilizing stairs had a practical limit of six stories and rents decreased with building height. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the new safety elevator allowed builders to charge higher rents far above the noise, in the cleaner air and more prestigious heights of the skyscraper. The elevator increased the return on investment and the greater
density changed the skyline of nearly every city in the world. The invention of the streetcar in 1888 allowed people to live further from work in quieter neighbourhoods without the need to own a horse, feed and stable it at home and at work. It became the norm to live at distances averaging 20 to 30 minutes to commute to work. As transportation choices and increasing speed made living outside of downtown more practical cities grew. In the postwar period, like cities all across North America, Edmonton had a thriving downtown but the automobile allowed suburbs to sprawl outwards and city cores to decay and crumble.
In an effort to connect the suburban residential areas to downtown, many mass transit schemes were developed utilizing linehaul systems. The original concept for Rapid Transit in Edmonton is based upon of the hub and spoke system was designed by D.L. MacDonald in 1964 and has been redrafted following the growth patterns that exist today.
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Fundamentally, linehaul systems like trains, LRT and subways are metal cans where people are herded like cattle to be stuffed in with only half of the people having a seat. They are shunted from a place they do not want to be, to a place they do not want to go. Every wait for a scheduled ride, every transfer, every stop, adds to total trip time and loss of ridership. These expensive systems are designed for peak periods only and have longer waiting times off-peak or no service at all at night.
Furthermore, the systems require users to transfer to buses, cars or walk long distances to get to and from the stations. This First-mile and Last-mile problem makes public transit a second rate system compared to the convenience of the private automobile.
Linehaul systems do not provide service for users who need to make errands on their commute to drop kids off to school or soccer practice, to pick up groceries, or other side trips. Commuters need to make such errands over 50% of the time when they commute. Therefore even transit users must commute home only to get out the car from the garage and go to the store or pick up dry cleaning.
The Northeast Line was started in 1975 in preparation for the 1978 Commonwealth Games and connected the Northeast region to Northlands Park, the Commonwealth Stadium and Downtown. The existing railway right-of-way made the choice economical and efficient. Tunnelling underground through downtown instead of along the existing rail system, slowed construction and the effect of an economic downturn in the 1980's stalled the project for years. The building of the South portion line towards the University of Alberta presented a costly challenge to cross the river and tunnel under the University as no
surface routes were available.
Continuing Southward costs for the tunnel portion of only 400 meters and a 200 meter section to a new station cost $100 million. The South LRT continues to Southgate Mall and a final station at the Century Park development. The linehaul system does little to benefit the communities bisected by LRT with stations up to 3.2km apart, many residents will still need to use a bus to get to LRT. The South LRT line is expected to be completed by 2010 but no addition right-of-ways
were reserved in the past 40 years for the other routes.
As Councillor Ron Hayter said on Feb. 06th, 2007, ”If LRT extension goes only where the population is booming, we will never see it in the older areas of the city. It will always be going to the south.”
HIGH SPEED TRANSIT
At this juncture, the City of Edmonton has embarked on a massive $3 to $4 billion** (2004 dollars) expansion plan for High Speed Transit (HST). The HST model that has been selected is based upon Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. BRT systems are similar to LRT but use larger buses on dedicated line haul routes with a high frequency
service and limited stops, usually several kilometres apart. BRT usually requires dedicated 'BRT only' lanes and traffic signal priority and station fare collection. Because the stations are far apart usually the system requires riders to transfer from buses to LRT/BRT and back to buses to get to their final destination.
Studies of the Westward LRT proposal in 2004 with only 3 stations to serve the entire West End have been estimated at over $1 billion. These estimates did not include the rapid rise in real-estate values which dramatically increases the cost of land expropriation nor the massive cost increases in concrete, steel, fuel and construction labour. Compounding these issues is the problem of flat transit ridership levels where only 9% of trips in Edmonton are by public transit and 78% are by automobile.
In the HST map below there are many similarities to the map above made over 40 years ago including the routes and number of stations. In the West End example, two or three stations do not seem adequate for handling the number of people who live there now and the many more that will come as the suburbs and West metropolitan area grows over the next 30 years. If history repeats itself, then when we look at the rapid development of Clareview in the last 30 years of LRT in contrast to Boyle Street at the other,
what type of transit system should we build?
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Edmonton's High Speed Transit Planning Study Map (2004)
It is prudent at this time to evaluate both the economics and the quality of the service that will be provided by HST. Questions arise on whether:
will HST make a significant reduction in door to door travel times,
will people prefer HST to their automobile,
will communities benefit from HST,
will the linehaul routes of HST draw people to the outer fringes of Edmonton and continue the decline of downtown?
In haste to meet the demands, not all choices have been vetted to ensure the lowest costs and the best sustainable benefits to the whole community.
The costs of transit have risen 35% in the past few years while ridership has only risen 10%.
**Alberta Infrastructure projects director Alan Humphries stated that constructions costs would rise 20-25% this year, and 15 % each of the next two years. If Edmonton embarks on HST to the tune of 3-4 billion dollars, and if costs rise a nominal 10% in years 4 and 5 then these projects may cost taxpayers some 5.5 to 7.7 billion dollars and more depending on construction time. April 2006
The low density of Edmonton's population and the lack of high-density employment centres compared to Toronto or even Calgary negates any real high demand traffic corridors. The HST study purports that the demand for service is to two major destinations, the University of Alberta and the downtown core. In reality, the majority of travel in Edmonton circles downtown on Whitemud and Yellowhead Trail where there is not one plan to improve public
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Edmonton's HST Study projected transit demand map (2004)
The demand map is a self fulfilling prophecy designed to support the predetermined routes of 1964
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Edmonton's actual traffic flow map (2003)
All efforts to improve public transit are futile if they do not result in a system that is a viable alternative to the mobility and convenience of a car. We cannot legislate that people use public transit and even the heavily subsidized fares in place do not entice the majority to utilize it.
"The key is how to get people out of their cars and into public transit". Janice Melnychuk, City Councilor
Opportunity for PRT proposals and demonstration project
Current transit issues are numerous but the core issues are that:
- most transit systems are owned by civic entities with an entrenched administration that is not innovative nor accountable to the end user. There is no interest to improve the service of a monopoly. In monopolistic bureaucracies, the only incentive is to grow the bureaucracy. When they are not delivering, the answer is always the same - we need more money to solve the problems.
- we are fighting against the established norms of "bigger is better" engineering that envisions 400kph trains with 1,000 passengers that do not solve the first and last mile problem or how can I get to the supermarket without having to own a car?
- Edmonton Transit has averaged a dismal 2% annual increase in ridership since 1998. Edmonton Transit’s claims of substantial increases in ridership levels in the past two years are “due to a change in pass multipliers used to calculate ridership.” OCA, ETS Branch Audit, Dec. 18, 2006.
- The current 2007 civic budget for transit exceeds 16% of the entire city expenditures. That's 33% more than spent on roads or more than the budget of the fire, ambulance and police departments combined.
Commuters and transit users are most concerned about the net travel time to their destination. Statistics Canada reports that users of public transit have an average of 41 extra minutes commuting time than their automobile counterparts.
Edmonton’s severe weather requires greater concern for transit users in lowering the wait times and transfer connections.
The economics of LRT are driven not by the needs of users, rather the avoidance of high construction costs and legal entanglements. Council is left to solve the problems created by the administration in order to complete the project.
A US reporter that was touring a factory in the former East Germany where they made those god-awful noisy 2 cycle pollution spewing Trabant cars. He asked the worker how long he had been producing the model he was working. The worker said 20 years. The reporter asked they didn't make changes to improve the car. He said, "Why should I do that? I sell all I make"
Public transit in Edmonton is facing new challenges in supplying quality service at a reasonable cost. The economic climate has resulted in rapid growth of residential development and added traffic congestion to our streets. Compounding issues of rising capital and operating expenses have created considerable stain on the City’s budget. Nationally, every city is struggling to find enhanced methods of public transit by integrating new designs of buses including those with advanced hybrid propulsion systems, low floor loading, articulated vehicles, light rapid transit, bus lanes, priority
signals and more efficient ticketing systems. Although promising on paper, enhanced transit systems are hampered by low density neighbourhoods, circuitous routes in newly developed suburbs, stagnant ridership and an almost unbeatable opponent, the automobile.
We all agree that we need better public transit but many feel that the Transportation Department’s prescribed cure will be worse than the current transit disease. In order to make HST viable, the route must go through the densest streets with the highest disruption of neighbourhoods and highest costs. Additionally, the areas surrounding widely spaced stations require major rezoning and Transit Oriented Developments to artificially increase population and commerce near stations.
In the past 10 years, Edmonton has experienced a 33% increase in suburban population and a -1% loss in inner city areas. This massive suburban growth and changing demographics leads to dire consequences as people must travel farther placing more demands for new roads and freeways. In the context of transit, the low density and sprawling suburbs require buses to travel further each year in search of passengers with diminishing returns. Edmonton’s current economic boom places severe stresses on our transportation and transit infrastructure while budgetary increases cannot keep pace with skyrocketing costs.
There has been very little open public input on both what the current transit issues are and what type of transit system users want. The ageing population who expect mobility, DATS users who need consistent service and commuters who need to be there on time have a vested interest as customers of ETS. When City Council and taxpayers are presented only two choices; more buses or more LRT, the clear choice is the more modern LRT system. But when offered more system options like carpooling, public car and bicycle sharing, vanpooling and advanced
transit systems, the opinions change dramatically. Furthermore, issues like greenhouse gases, the massive increases in construction and fuel costs since the HST inception have radically altered the economics and sustainability of the proposal. The HST build times are 20 to 30 years and the long infrastructure life of 50+ years are costs that affect future generations and therefore we must be extra diligent to ensure the maximum cost/benefit ratio.
Transit is a key element to Edmonton's future and innovative solutions are being used in many cities like advanced transit and transit oriented developments. A co-ordinated effort to include greater community input in transportation and transit issues is needed. Let’s encourage redevelopment in mature neighbourhoods, dual usage of ground level parking lots downtown and reclaim brownfield sites (i.e. Railtown) utilize existing infrastructure that allow people to
shop, work and live locally. "Build it and they will come" and live downtown!
A paradigm shift in transit technology is now available that can revitalize downtown business zones and uptown residential villages. Advanced transit solutions allow people to shop, work and live locally while reducing the need for numerous parking lots, all adding to the vibrancy of the community. Federal grants and monies are available for advanced transit systems that could make Edmonton a world leader urban planning and transit oriented design.
What we need is an efficient and accessible transit system that is available 24 hours a day and that is self-sustaining from the farebox revenue. Edmonton should devote a proper budget to investigate an integrated and sustainable transit system that would benefit a far greater percentage of the population by reducing automobile usage, improve neighbourhoods, increase development opportunities and solve public transit funding issues.