EDITOR’S NOTE: This article initially misquoted Supt. Johnson. There are three units of police tasked with working transit, made up of six constables and one sergeant (not three constables). Global News regrets the error.
An Edmonton police superintendent is adding his support to the suggestion of adding turnstiles to the city’s light-rail transit system.
“Access control is not the be-all-end-all of it but what it does do is limit the ability for people to use a space for illegitimate purposes, and that’s kind of what we see here,” said EPS Supt. Keith Johnson.
Johnson leads crime suppression and community operations for the Edmonton Police Service’s community safety and wellbeing bureau. He also oversees the police officers tasked with working the transit system: three teams of one sergeant and three constables.
“We put a lot of resources in the LRT tunnels and … everybody that we arrest does not have a proof of payment. So we’re providing an environment for people — to make it easy for people — to utilize a space for an illegitimate purpose,” Johnson said.
“The social control, is what you would call (turnstiles). And partner that with our social presence as police officers, it does help enhance the safety. People have the right to be safe on a train. People have the right to walk safely in the city,” he said.
EPS year-to-date data shows that 400 people have been charged, 4,190 warrants executed, 30 firearms seized, $176,739 worth of drugs and $244,973 worth of stolen property seized on Edmonton buses and LRT.
The issue of transit safety and security was pushed into the spotlight at city hall on Tuesday. Edmonton police had just released information about two separate violent attacks in November at the Coliseum LRT Station. In one of them, a 55-year-old woman sitting on a bench waiting for the LRT was allegedly assaulted by two 12-year-old girls to the point of unconsciousness. She remains in hospital in critical condition.
Ward pihêsiwin Coun. Tim Cartmell said it’s time for physical changes to transit stations.
He said he’ll present a motion at the Dec. 12 council meeting to conduct a pilot project testing out barriers or turnstiles at transit stations. The motion will recommend turnstiles be implemented at two different LRT stations — one underground — for two years and see what happens.
“To see if we see a reduction in disorderly behaviour, if we see a reduction in violence — do we see a spill-over to other stations that wouldn’t have a fare gate during that pilot? And then compare that to a surface station or a (open) transit station to see if, you know, if there’s a way to make fare gates work.”
He said it isn’t fair to compare the city’s transit system to others around the world that have — or do not have — fare gates and Edmonton needs to see what works for its own system.
“Our situation is unique. Edmonton has a unique set of circumstances, by the way, in which it is the centre of commerce, of healthcare, of incarceration for northwest Canada. So it’s not the same as those other places.”
Cartmell said his motion will also be a test of council’s will to take steps to improve safety.
“I hear from people that say the system is not safe and fare gates or turnstiles would make it safer — at least make it feel safer. We’ll see if a majority of council agrees that we should at least examine the issue.”
In an interview Wednesday, Johnson cited other “world-class cities” that control access to their transit networks.
“There is no access control with our LRT system. Access control is a city decision … but when you think about access control and you look at other cities in North America and around the world that actually have access control — just off the top of my head: Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal? Access control. Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Paris? Access control. London? Access control.
“If access control is not a good thing, I’ve mentioned many world-class cities that actually have it.”
However, neither Seattle nor Calgary use turnstiles for their transit systems.
In May, a city report found a fully closed system on Calgary’s CTrain system — with turnstiles or fare gates — wouldn’t be feasible and wouldn’t alter safety on transit.
“There is no correlation between the provision of fare gates and increased transit safety on existing systems with fare gates,” the 96-page report, called ‘Assessing a Closed System as Part of The City of Calgary Transit Safety Strategy,’ said.
The report found there would be challenges with integrating turnstiles at the free fare stations along 7th Avenue in the city’s downtown core and recommended against the city taking that approach.
The Calgary study also explored the feasibility of a partially closed system, with no turnstiles on platforms in the free zone. While the report found a partially closed system to be possible, it said the move would require substantial modifications to most existing stations at an estimated cost of around $284 million.
Instead, Calgary city administration recommended a third option: more staff hired such as peace officers, corporate security, dedicated police resource and additional community outreach teams, along with infrastructure improvements focused on safety.
Johnson said he’s confident in EPS members and the partnerships with the city and social agencies.
He’s hopeful there will be more transit police officers in place next year.
“Currently our transit funding is based on provincial funding. We have three teams of one sergeant and six constables. Currently there’d be one group working per day. We are planning on ramping it up to 50 officers by the end of, hopefully, 2024.”
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he’s open to looking at the turnstile idea.
“We have made significant investments in enforcement, by increasing the police budget, transit security budget, hiring more security guards, but more needs to be done and we need to explore these kinds of ideas.”
He said he thinks a study already looked at the feasibility of adding turnstiles to Edmonton’s LRT system and if it would be worth the money.
“The return on investment wasn’t worthwhile to put these turnstiles into LRT stations.”
Sohi said he’d want to compare the value for money — the cost of the pilot project versus the cost of hiring more security and police. He added that Edmonton’s transit infrastructure would make a closed system challenging.
“We have such a long pedway system. You can’t really distinguish the pedway from the actual proof-of-payment area so there’s some complications there.
“We also need to recognize that these are reactive solutions that we’re looking at,” the mayor said. “It does not solve the real problem: why we are seeing disorder and crime on our LRT, bus system and generally in the community?”
Coun. Jo-Anne Wright agrees the long-term goal should be to address root issues.
“I think dealing with the underlying causes that are causing people to have to use the transit centres as home,” she said, pointing to proposals to turn surplus school sites into affordable housing.
She also questions if a two-station pilot project would get accurate results.
“I was wondering how just having one turnstile would make a difference because people would still have access through other LRT stations. It’s like locking the front door but leaving the back door wide open.”
Coun. Sarah Hamilton was also open to feedback from administration and Edmontonians on the turnstile proposal.
“We know that there’s a cost associated with it that’s not minor.
“We’ve also heard from community members, public safety experts that that is something that would help people perhaps feel safer on transit or control in-flow and out-flow.
“I know there’s going to be concerns about equity … The community will have something to say about that as well, but I think it’s worth entertaining at least,” Hamilton said.
“If we’re talking about a pilot, maybe try it. See if it will induce people to use our transit system differently and try it.”
— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News