New Edmonton transit strategy focuses on supply-and-demand service

Concerns raised about Edmonton’s transit overhaul
WATCH ABOVE: As the city looks to revamp how transit operates in Edmonton, there are growing worries council is looking to the private sector to pick up some of the slack. Vinesh Pratap has reaction.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Tuesday, July 11, councillors voted down the proposal to discuss the option of including ride-sharing and car-sharing providers in its new transit strategy. Elements of the 10-year transit strategy that council approved include bus network redesign, a transit priority measure feasibility study and analyzing other options like a “modern-day version of dial-a-bus,” partnerships with seniors groups and automated vehicles/buses.

A new transit strategy that would shift from service being spread equally to a supply-and-demand model was passed by Edmonton’s urban planning committee on Wednesday.

The Way We Move plan includes high-frequency routes closer to the city’s centre, with new crosstown routes and rapid-bus commuter routes from the suburbs.

The plan identifies the different demands between neighbourhoods inside and outside a ring road – made up of four arterials: 170 Street in the west, Whitemud Drive in the south, 75 Street in the east, and Yellowhead Trail in the north.

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READ MORE: Edmonton transit strategy outlines drastic shift in service, aligns supply with demand

The plan calls for increased service inside the ring road, about a dozen express routes running between the suburbs and downtown, and fewer buses meandering through neighbourhoods where demand for public transit isn’t as high. That means some transit users might have to walk farther to catch a bus.

During Wednesday’s committee meeting, 18 people spoke, with some expressing concerns the transit changes would negatively impact people with limited mobility.

“What constitutes sufficient demand and what alternatives will be available in areas where there is not sufficient demand?” one speaker asked.

“Our concern is that vulnerable citizens, which includes seniors, will be left behind.”

READ MORE: Bus drivers rally against proposed changes to Edmonton Transit

A proposal in the review is to have the city partner with vehicle-for-hire companies to drive transit-takers home after they get off a bus instead of having to walk. That idea does not sit well with unions and public transit supporters.

In late June, transit operators rallied publicly against that idea at a south-side transit garage.

Instead, the union has proposed several solutions, including a ‘dial-a-bus’ for low-service areas and BRT rapid-bus transit for high-frequency areas. They also want the city to improve bus schedules, something the union said hasn’t been done in at least 20 years.

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“We heard from a lot of the comments from all of the speakers the need to go and do a little more work on how we’re going to address that ‘first mile, last mile,'” Coun. Andrew Knack said. “How are we going to help seniors who have mobility concerns? But also recognizing that we can’t keep running a large bus on a route that only has two to three people zig-zagging through a community.

“We need to go examine all of those options. That would include looking at things like ‘dial-a-bus.’ That would include looking at things like partnerships with seniors’ transportation providers. I think you have to include in that ride-sharing and car-sharing providers.”

“The idea is probably a modern-day equivalent to ‘dial-a-bus,’ not the old school ‘simply call someone up.’ What would we use [in] today’s technology to accomplish that same objective, particularly if we’re going to do it in a public way?

“We’ve heard pretty loud and clear there’s an interest to explore that,” Knack said.

“I’ve also put in [the motion] to put in partnerships with autonomous vehicle manufacturers. Today, you might not have that Level 5 completely self-driving — it might be a Level 4 driving vehicle that has a public transit driver on it — but can it be ready that in five or 10 years, once that technology is ready, can it be transitioned over into a truly autonomous vehicle?”
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Knack said the proposed timeline for the new transit strategy is 18 months to plan and three or four years to roll out. Knack would like to see the plan implemented more quickly. Ideally, the system would be rolled out by January 2020 to coincide with the launch of the Smart Card, Knack said.

“The final piece is to really embed in the policy bus rapid transit,” Knack said. “The current strategy only really references precursor BRT and it doesn’t talk about ongoing BRT. I think we need a proper plan in place to look at what potential capital infrastructure needs would we have if we’re going to build out a full BRT network.”

Branch manager Eddie Robar said the route conversion would have to be done all at once two years from now instead of a phased approach like they originally planned on.

“I think 2020 would represent a more kind of light switch approach. So if I were looking at achieving that timeline by 2020, our significant impact side of it is really the consultation part. The front end of that is still going to require the time to engage communities and let people understand what those changes look like.”

Robar said the implementation would also have to coordinate with the launch of the Valley Line to Mill Woods.

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“Obviously that’s a big component of what we have to do so achieving that 2020 roll out, I suspect would be the same time as the LRT goes in.”

He said Edmonton Transit will come back to city council in the fall for a budget adjustment to be able to speed things up, spending as much money over a shorter period of time to hit the 2020 target. Knack is okay with that. He said it’ll be a one-time cost of $1 million to $2 million on a $360-million budget.

“To revamp it so all taxpayers are getting better value for that money? I think that’s a good use of money.”

The two-year review included an engagement process involving over 20,000 Edmontonians.

READ MORE: Combining 2 phases of south LRT extension could save Edmonton $50M

The transit strategy is based on five pillars the city believes will encourage more to choose transit:

  • Build transit-friendly neighbourhoods and places.
  • Offer fare categories that are consistent and easy to understand.
  • Provide service that reflects the different preferences of inner and outer neighbourhoods.
  • Elevate the importance of safety.
  • Keep up with trends in technology and the environment.

The transit strategy motion will be voted on by city council next Tuesday.

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— With files from Scott Johnston, 630 CHED