First, I want to commend the City of Edmonton traffic planners for all of the work that they do. Second, while I am proposing transit changes in this blog post, I recognize that it is not up to one councillor to make such decisions: extensive public consultation is required, and so is buy-in from the other councillors. As with many of my other articles, I seek to demonstrate that I am well versed in the issues, and I am not shy about sharing my opinions and creativity. I am pro-transit. We need to make some changes to our current approach.
In this article, I will:
- Comment on the Metro Line LRT extension
- Provide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) context and some general observations
- Propose a unique BRT system that will work with our existing road layout
- Propose a unique feeder-bus concept to fuel the BRT system
My Past Writings On Transit
Those following the North Side Journal will know that I have previously written a lot about transit in Edmonton. Most of my past articles were in anticipation of this one. This article lays out my ideal vision for transit.
I think that we should learn from past mistakes. Every major infrastructure project should be open to criticism. Future investments should implement the ‘lessons learned’ from past projects. We are spending billions of dollars on transit infrastructure, and for this reason alone, I think it is important to have a balanced conversation.
The Metro Line LRT Extension
Recently we saw that, once again, weak representation on Council has shifted the LRT priority from the north to the south. Without a change in leadership, the north side will continue to get shafted.
Recognizing that the proposed Metro Line LRT will cost billions, I want to adjust the route to make it more efficient and useable. Currently, the proposal is that it will make a 90-degree turn on 113A Street/Castle Downs Road at 153 Avenue and head toward St. Albert, but many people in St. Albert do not want the LRT.
Never should an LRT line be designed to make a 90-degree turn. I want Phase I of the LRT project to end at the Castle Downs YMCA, and I want construction to start immediately. I want Phase II to go north on Castle Downs Road and end at 97 Street and 167 Avenue. If the LRT heads to St. Albert, much of northwest Edmonton will become jammed up, and a division will exist between residents north and south of 153 Avenue (such as the Metro Line did to Central McDougall, which has significantly affected the walkability and character of that neighbourhood).
The 113A Street/Castle Downs north/south portion of the LRT makes sense, as it provides a linkage to downtown. LRT, in a city with only one central business district, should be designed in a hub and spoke manner (straight/angle lines are good, but we should avoid a spiderweb pattern, which is exactly what the St. Albert portion is). I want to unite the north side, not set up additional barriers.
Also, in an era in which we are contemplating spending billions on dry ponds for stormwater management across the city, it is beyond imaginable that the proposed LRT terminus station and park and ride facility at Campbell Road is located atop an existing wetland (which will be paved over). The whole St. Albert portion of the proposed LRT is ill conceived.
Further, the proposed LRT bridge to cross the Yellowhead should be designed to also accommodate cars, bikes, and people. If it is just tracks, then emergency service vehicles won’t even be able to use it.
Things We Need to Know About LRT
Besides cost, there are other important considerations:
1) Despite the ‘R’ in the acronym, the LRT is often not rapid. Non-peak wait times sometimes are in excess of 20 minutes.
2) LRT has a fixed route (with tracks), and therefore, the route cannot be adapted to changing land uses, development, and demographics over time. Bus routes, on the other hand, can be redrawn overnight to meet changing needs.
3) The LRT has an inherent conflict with all other surface modes of transit. When it rolls by, it obstructs cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and buses. But that is just the train. The LRT tracks (with fences) permanently divide communities and significantly reduce walkability in their vicinity.
There are pros and cons to everything. Let us just be aware of the total cost of infrastructure projects.
Bus Rapid Transit
The concept of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is well known in some cities. As we do not have BRT in Edmonton, it is understandable if many Edmontonians do not know of this alternative public transit system. While it is not as romantic as jumping onto a train, BRT has some major advantages that can work well in conjunction with LRT.
The idea of BRT is that buses move at high volumes in dedicated lanes. Typically, there are fewer stops—which means once the bus starts going, it’s moving. The dedicated lanes can allow or prohibit cars, depending on design. A BRT system can largely utilize existing roadways, depending on the variation of BRT employed. The need for expropriation of land is eliminated.
A BRT system provides many of the benefits of LRT, but at a reduced cost. The price tag is lower because tracks are not required and the signal systems are much less complicated. Although the concept of dedicated bus lanes implies a degree of permanent infrastructure, a bus route is still much more adaptable to changing travel patterns over time.
A BRT can either come to a full stop at an intersection, or plow through as our current LRT does. If the buses get automatic green lights, then a complex signalling system is required.
Traditional buses consume the most amount of fuel with frequent braking and accelerations. A BRT, which invariably has fewer stops, is better for the environment than traditional bus services are.
Utilizing Our Grid System
We are lucky that much of Edmonton is laid out in a grid system that provides ease of navigation for new comers and long-term residents, alike. The grid-system in Edmonton is based on the Dominion Land Survey, which carved the prairie into geographic units known as Sections (square miles). As it turns out, most of our neighbourhoods are the size of a Quarter Section. The roads that divide the Sections are often known as arterial roads, given their size and design.
Arterial roads are the major roadways of Edmonton; they are typically four or six lanes wide (97 Street, 153 Avenue, for example).
My Proposal: Straight-Line Bus Rapid Transit
I am now going to propose a variation of BRT that is tailored to the unique urban layout of Edmonton. I call the BRT concept that I am advancing ‘Straight-Line BRT’ (SL-BRT). This system would utilize the existing grid system in Edmonton. It is unfortunate that some of our new subdivisions have gone away with tradition and have utilized curvilinear roads. This messes with our addressing, but for the most part smaller local roads will not interfere with the proposed Straight-Line BRT system. A SL-BRT system should use only the arterial roads. I speak to the internal transportation within neighbourhoods below.
SL-BRT would share outside lanes with cars. My proposed system does not require special infrastructure (such as the BRT systems in Mississauga and Ottawa do). The SL-BRT system would be free-flowing with traffic and be controlled by regular traffic lights. In order to make it high frequency, there would be much fewer bus stops than there currently are.
There should only be one stop at each major intersection and one in the midpoint (approximately every 400 metres), with a few exceptions for major destinations. The benefit of fewer stops is that buses will now flow with traffic better. Frequent stops alter the rhythm of traffic and cars respond by doing everything imaginable to get ahead of buses. While SL-BRT will work better for transit users, it will also reduce frustration for the other users of the road.
The Straight-Line Component
Bus routes should be simple, and buses should go straight. Only one bus route should exist on each street and it should be named after that street (e.g. the 97S would be the bus that goes up and down 97 Street. The 137A would be the bus that goes east and west on 137 Avenue). Currently, it is confusing when many different bus routes utilize the same bus stops.
Just as we drive in Edmonton, a transit user should utilize the same spatial thinking to navigate. If someone is at the Castle Downs YMCA and they want to go to Londonderry Mall, they can decide their route for themselves. For example, one might think, “Hmm, I could take the 153A bus east to 66 Street and then take the 66S bus south to the mall, or I could take the Castle Downs bus south to 137 Avenue and then take the 137A bus east to 66 Street…”
The benefit of high-frequency service is that it will be dependable. The lack of current service is one reason why many people with cars choose not to ever use transit. When transit is substandard, it hurts its own reputation: it’s the law of diminishing returns.
Bus Stop / Street Interfacing
In all cases, SL-BRT stops should be in lay-bys, where the bus pulls into a dedicated cut-out. This prevents the buses from holding up traffic behind them when they stop, and gives aggressive drivers an opportunity to pass a bus, without conducting more dangerous lane-shifting.
In order for SL-BRT buses to have dedicated space at bus shelters, the existing sidewalks will have to be altered. This is probably one of the only infrastructure costs associated with this proposal. New sidewalks would be poured around the new recessed bus stops.
Currently in Edmonton, most bus stops are on the other side of traffic lights (e.g. going northbound, the bus stop is just north of the traffic lights). What this means is that if the bus hits a red light, it has to come to a full stop and then pick up speed to cross the intersection and stop again to pick up/drop off people. Why is it designed this way? If bus stops were typically before traffic lights, we could then have pick-up/drop-off occur while the light is red. This simple change would:
- Reduce bus idling time; therefore, the bus could complete its route faster
- Passengers would be on the bus for less time, as they would hop off instead of needlessly waiting for a light to turn green.
- Those waiting for the bus (especially in the cold) could get on sooner. Nothing is worse than freezing and seeing that your bus is almost arriving, but just waiting on the other side of a red light.
Transit should be designed with the user’s well-being in mind.
Getting to the Straight- Line BRT Stops
Naturally, with fewer stops, there is more likelihood that riders will have to walk farther to board a bus. For those that are able-bodied, this might be fine. It’s okay for teenagers to walk 10 minutes for example, but everyone should have the opportunity for door-to-door service. Enter the concept of the Adaptable Feeder Bus service.
Adaptable Feeder Bus Service
The Adaptable Feeder Bus (AFB) service loops internally within a community. The AFB will make regular stops at the mid-points of each arterial road (where the SL-BRT stops are). Other than that, all internal community stops will be on demand, during off-peak hours (hence the ‘adaptable’ part). During peak hours, the internal AFB will run a more predictable service in the community, running local roads within the typical Section of land (1 square mile or four neighbourhoods).
For seniors who want to fully utilize the door-to-door service, they may choose to wait until after morning rush-hour to conduct their errands.
A typical AFB bus will be smaller than regular buses, and the operator will know community members due to the cozy and friendly nature of the service. There will no longer be a need for physical bus stops in local neighbourhoods, as the buses will stop on a hailing system (by hand or electronically). But some bus shelters could remain (for reasons of shelter).
As with Uber, with which you can see the Uber cars in your neighbourhood via looking at your phone, a live map ‘app’ will show where the Adaptable Feeder Buses are. As with Uber, you can request a pick-up.
The ability to drop off people off at their door is a substantial change from our current system. Seniors and those with groceries may appreciate this more than a teenager who opts to walk from the SL-BRT stop. But the choice is there for everyone. I believe that people will sort themselves. Many people getting off the SL-BRT will opt to walk, but not everyone.
In neighbourhoods with more apartments and transit demand, there should be more AFB services than in areas of primarily detached houses. It’s just a matter of scaling supply to demand.
Disabled Adults Transit Service (DATS)
The DATS bus garage is in Mill Woods and a bus has to be despatched whenever it is demanded, within the city. Currently, the DATS system is costly to run, although it serves a great purpose. DATS transports seniors, and those in need, from their door to their destination. While the AFB service I am proposing wouldn’t replace DATS, it would lessen the demand on DATS from those seniors who are on the cusp of depending upon DATS. It makes sense to have a tiered approach for those requiring transit.
The User Experience On Buses
In general, we need to invest more in security to enforce rules of decorum. No one should feel intimidated by taking the bus. Loitering, feet on seats, and the playing of loud music should be cut to a minimum by transit security with the authority to intimidate/charge trouble makers.
- I support and will strongly advocate for the north Metro Line extension to Castle Downs, but not to St. Albert. The final stop should be at 97 Street and 167 Avenue.
- To the transit planners, I will advance the idea of Straight Line Bus Rapid Transit that primarily sees high-frequency buses going up and down our arterial roads.
- I would like the bus stops for the SL-BRT system to be recessed into the sidewalks in order for traffic behind the buses to continue while the bus is loading/unloading.
- The number of bus stops for the SL-BRT should be significantly reduced in order to provide fast service.
- Internal transportation, within neighbourhoods, would be provided by a smaller bus operating on a loop that takes passengers from the SL-BRT to their homes, should they choose. This system would be designed to accommodate those who do not wish to walk the remainder of the journey. The bus would drop passengers off directly at their door, and the buses could be hailed by residents on the street.
I am a urban planner and I understand land use, transit, and community building.
Are you ready for a new approach in Edmonton? Are you ready for fresh blood? On October 16, vote Jon D for Ward 3.
North Side Journal