Wanting change and resisting change is costing Edmonton time, money and credibility by Tim Querengesser

Were one to read City of Edmonton policies and guidelines on LRT, or transit-oriented development, walkability, mobility, Vision Zero — you name it — one might be convinced Edmonton is a city on the move. In print, in policies, in the news media even, depending on who’s talking, Edmonton sounds like we’re part of a group of progressive cities working to build places that are usable for everyone.

Flickr/Mack Male

Flickr/Mack Male

Adding to this, Edmonton has a cadre of ‘thought leader’ type city employees who speak about it all. We send them to conferences where they give talks and highlight our accomplishments. When a volunteer group or individual does something in the city-building space that they support, these public faces take to social media and say how great it is. In isolation, this cadre’s work is encouraging and heartening. It’s what you’d hope for in any city trying to make change: actual champions with actual guts and actual voices.

Of course this stuff doesn’t happen in isolation. Were we to look closely at how Edmonton makes concrete decisions, rather than make noise and policies, we would see a troubling pattern. To me this pattern is best sketched as one of reliably contradicting our policies or direction. As of late, the pattern has come to include our council actively voting against proposals that amplify and justify our investments in new ideas.

This pattern is easy to point out (the best example of late was last night, which I wrote about in a flurry of tired typing), but there is no easy answer to fix it. What we need to do is admit that it’s happening and that it’s now costing us. A lot. Saying one thing then doing another deflates ambition in our city administration, which works to build progressive policies, and leads to disbelief in the public that these policies actually mean something. Moving forward and backward decreases investor confidence in putting money behind development proposals in areas where decisions seem to be ad hoc rather than sticking to a vision. But perhaps worst of all, stepping ahead with one foot while pushing the other backward is a great way to spend a lot of money to see small returns on an investment.

Building a low-floor LRT, for example, but not endorsing low-floor LRT-style development beside its stations is like building a house without a door. You can crawl inside through the windows. You can live there, sure. But nobody — not you, not your neighbours, not your family — should sugar coat the fact you built a house without a front door.

Each time we allow this forward-yet-backward pattern to make our decisions, we lock in mediocrity. We waste another chunk of time and burn off yet another unquantifiable bit of energy from those who keep pushing for this city to build itself into something better.

It’s an exhausting, expensive pattern.

Did we just vote against building the Valley Line in the west? by Tim Querengesser

I just finished listening to Edmonton City Council debate a proposed commercial development in Glenora, right beside what we’re told will be a future LRT station. What follows are some hastily-organized thoughts before I go to bed.

Flickr/Jason Woodhead

Flickr/Jason Woodhead

Council voted against this proposal, with just two councillors voting in support. This vote is the inverse to the one I expected, given council’s ongoing urban focus, its investments in urban renewal and density, and, of course, its apparent deep commitment to a supremely expensive, low-floor, Valley Line LRT project that will run west along Stony Plain road and see a station where this commercial development was proposed.

My second point is that low-floor LRT is the type of transit you build if you’re serious about spurring new, more urban, more dense development. If you want speedy commutes or a low price tag for big transit capacity, you build other transit. For that you build BRT. But we chose low-floor LRT because it works for certain things. My hometown, Kitchener-Waterloo, is a good example. Those two cities have seen $2.1-billion invested along their recently opened low-floor LRT corridor. These investments are in residential and commercial developments. But think about that figure. It didn’t grow so big through the cities saying no to change. It happened by investing in change and holding on to that vision despite pushback.

My third point is that the ‘family oriented’ argument seemed a questionable one to use to oppose this development. Families need amenities, not highways or parking. A community that’s navigable for people who are not forced into a car is a more human-centred community — especially for kids and families. My mind boggles with this one to be absolutely honest. I don’t doubt the community had a more sophisticated argument — something along the lines of it wanting only more residential development and not commercial — but the two go hand in hand in my view. The LRT is a tool to add density. Density requires new housing and new amenities in order for it to work. We just voted against it.

My fourth point is a bit of ironic history. The Glenora neighbourhood is Edmonton’s first upper-crust suburb. What I find most interesting when looking at the history, however, is that the neighbourhood owes part of its success to council’s decision, in 1910, to run a streetcar to the area. Glenora may be deeply central in the city now, but rewind back to 1910 and it very much wasn’t. Building a streetcar to Glenora was a considerable investment for council to make. One-hundred and nine years later, we are discussing running a modern streetcar to the place again. But we said no to the things that tend to come with those streetcars. In many ways, we voted to keep Glenora stuck in the past.

My fifth point is density. Glenora is a central neighbourhood with density that belongs at the edge of the city. According to the 2012 Municipal Census, Glenora’s density was less than 2,200 people per square kilometre. Nearby Oliver’s population density is 11,125 per square kilometre.

My final point is actually a question. Given the new political climate in Alberta, the likelihood some councillors now vote for or against things based on their read of how it will help their respective bids to be mayor, and the incredible dollar figure investing in low-floor LRT requires, did we just basically vote to kill the Valley Line LRT tonight? Did we say we’re just not all that into that train any longer?

This might sound like hyperbole. And maybe I’m tired. But still, I don’t see firm, gutsy dedication to the actual point of this project with this vote. This was a simple one. The development belonged where it was proposed. And we said no.


E-scooters are great but a motion on bikeshare is how we got them, and also no bikeshare by Tim Querengesser

This is a letter I sent as a letter-to-the-editor at the Edmonton Journal. Sharing here as well.

E-scooters are here and we should rejoice. Options for those who would prefer to try to get around without four wheels, gasoline and more than 150 square-feet of space required wherever they go or park, are only a good thing. There is, however, a bit of an issue. No, it isn’t the scooters, or if they should be allowed on sidewalks (they should) or any of the performative pearl-clutching we’re seeing. What we need to ask is how, after years of advocacy from those asking for (and even trying to build) a bikeshare in Edmonton, our city councilors managed to create a motion to investigate bikeshare, waited a long time, then watched as administration brought in two American scooter companies. No bikeshare. Indeed, no hope for bikeshare, if you ask our councillors. That’s concerning. Also concerning is that we have two American companies operating in our market while, in Kelowna, that city has an Edmonton scooter company, one from Ontario and one from B.C. 

So in sum, we didn’t get what we asked for and we didn’t open the door for local or Canadian benefit. Interesting.

Edmonton company to operate e-scooters in Kelowna by Tim Querengesser

A rider on a BIRD scooter in Baltimore.  Flickr/Elvert Barnes

A rider on a BIRD scooter in Baltimore. Flickr/Elvert Barnes

I have some exciting but also frustrating news for those who care about how we get around in our city. Edmonton-based Canada West Segway is set to operate 60 electrified scooters in an app-based share system in Kelowna.

Canada West has won the permit to operate Segway ES4 electrified scooters under the brand OGO in Kelowna, and it will do so under that city’s newly revised bikeshare permit system. As of June 25, Chris Szydlowski, president of Canada West, said all he’s waiting on now are his e-scooters to arrive.

“If I had the scooters right now, we’d be operating,” Szydlowski said. “We have all of our processes in place, our team in place, we’re ready to go.”

Kelowna is also permitting U.S-based SPIN to operate 400 e-scooters (and, if what I’m seeing in the background is correct, another Canadian company may also arrive to operate electrified vehicles in that city).

So why is this exciting yet frustrating news, then? Well, while the announcement is great for Kelowna and Canada West, it surely highlights ongoing, frustrating realities here at home.

Here, Edmonton residents still wait for their city to create even a basic permit to allow bikeshare services onto their streets. It was all supposed to be on offer this summer, after much, much delay. In January, following a 2018 motion from a councilor to investigate the possibility of bikeshare and other systems, city administration presented a report to council’s urban planning committee that advocated for a dockless permit system. At the time, city administration told the council committee it estimated a dockless bikeshare could be on Edmonton streets as early as May, 2019. Recently, that timeframe was expanded to ‘before winter.’

Either way, Edmonton is now the largest city in North America that doesn’t offer any sort of human-powered shared mobility system. This is hardly the sort of accolade we need while we make efforts to attract the world here. And while being critical in this city can work against you, despite our slogans telling us we’re risk takers, saying nothing does, well, nothing.

There are caveats to this criticism. For one, e-scooters are relatively new. Their safety isn’t fully known yet and the demonstrated habit of users dumping them anywhere and everywhere in cities that have welcomed them is not something Edmonton seems happy to consider.

This is why Szydlowski has been advocating for Edmonton to “pump the brakes” on e-scooter share.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m frustrated with bureaucracy to no end,” he said, noting that as a distributor for Segway, he’s worked to try to offer electrified mobility options in Edmonton and other places for nearly 15 years, with very limited success. Still, he said he wants to further understand the safety of e-scooters within a sharing model and to figure out how to tame how they are used before the systems come to Edmonton.

“I think it’s more important to be prudent right now to make sure this is done right versus opening new industries that we don’t know a lot about,” he said. “I don’t want to see mass chaos on our sidewalks and streets.”

But what about bikeshare? “There should be no delay on the bikeshare, at all,” he said.

Agreed.

Now, full disclosure: I explored creating a hybrid model for dockless but orderly bikeshare in Edmonton (similar in feel to the system in Hamilton, Ontario) with others. We tried to bring together government money (so, federal, provincial and municipal investment) with a corporate sponsor to create a bikeshare system aimed at delivering more mobility options to more people in our city. Think mobility for almost anyone, not just those with a credit card or smartphone.

Our effort hit many barriers. We decided it was clear the City of Edmonton wanted a bikeshare system that would require zero investment or operations money.

Since then, I’ve advocated that if privately funded dockless systems are the only way we can offer more people the chance to use a bicycle or e-scooter rather than a car for short trips, so be it. Fittingly, in January, representatives from Lime and Bird spoke at the council committee. I did too. I advocated we get a permit in place. Since then, I’m told by reliable sources there is very real interest in Edmonton from these companies. And many, many others.

Today’s news adds detail to that context. Now, it seems, there’s already a home-grown company waiting to satisfy demand and trying out its services in other cities that have a bikeshare permit in place.

It’s so beyond time to get moving, Edmonton. Let’s start with bikes and get it right on e-scooters. But let’s do something now, not ‘before winter.’