Why Edmonton needs to stop wasting its LRT by Tim Querengesser

The most expensive thing cities build deserves to be remembered. But since Edmonton cannot seem to remember the millions it spends on LRT, we immediately need a new policy that applies to all developments near existing or future LRT lines.

Why? Well, consider this week's shrugged-shoulders at city council about the future of the Coliseum and Northlands. While there has been near endless circular discussion over what to do with the former home of the Oilers—as if a concrete bowl surrounded by chainlink fencing is the most valuable thing here—there has been next to zero chatter about the LRT line that runs beside it. 

From my perspective, we are fighting over what to do with the cardboard box after throwing the gold it holds on the ground. 

Flickr/Bill Burris

Flickr/Bill Burris

While Edmonton hustles for provincial and federal cash to help us build more LRT, and while city planners head to community halls to answer hard questions about where the money will come from to build new LRT lines, our city's wasteful love for new and shiny things is making our existing LRT at the Coliseum site all but invisible.

Ignore the Coliseum for a second. Instead, consider what putting the LRT beside it in its rightful place does to our priority list here. From that perspective, we have LRT stations on city-owned land right on the doorstep of our downtown. And we have this at the very time we are pushing to increase urban density, to shift residents from car dependency and to decrease carbon emissions. We also have this asset while young families are complaining, rightly, that non-suburban housing stock is too expensive and infill skinny homes are for rich people.

Does this perspective on land rather than buildings sound familiar? It's the very same argument the city is using to build a green, transit-oriented community at Blatchford

Putting the LRT at the centre shifts the discussion away from saving or demolishing a building or an events organization and puts it squarely on housing, and utilizing an under-used and expensive transportation resource. To make this the norm, we need to create a big-picture policy that forces discussion about how best to use land, with LRT firmly at the core of that policy. That's what Calgary and many other larger cities have done (see page 12 in this link). We should do the same.

Edmonton also needs its new policy to demand every single development proposed within a set distance of an LRT station, existing or proposed, demonstrate how it will amplify or hurt the LRT. We require environmental impact studies for every last thing, following a long, important fight to value nature. Would requiring an LRT impact study be so wild, given that we spent more than half a billion to build a spur line to NAIT and are spending about $1.8-billion to build the Valley Line?

I think the LRT station beside the Coliseum is worth far more to us as a city than an ugly concrete bowl with some very great history. And I think it is time we built that into our thinking. 

In 'fighting' Uber, we just screwed transit users by Tim Querengesser

A fun way to confound people in Edmonton is to ask where the closest LRT station is and how you might get to it. I tried this recently at a building in the Coronet Industrial park in south Edmonton, which I had arrived at by taxi, since I was in a rush and traveling to this place quickly by bus, LRT or my bicycle was not possible from where I live in Cloverdale. After my interview there, I wanted to get home using Edmonton Transit in order to not spend another $18 on a taxi. So I asked a ridiculous question.

“Where’s the closest LRT station from here?”

The communications person I had been dealing with gave me a long, are-you-kidding-me stare, as if we were on an island in the ocean and I was asking how I could walk to another country.

“It’s Southgate,” she said. “It will take you at least 30 minutes to walk there.”

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt  

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt


She made no mention of a connecting bus route, since—let’s be honest—readily-available buses taking you where you need to go in Edmonton are most often unicorns that you can only fantasize about riding. So I walked. In the rain.

The problem I faced that day is the same each person using Edmonton Transit faces, and the same one we just made harder to solve in our 'fight' against Uber. It is called the first-mile problem.

Recently, Edmonton planners started researching a revised transit strategy to get more of us on buses and trains, which as one of Canada’s most car-dependent cities, we desperately need. The planners' biggest challenge, like all transit operators, is minimizing the barrier between you and a bus or between the bus and your destination. People have forever solved these gaps with a mixture of swear words, walking, biking and money paid to private mobility companies.

Planners were finally recognizing those realities and had proposed better integrating some of these companies into a cohesive service, in order to get more of us out of car dependence and into an LRT. This very tactic is revolutionizing transit in parts of Europe.

But because Uber is one private mobility company with a hideous track record, all hopes for looking into the idea were charged with emotion. On July 11, city council voted to strike “Partnerships with the vehicle for hire and car-sharing industries” from a bullet-point list of directions it gave to its administration on what it is and is not allowed to research as part of our transit strategy.

The council vote was odd, with car-happy suburban councillors siding with supposedly transit-protecting hard lefties to win it. It was also wrong on many fronts, ignored Edmonton's history of partnerships on mobility and how people use mobility in Edmonton. If left as is, the main group that will suffer is riders.

Like most without a car, I most often solve gaps in transit by walking and biking, and occasionally with taxis or car shares. This is common. A similarly car-free friend described her approach: “As a lifelong and daily transit rider, I default to private companies when public transit fails to meet my needs — which is fairly often, and I live quite central and not out in the burbs,” she writes.

Another female friend has a similar experience. “I live far south and I use Uber and LRT together religiously. You have to because the city doesn't allow me to take a bike on the train during peak hours and after 5:30 my buses don't run anymore,” she writes.

But while this is the norm, we have removed the ability to research how to make it all work better for transit users.

Uber might be a great bogeyman but it does not represent all private mobility companies. In fact, those have partnered with Edmonton many times, with great results. Take Edmonton’s experience with Disabled Adult Transit Service, or DATS. In 1975, a single private contractor ran the service as a pilot project through a partnership with the city. In that first year, the contractor provided an incredible 36,000 trips for Edmonton residents with mobility challenges who would have otherwise been forced to either take a taxi or not go somewhere. Eventually DATS and its employees just became another city department. But it all started with the city accepting a mobility partnership with a private operator.

It's these sort of stories that are swaying many to back down from binary positions on private versus public services and instead see the potential win for actual riders in combining the two. Take TransitCenter, a New York City-based foundation of planners, agency heads and politicians aimed at building urban mobility. Their thoughts on private mobility teaming with public transit? “Emerging mobility services allow for greater transportation efficiency by creating opportunities for more flexible planning by public agencies. If agencies can reduce the cost of providing equivalent or better service in inefficient transit markets, they can reallocate savings to improve service elsewhere.”

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

This is, in a nutshell, precisely what Edmonton planners wanted to investigate. After being told by survey respondents that many want a transit service that is far more frequent, they realized to provide it with their fixed resources that underperforming routes at the periphery of the city needed to be cut. And that was or is potentially going to screw a lot of people

So how to bridge the gap between huge, car-dependent suburban neighbourhoods and transit nodes, such as Southgate LRT? Rather than force people to take a taxi to the transit hub (or, as most in Edmonton do, just buy another car), Edmonton was hoping to investigate better integrating private mobility options into the overall mobility solution it offers. Or in plainer language, to solve everyone’s first- and last-mile problems, and let someone in the burbs call a taxi to get them to a transit line but not have to pay ridiculous fees.

Over in Finland and Germany, this is nudging closer to the standard approach. The idea there is called Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, and the concept is that a consumer can pay one monthly fare to access to all manner of mobility options. Imagine: You wake, grab a ride-share to your nearest LRT station, take that to your nearest downtown stop and then ride a bike-share to your office. All using one app, with one monthly price.

At the centre is the public transit system, while at the periphery are private mobility options acting like feeders to this broader system. Making it all work together seamlessly is just an acknowledgment of reality. Oh, and some good old fashioned disruptive thinking to shake up often sleepy transit agencies. (In Edmonton, we still do not have a Smart Card program, let alone deep innovation, for context).

Where this all gets hard is Uber, which for good reason has become an epithet. Edmonton spends $220-million each year on transit, making it the most expensive line item on each year's budget. About one-third of all Edmonton staff are employed in transportation services, with a large number of those working in the Edmonton Transit Service. And this is the main point that seems to be where many look at Uber and get very emotional.

In the days before the July 11 vote, an international web-campaign group called SumofUs teamed with local organization Progress Alberta to offer people a petition to sign, though its connection to the actual motion was, let's say, highly removed. The petition inaccurately described Edmonton as “Ground Zero” in Uber’s campaign to privatize public transit in North America — even though, as I have noted, the motion to consider private mobility providers came from Edmonton administrators, not Uber.

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Indeed, the motion council voted down was simply to study how or if private mobility companies, from Uber to dozens of others, including Edmonton's own Pogo and TappCar (which has a unionized workforce), as well as a Canadian startup bridging the Kitchener-to-Toronto transit gap, called RideCo, might be added as potential partners to increase transit ridership. The SumofUs petition’s wording, however, implied something very different was happening. And apparently 12,000 people signed the petition.

After Tuesday’s vote, which strikes even the possibility of studying how companies like RideCo might offer Edmonton Transit first-mile solutions, Progress Alberta’s Duncan Kinney said, in a SumofUs release: “This is a big victory for Edmonton and a big victory for public transit. We’ll have to keep our guards up, because Uber will likely try this in other cities, but the decision made in Edmonton today is a great first step.”

Again, Uber did not try anything here. At all. I contacted Kinney, who I know personally, but he declined to comment.

Still, despite the potentially misleading statements, let’s address the main fear informing them—that Edmonton will slowly privatize public transit over to Uber, who will then be able to charge passengers whatever they like. That is a dark possibility we should not ignore.

But according to TransitCenter, it just is not possible. TransitCenter claims Uber tends to peak at about six riders an hour, while transit exceeds that, even with so-called “empty buses,” and it does so using more than 70 per cent less space in the city than Uber cars. City streets just are not big enough for Uber to take over transit.

TransitCenter also claims Uber ridership tends to peak at night, when transit services are scaled back. What this suggests is the two are complementary services and people use both. And that's exactly what we found at the beginning of this article.

Like an airline, the $220-million cost Edmonton Transit creates (comparatively, we spend about $192-million on operating our road network) stays largely the same whether zero people take the trains or buses, or if they are always full. Which means Edmonton’s main objective should be to convince as many people as they can to get on the damn bus. Which means solving their first- and last-mile problems. Which should mean looking at all the best options out there.

Transportation is the most subsidized space governments exist in. Roads are in many ways publicly subsidized tools that allow private mobility. Or in other ways of looking at things, public dollars enable private companies—car and oil companies in this case—to sell us private mobility solutions. The two are—perhaps you're getting my theme here—complementary.

My friend summed up my thoughts well. “I totally agree that the optics of having even a little public tax money going to private companies seems unacceptable, but the reality is that so many transit users are already spending tons of their own money on these private companies to compensate for gaps in public transit,” she wrote. “And it really sucks that Uber is the poster child and seemingly the only other option, because they are not.”

If you were to consult the history on DATS, or look into RideCo, or chat with the good people at Pogo and TappCar, you would know she is right.  

Coun. Andrew Knack agrees. "While I absolutely have concerns with the management of one particular ride-sharing company, I believe examining all different solutions is worthwhile," he wrote, in a blog.

The transit strategy report is not due back to council until April 2018, meaning it will be the next council that examines it. Knack and many others are hoping to push adding the examination of private partnerships back onto the table. 

For Edmonton transit, what we're really talking about is the last mile by Tim Querengesser

I bike and walk before I take a taxi or drive my partner's car, and I don't have the Uber app on my smartphone. But I'm more than willing to consider the recently floated — and instantly controversial — idea of privatizing transit services at the fringes of our network.

Before I explain why, I think it's important that we consider what's happening elsewhere and what the proposal for Edmonton, from transit theorist and consultant Jarrett Walker, really boils down to. In a phrase, we're seeing Edmonton contemplate joining the global emergence of mobility-as-a-service, or MaaS.

Private mini-bus beside public bus, Hong Kong. Photo: Flickr/Yuksing

Private mini-bus beside public bus, Hong Kong. Photo: Flickr/Yuksing

Let's back up a bit. The two biggest problems for transit planners are the first mile and the last mile — or in human terms, the bit where you get from your house, condo or apartment and into a bus or an LRT train, or the opposite when you return home or alight and go to your office or destination. Some parts of Edmonton, like for instance my house near 124 Street, make this laughably easy. But many parts of the city, like the areas where Edmonton Transit data shows bus ridership not justifying continued service, and where city data also shows many riders often call taxis or Ubers, or using Pogo cars once they leave transit, most certainly do not.

Mobility-as-a-service is an idea that's emerging — thanks to a proliferation of new mobility options, many of them ostensibly "private" but nonetheless often subsidized with public money (think bike shares) or other incentives — to weave these services together and see you, the user, pay one fee or use one app.

In short, to make mobility simple and move you from the whole way, not only part of it.

Screenshot of Maas app. 

Screenshot of Maas app. 

Consider how I have used car shares in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto as feeders to public transit as an example. Indeed, when I lived in Toronto's Beaches, literally on Lake Ontario, the closest LRT was more than 10 long blocks north, on Danforth Avenue. My options were a bus that ran north every 30-45 minutes and took 45 minutes to get me to the subway, which then took another 45 minutes to get me downtown. Total travel time: 90 minutes. 

My other option was the Car2Go lot one block away. If I took a Car2Go I could drive to Danforth for about $2.50 and then take the subway downtown. My trip would be nearly 40 minutes shorter. So, for an extra fee of $2.50, and without knowing the buzz word, I had used mobility-as-a-service to solve my first-mile problem.

This is the scenario Edmonton planners, as well as Walker, see working to increase transit user numbers in far flung communities. There, in a huge failure, Edmonton has built little trunk-line type public transit infrastructure. So in the hypothetical future, as parking becomes ever more dear downtown and roads become ever more clogged, more and more people will be willing to spend money to move themselves to the nearest long-haul (in city terms) bus or LRT station to commute to and from work.

If the dreamers are correct, you may even be able to pay one monthly fee to do this — allowing you to use a Pogo, then an LRT, then a taxi, then a TappCar, then a (still non-existent) bike share to get where you need to go. This already happens in Finland. 

Okay, but: Any creep toward privatization should always raise questions, and damn tough ones — and especially when Uber is involved. But we would also be wise to consider the other side of the privatization argument as well, and to consider why many cities around the world have arrived at the same conclusion. 

Indeed, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles have all built service agreements with private mobility companies for this reason. And my travels to Hong Kong and Nairobi both showed me the utter brilliance of small-scale, private mobility options that feed the expensive, difficult to build and yet essential trunk-line public transit routes. Hong Kong is a city of LRT, and yet without its constantly roaming army of minivans, which drivers use to ferry you from LRT stations to your neighbourhood, the whole system would not work.

All I'm advocating for is an informed debate, rather than the pro- and anti- free-market voices dominating the discourse.

A good take on why we should say no to this idea is here. A good take on why we might want to consider it is here. After that, over to you, Edmonton.