In 2014, City Council approved a process to update our Transit Strategy and complete a redesign of our bus network. The last major redesign of our bus network occurred in 1997. To provide some context, the Henday was in the process of being constructed and the community of Lewis Estates, one of the first communities built outside the Henday, only had a small number of homes that had been completed. Since that point in time, Edmonton’s population has increased by approximately 350,000 with the vast majority moving into new areas that did not exist in 1997. The percentage of people who use our transit system is 13% and our budget for transit is approximately $360 million. We currently recover approximately $117 million from fares and the rest is subsidized by our property taxes. It’s worth noting that all forms of transportation are subsidized by our property taxes but unlike driving, biking, or walking, we typically pay closer attention to the level of subsidy for transit.
I chose to support the process to update our transit strategy and redesign our bus network for a few reasons.
The first is the fact that we only have 13% ridership for the amount of money we spend suggests that we are not getting the best value for the money we spend.
The second reason is that over the years, talking with people that would fall in the 87% of Edmontonians who don’t use transit, I heard time and time again that the service was not reliable or efficient enough. The opinion was more common, particularly for the communities outside the Henday. Think about route 108/136 that travels through parts of Lewis Estates to connect people to Lewis Farms Transit Centre. That bus runs most of the day starting around 6am every 30 minutes. While there are some who ride that route, it’s rarely ever a full bus and far more people living in those areas choose not to use it than use it. Part of what causes that is while the buses from Lewis Farms to downtown or U of A are far more consistent and reliable, if you happen to get off the bus at Lewis Farms just as the 108 is pulling away, you have to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus to take you to your destination. Now if you have a family that needs to have dinner and make it to soccer practice, that extra 30 minutes waiting for the next bus will likely cause you to choose a different mode of transportation because the system isn’t meeting your needs.
Finally, even for those of us that are in mature communities, the time it takes to reach our destinations is not very competitive with driving. I live close to the Jasper Place Library and Meadowlark Mall. I am fortunate to live in an area where I have access to very good transit service (ex: routes 1, 2, 4, and 106). Yet after taking transit almost every day during my first year on Council, I finally made the decision to stop because my commute to City Hall by bike, even in the winter, is faster than taking transit. I would often use the #1 as my bus of choice and the trip home was often the part that frustrated me the most. That route is busy at all times of day and on my way home, we would often be parked at the Jasper Place Transit Centre for 5-10 minutes to allow other buses to come in. On paper, I understand why that would make sense but when I thought about it further I realized that instead of keeping one of the busiest routes parked at this location, shouldn’t that bus simply run more often so that if you are coming in on another bus, you don’t have to worry about seeing the #1 pull away because you know the next #1 is just a few minutes away?
Those are just a few of the reasons that I felt we needed to change how we deliver transit in Edmonton.
The level of engagement that occurred to get to where we are today is more than anything I have seen over the last decade. Over 20,000 people were involved in the creation of the Transit Strategy and another 14,000 were involved for the Bus Network Redesign. If you want to learn more about that, please take a look at this site and the ‘What We Heard’ and ‘What We Did’ documents. I would also encourage you to read through my blog post from two years ago which provides more detail about this entire process. If you haven’t read it yet, please take a few minutes to read through that.
While I don’t want to repeat what you can read in those links, I do want to note one key point from the engagement that occurred: A number of people were not happy with the trade-off questions that were asked. The main trade-off question asked is would you prefer a more frequent network or a network that focused on coverage? Understandably most people would prefer both. But when presented with a choice of one or the other, some people weren’t pleased they were being forced to choose. The reason that choice had to be made is when Council first approved this work we set a clear restriction that the bus network redesign should be done within the existing budget. That means we had to make difficult questions on frequency versus coverage. Our current system has tried to be everything to everyone and I believe that is one of the main reasons so few people use transit in our city. Unless we have an unlimited budget, we can’t be everything to everyone and that means we have tough decisions to make.
You may be wondering what is actually changing. It’s much easier to see it than try to explain it. If you click on the first link above you can see the final draft that was approved by Urban Planning Committee and will be going to City Council next week for approval. This link will connect you with an interactive map, unfortunately it won’t be available forever but I would review it to better understand the change around your area.
There are two areas within Lewis Estates that will be impacted. The route 108 and 136 travel along Potter Greens Drive and Breckenridge Drive on the way to the Lewis Farms Transit Centre. Unfortunately as noted above, ridership has consistently been low and therefore this is one of the adjustments that will allow the the busiest routes to run more frequently in order to reduce overcrowding and ideally encourage more people to ride the system.
For the existing residents who do use those routes, they would either have the option to walk to Lewis Estates Blvd to a more frequent bus than what currently exist and that will still connect them to the Lewis Farms Transit Centre. For those that may have limited mobility, we are looking to have an on-demand service in place on the same day the redesign takes effect (August 30th, 2020). The way that service would work is that someone could either call or use an app to request a ride to the Lewis Farms Transit Centre. It’s almost like a modern-day version of the dial-a-bus system we had many years ago. It would run during the same as the existing service and the expectation is that the maximum wait time would be no longer than the current frequency of the 108 and 136 (approximately 30 minutes).
That same on-demand service would then be able to run in communities that don’t currently have service such as Hawks Ridge, Starling, and Trumpeter. I have heard from those communities quite clearly that they want service in their neighbourhoods. This on-demand service would allow us to connect those residents to our frequent transit network. The need to introduce transit to new communities without service is another significant reason that I could not support the status quo. If nothing changed, residents in those three communities would likely be without transit for at least a decade if we continued to use our 1997 strategy. And that decade would be dependent on building additional bus garages and buying more buses which in our current budget environment, is far from guaranteed. Under an on-demand model, we could deploy service across to the approximately 20 areas city-wide (ex: Potter Greens and Breckenridge Greens) and to at least 10 new areas like the three referenced above on August 30th, 2020.
City-wide, I know there are some seniors who are concerned about a change in the service. 20 areas will see a reduction similar to the example referenced above. While 93% of Edmontonians will be within a 5-7 minute walk of transit under the new system, we can’t abandon the 7% along with those in the 93% who have limited mobility. We know that transit is a lifeline for some in our city and that is why it’s important that we have a service that can help those who need it. I believe that simply having another close to empty bus won’t be as good as an on-demand service which may have the potential to get even closer to someone’s home than a larger bus, even the 30ft smaller buses that we have.
After these changes are implemented, I am confident we will have a system that far more people will want to use. I recognize that may not sound very challenging since only 13% of Edmontonians use our existing system but this has the potential, similar to other cities across North America that have completed redesigns, to provide a viable alternative for people to move throughout the city. Since I first started on Council, I have supported people using methods of transportation other than their car. But I felt the way to accomplish that is to make the other options more viable rather than making driving more difficult. This is the first step to ensure the current resources are being used effectively. Then it is possible to invest more into that system in order to increase the number of people who use the system which in turn produces even greater value for our money.
While I primarily bike, I still use our transit system a few times a month. I want our system to be seen as the best way to move throughout our city because it’s safe, fast, reliable, and convenient. I’m confident that increasing the percentage of people who use transit is a common goal that most Edmontonians share because even if you will never use transit, we want to see the money we spend on transit generate positive results for Edmonton. I believe that this bus network redesign combined with a robust first km/last km on-demand option helps move us in that direction. More investment will be needed in the future (ex: transit priority signals, dedicated bus lanes for bus rapid transit, etc.) but this is the foundation of a system that will have more people choosing transit.
Please feel free to share any questions or feedback in the comments below.