Reconstruction of the aging roads and sidewalks along Jasper Avenue will be starting this year. The Imagine Jasper Avenue is a community-led vision to replace outdated infrastructure and create an innovative and vibrant streetscape. The latest draft of the Imagine Jasper Avenue plan has been released and I’ve been receiving some questions and feedback on some of the design choices. This post will provide a bit of history on the project, the most recent design details, your feedback, and some next steps based on that feedback. I first started writing this prior to the release of Elise Stolte’s column but I want to ensure you read that column as well because I’ll cover some similar points and offer an additional perspective.
The Imagine Jasper Avenue project started because the road and sidewalk infrastructure is nearing its end of life and a full reconstruction is required. As with all roads that are to be fully reconstructed, but in particular our Main Streets, this work provides us with the opportunity to rethink the corridor and change the overall design. On a local road within our communities, that design change might be a simple curb extension at a key crosswalk to help improve safety for those walking through their community. Our Main Streets are treated differently and we use the Main Street Guidelines to help inform the new design. These guidelines recognize that a Main Street is both a major transportation corridor and an important community hub that draws people from across the city. In the west end, Stony Plain Road is designated as a Main Street.
Designing a Main Street that as both a significant transportation corridor and a critical community/business hub is never easy. If you focus too much on the people travelling through the area, you leave the local community with a Main Street that is not enjoyable or safe to be on. On the other hand, the design shouldn’t ignore the fact that many Main Streets are goods and people movement corridors which are important for our economy. Finding that right balance is challenging because whether you are the commuter or the local resident, neither person will likely get everything they want. That can leave people thinking that the City is simply ignoring their needs and that the engagement they have been doing was meaningless because not every concern you have is being addressed to your satisfaction. The reality is that the team that leads this project has a near impossible task of trying to create a safe and vibrant community street that also allows for efficient commuter traffic flow.
Example of a Main Street.
For us in the west end, any shift towards making Jasper Avenue more liveable for the local residents will impact our commute. Our latest traffic volume counts on Jasper Avenue show that anywhere from 18,000 – 27,000 vehicles will travel along Jasper Avenue each day. With so many people commuting on this road, I’ve seen some people asking why we should be worrying about that when few people live downtown. It is important to note that the community of Oliver has the highest density of all communities in Edmonton. Not only does it have the highest density but it also has the highest total population of over 18,000. To put that in perspective, the total population of Ward 1 in the 2016 census was 71,340. The largest community in Ward 1 is Aldergrove with a total population of just under 5,000. It’s important to have that information because we cannot forget about that significant population when redesigning Jasper Avenue. The other important consideration is that unlike most communities, this Main Street runs right through the community of Oliver. Most communities have arterial roads surrounding the community not running through them.
For those who are living in the core, it’s worth mentioning that due to previous city policies, the ability to purchase a home closer to the core is not always easy. The price difference between a home in the suburbs and a home close to downtown is generally quite significant. For a single individual or a young family at the beginning of their careers, that price difference means they have no choice but to live closer to the edge of our city. Of course, some people want to live further out but I’ve certainly met my fair share of people in those newer communities who said that the price they could afford restricted where they live. This lack of housing options in our mature and established communities mean that in many cases we have built much of our city to be dependent on cars. Therefore when a change is made that impacts someone’s commute, they can sometimes see this as an attack on the way they are living because they have limited alternatives.
While the actual investment in our roads is higher than ever before and large roadway improvement projects like the Yellowhead Trail Conversion and Terwillegar Drive Expressway have been approved, if you aren’t using those specific routes, you may not see the level of investment the city has made in improving our roads. What many west end commuters did see in 2017 was a pilot along Jasper Avenue that did impact how long they were in their vehicles. To the average commuter who was travelling during the AM and PM rush hour, they often saw empty picnic tables and very few people taking advantage of that extra space. That could be what caused those who use that route to think that their commute increased by 10 minutes even though the City of Edmonton was able to measure that in fact it was typically a 2 minute increase. The number of people who expressed frustration during the 2017 campaign made this one of the top issues people raised when at the doors. Because we don’t have the LRT out to the west end yet, there are not as many viable alternatives to commuting by car. There is a great express bus that is often full and the new multi-use trail along 102nd Avenue provides a new option for those closer to the core but there are still many who commute by car.
When the final draft of the preliminary design was released I saw the images and I liked what I saw. Upon first glance, I thought that we would have designated locations for the buses to pull into so they could pick up and drop off the transit riders. When I read through the text, I realized that was not the case and that this draft would have the buses stopping in the travel lane. That decision is the one that concerns me, not because there should be an expectation that there will be no impact to the commute of west end residents, but because this was the primary impact during that pilot and it was suggested that providing a spot for buses to pull in would be a reasonable compromise as we do a lot of other improvements along Jasper Avenue. This has been the primary concern raised by residents in the west end and I met with our Integrated Infrastructure Services team on Monday afternoon to share that feedback with them.
I asked what I would need to do to reintroduce those locations for buses to pull in to help address the major impact to travel time while also opening up an opportunity to create more public space upon the completion of the Valley Line West LRT. The idea would be to use some of the on-street parking for the buses to complete their pick-ups and drop-offs outside of the travel lanes. Once the Valley Line West is built and operational, we could turn this space back over to the community either as a continuation of the flex space which could be used for restaurant patios, additional benches, trees, etc. The reason this space could be returned is because the bus traffic will be reduced along Jasper Avenue after the LRT is up and running which means there would only be a few buses travelling along Jasper Avenue at that point. The reply to the question above was to wait until the next draft is released in the fall. Based on the last engagement session, there may be additional changes made and there is a possibility that this change could be reflected in the fall. If it isn’t I would then likely need to make a motion at a City Council meeting and would be prepared to do that if necessary. I should note that I have already spoken with Councillor Scott McKeen about this so he is aware that I would propose this change if necessary.
This change should not negatively impact the safety of those walking on Jasper Avenue. The curb extensions would still be there and they are critical to allowing seniors and those with mobility issues to make it across Jasper Avenue in the time allotted to cross the street. With the potential to return that space to the community after the completion of the LRT, the other positive is that they could have even more space available to create a vibrant Main Street. However in the short-term, this would acknowledge that we want to do what we can as a city to help with the transition from a big, small city to a small, big city. As we provide more housing choice in our mature communities and introduce new transportation options for people to commute downtown, it will make it much easier for people to embrace the changes we need to make to create a vibrant, successful city. I see so much potential in Jasper Avenue and I want it to be a space that people from across Edmonton and beyond will visit. Right now, it’s not and since we are getting ready to do a full reconstruction, we cannot miss this opportunity or else we will have to wait another 50 years to do it right. Will the new Jasper Avenue make everyone happy even with the reintroduction of a dedicated space for buses to pick-up and drop-off people? Probably not. But if that change is made, I think that most people will be happy with the end result because although some commutes might have a marginal increase – it will allow those that call the area home to enjoy and be safe.
Written by A. Knack and M. Banister.