A motion was put forth today for administration to provide a report on the Valley Line LRT extension to West Edmonton. The intent of the report is to compare costs between BRT and LRT for the Valley Line West and will be made available in March. Here are my thoughts on bus rapid transit (BRT) and LRT because I believe there may be some confusion about BRT and LRT and its application in Edmonton. I will preface my comments with the fact that I fully support BRT and want to see BRT across many parts of our city which is why I referenced BRT in a motion I put forward back in July. I am confident in the information we’ve received over the past ten years. However, I do support receiving the information in this report. I think it’s always important to have all the information possible in order to make decisions that are best for our city. I want to address some of the points raised and why I have concerns about the notion of using BRT instead of LRT for the west end of Edmonton.
Efficiency: To inform some of the numbers below, we used the 2015 LRT count The findings show we have 78,914 weekday passengers. The total A.M. Peak Hour (In 2015 for the Capital Line, the A.M. Peak Hour is the hour between 7:20 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.) boarding for the Capital Line is 10,447. The total P.M. Peak Hour (In 2015 for the capital line, P.M. Peak Hour is the hour between 4:02 p.m. and 4:57 p.m.) boarding for the Capital Line is 10,355.
We know that expected ridership of the Valley Line West at onset will be over 40,000 people daily, with approximately 20,000 of those riders utilizing transit during peak A.M and P.M. times. For reference, we are defining peak times as 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm. Using that assumption, roughly 10,000 riders/hour during the morning and evening commute. We also know that articulated buses have a maximum capacity 100 people per bus whereas the low-floor LRT will have a max capacity of 700 people per train. In order to meet demand, we would require 5 buses every 3 minutes during peak times as opposed to roughly 1 train every 4 minutes, during peak times. Factoring in population growth, daily ridership numbers are expected to increase by 20,000 people by 2047. This means the number of buses required would increase beyond the numbers listed above.
Impact on traffic: If we applied the same signal priority locations that are determined for the current Vally Line West route, let’s look at an intersection like 156 street and 95 avenue that will receive full signal priority for transit (meaning traffic yields to buses or trains). Using the numbers above, this would suggest drivers would be yielding to 5 buses every 3 minutes during morning commute, thus increasing the rate at which congestion impacts surrounding areas. If we look at capacity for both buses and trains, it’s clear that trains provide less impact to surrounding traffic while moving a higher number of riders.
Capital and Operating Cost
Capital Costs: The Capital or upfront cost of BRT at first glance appears to be cheaper. That is partially correct. While no rails need to be installed, if we are building proper BRT, as we see in cities like Ottawa, significant infrastructure including grade separations are required to ensure it could attract the same ridership. Therefore, assuming the numbers above, we would have to consider building more grade separations along the route which would reduce, if not eliminate, the capital cost savings.
If we take the stats used above (7 buses for every train), we would be required to have 7 operators for the buses versus 1 operator for LRT. Edmonton has roughly 950 buses in our fleet with an overall yearly budget of $53 million (this includes maintenance and cleaning costs.) Buses have a manufacturer’s lifespan of 12 years, however the City has a refurbishment program that extends the lifespan of the bus to 18-20 years. So in comparison with a train that has a life expectancy of 35 years, we would need almost 2 cycles of bus purchases to get the same life out of a train purchase.
Ottawa’s BRT system, The Transitway is mostly grade-separated on its own track and operates over 2,600 high-speed buses daily. Implemented in 1983, by 2018 they’ve exceeded their capacity and are now converting to LRT to expand ridership capabilities. When considering operating costs of BRT, there is no doubt the BRT provided an excellent catalyst to encouraging more ridership in Ottawa. It was so successful it outgrew itself and couldn’t keep up with demand. If we look at population figures from Ottawa (which is very similar to Edmonton) in 1984 compared to today, I think the BRT made the most sense at that time. With Edmonton quickly approaching the 1 million population mark with over 1.32 million in the metro region, it seems like we are beyond BRT capabilities/capacities at this point for the west end.
Operating Costs: While we don’t have exact figures on the operating cost of BRT vs LRT, we do know that the numbers are significantly lower for LRT. In fact, in Ottawa when calculating savings of converting BRT to LRT, numbers suggested a savings of up to $100 million annually on salaries, gas consumption and right-of-way maintenance. Council will be receiving a report on this in March which will provide more accurate figures.
Now I’ve regularly discussed that I believe driverless vehicles are going to be running within the next 10 years. That could have a significant impact on the staffing cost of running buses. While we know driverless vehicles are coming and their impact to BRT networks could decrease operations costs, it is important to consider timeline of this technology becoming mainstream. I have no doubt automated vehicles will impact future decisions when expanding transit across the city, but based off the information available today I feel it’s important to make decisions under current context.
Environmental Costs: It is also important to factor in the environmental cost savings by switching to LRT from BRT. Again if we look to Ottawa, LRT conversion was expected to produce a savings of 38,000 tons of greenhouse gases by 2031. I’m keen to learn the environmental impacts that apply to Edmonton when factoring in regional context.
Potential for Transit Oriented Development (TOD)
While I feel it is tough to anticipate surrounding development rates for both BRT and LRT, a couple of things stood out to me. In Hamilton, Ontario an analysis of development potential on surrounding properties of the LRT line found that with the arrival of LRT, the development potential was three times as high for land along an identified LRT route and represented $22.4 million in tax benefits and $30.2 million in development charges and building permit fees over 15 years.
As we heard in committee’s discussion with developers, LRT is seen as more permanent and therefore provides more certainty for developers and buyers of TOD. BRT does provide potential for redevelopment, but LRT provides more opportunities.
Learning from past mistakes
There have absolutely been mistakes on some of the other LRT lines. But the mistakes that occurred were all the same – not doing grade separations at key intersections. Recognizing that, we asked our Administration to complete a detailed analysis of the five most critical intersections along the Valley West line. That work is near completion and a report comes back in March for us to discuss the results. The positive news is that our Administration is already recommending additional grade separations to learn from our mistakes of the past. But similar to the note in post one, being that dedicated road infrastructure is still required for a proper BRT, any new challenges that could happen with the LRT would have an equal chance of happening with a properly designed BRT.
If we assume that BRT will be the proper BRT like we have in Ottawa, I’m not sure the same arguments for high volume locations, like the west end, still hold up. I’d love to see BRT beyond Blatchford towards St. Albert as a precursor to LRT. I’d love to see BRT along Terwillegar Drive in advance of the LRT going that way. I would have loved to see BRT 10 years ago when the West LRT route decision was made as we absolutely could have used it. But since we are ready to go out to tender in the middle of this year, I don’t really see much of a purpose for BRT out West anymore. It could work South of West Edmonton Mall to connect those in the Callingwood area and beyond and even further West from the Lewis Farms transit centre to the Lewis Farms Rec Centre.
With that all said, the motion I made about a month ago is going to see if the new technology can combine the best of both worlds. The trackless train may be too good to be true but we will do the analysis before we go to tender in a few months. If it’s not, then we can likely all be happy because the trackless train would have substantially lower operating costs of LRT with the lower capital costs of BRT. If that option isn’t looking to be viable in the next decade, then I think we should continue with the LRT as long as the additional grade separations are approved.
I hope this gives you a better idea of how I’ve been looking at this. I always welcome your thoughts so feel free to reach out to me. I’ve also listed some reference sites below for further analysis on BRT and LRT.
- Bus Rapid Transit and Modal Integration
- Community Design and Travel Choice by Dr. Frank
- Trackless LRT
- More Development for your Transit Dollar
Written by A. Knack and K. Machin