The approved budget for Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) in 2017 was over $364 million which makes it the single largest budget item for the City of Edmonton. The revenue from fares cover approximately $141 million which means over $220 million of the ETS budget is covered through our tax dollars. Whether you use transit today or believe you will never use transit in your life, I think it’s safe to assume that we all want that money to be used as effectively as possible for what is a critically important public service in any large city.
According to the 2016 Edmonton Census, only 13.41% of Edmontonians use transit as their primary mode of transportation from home to work. It is everyone’s interest to create a more efficient and frequent system so that more people can choose to use our transit system. If ridership increases it reduces the wear and tear on our roads and decreases congestion for those that have to drive. A major problem over the last few years is that our ridership per capita has been decreasing. I believe this is due to the fact that our current transit policy is 20 years old and was designed when only a few homes existed outside of the Henday. In order to change that policy, we needed to create a proper transit strategy that would lay out the principles for a modern transit system.
Edmonton’s Transit Strategy (Attachment 1) was the result of two years of public engagement and it was one of the best processes I have experienced. The project team engaged over 20,000 Edmontonians by actively meeting with different stakeholder groups and attending large public events (ex: Heritage Festival, Folk Fest). You can review the project team’s entire public engagement process by visiting this site and reading the ‘What We Did’ and ‘What We Heard’ reports at the bottom of that page. As you will see in those reports, the engagement was thorough and it asked people challenging questions about trade-offs. I even heard from people who were frustrated about the trade-off questions because they didn’t want to have to choose between two important features. That tension about having to choose between different features was necessary because we asked the project team to build a transit strategy assuming we are not going to increase the existing transit budget.
I believe we need a new transit strategy and policy to reflect how our city has grown over the last 20 years. I support most of what is in the new transit strategy and believe it will allow us to have a system that people will actually choose to use versus a system that people only use when they have to. At a high level this strategy will mean more frequency for our busiest routes and less overlap on the routes that serve lower ridership areas.
Another section of the strategy that generated a lot of attention was to explore partnerships with other groups, including the vehicle for hire industry, to try and provide better service for the first mile/last mile challenge. The first mile/last mile challenge refers to getting people from a major transit hub to their home. An example in the West End would be for anyone that travels to the Lewis Farms Transit Centre and then needs to take a second bus to their home. That service is lacking and causes many people to drive. As mentioned above, by reducing the overlap on routes that have low ridership, there is still a need to provide some type of service as there are people that rely on our public transit system. The problem with the current system is running a bus every 30 or 60 minutes when you only get a few people on each bus in not a good use of resources especially when there are other routes that are overcrowded and bus drivers have to pass by stops without picking up people who are waiting. If you are unable to be certain a bus will stop for you when it gets overcrowded, chances are you will start choosing other methods of transportation. By exploring partnerships, we can ideally create a system that will provide more reliable service for the few on the low ridership routes while freeing up resources for our busiest routes.
In order to fix our existing system we need to first approve the strategy which will allow us to create a new policy and finally draw up the new routes. With that in mind, I put forward the following motion at the Urban Planning Committee meeting on July 5, 2017:
That Urban Planning Committee recommend to City Council:
- That Edmonton’s Transit Strategy, as set out in Attachment 1 of the July 5, 2017, Sustainable Development report CR_4513, be approved.
- That Administration prepare a service package for the Fall Operating Budget adjustment to support implementation of the Transit Strategy by January 1st, 2020 with a bus network redesign project.
- That Administration, using input from ETS drivers and the transit union, provide a high level analysis by April 2018 including order of magnitude costing of various options to better support the first mile/last mile on our transit system. These options would include, but be not limited to:
- An updated community bus strategy (for local routes)
- A modern-day version of dial-a-bus.
- Partnerships with vehicle manufacturers to develop a fleet of connected automated vehicles/buses.
- Partnerships with Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council as well as seniors not for profit and for profit transportation companies.
- Transfer of some reduced conventional local service hours to enhance DATS
- A combination of the above.
- That Administration provide a first phase of a transit priority measure feasibility study as outlined in principle 3.c. by May 2018. This work is to include the infrastructure needs for possible ongoing BRT and express bus routes for core routes in the Primary Transit Network.
I want to thank my Council colleagues for their amendments and feedback on the motion. While the original version shared many similarities, it was improved by their additions such as ensuring we are actively seeking input from ETS drivers (Councillor Loken), adding the reference to connecting with the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council (Councillor Walters) and to transfer some of the reduced conventional local service hours to enhance DATS (Mayor Iveson).
In the original strategy the suggestion was to implement this by 2023 at the latest but I suggested an implementation date of January 1st, 2020 because our ridership is already declining and I worry about leaving the transit system in a constant state of change for a long period of time. While I understand there are a few people concerned about the Administration not being able to complete this in time, I have great confidence all the changes will be implemented by the new date. The other benefit of that date is the new system will be in place at the same time we start using Smart Fare. So not only will you have a new and easier way to pay, you will have a far more efficient and frequent transit system to get you to where you want to go.
The purpose of the third point of the motion is to ensure that the next Council will have an opportunity to review the options to address the first mile/last mile challenge. Since that was the point that people has the most concerns about, this report will provide the necessary information to make an informed decision about how we will address an important part of our new transit system. There was an additional bullet point in that motion that was not passed by Council on July 11th, “Partnerships with the vehicle for hire and car-sharing industries.” Since this part of the motion was to explore all available options to allow us to make the most informed decision possible, I am concerned that we excluded one possible option. While I absolutely have concerns with the management of one particular ride-sharing company, I believe examining all different solutions is worthwhile. As this report is not due back until April 2018, I hope the next Council will add that item back to the report.
Finally, point 4 is necessary because the strategy only referenced ‘precursor bus rapid transit (BRT)’ but did not reference ongoing BRT. Since Edmonton is fairly spread out, we have to fill a gap with our transit system since we will not have LRT running to every community in Edmonton. Other cities like Ottawa and Winnpeg have already shown BRT can generate significant ridership and we must prepare for the infrastructure needs to run BRT to different parts of the city. As the next Council will debate the 2019-2022 Capital Budget in late 2018, determining where we should have dedicated road right of way for a BRT system has to happen in early 2018. The other benefit of building dedicated road infrastructure for BRT, is that we could likely use that as automated vehicles/buses become more prominent in the near future.
During my first year on Council I would take the #1 bus to work every day. Being a one car household meant that I would have limited access to a car and we are fortunate on Council to receive a bus pass so I decided to use that option. Taking the #1 to City Hall was alright. Driving was usually faster but not by much, especially during rush hour. That bus ride also gave me the opportunity to listen to a podcast while replying to emails and catching up on news. Surprisingly the bus ride home was actually quite a bit different and it was all due to the extended stop at Jasper Place Transit Centre. I understand why the bus needed to wait for upwards of 10 minutes. It was trying to provide an opportunity for people on other buses to arrive and transfer to the #1. But I always found it frustrating that one of our main bus routes would be stopped for so long. In the end, I stopped taking the bus regularly because other options, in my case cycling, were more efficient.
I know my story is not uncommon as I have spoken with many others who choose to drive because it takes far too long to get to a destination by bus. Working towards significantly increasing ridership within our existing budget is good for everyone. The new transit strategy will improve service for the vast majority of Edmontonians. While there is still some work left on the first mile/last mile, I believe this is a positive change that will increase our ridership. If you haven’t used transit in a while or have never used transit before, you can look forward to January 1st, 2020 as the system will become a viable option for people to get to where they want to go.
If you have any questions or feedback once you have read through the strategy, please let me know. There will be additional check-in points before the changes come into effect so don’t hesitate to share your comments and participate in future public meetings.