Uber launches in Edmonton

As of 10am this morning, you can now use Uber in Edmonton to get a ride to your next destination. Uber is a smartphone app and platform that connects you with a driver, as an alternative to hailing a taxi, taking public transportation, or driving yourself. It is sometimes called a ride-sharing app. Edmonton is the fourth Canadian city for Uber, which already operates in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Since launching in San Francisco in 2009, the company has expanded to 53 countries and more than 230 cities worldwide. An Uber representative bought me a beer last night to discuss the service.

To help launch the service in Edmonton, Uber has teamed up with Goodwill to hold a clothing drive. You can open the Uber app on December 18 and click a special donate button to have a car come and pick up a donation of clothing for free. The #UberClothingDrive runs from 10am to 5pm, and is also happening in Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto.

Uber now offers a range of services and the specific one launching here in Edmonton is UberX, which consists of “everyday cars for everyday use.” It’s their lowest cost offering and is described as follows by Uber:

“Peer-to-peer ride sharing offered by insured drivers who have undergone extensive background scrutiny, are fully insured and are tracked and rated through Uber technology; rides are charged at a base rate, plus time and distance.”

They say you can expect to pay about 30% less than a comparable taxi ride, and the price can drop even further if you split fares with other Uber members or use UberPOOL (which is a way to share cars with other riders who are travelling to and from nearby locations). UberPOOL isn’t available in Edmonton yet, but it will be eventually.

I’m not going to go into more detail about how Uber works here, but you can learn all about it at the Uber support site. Drivers are contractors, not employees, and Uber does not own or operate any cars itself. If you want to sign up to be a driver for Uber in Edmonton, you can do so here.

Early supporters in Edmonton

Many Edmontonians have come out in support of Uber, including some pretty high profile ones.

Back in September, Davic MacLean wrote an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal supporting Uber. Here’s what the Alberta Enterprise Group Vice President had to say:

“Ridesharing services are the future of the taxi industry, but we need to get the regulatory structure right. Policy-makers must find a way to respect the investments existing drivers and taxi companies have made into their businesses while, at the same time, promoting consumer choice without sacrificing safety.”

In an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal yesterday, Chris LaBossiere also made the case for Uber:

“With each of Uber’s product levels, from private citizen-driven uberX cars, to uberTAXI or the more luxurious uberBLACK car service, I have experienced a better product, at a significantly reduced price.”

Uber’s “rider zero”, the first person to officially use the service in Edmonton, is former Mayor Bill Smith.


Photo by Moments in Digital

“It’s great to see innovative and new business models like Uber come to Edmonton,” stated former Mayor Bill Smith. “I’ve always believed that embracing change is the best path to success. Uber’s technology will create opportunity and more transportation options for our citizens, helping this city continue to grow.”

A few weeks ago, Paula Simons hit on another reason why Edmontonians will support Uber:

“The dated oligopoly model simply doesn’t offer enough competition to improve customer service — as any Edmontonian who has been stranded on a snowy street corner by a phantom cab can attest. If Edmonton taxi companies and city officials don’t want Uber here, they need to deliver better service.”

More broadly in Canada, the Competition Bureau has publicly stated they see benefits from Uber. They encouraged municipalities to explore “whether less restrictive regulations could adequately address their concerns.”

The road to launch in Edmonton

There’s nothing from a legal or regulatory point-of-view that has changed to make Uber’s foray into Edmonton possible, so there is a little bit of uncertainty regarding how the service will be received.

Uber has met with City of Edmonton officials a couple of times over the last few months, but so far the response has been icy. Garry Dziwenka, Director of Business Licensing and Vehicle for Hire, has said the city is particularly worried about UberX. In some cities Uber drivers have been charged with bylaw infractions, sometimes through sting operations. The same thing could happen here in Edmonton.

At the September 2 meeting of Executive Committee, Mayor Iveson made an inquiry about third-party apps like Uber and their relation to the Vehicle for Hire regulations. A report is due back from City Administration in January, and Uber has said it will be there to discuss the findings.

The taxi industry is understandably worried about Uber. About a month ago, the Edmonton Taxi Service Group noted the legal battle Uber faces in Vancouver and said that if the company came to Edmonton, “we’ll do what we have to do”. They’re ready to go to court. The Vehicle for Hire Industry Advisory Group has discussed Uber at each of its last four meetings. A cooperative group made up of members of the taxi and limousine industry, the advisory group has no power to govern the industry but is convened by the City to provide advice (City Council’s Vehicle for Hire Commission was disbanded in March 2012). The advisory group was slated to discuss the pending report in response to Mayor Iveson’s inquiry last week.

It could just be coincidence, but I’ve noticed a concerted effort by the City to educate citizens about illegal cabs recently. The campaign began around Halloween and included a survey on the Edmonton Insight Community. Earlier this month the City announced you can now report problem cabs using your smartphone. Again, it could just be a coincidence, but the timing does seem suspect.

In his op-ed yesterday, Chris LaBossiere discussed the debate about Uber in Edmonton:

“Cities around the world are fighting ride-sharing services, instead of adapting to work with them. My own discussions with some of our politicians and bureaucrats lead me to believe that Edmonton will be no different.”

I tend to agree. He continued:

“We are about to see a fierce debate play out in our city. The taxi industry will fight ride-sharing services. They naturally want to protect their monopoly. Some establishment-thinking politicians and bureaucrats will lack the courage to change our regulations and accept a product that virtually everyone wants.”

I am happy to see Uber launch in Edmonton and I believe their participation in the transportation marketplace will ultimately be a good thing for Edmontonians. It won’t be easy though.

Controversy seems to follow Uber

To say that Uber is controversial might be an understatement, and not just with taxi companies. They have been sued by Los Angeles and San Francisco, they’re banned in Dehli, the company faces dozens of charges and legal troubles in Toronto (despite support from Mayor John Tory), and their business practices have been increasingly under the microscope. Uber is accused of digging up dirt on journalists who criticize the company, and they got into a very public fight with PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy as a result. They’re also accused of creating thousands of fake requests to cause trouble for rival service Lyft.

Here’s a collection of headlines I came across just this week related to Uber:

I’m generally a believer that where there’s smoke there’s fire, so it’s definitely worrying to hear of Uber’s questionable business practices. Do I want to do business with a company that seems to play dirty so brazenly?

On the other hand, Uber is a disruptive force all around the world. They’re attacking established markets in hundreds of cities all with different rules and regulations and all at the same time. They need to be aggressive if they’re going to succeed, and they’re going to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

What’s next?

I used Uber in Miami last week, and I plan to use it here in Edmonton also. Along with public transportation and carsharing services like Pogo, having Uber in Edmonton makes the prospect of not owning a vehicle even more realistic. It’ll be a positive force for competition in the city.

I have no doubt that Uber competitors like Lyft will follow (in fact they tweeted to me that they’d like to come up to Edmonton soon). If Uber has already done the heavy lifting, why not enter the market also? I wouldn’t expect that to happen until whatever legal tussles that might occur have been dealt with, but it’ll happen.

Uber is here and they’re here to stay. They’ll fight whatever challenges come up just as they have done in other markets. If the service is embraced by Edmontonians, the regulations and monopolies will eventually give way. For the next month they’ll be flying a little under the radar, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens after the City report is released in January. Get ready for some fireworks!

You can follow Uber in Edmonton on Twitter. Here’s their official blog post about UberX in Edmonton.

Recap: Retrofutures – Edmonton’s Omniplex Debate

Last month I attended the first ever Retrofutures event, hosted by the Edmonton City as Museum Project. ECAMP is a project from the Edmonton Heritage Council that aims to tell the stories of the people, places, things, and moments that make Edmonton what it is. Retrofutures is a new event series they are trying to get off the ground.

The topic at this event was was the Omniplex, one of the big ideas that Edmonton was considering in the 1960s and early 1970s as the arena debate of that era raged on. The Omniplex was never built, of course, but that presents an interesting thought exercise – what if it had been built?

“The first Retrofutures project from ECAMP takes the case of Omniplex to explore these and other questions. When the idea was first hatched fifty years ago, Omniplex was one of the boldest ideas in urban planning in Western Canada.”

Dr. Russell Cobb has done some research on the Omniplex and started with a presentation on what the Omniplex was all about, as well as the context of the time in which it was being considered. If you haven’t already done so, check out his extensive piece on the Omniplex at The Wanderer.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

After the presentation, he led a panel discussion which featured Paula Simons and Alex Abboud. It was a great conversation, filled with interesting anecdotes and insights. Alex kind of took the position that we should have built it, while Paula took the opposite view. Much of the discussion centered around the impact the Omniplex might have had on downtown, and that raised all sorts of points about the LRT construction, West Edmonton Mall, etc. We also had a mock vote, to decide if we should have built the Omniplex or not. By a narrow margin, the room voted against the Omniplex!

If I have one criticism of the event, it’s that the Omniplex was talked about as if it was the only thing being considered at the time, when in fact it was just the most audacious in a series of arena proposals that failed before the Coliseum (Rexall Place) ultimately went ahead in the early 70s (it opened in 1974). I think you could look at three different plebiscites to support this.

The first took place in 1963. Voters were asked if Council should borrow $4 million to buy land for a megacomplex (which included an arena) to be built where the Citadel sits today. That vote failed. They were also asked if Council should borrow $10.25 million in debt to build the facility, and that vote failed too.

The second plebiscite took place in 1968. That time, voters were asked if they favored the construction of a “Trade Convention and Sports Complex” at a cost of $23 million to be operated at an annual deficit of not more than $2 million. That vote succeeded.

The third plebiscite took place in 1970 in a by-election, and that one was the Omniplex decision. Voters were asked if they wanted Council to borrow $26.4 million to construct the Omniplex – they said no. They were also asked if Council should purchase land north of the proposed site for parking. That vote also failed.

Throughout the decade, a series of arena proposals were put forward by local businessmen and politicians including Sam Hashman and Webb & Knapp. In 1966, after it was condemned by the fire chief, the Edmonton Gardens received a $670,000 renovation, extending its life a little while the arena debate continued. The Oilers moved to the Coliseum for the 1974-1975 season, and the Gardens was eventually demolished in 1982.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

ECAMP has said they plan to hold additional Retrofutures events in the future. Topics could include “what would Edmonton be like if we had not built West Edmonton Mall” or “what would have happened to Edmonton if the freeway through the river valley had gone ahead”. Should be pretty interesting! To find out about upcoming events, check the website and follow them on Twitter.

Have arenas on your mind? Northlands and the Arena Strategy Committee that I am a part of are doing an online survey on the future of Rexall Place. Fill it out and let us know what you think should happen with the arena! The survey is open until January 31, 2015.

Media Monday Edmonton: Update #134

Here’s my latest update on local media stuff:

Edmonton Chamber of Commerce State of the Province Luncheon
Photojournalist takes photos at Premier Prentice’s State of the Province luncheon

You can follow Edmonton media news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegmedia. For a great overview of the global media landscape, check out Mediagazer.

So, what have I missed? What’s new and interesting in the world of Edmonton media? Let me know!

You can see past Media Monday Edmonton entries here.

Edmonton Notes for 12/14/2014

Here are my weekly Edmonton notes:

Headlines

Xmas Lights on Cranes
Love the lights on the cranes!

Upcoming Events

The Local Good Fundraiser
Check out more photos from The Local Good’s fundraiser here

Edmonton Police Association’s reaction to the 2015 budget is disappointing

Last week, I wrote about the Edmonton Police Service and its growing budget. Now that City Council has approved the 2015 Budgets and the police have shared their reaction, I thought it was worth a follow-up.

As part of the 2015 budget, EPS had already been approved for 52 new officers. On top of that they asked for 84 more officers and FTEs, citing the new arena district and transit policing, but in the end Council only agreed to fund 35 new positions.

EPS Recruit Graduation 2009
Photo by Aaron

Councillor Loken did make a motion to increase the EPS budget by $5.183 million, but only he, Councillor Gibbons, and Councillor Caterina supported it. A later motion from Councillor Caterina proposing to increase EPS funding by $1.589 million for Transit Policing failed by a 5-8 vote, and a motion to increase funding by $7.810 million for Downtown Revitalization and Transit Policing was withdrawn. Mayor Iveson’s motion to approve the package for 35 FTEs with $2.437 million narrowly passed with a 7-6 vote.

So of the 136 new positions they were hoping for, EPS got 87 funded. Pretty good, you might think, but the police are not happy about it.

The police reaction to the budget outcome was charitably called “disappointing” by Councillor Oshry on Twitter. Tony Simioni, outgoing president of the Edmonton Police Association, made most of the comments. Here’s a sample:

“It has reached a point now where I think it’s critical,” he told the Journal.

“We’ve been very lucky in the City of Edmonton in the last 25 years. It’s just been by the grace of God that we haven’t lost any more members in the line of service,” he told the Edmonton Sun.

“I shudder to see that day coming but, if this trend continues, it’s going to occur,” he told Global Edmonton.

“We’re going have some grave consequences in public safety and in our ability to get to the calls in a timely fashion, where we already are having difficulty.” he told CTV Edmonton. “We’re the only agency that’s open twenty four seven, 365 days. So many agencies have shut down services due to lack of funding or whatever the case may be, and it’s been downloaded on sloughed off on the men and women in the Edmonton Police Service.”

Nevermind that back in 2011 when the police were under heavy scrutiny thanks to a record number of homicides, Simioni was basically saying the opposite thing. “I don’t think Edmonton is a dangerous place to live,” he told the Journal at the time. “The average citizen walking the streets in Edmonton is as safe as the average citizen walking the streets of Calgary.”

Simioni wasn’t the only one “sounding the alarm” on Friday as many in the media put it. Staff Sgt. Bill Clark also shared his comments with the Edmonton Sun:

“We’ve got several councillors out there that just don’t get it,” said the veteran officer, adding some, including Councillors Tony Caterina and Ed Gibbons are the odd ones out who do seem to get it.

“How you can justify $8 million for bike lanes, $3 million for a net on the High Level Bridge when you can look at the Groat Road Bridge and go jump off of that bridge, are you kidding me?” said Clark.

“It is simply ridiculous and we’re tired of it. The buck stops with city council. The provincial government needs to step up but that should have been done years ago.”

In my opinion, these comments are intentionally misleading and sensational, to say the least. If I worked for the police in any capacity, I’d be embarrassed by them. Heck as a taxpaying citizen I can’t believe that was the reaction!

New EPS Cruiser Livery
Photo by Kurt Bauschardt

First of all, these representatives are willfully conflating the Operating and Capital Budgets. Both bike lanes and the High Level Bridge safety rail are funded out of the Capital Budget, whereas police officer salaries are funded out of the Operating Budget. I would suggest that if you’re going to question the decisions made by Council on the record, you should know the difference. It’s not like the police received nothing in the Capital Budget, either. Council funded a new helicopter, a new Emergency Operations Centre, a police investigation and management centre, and a new police division station for Northwest Edmonton, among other things. Many tens of millions of dollars will be spent on police-related projects this cycle.

Second, whenever they don’t get their way, police representatives seem perfectly happy to suggest that crime is on the increase. All published statistics suggest otherwise, and whenever you question their performance rather than their budget, the story is that crime is down and the police are doing an effective job. This has been documented again and again by the local media. I suggest the eight crime indicators that EPS claims to measure daily be made available in the open data catalogue and on the Citizen Dashboard, so that there’s no uncertainty about the crime stats.

Third, I think it’s ridiculous that police representatives are willing to suggest that funding the police service is the only way to improve community safety. Council increased the REACH Edmonton budget by $500,000 to fund Schools as Community Hubs and Out of School Time, for instance. They also approved $107,000 to fund the Green Shack program in 20 high needs communities. On the Capital Budget side, the High Level Bridge safety rail is the most obvious example. There’s a wide range of initiatives and projects that Council supported that will ultimately contribute to the health and safety of our community.

Fourth, let’s be real: many organizations in Edmonton contribute to the safety of the community in a very direct way, and they do it with far smaller budgets than the police service does. Look at the Edmonton Public Library for instance, which recently expanded its outreach program with Boyle Street Community Services to help those in need. I don’t see them “sloughing off” any work to the police.

About the only comment made by the police that is easy to agree with is the assertion that the Province needs to provide more funding to help deal with the pressures of growth and the unique challenges that come along with being a large city. But again, I call on the police to make their case with facts and data, rather than offhand comments in the media. Work with Council to build a solid case.

I think the police in Edmonton do great work in our city, but I’m disappointed with the way they play the game when it comes to budgets. Instead of facts, we get dire warnings. Instead of a can-do attitude, we get negativity and blaming. I think they can do better.

Coming up at City Council: December 15-19, 2014

Agendas for upcoming City Council meetings are generally released on Thursday afternoons. I like to take a look to see what Council will be discussing, and I figured I should share that here. Below you’ll find links to the meetings taking place next week, as well as links to and thoughts on some agenda items that caught my eye.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

2015 Budgets

Yesterday, City Council approved both 2015 Operating and Utilities budgets, as well as the 2015-2018 Capital Budget. The Operating Budget average tax increase is 5.7%, of which 1.5% is still dedicated to the Neighbourhood Renewal Program. Here’s what the mayor said in the news release:

“This Budget demonstrates how the City of Edmonton works at improving our operations and finding more efficient ways to deliver on our commitments to Edmontonians,” said Mayor Iveson. “City managers have been committed to positive changes that create better value, ensuring maximum payoff for every taxpayer dollar.”

The Capital Budget will see investment of $4.3 billion in infrastructure throughout the city. Here are the mayor’s comments from the news release:

“The Capital Budget strikes a balance between investments in a growing city and the requirement to keep existing City assets in good repair,” said Mayor Iveson. “We’re building a great city for the people who live, work and play in Edmonton.”

Mayor Iveson also wrote a wrap-up blog post which defended the tax increase and called the budget a “value-for-money kind of budget”. He said it “makes responsible use of every dollar we’ve asked for.”

The budget was approved unanimously by City Council.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Council starts the week with a public hearing scheduled to take place all day. After the incredibly involved budget discussions, I’m sure all of Council will be happy to get back to business as usual!

There’s not much on the agenda that caught my eye, but here are a few things:

  • Bylaw 17023 proposed to close a portion of Winterburn Road (215 Street NW) to allow for the development of business and industrial uses in the area.
  • For those of you annoyed by such things, bylaw 17019 is a rezoning to allow for digital signs in Place LaRue near 184 Street and 100 Avenue.
  • Bylaw 17025 is for an amendment to the Stewart Greens NSP. Nothing major, and doesn’t result in any changes to the approved Land Use and Population Statistics.
  • Bylaw 17015 is an amendment to The Hamptons NSP and Bylaw 17016 would allow for the development of a medium rise apartment site (four apartment buildings with 364 total units and 88 townhouse units). Together these two bylaws increase the density of the site by enabling the development of additional apartment buildings in place of the townhouse units.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The LRT Governance Board will meet on Tuesday in the River Valley Room at City Hall. As a Committee of Council, I thought I’d include it here.

The main item is the LRT Governance Board’s semi-annual report. Here are the highlights:

  • The board met six times this year.
  • Five RFQ submissions were received and evaluated, resulting in a recommended shortlist of proponents for Stage 1 of the Valley Line LRT project.
  • The three shortlisted proponents were issued an RFP in September.
  • A public engagement plan was approved in July, including the “accountability, transparency, and disclosure framework.”
  • As a P3 project, the LRT Governance Board is tasked with ensuring the Valley Line LRT project delivers “long-term value for money, and cost and scheduled certainty.” So far, they are confident the project does indeed “demonstrate value for money as a P3 project.”
  • Also in September, the board approved the draft Project Agreement, which is the main contract between the City and the winning proponent that covers the 35 year period of design, construction, operations, maintenance, and financing for Stage 1 of the Valley Line LRT.

Also on the agenda is a verbal update on the Valley LRT Line project, as well as on the RFP activity. The LRT Governance Board is slated to meet five times in 2015, in March, May, July, August, and November.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Council’s final meeting of 2014 will take place on Wednesday, and there are some big items on the agenda.

Municipal Development Corporation Business Plan

The first report listed (though not yet available) is a business plan for the proposed for-profit municipal development corporation. This is a follow-up to the September 2014 meeting decision to proceed with the establishment of a municipal land corporation (you can see that report on options here). The business plan should include “a governance model, financial analysis, non-financial analysis, and a detailed implementation strategy for the establishment of a for-profit municipal development corporation.” Administration was also tasked with generating “a list of potential City-owned properties to be included in the initial transfer to the entity.”

Emerging Economy Initiative

This item was known until September as the “Economic Development – for Start-ups Initiative” until Council decided to change the name. The main update here is the draft terms of reference for this initiative, which “outlines the background and recommended future state for the five Council recommended small-business and entrepreneurship focused programs.” The five programs include:

  • New Canadian and Aboriginal Business Start-up Supports
  • “Make Something Edmonton” and “Edmonton Original” marketing strategies
  • TEC and Startup Edmonton mentoring and accelerating programs
  • Live Local and Local Economy Organizations
  • Corner Store Program

The City is meant to be a partner in this effort along with EEDC and the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. In some cases the City has provided seed money to these programs, in other cases the City indirectly funds them through contributions to parent organizations (like TEC and Startup Edmonton through EEDC).

Can I just say I really dislike how they include the dash in “start-up”! Seems unnecessary.

Bylaw 17001: Edmonton Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre Pedway Connection

This bylaw is ready for first reading and would authorize the City to borrow up to $22.5 million to build a pedway connection to the proposed EDACC (or Galleria as it is more popularly known). Because this is on Crown land, second and third reading would only take place after the Minister of Infrastructure has approved it. No valid petitions to this project were received.

The proposed pedway is an underground connection from Churchill LRT Station into the Station Lands through the new Royal Alberta Museum. The total cost of the project is $30 million, 25% of which will be financed by the City. The remaining $22.5 million will be financed “by way of local improvement assessment against the abutting property owners.” But this bylaw allows the City to borrow that money to complete the project, with the debt to be repaid over a period of 20 years.

The capital profile for the pedway justifies the project as follows:

“A significant factor of the Galleria project is the partnership with the University of Alberta. The establishment of an academic facility campus will bring more people to the downtown core every day, catalyzing services and development in and around the downtown area. The University participation is conditional upon connecting 104 Ave to the Churchill LRT Station via an underground Pedway.”

In terms of timing, it was argued that the pedway needed to be built now or a connection to the RAM would not be possible.

2015 Council and Committee Meeting Schedule

The schedule was approved back in October, but Council asked to hold their City Council meetings more consistently on Tuesdays (with a continuation on Wednesday mornings). This report changes a few of the meetings to better align with that schedule. So in general, Public Hearings take place on Mondays and Council meetings take place on Tuesdays.

Special Meeting on Public Engagement

The Council Initiative on Public Engagement is well underway, and a public event has been planned for January 24, 2015 to “discuss the vision for the Initiative.” Mark your calendars! In order to get aligned, a joint City Council and Corporate Leadership Team (CLT) facilitated session is being proposed for January 21, 2015.

Capital Region Board Appointments

Both Mayor Iveson and his alternate Councillor Gibbons are unavailable for the CRB meeting in January, so it is being proposed that Councillor Walters attend instead. Additionally, Council is looking to update its appointments to the CRB Subcommittees and Task Forces as follows:

  • Advocacy & Monitoring: Mayor Iveson, Councillor Gibbons as the alternate
  • Governance, Priorities & Finance: Councillor Walters, Councillor Gibbons as the alternate
  • Land Use & Planning: Councillor Gibbons, Councillor Walters as the alternate
  • Regional Services: Councillor Gibbons, Councilllor Walters as the alternate
  • Transit: Councillor Walters, Councillor Gibbons as the alternate
  • Growth Plan Update Task Force: Mayor Iveson, Councillor Gibbons as the alternate
  • Housing Task Force: Councillor Gibbons, Councillor Walters as the alternate

BRZ Budgets & Travel Grant Recommendations

Just when you thought Council was done with budgets, they’re right back it! On Wednesday they will approve the 2015 Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ) budgets. There are 13 BRZs in Edmonton.

Council will also be discussing the latest Community Investment Program Travel Grant Program grant recommendations. This program is intended to support round trip travel from Edmonton for individuals working in the arts and festival communities. Grants of up to $750 per traveler can be awarded. A total of $21,600 is being recommended in travel grant funding to 27 individuals. The Edmonton Arts Council has recommended $82,240 in travel grant funding through the program in 2014.

Other

A series of updates from Council on Agency and Initiative appointments is being made available at this meeting. These include updates on work with AUMA, the ELEVATE initiative, the Urban Isolation/Mental Health initiative, Child Friendly Edmonton, and the Edmonton Women’s Initiative.

Council is being asked to approve expropriation of four properties for Stage 1 of the Valley Line LRT project: Property 1, Property 2, Property 3, Property 4.

There is one listed motion pending, from Councillor Knack, on electronic cigarettes.

Three private reports are listed:

  • Edmonton Business Revitalization Zones – 2015 Boards of Directors
  • Process and Timelines for City Manager and City Auditor 2014 Performance Evaluations
  • Reappointment Recommendation – Audit Committee Public Member

One report has been revised to March 2015 on Electrical Franchise Fee Charges as part of The Way We Finance.

Winter Recess

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Council will be on winter recess. They’ll resume on January 19, with Committee meetings on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday that week. A public hearing is slated for January 26, with the first City Council meeting of the year scheduled to take place on January 27.

That’s it! You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online.

Media Monday Edmonton: Update #133

Here’s my latest update on local media stuff:

Social Media Breakfast #38 Edmonton
Media was the discussion at Social Media Breakfast Edmonton #38

You can follow Edmonton media news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegmedia. For a great overview of the global media landscape, check out Mediagazer.

So, what have I missed? What’s new and interesting in the world of Edmonton media? Let me know!

You can see past Media Monday Edmonton entries here.

Edmonton Notes for 12/7/2014

I’m in Miami for most of the week for work. Here are my weekly Edmonton notes:

Headlines

The Capital - pano
Amazing pano from Jeff Wallace!

Upcoming Events

Alberta First Nations Opportunities Forum
Alberta First Nations Opportunities Forum

Why isn’t City Council pushing back on the Edmonton Police Service?

An Edmonton Journal editorial in late 2002 discussed the potential decision between the police union’s campaign for 300 new officers and the operating expenses of the new helicopter that had just been donated by the Edmonton Police Foundation:

“Some would argue that the city should find the money to provide both more officers and the chopper. Yet how realistic is that? And if we must choose, which option will provide the best policing?”

In the end, Council voted to add an extra $5.1 million to the 2003 operating budget to hire 55 new officers, but rejected an increase to pay for the helicopter operating expenses. Police chief Bob Wasylyshen promised to find money elsewhere in his budget to enable the helicopter to fly.

Oh how times have changed. Now, the police get a new helicopter paid for by taxpayers, along with the operating costs of that helicopter, and they’ll get likely an increase in officers too.

Instead of asking EPS to find efficiencies in its budget as in years past, recent Councils seem content to go out of their way to support the growth of the police budget, both operating and capital. Instead of applying “Council’s 2%” to the police, Mayor Iveson is instead going to lobby higher levels of government for more money. And this year he went further – inexplicably, he’s going to lobby the helicopter industry to build a better product!

I want to live in a safe community and I have great respect for the work our police officers do. But as a taxpayer, I also want to know that I’m getting the best return on my investment. So I think it’s fair to question the police service, and as the largest part of the budget at between 16-18%, to question them harder than other departments. Is EPS really operating at maximum efficiency? Is there truly no room in the budget, now more than $360 million a year, to improve the way our police service runs?

The 20 year drought ends

Though police staffing levels have increased considerably in recent years, there was a long period of time during which the number of officers remained stagnant, despite increases in our population.

In 1991, police chief Doug McNally fought to add 11 officers, but was left with a budget of $76 million and the ability to add just one officer. He said EPS “desperately” needed additional staff, partly due to the roughly 90,000 more people that were living in the city compared with 1981.

Ten years later, in budget discussions in 2002, Councillors asked EPS about their staffing levels. The police noted that despite an increase in population of about 115,000 people from 1982 to 2001, the number of authorized police officers increased by just one to 1,138. That means the ratio of police officers to citizens went from one for every 485 people to one for every 585 people. Total FTEs had increased just 332 to 1,494.

change in ftes

Since 2001, the population has increased by about 212,000 people, and the number of FTEs at EPS has gone up by 780, to more than 2,200 today. The number of officers totals a little over 1,600. And with the 2015 budget, EPS is proposing to increase to more than 2,400 (with more than 1,700 officers), as shown in the chart above.

Declining crime stats

Despite the stagnation in staffing levels through the 1990s, crime statistics in Edmonton fell along with the rest of Canada. In 1995, Edmonton led the country with a 19% drop in crime. If the number of officers didn’t increase, how did the decrease happen? Tony Mandamin, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission at the time, offered his opinion: “What I take from that is we’re doing something different and the number one thing we’re doing different is community-based policing.”

Acting chief Al Buerger agreed, saying “no police department on its own can have that effect.” The local push to support community-based policing began in 1991. Crime rates continued to fall through the 90s and into the early 2000s.

change in csi

Despite some blips over the last 15 years, we can see that crime has continued to fall. The Crime Severity Index (includes all Criminal Code violations including traffic, drug violations, and all Federal statutes), which for Edmonton stood at 150.57 in 1998, was down to 93.34 in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available.

The latest statistics show that crime is down across the entire country more or less uniformly.

The disconnect

Despite the decrease in crime, we hear the same refrain year after year. We need more police officers, because the work is getting more complex and our population is increasing so dramatically.

In 1994, facing cuts in provincial grants to EPS, chief Doug McNally said “we’re absolutely assured the quality of policing will go down.” But we know that in fact it went up.

In 2001, Council cut the proposed EPS budget by $1.7 million, and they shaved $1.5 million off the capital budget too. Police chief Bob Wasylyshen said the move left him “flabbergasted”. Yet they found a way to improve the service being offered anyway.

One could argue that the increase in officers throughout the last 15 years is the reason for the decrease in crime, but you can’t make that argument for the 15 years before that. There seems to be a disconnect between the dire warnings from EPS and the facts.

Air-1, Air-2, and the helicopter debate

Despite the correlation between community policing and a decrease in crime rates, we have increasingly decided to spend money on other approaches. Like helicopters.

The push to acquire a police helicopter picked up speed in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Air-1 was purchased and brought into regular service. A one year pilot project began in August 2001 with a leased helicopter, and a public lottery raised the $1.7 million needed to purchase it the following year. Initially, it was expected that Air-1 would cost EPS about $600,000 per year in operating costs.

In response to questions from Council in 2002 about replacing Air-1:

“The helicopter has an expected life cycle of 30 years. The EPS has an obligation to ensure the on-going maintenance will enable the equipment to remain in top condition.”

“Replacement of the helicopter has not been contemplated at this time. City funds are not anticipated to be used for any replacement of this citizen sponsored initiative. Partnership and other funding sources will be explored when this becomes a necessity.”

Then in September 2006, it was revealed that EPS was assessing the feasibility of a replacement or a complete rebuild of the helicopter. Instead, we ended up with a second helicopter. Total funding of $2 million for Air-2 was approved in 2008 ($1.65 million for the helicopter, $350,000 to outfit it for police work) and the helicopter was purchased and went into service in August 2009.

When Air-2 was purchased, the rationale was for it to take over as the primary eye in the sky, given that Air-1 was said to be unavailable 30% of the time because of maintenance.

Air 2 - Dim
Air-2, photo by Buie

We’re currently spending about $1.9 million each year on the police helicopters. Operating costs like fuel and maintenance account for $1.1 million, with the remaining $800,000 spent on personnel for six positions. In response to a question from Councillor Sohi, the EPS said “this $1.1 million is equivalent to 8 constables, but in all likelihood this $1.1 million would just be used to offset the productivity efficiencies that are realized as a result of Air-1.” Back in 2000 when public campaigns to fund a helicopter were picking up steam, an EPS official suggested a helicopter could be as effective as 30 officers.

Helicopters “are operationally available 4,845 hours over 365 days in a year, weather and maintenance permitting.” That’s half the year that they are available, but they are only budgeted to be in the air for a total of 1,700 hours, or 35% of the available time. In 2013, they flew 1,611 total hours.

We know that while the helicopters are effective when they are involved (with a 99.2% apprehension rate) the problem is they aren’t involved very often. The average response time to respond to a call is 73 seconds, but most “criminal flights” as they are called are quite short. In 2012, the helicopters were only involved in 64 or 37.6% of all recorded criminal flights.

Combined with poor weather, the helicopters just aren’t available or useful to police very often, a point that Councillor Knack returned to again and again during the most recent debate. Is that something we should be spending money on?

New helicopter(s)

In proposing the purchase of two helicopters this budget cycle, EPS Chief Knecht suggested the police would not be back at Council asking for new helicopters for close to 20 years. “Yeah right!” was my first thought. And I think that EPS’s own recommendations would call the chief’s comments into question. In response to a question from Mayor Iveson on the viability of purchasing a new EC130, EPS wrote:

“To maximize trade-in value and minimize maintenance, the EPS’s life span recommendations for any single engine helicopter within the program is 8-10 years. For a twin engine helicopter a 10- 12 year consideration is advocated.”

So realistically, EPS would be back in 10 years asking to replace their twin-engine helicopters had Council approved them.

And they didn’t want just any old helicopter, they wanted the Cadillac option at $7.2 million a piece. That’s firmly in the want category, as far as I am concerned.

In response to a question from Mayor Iveson about the pros and cons of the EC130 helicopter, EPS wrote, “EC-130’s are rarely used for law enforcement service in North America and are not viable for flight patrol operations.” If that’s the case, then how did our police service end up with two of them? UPDATE: Our service flies EC120 choppers.

EPS was looking for twin-engine models, but Council discussed the possibility of a single-engine option instead. Here’s what EPS had to say about the difference between a single-engine and a twin-engine helicopter:

“Generally, the major difference between a single engine helicopter and a twin engine helicopter is the ability for the twin to continue flying in the event one engine fails. The redundancy of this second engine would allow the EPS to reliably and safely navigate the helicopter into small spaces like helipads, heliports and forward operating bases within congested areas of the city. This redundancy also would contribute to the increased safety associated to flying longer distances over the ever expanding “built up” areas of the growing city.”

For the safety of the officers flying them, let’s hope the engines don’t fail very often. Still, that redundancy doesn’t seem like a great reason to buy a new helicopter, let alone a much more expensive one.

Though Mayor Iveson did ask about the potential for using drones, EPS basically responded that current Transport Canada regulations make them impractical for police work (despite the fact that the RCMP already uses them in some situations). “Helicopter’s and UAV platforms are not mutually exclusive,” they wrote, presumably in a bid to hang on to their helicopter funding. While that may be true, it’s not difficult to look at the rapidly increasing level of investment into drones and the changing regulatory landscapes around the world to see that we should be examining the technology more closely.

Let’s put data analytics to work on the budget

I think the helicopter debate is instructive, because it’s full of information that just doesn’t hold up upon inspection. Just like the disconnect in staffing levels vs. crime rate, there seems to be a big gap between what EPS says about the helicopters and what is actually the case.

Here’s another example. Question after question from Councillor Nickel about the 2015 operating budget was met with the same response from EPS: “The EPS does not formally measure and report on the “insert measurement here” as defined by Statistics Canada, and hence this data is not provided for 2014.” This is what we hear all the time – local police don’t use the same statistics, so it can’t be compared. Well, why not? Why aren’t we demanding comparable data? It makes it seem like they’re hiding something.

It shouldn’t be enough to point to an increasing population and to just say “the work is more complex.” The police have one of the most sophisticated data analysis systems/teams in the city, so why can’t we have better justification for their budget requests?

New helicopter is a go, what about new officers?

Mayor Iveson called the meeting this week “the most complex bit of procedural chicanery” he has ever seen. Councillor Oshry called the discussion “city government at its almost worst”. I listened on Monday night, when the first vote took place, confused all the Councillors, and was postponed until Tuesday morning.

After a long and difficult debate (that ended up being more about procedure than the issue at hand), Council voted to spend $3.47 million to buy a new single-engine police helicopter. They made that purchase subject to a report on how the new helicopter would be stored, maintained, and operated, and a report evaluating the pros and cons of the EC130 (the existing model of Air-1 and Air-2) versus the AC350 (the single-engine helicopter proposed by EPS). They also voted to have the mayor work with the Police Commission and federal government to explore housing the helicopter fleet at CFB Edmonton.

But wait, there’s more! They also decided it would be a good use of Mayor Iveson’s time to “advocate to the helicopter industry on the prospects for a suitable forthcoming enclosed tail rotor single engine model.” Look, if anyone can understand the appeal of digging in and truly understanding an issue, it’s me. But do we really need the mayor to become an expert on helicopters? And to use his already limited time to advocate to the helicopter industry? Not in my opinion.

So far during the 2015 budget discussions, Council has committed to a new helicopter (among other police-related capital expenditures) and to having the mayor lobby others for more money. Soon they’ll need to make a decision about growing the operating budget.

eps net operating requirement

Since 1999, the EPS operating budget has grown to more than $360 million. In the chart above, you can see the net operating requirement (the amount our taxes cover after revenue is taken into account) has increased by nearly three times, from about $101 million to almost $300 million.

Doing more with less

Not that long ago, Council seemed more willing to push back on EPS requests for increased funding. In 2004 for instance, EPS was tasked with cutting $2 million from its 2005 administration budget in order to help pay for up to 124 new patrol officers. A similar challenge doesn’t seem to be on the table this time around.

I don’t disagree that the Province and the federal government should contribute more to the police budget. If it’s true that EPS is handling an ever increasing workload for the feds, and I have no reason to question officials who say that’s the case, then perhaps EPS should make information about that available. At the moment, it’s not clear what portion of proposed increases are for local policing versus other work.

It’s not uncommon to hear that often the best solutions arise during times of restriction, not abundance. That’s what happened in the 1990s. “Community policing isn’t sexy,” wrote current Councillor Scott McKeen in his column in the Journal on December 11, 2002, noting that the helicopter had captured the public’s imagination. “It just works.”

In the midst of new helicopters and additional officers, I just hope we’re not missing out on the modern day equivalent of community policing. What could EPS do if they were a bit less comfortable?

Your Guide to Winter 2014/2015 Festivals & Events in Edmonton

Here’s my listing of winter festivals & events for 2014/2015, powered by ShareEdmonton. Below you’ll find dozens of events with a website, dates, and links to social media for each. You’ll also find a link to the event at ShareEdmonton and a link to an iCal for the event. I hope you find this listing as useful as I do.

Alberta Legislature

Festivals & Events

For my summer festival & event listing, I included events from June through August. For winter, I’m generally looking at December through March. Here’s the listing:

Event Dates Links
Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up November 15 SE 
All is Bright on 124 Street November 22 SE    
Festival of Trees November 27-30 SE    
A Christmas Story, The Musical Nov 27 – Dec 7 SE    
Royal Bison Craft & Art Fair Nov 28-30 & Dec 5-7 SE    
Snow Valley’s Winterfest November 28-30 SE    
It’s a Wonderful Whyte Nov 29, Dec 6, 13, 20 SE     
A Christmas Carol Nov 29 – Dec 23 SE     
Butterdome Craft Sale December 4-7 SE    
The Legislature Light-up December 4 SE    
Celebrate the Season December 5-23 SE    
Festival of Light December 5-14 SE    
Luminaria December 6-7 SE   
Frostival in McCauley December 6-28 SE 
Candy Cane Lane Dec 12 – Jan 4 SE    
Southeast Winter Fun Festival December 13 SE   
Christmas Reflections Dec 13 – Jan 3 SE    
Edmonton Singing Christmas Tree December 18-21 SE   
New Year’s Eve Downtown December 31 SE    
Deep Freeze: Byzantine Winter Festival January 10-11 SE   
Edmonton Whiskey Festival January 14 SE 
World Snow Day January 18 SE     
Ice on Whyte Jan 23 – Feb 1 SE    
Winter Cities Shake-Up 2015 January 27-30 SE  
illumiNITE January 29-31 SE 
Green & Glow Winterfest January 29-31 SE    
Winter Walk Day February 4 SE   
The Flying Canoe Adventure February 6-7 SE 
Edmonton Resilience Festival February 7-8 SE    
Winefest Edmonton February 13-14 SE   
Silver Skate Festival February 13-22 SE   
winterfête: Family Day at the Alberta Legislature February 16 SE    
Expanse Festival March 12-15 SE 
Farewell to Winter Patio Party March 13-15 SE    
Red Bull Crashed Ice March 14 SE     
Northern Lights Music Festival March 2015  
Downtown Dining Week March 20-29 SE   
Western Canada Fashion Week March 26 – April 4 SE   

You can check out a calendar view of festivals here or you can download the iCal feed for your own apps.

Winter in Edmonton

Edmonton is a winter city, and we’re working hard to reclaim the joy of winter and embrace the season! You can learn all about the WinterCity strategy and associated events and ideas here. Stay tuned for a new Winter Signature Drink contest and the For the Love of Winter Fashion Design Competition.

There are some great outdoor events taking place this season if you’re looking to take advantage of the hills and rinks around the city, such as Sip & Slide Sundays, Swing ‘n Skate Sundays, and Servus Free Ski Fridays. You can check out a full listing of winter events here or you can download the iCal feed for your own apps. If you’d rather download a PDF, the WinterCity folks have put together this handy winter excitement guide.

There are of course many more events listed in the ShareEdmonton calendar, so check it out! Have I missed something that should be included? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Happy winter!