LRT is about more than speed

If you’re angry about the Metro Line LRT, then you’ll love Tristin Hopper’s article in today’s National Post. He’s a self-described “fervent – almost fanatical – supporter of public transit” and he doesn’t hold back on eviscerating Edmonton’s latest addition to the LRT network:

“In short, it fails on every single possible justification for why cities should build light rail.”

It’s a colorful piece, complete with a comparison to “a candy company releasing a new chocolate bar called Herpes Al-Qaeda.” But while it’s clear the City of Edmonton made some mistakes and that it would indeed be bad to see them repeated elsewhere, Hopper’s arguments are clearly coming from a place of frustration rather than fact, and he comes off sounding more like a supporter of car culture than the transit booster he claims to be.

Before I get into that, let me say that I’m just as frustrated and disappointed as many of you are with how the Metro Line LRT was handled and how it is still not fully operational as promised. I’ve written a lot about it over the last year, and I’m sure there will be much more to come in the year ahead. There’s no question that the City of Edmonton screwed up on the Metro Line LRT, but Council didn’t do itself any favors by ignoring the project until it was too late either. People have been fired, lessons have been learned, and there’s undoubtedly more fallout to come.

But, let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill, mmkay?

Kingsway/Royal Alex LRT Station

Hopper is right to point out how unacceptable it is that the line breaks down so regularly. And he’s right that due to the signalling system issues, the trains aren’t running as fast as planned. But his article also makes some pretty specious arguments about emissions1 and the impact on ambulances2. Hopper has some nerve adding up the amount of time wasted by drivers waiting for the Metro Line LRT trains to go by, as if those drivers had never before run into rush hour and gridlock. How much “human existence” has commuting by car, a much more dangerous, stressful, and expensive mode of transporation, extinguished? Easier to pick on LRT, I guess.

“The chief problem is that the train was built at grade and cleaves through several major intersections,” Hopper writes. This leads to delays for passengers and a “traffic apocalypse” for everyone else. “I’ve personally clocked a six-minute wait,” he complains. I get it, I hate being made to wait as much as anyone (thank goodness Sharon is a much more patient person than I am). But this is just as silly to highlight now as it was four months ago when the Metro Line LRT opened.

The only reason this extra-six-minutes argument has any appeal at all is that there’s something to blame. Probably every driver has spent far longer than six minutes stuck in traffic on many occasions, but without a train to complain about, those delays are just chalked up to the realities of driving. Over time drivers become oblivious to them. Sure people complain about traffic from time-to-time, but no one is crucifying the City over it like they are with the Metro Line LRT.

Also wrong is complaining about how slow the train ride itself is, especially given that the Metro Line LRT isn’t operating at full-speed yet. Even if it were, LRT isn’t supposed to be faster than other modes of transportation. It can be, in some cases, but it doesn’t have to be and that isn’t the reason to build it in the first place. LRT is primarily about capacity, not speed. And transit is about the network, not a single line.

It’s not the speed that matters

We need not look any further than the existing Capital Line LRT to see that speed isn’t why it has been successful. What if I wanted to get from my house on 104 Street downtown to Southgate Centre? Here’s a look at the trip by mode at three different times for today, according to the fastest option suggested by Google Maps:

7:00 AM 12:00 PM 5:00 PM
Cycling 30-34 minutes 30-34 minutes 30-34 minutes
Vehicle 16-20 minutes 16-22 minutes 16-40 minutes
Bus 38 minutes 38 minutes 41 minutes
LRT 24 minutes 24 minutes 24 minutes

And here’s the reverse trip, going back downtown from Southgate:

7:00 AM 12:00 PM 5:00 PM
Cycling 29-33 minutes 29-33 minutes 29-33 minutes
Vehicle 14-20 minutes 14-20 minutes 14-24 minutes
Bus 37 minutes 37 minutes 37 minutes
LRT 21 minutes 21 minutes 21 minutes

Depending on the time of day, direction of travel, your speed, and lots of other conditions that you have no control over (traffic, weather, etc.), driving is actually the fastest mode of transportation. LRT is pretty quick, but more importantly is consistent and predictable. My travel time in the real world is far more likely to match the prediction for LRT than it is for a vehicle. Not to mention taking the LRT means you can do something productive or enjoyable while you ride, and you don’t have to pay for parking.

That particular example, downtown to Southgate, makes the time to take the bus seem quite unappealing. Again, that’s to be expected given ETS’ approach of having buses feed into the LRT network, something that will also happen with the Metro Line LRT once it is fully operational. If we look instead at an example where there isn’t LRT, we see that the bus can actually be competitive and maybe even faster than travelling by vehicle. Here’s my place to West Edmonton Mall:

7:00 AM 12:00 PM 5:00 PM
Cycling 37 minutes 37 minutes 37 minutes
Vehicle 18-24 minutes 18-26 minutes 20-45 minutes
Bus 29 minutes 27 minutes 33 minutes

And here’s the reverse trip, going from WEM to downtown:

7:00 AM 12:00 PM 5:00 PM
Cycling 36 minutes 36 minutes 36 minutes
Vehicle 18-26 minutes 20-28 minutes 20-35 minutes
Bus 29 minutes 25 minutes 29 minutes

In this example there’s an express bus that travels between WEM and downtown. Again travelling by vehicle could be faster, but it depends greatly on time of day, direction, and unforeseen circumstances like accidents and weather conditions. The bus would also be subject to some of these considerations, so it’s not as reliable as LRT, but it is still a much more viable option in this example. And you can see how an express bus could potentially be a better way than LRT to achieve a fast trip, especially if it were afforded some of the right-of-way and separation advantages of the LRT (the express bus to WEM shares the road with vehicles and follows all existing signals).

This is all just to show that speed isn’t the driving factor behind LRT. If it were, we’d look at those times above and be complaining that it wasn’t always the fastest option. The negative impacts of LRT on traffic are easy to see, at some point vehicles have to wait for trains. But there are positive impacts of LRT on traffic too. More people riding the train means fewer people driving which means (in theory) less traffic than there would otherwise be. That speeds up commute times for everyone.

But the real reason you build LRT is for the capacity. Here’s what the City of Edmonton’s LRT for Everyone PDF highlights:

rails vs roads

One four-car train can move as many people as 600 typical cars. And let’s be honest, you could probably cram even more people onto those trains if you really wanted to. That potential capacity has a real, positive impact on the transportation network as a whole. It makes getting around the city better for everyone.

There are other reasons to build LRT of course. Accessibility, convenience, transit-oriented development, more efficient use of infrastructure, reduced energy use and environmental impact, and much more. But enabling more people to travel more efficiently throughout the city is the big benefit of LRT.

And when you consider it as part of the overall network, with a mix of bicycles, vehicles, buses, and trains, the capacity benefits of buses and trains make an even bigger difference. That’s why shifting Edmonton’s transportation mix to rely less on vehicles is such an important part of The Way We Move.

Set the right expectations

Hopper seems to suggest that fast LRT that doesn’t impact traffic is the only kind of LRT to pursue and that “don’t let idiots build your transit” is the only lesson to be learned from the Metro Line LRT project. But both of these things are off the mark. You don’t build LRT for speed and you can’t avoid idiots, they’re everywhere.

So yes policymakers of Canada, come to Edmonton and learn from the Metro Line LRT. There are clearly things you can do better and a real-world example to examine is better than a theoretical one. But don’t follow Hopper’s lead in setting the wrong expectations for the “decent, right-thinking people” in your cities. LRT is about much more than speed.

  1. For instance, he says the Metro Line LRT “is almost certainly increasing Edmonton’s net amount of carbon emissions.” I guess we’ll have to take his word for it, as he doesn’t provide any evidence to back the claim up. 

  2. Noting that the Metro Line is next to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, he suggests that “any Edmontonian unlucky enough to have a heart attack in one of the northwestern quadrants of the city must wait as paramedics wend a circuitous route through downtown.” This smacks of fearmongering to me, and we’ve already been-there-done-that-tyvm with medevac and the closing of the City Centre Airport. Although he expressed concern with the delays associated with the partial Metro Line operation, AHS’ chief paramedic said that dealing with traffic is not a new problem for paramedics. “We run into these situations all the time,” he told CBC. And as Transportation GM Dorian Wandzura noted in that same article, presumably AHS had already made some operational adjustments, given that the plan was approved and the route defined way back in 2008. 

  • This Guy LOL

    Gosh. I appreciate your enthusiasm but you are so far off the mark.

    Google travel times are pretty much garbage during peak usage. The estimate I get at the start of my trip is usually short by 10-40 minutes once I finish it, depending on traffic. Also it appears from the precision that you report scheduled bus times, which are completely unrelated to actual bus times. Especially at peak hours.

    Due to a maternity leave I have the special joy that my most direct route home from work (via daycare) would take me straight through Kingsway@111 and University Ave-82 Ave@114st. Both areas become complete parking lots at rush hour requiring extensive waits of just sitting there idling as you get 30 second green lights to accommodate train traffic. At least on the south end, the trains are packed. Watching the sparsely populated NAIT trains is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve experienced in my 8 years in Edmonton.

    But of course I don’t do any of that much because I take alternate routes to take advantage of the city planning that actually works – the Whitemud Freeway – as much as possible. Driving out to 149st shaves 20 minutes off my drive (home is in Ermineskin). Easy. Every day.

    Now there is very little better anyone could be doing – but nobody is making a mountain out of a molehill. The train is making the roads worse than useless. Only people who don’t know any better (uh, most people) are still using them because its the most direct route.

    Lastly, because who wants to listen to me anyway, the LRT is wildly inconvenient in nearly all cases. I will take it to football and hockey games and nowhere else. Because not only are stations not near anything interesting, they are essentially not near anything at all. Save Southgate station, and possibly Central station, the stations are a significant walk from *anything at all* let alone *anything you want*. I approve of more LRT spending because I’m a crazy liberal. But I know through my feet and my brain that the LRT here just doesn’t work, would take billions to make work, and that the only thing that sorta works (cars) is irrevocably screwed so we can have an LRT that doesn’t work.

  • Josh Kjenner

    Many good points Mack but I’m still not convinced that the LRT should be run at grade through central neighbourhoods or busy intersections. Tunneling would probably be prohibitively expensive but even trenching would be a vast improvement for much of the present Metro line, and for the stretch between the main and south campus U of A stations. Even if the LRT isn’t about speed, I don’t think we should just be taking it for granted the the LRT is going to totally ruin any road it comes within 50 m of. And not even mentioned in Hopper’s article is the line’s (and, frankly, the system’s) architecture and urban design, which, excepting a few nice stations, varies between lousy and horrible.

    While I don’t think Metro line is the catastrophic failure Hopper depicts, I think it’s totally fair to say that it is representative of an unacceptably low standard of planning, engineering, and architecture/urban design.

  • Laserheart

    Google travel times are never accurate, and they do not at all take into consideration the current state of affairs. You may need to provide another, more accurate, set of statistics if you would like to provide a basis for travel time comparisons. Living near the new LRT, I can vouch for the incessant and unnecessary wait times for absolutely no reason! I have even seen pedestrians cross the tracks with the arms down for over 5 minutes because they were waiting in the cold weather and couldn’t wait any longer. I am surprised nobody has been hurt yet.

    • As I said, the Google Maps times are predictions and don’t account for weather, traffic, etc. But the LRT trip times are far more likely to match the prediction in reality than the vehicle times, which are much more likely to be longer.

  • Emu

    I love multi modal transportation options. I prefer prioritizing people, bikes, public transit, commercial vehicles, and then cars. But there are many things I hate about the Metro Line starting with the name because it tries to be an urban tram and a metro train and does neither. I now live in the Netherlands and there are so many lessons to learn here how to do it right. Why go to Edmonton, unless to learn what not to do. In most European cities (Rotterdam for example) they actually prioritize modes as I mentioned above. We have all seen diagrams showing wide sidewalks, separated bike lanes narrow roads with on street parking and centre suicide turning lanes and a lovely streetcar running down the centre. This is the norm here. It is the narrowest exception in Edmonton. Here, sidewalks are broad, bike lanes abundant, safe, and signalled. Traffic circles are abundant and at major intersections bike underpasses are created. Trams stop regularly and are geared for capacity not speed but are prioritized and don’t have to wait for traffic making them effective. Grass grows between the tracks on wider road right-of-ways and on narrow road right-of-ways the centre lane becomes an emergency vehicle access as is needed. There are no flashing lights, or dinging bells other than normal traffic lights and sufficient separation is given so residents welcome the trams. In the Metro line the train squeals while cornering on 105 St at normal speed, comes within meters of apartment balconies, forces more than 100 residential windows near Victoria School to shutter against incessant flashing lights and ringing bells every 7 minutes from early morning to after midnight. Real metros are faster with fewer stations and further from residents. These are less convenient for regular trips but can move you across the city fairly quickly. Some engineer thought they were scoring a win when EPCOR let them connect the Metro Line to the existing LRT because they got to buy double duty trains that could be used on both systems increasing capacity incase it took another half century to build the rest of the urban tram network. Unfortunately, the north line should have been a tram, like the future mill woods and stoney plane lines, with many stops at slower speeds and lower to the ground to avoid expensive stations. This would have avoided the tunnelling cost, the strange and wasteful doubling back along 105 st (costing 7 extra minutes between 1 stop), the epic electronics glitches of matching up computer programming of 1970 and 2015. Starting a new tram line next to city hall would allow each system its own program). From my understanding, the poorly planned and non-shovel ready ‘do everything’ approach was made for political and budgetary reasons, namely to take advantage of federal stimulus money for shovel ready projects. Community input was rushed, ignored, and ultimately disdained by what appear to be bureaucrats full of false confidence. The proof is in the pudding. The best that can be done is to at least make the line bearable for the poor souls who have to live next to it. Roads can and will be re-engineered and hopefully more people will choose transit or living centrally and avoid the hassle of a tram/train that should be crossing at a traffic circle instead of cutting across three roads. That’s how I feel about that. What really makes me mad though is the complete lack of integration between housing and transit. Where is the TOD around these rather expensive stations????? No, instead we have parking lot after parking lot. What a waste!

  • andrew97

    “It’s not the speed that matters” – this is simply wrong. Transit governs the speed at which road traffic moves.* This is because (surprise) most people make rational choices and will take the quickest route from A to B; and because at most times there is latent demand ready to fill up any holes in the road network, soaking up the “capacity” savings you tout. So if you design something like the Metro line that is separated from traffic but slow, you make traffic problems worse, quite apart from the traffic snarls caused by bad signal timing. I love the Edmonton LRT but the Metro line is doing it completely backwards.

    *the Downs-Thomson paradox

    • I disagree that most people choose the quickest route. An LRT trip may have a shorter overall time, and is certainly more predictable, but people still choose to drive, overwhelmingly in places like Edmonton.

      • andrew97

        I mean, you criticize Hopper for not citing his claims, but here you’re dismissing a cited claim because it contradicts your point.

        • I don’t see a cited claim. The Downs-Thomson paradox does not say that people will choose the quickest route. You’re saying you think most people take the quickest route, I’m saying they don’t, at least not if it is a choice between the car and public transit.

          • andrew97

            Just to be 100% clear, the D-T paradox was the cite, and it explicitly says speed is important, contradicting your claim. Whether or not it’s because people choose the faster route is not important; D-T could operate through another mechanism.

      • Adam

        LRT might have the shortest time if you start the clock from when the train leaves the station, but you need to account for travel time to and from the stations. Unless your home and your destination are both steps from a station, the car is going to win almost all the time.

  • The travel time on the LRT also doesn’t include the time it takes to get to the LRT station, the walk up and down onto the platform, the wait time to catch the correct train if you’re going past Churchill, getting back out of the station, and the journey to your final destination. I’ve shown this when University was built to Southgate.

    But you are correct, LRT is more than about speed. In every major city I’ve been to that built a mass transit system, the journey was almost always faster by the original bus service which preceded it. It was about decongestion, consistency, and efficiency.

  • Joel French

    Great post, Mack! Thanks for adding some level-headed substance to the conversation.

  • Arnel Santos

    Why can’t Edmonton have a LRT that extend to the Edmonton International Airport just like is San Francisco, Tokyo etc?? Are they afraid of the taxi’s? That is why Edmonton still today is called the Butthole of Canada. If I will travel outside of Canada and I only have 2 carrying luggage do you think it will be convenient for me just to use the LRT instead of asking my relatives to drop me off at the airport? City Hall officials !!! Wake Up !!!

  • Phillip Mulligan

    For now anyway, the LRT is broken and needs it’s signals fixed. It’s been reduced to an overcrowded unpredictable beast that can no longer make the timings to the LRT stations and make bus transfers a major headache. What should be moving every 7 minutes during rush hour frequently travels 12 or 15 min apart because the train conductors get poor signals and have to do wait for the go ahead only to slam very hard on the breaks as the block signal lights flash stop at the very last second. This is not how the train was intended to operate.
    The other major mistake was building the train (Metro Line) at grade or without a dedicated at grade corridor. It’s cheap now but as traffic becomes heavier it will end up like a Calgary cattle car service that keeps chronically slamming on it’s breaks to avoid hitting every Tom, Dick and Harry idiot how strays in the path of the train. The future will come back later and really sting this train system has it’s capacity is expected to double or triple in the next 10 years on a given route by my guess.
    Why can’t we copy Stockholm Sweden or Oslo Norway for winter friendly transit?

  • Mike Menzel

    My concern would be ambulance access to RAH from the west. What if a patient dies because an ambulance has to take a detour?

  • Great post Mack, love the info-graphic!

  • g.gustafson

    The main point of all of this is that thousands of emails were written to city hall well before construction ever started. City hall went ahead with the project knowing fully well what the end result would be. It was built above ground on purpose according to a memo sent to transportation dept. with the goal being to frustrate drivers out of their vehicles and onto the LRT. A writer from McDougall community crunched #’s which showed that the LRT could be done underground for $37 million more than what they were budgeting for. It was published in The Journal letters .He was ignored. Were you not around back then or were you just willfully ignorant? That’s how business was done under Mayor Steven Mandel on many civic projects. Don Iveson is his protege in this regard. When you have the time get the operations budget for the LRT and divide it by ridership. You’ll be horrified to see what the cost per person is. It’s no wonder we’re taxed to death.