We need to improve public transit between downtown and Old Strathcona

Living downtown, I have excellent access to public transit. The Bay/Enterprise Square LRT stop is just down the block, and major bus routes like the 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9 are all just a short walk away. As a result, I try to take transit whenever I can. While most of my activities and appointments are downtown, the other two key areas for me are 124 Street and Old Strathcona. Travelling to 124 Street or nearly anywhere in-between is quick and easy, but the same cannot be said for getting to Old Strathcona.

If I want to meet with someone who is on the southside, Old Strathcona is an ideal location. It’s also a popular spot for evening events, and of course the unique shops and restaurants along Whyte Avenue are a draw. But I always dread travelling to the area from downtown because it’s almost always easier to drive. Given that Old Strathcona is very central and not very far from downtown, I find that hard to swallow.

If I want to go to High Street, I have a number of options. Google Maps tells me that getting from the Sobeys on Jasper Avenue at 104 Street to the Mountain Equipment Co-op at 124 Street and 102 Avenue should take about 5 minutes to drive (it’s about 2.6 km). If I wanted to walk, which I have done in the summer, it takes about 35 minutes. The bus falls in-between those two, at anywhere from 13 minutes to 21 minutes, depending on the route. More importantly though, I have a number of options, and never have to wait very long. Here are two scenarios.

Let’s say I wanted to get there by 2pm on a weekday. There are many options to choose from:

  • Route 135 departs at 1:35pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 111 departs at 1:40pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk
  • Route 5 departs at 1:42pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 1 departs at 1:43pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 2 departs at 1:47pm and takes 6 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk

And if I miss those, I’m not waiting around forever. At that time of day, route 135 comes every 15 minutes. So does routes 1 and 2. Route 5 and 111 run every 30 minutes.

Let’s say I wanted to get there by 7pm instead. Again, on a weekday, we have a number of options:

  • Route 120 departs at 6:38pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 5 departs at 6:42pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 1 departs at 6:43pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 2 departs at 6:50pm and takes 5 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk

Again, both routes 1 and 5 run very frequently (actually less than 15 minutes according to Google Maps).

Now let’s compare that with travelling to Old Strathcona. According to Google Maps, the trip from Sobeys on Jasper Avenue at 104 Street to Starbucks on Whyte Avenue at Calgary Trail should take about 9 minutes to drive (it’s about 3.9 km). I haven’t actually tried it (at least not directly) but walking should take about 45 minutes.

Now how about taking transit? Here are your options:

  • Route 52 departs at 1:19pm and takes 20 minutes, followed by a 3 minute walk
  • Route 7 departs at 1:20pm and takes 21 minutes
  • LRT to University departs at 1:32pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 57, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • LRT to University departs at 1:42pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer (gets you there 4 minutes late)
  • Route 57 departs at 1:44pm and takes 17 minutes, preceded by a 9 minute walk (gets you there 1 minute late)

Two of those options include a transfer from the LRT to the bus, which is less than ideal. But the real issue is that these routes do not run that frequently. If you miss the 7, you’re waiting half an hour. Same thing with the 52. And those two routes are only 1 minute apart from each other, which means you really are waiting another half hour.

For completeness, let’s look at 7pm again. Here are the options:

  • LRT to University departs at 6:23pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • LRT to University departs at 6:33pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 5 minute ride on route 7, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • Route 7 departs at 6:39pm and takes 22 minutes (gets you there 1 minute late)
  • LRT to University departs at 6:43pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer (gets you there 6 minutes late)

Aside from route 7, which only runs every 30 minutes, you basically have to take the LRT and then transfer.

The numbers only tell part of the story. There’s also the actual experience of taking both trips. Going from downtown to High Street is a breeze – with so many routes running down Jasper Avenue, you don’t have to wait long until a bus comes that you can get on. Going from downtown to Old Strathcona is the opposite, especially if you decide to wait at the main stop across from Hotel MacDonald – you see sometimes half a dozen route 8 buses go by before your bus ever comes. It’s depressing.

I definitely feel that travelling between downtown and Old Strathcona on public transit should be better. Is ridership an issue, is that why we don’t have more options or more frequent service? It does seem like a route that could be popular, and it certainly seems like a route that should be easier to travel.

Tomorrow a report on the LRT Central Area Circulator is going to the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The Circulator would essentially cover the route I’m talking about – downtown to Old Strathcona. Here’s a look at the map:

The highlighted section would extend from the current Health Sciences Station west to the Bonnie Doon Station on the Southeast LRT line. The alignment for this extension has not been identified yet, but it looks from the map as though it might run slightly south of 82 Avenue. The report highlights the importance of this segment:

Lack of clarity regarding this segment of the LRT network creates public uncertainty. Developing an alignment in full consultation with community stakeholders will improve public understanding around the network, particularly regarding the alignment through the Strathcona and University areas and how the line will cross the river near 109 Street. Designation as a future LRT connection to the Southeast and West LRT line would clarify land use expectations and improve the likelihood of densification and other transit oriented development.

While the recommendation is simply to receive the report, it sounds like funding may finally be coming to allow Administration to move forward:

In order to complete this planning exercise, a one-time budget request is included in the 2013 Operating Budget as an Unfunded Service Package. This budget would be used to retain a consultant to develop an alignment recommendation for the Central Area LRT Circulator.

I think this extension to the LRT would make a lot of sense, but it’s still a long way off. In the meantime, I think either more frequent bus service or additional bus routes between downtown and Old Strathcona would be welcome.

There are two other options worth mentioning. The first is that you could cycle the trip from downtown to Old Strathcona, which Google Maps estimates would take 18 minutes. That’s less than ideal in the winter, but it could be done. Cycling is definitely something I’d like to do more of next year, and it’s exactly this kind of trip that cycling would be perfect for.

The second option is the High Level Streetcar. From the May long weekend until Labour Day, it runs daily every forty minutes (between 11am and 3pm, except during the Fringe when it runs until 10pm). I think the Edmonton Radial Railway Society does a great job running the line, but perhaps we should operationalize it. The track is already there, and while there’s not much in the way of stops along the way, the route is great for getting from downtown to Old Strathcona and back again.

It shouldn’t be so hard to take transit across the river!

The story of how I fell out of love with driving

When I got my current car, a 2005 Honda Civic, my Dad bought me a gas mileage book and told me to record each and every time I filled up. I have been diligently recording the date, odometer reading, number of litres, gas price per litre, and total cost of each fillup ever since. I also record notes on some fillups, such as out-of-town trips. A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Nora Young’s trip to Edmonton to discuss self-tracking, I finally decided to digitize the records. It occurred to me that this was the first bit of self-tracking I ever did. I know that I drive far less today than I did when I got the car, and I wanted to be able to visualize that. You can see the charts below, but to really understand them, I need to share a bit of history with you first.

The moment I turned 14, I was ready to get my learner’s permit. Like most guys my age I desperately wanted to drive, even if I needed to have an adult with me. I got the study guide, but didn’t spend too much time with it. As a result, when I went to write the test, I failed by one question (it was something to do with uncontrolled railway crossings if I remember correctly). I made sure to not let that happen again, and the second time I passed with no problems. I was living with my Grandma at the time, and she was great about letting me drive. Whenever we went to the grocery store or if she was dropping me off somewhere, she’d happily take the passenger seat.

I took lessons from AMA to learn how to drive a manual transmission, and took the driver’s test soon after I turned 16. With only a few minor hiccups I passed, and was free to drive on my own (fortunately I got in just before the GDL program took effect, so I had no limitations). When I was in high school, I drove a lot. I thought nothing of crossing the city to get somewhere or to drive a friend home. Gas prices were quite a bit lower at the time than they are today, but looking back it still seems incredibly wasteful how much I would drive.

When I started attending the University of Alberta, I would frequently drive. Sometimes I’d park at campus, other times I would get a ride with a friend, but most times I would park at the Stadium LRT Station and take the train the rest of the way (also handy because my office was downtown). I would sometimes take the bus, but I never made that a habit.

Shortly after I graduated in the spring of 2007, I started working at Questionmark. Our office was located near The Brick warehouse in the northwest part of the city, and I was still living with my Grandma in the southeast. That meant driving about 60 kilometers every day, and it meant driving the very busy Whitemud. I looked at taking the bus, but it would have taken about 45 minutes and required a transfer.

In May 2008, I moved into an apartment in Oliver with my sister. That cut the distance to work significantly, though I still drove every day. Roughly a year later, with our local team growing at Questionmark, we decided to move the office downtown to the Empire Building. I started taking the bus to and from work every day, because it was just a short trip (about a 15 minute ride) and I didn’t want to pay for parking.

In the summer of 2010, Sharon and I moved into our current place on 104 Street. I’m now just a short walk away from the office (Google estimates 9 minutes), which means I walk to and from work every day. As we have written before, I absolutely love it.

To recap quickly:

  • June 2005 to July 2007: I drove pretty much everywhere.
  • July 2007 to May 2008: I drove across the city to get to work every day. I regularly drove other places.
  • May 2008 to May 2009: I still drove to work every day, but the distance is much shorter.
  • May 2009 to July 2010: I took the bus to work, and drove only on evenings and weekends.
  • July 2010 to present: I walk to work, and avoid driving whenever possible.

Here’s what that behavior looks like on a graph:

distance by year

I think the four big shifts are pretty evident in that graph. Slowly but surely, I have been reducing any dependence on my car to get around.

Out of interest, here’s what that behavior cost me at the pump:

spend by year

I wish I had kept records prior to 2005, because I know the price of gas was quite a bit less when I first started driving.

What’s not captured in this data is how my attitude toward driving has changed over the years. It sounds counterintuitive, but the less time I spent behind the wheel the less I enjoyed it. I remember arguing with Sharon back in my university days about how terrible our public transit system was (she has always been a regular user). I loved driving and wanted nothing to do with the bus. Today we use the car maybe once a week, for trips to Superstore, to visit family, or to get out of town, and I regularly complain if I need to drive for pretty much any other reason. I would much rather walk or take the bus. I now find driving quite stressful! I’m sure that the shift from driving to walking has positively impacted my health. It has no doubt lowered my carbon footprint by quite a bit as well.

Also missing from the above charts are the other changes that have made my move away from the car possible. Without question, being able to use Google Maps to lookup bus routes has been hugely beneficial. Text messaging at bus stops has also made the experience of using the bus much more positive. My experience traveling in other cities has no doubt had a big impact on me as well. The are lots of things to consider.

As much as I would like to go car-free, it’s just not a very realistic option in Edmonton at the moment. I’m hopeful that will change however, and that our next car will be our last (though I recognize that other life changes may significantly affect that plan).

In an effort to better understand my behavior and potentially change it, I have been tracking my travel habits every day this year. In January, I’ll be able to show you a full year of data, including how often and how far I traveled by foot, bicycle, automobile, bus, train, plane, etc. Stay tuned!