Photo Tour: ETS Centennial Garage

About two months ago at the Youth Summit on Sustainable Transportation I had the opportunity to tour Edmonton Transit’s Centennial Garage, located at Ellerslie Road and 156 Street. The name commemorates Edmonton Transit’s 100th anniversary of service. The facility, which officially opened on April 10, 2010, primarily serves neighbourhoods in the west and southwest parts of Edmonton.

ETS Centennial Garage

The garage has space to store and maintain at least 250 buses, but is also home to administration offices as well as dispatch and support. More than 250 fleet services and bus operations staff work at the facility (that includes 200 operators).

ETS Centennial Garage ETS Centennial Garage

The building is massive, encompassing 7.1 acres (or 313,000 square feet, approximately five football fields). The budget for the garage was $99 million, $89.3 million of which came from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI). It was designed and built to LEED Silver standards, with features such as a solar wall for heating. Croy D. Yee Architect Ltd, Morrison Hershfield Limited, Earthscape Consultants, and Clark Builders were involved in the design and construction of the building.

ETS Centennial Garage

Some of the building materials used include 31 miles of electrical conduit, 1325 imperial tons of steel (structural steel was made up of 90% recycled content), 11,800 cubic metres of concrete (27.5% was reycled content), 3300 sprinkler heads, and 81 miles of in slab heating pipe.

ETS Centennial Garage

The Centennial Garage is the first garage in Edmonton designed to handle ETS’ 13 articulated buses, with a special hoist that can lift the 20-metre, three-axled vehicles.

ETS Centennial Garage

The storage part of the garage was fairly empty when we visted, as most buses were out on the road. It as neat to see the buses that were present parked nose to tail in long lines.

ETS Centennial Garage

ETS Centennial Garage

The high pressure wash system is what gets the buses nice and clean on the way into the garage. Apparently they had to turn the pressure down from the original setting, because it was causing the decals and advertising on the buses to come right off! In addition to being powerful, the system was specifically designed to cut down on water use by more than half.

ETS Centennial Garage

There are state-of-the-art systems in the building for monitoring carbon monoxide levels and maintaining comfortable heat and humidity. Energy modeling results indicate that the Centennial Garage is 33% more energy efficient than a typical building of its size and type.

ETS Centennial Garage

The ride out to the garage seemed to take forever (it’s really far south west) but it was definitely worth it to get a closer look at one of the facilities that keeps ETS running smoothly!

ETS Centennial Garage

You can see more photos from the tour here.

Bringing Smart Bus technology to Edmonton

On Tuesday the Transportation & Public Works Committee will receive a report on Smart Bus technology. In short, Smart Bus technology is actually a collection of technologies that will help modernize Edmonton Transit’s entire fleet of nearly 1000 buses. It includes things like automated stop announcements, automated vehicle monitoring, and yes, GPS location services.

There are a number of reasons that this technology is becoming necessary. For instance, between 2000 and 2009:

  • Annual ridership increased from 43 million to 68 million (60% increase)
  • Annual service hours increased from 1.56 million to 2.08 million (30% increase)
  • Annual passenger concerns increased from 8,327 to 13,616 (60% increase)

During the same timeframe, the number of staff to manage service and concerns increased from 25 to 30, which is just a 20% increase. In other words, “staffing has not kept pace with the growth and complexity of the increased workload.” I would add that if we really want to shift Edmonton’s transportation modes, we need to ensure our transit system is modern and efficient.

That’s where Smart Bus technology comes in. The technologies include:

  • Automatic Vehicle Location
  • Computer-Aided Dispatch
  • On-board Mobile Data Terminals
  • Real-Time Passenger Information Systems
  • Automated Stop Announcements
  • Automated Vehicle Monitoring

What will those technologies do for the day-to-day transit rider? Automated Vehicle Location and Real-Time Passenger Information Systems means no more waiting outside when it is 30 degrees below zero for a bus that is running late – you’ll be able to see the real-time location of your bus using the web or a mobile device. Computer-Aided Dispatch and On-board Mobile Data Terminals means that three buses on your route will never be running together – they’ll be evenly spaced out and thus will stay closer to the schedule because ETS control will know where they are and can provide direction. Automated Vehicle Monitoring means fewer buses broken down on the road, and fewer spare buses sitting in the garage – it’ll help ETS monitor the health of its vehicles to ensure they stay on the roads.

The other technology, Automated Stop Announcements, is really what drove this report in the first place. In some jurisdictions, calling out stops has become law, and there have been fines handed out when drivers failed to call out stops. There is no such legislation here, at least not yet, but we shouldn’t have to wait for that to happen. Automated Stop Announcements is an important accessibility feature of modern transit systems, and helps to support Edmonton’s diverse community of transit riders.

The report has been written to highlight the direct benefits to Edmontonians, but there’s important benefits for ETS itself too. The fleet size for 2011 is 959 buses, and that number is not getting any smaller. It’s amazing how much is done manually at the moment, and how “in the dark” ETS control is most of the time. There is no live telemetry from buses right now, which means any information control does receive is via radio transmission. I have heard that even on a normal day, there are a couple thousand calls into control from drivers. Furthermore, bus maintenance is difficult at best right now. There is scheduled maintenance of course, oil changes, etc., but really until a bus breaks down and must be towed into the garage, ETS doesn’t know if something is wrong. And because of the size of the fleet, the garage is packed – buses are parked nose to tail. The automated vehicle monitoring would let ETS know if something was wrong on a bus currently on the roads, and would enable them to pull problem buses into a “trouble lane” when they come back into the garage.

In the implementation details, the report says that tapping into the City’s open data catalogue “could” be possible. I think that once we have GPS technology on the buses, making that information available to citizens is vitally important and should be considered a “must”. In other cities with the technology, coffee shops have mounted LCD screens that show when nearby buses have arrived (kind of like airport display screens). Citizens always know where the bus is simply by glancing at their mobile device. ETS cannot be expected to write all of that software – Edmontonians will, as long as the data is made available (likely as an API rather than in the catalogue, because the data is “live”).

According to the report, outfitting the entire fleet with all of this technology would cost $32.7 million, and would cost $4.3 million to operate each year. It would take between three and five years to roll out completely. A pilot has been proposed (for 50 buses covering 2 routes) which would cost $3.4 million and would likely start by September 2012. For budgetary purposes, a second option has been included, which is just the Automated Stop Announcements. That would cost $11.5 million to equip the entire fleet, and would cost $1.2 million  to operate each year. The corresponding pilot would cost $2 million.

City Council likes options, but they shouldn’t have one in this case. Going with just part of the technology doesn’t make sense. It’ll deliver only partial benefits today, and will cost much more in the future to add the other technologies (which we will have to do at some point). Furthermore, if the Smart Bus technologies are separated, that opens the door for multiple vendors and thus integration problems. I really hope Council recognizes the importance of having all of the Smart Bus technology together at once and doesn’t delay unnecessarily (though I do think it would be worthwhile to figure out if/how Smart Bus technology can be deployed alongside the proposed civic smart card).

I think $33 million to make Smart Bus technology happen across the entire ETS fleet is worth it. The notion of using commodity GPS systems (like cheap cell phones) is attractive, but probably unrealistic given the harsh environment of a bus (hardware needs to be hardened and you can’t be running out to replace components all the time) and other operating requirements. The suite of Smart Bus technologies will provide major benefits to both riders and to ETS itself. And to be frank, the proposed budget is a rounding error compared to the amount of money we plan to spend on LRT, and we need buses to efficiently feed our LRT system to really get the return on investment that is possible.

Let’s bring Smart Bus technology to Edmonton!

You can see the report and attachments here, and you can follow along on Tuesday here.

Start offering bus service to EIA from Century Park!

The Transportation and Public Works Committee will be discussing the issue of transit service to Edmonton International Airport (EIA) today. Let me start by saying that I would certainly take a bus to the airport from Century Park if it existed, and that I think public transit to the airport is extremely important. Or as Councillor Don Iveson said so well:

This is one of those litmus tests of whether we’re a city or a town.

I’d like us to be a city.

There are two key reports that are relevant here. The first was written by the Edmonton Transit System Advisory Board (ETSAB), and it recommends that an experimental ETS bus service operate from Century Park to EIA. You no doubt heard about it in the news. The second was written by the Transportation Department, and it recommends that the City of Edmonton not proceed unilaterally with operating service to the airport.

As part of its report, ETSAB did a survey of about 600 passengers in October 2009 and found the following:

The highlight result is that a remarkable 53% of passenger respondents said they are likely or very likely to use airport transit to and from Century Park. Only 1 in 4 of these EIA passengers (13% of all passengers) need actually follow through with their indicated likely usage, and the service will be profitable. Only 1 in 8 of these supporters (7% of all passengers) need follow through for 50% cost recovery level to be achieved.

The accuracy of that survey was not demonstrated, and the Transportation Department’s report rightly pointed that out.

Transportation’s report also makes note of the Capital Region Board’s role in all of this, and I agree it makes sense for surrounding communities to take part. That said, I think Edmonton should be proactive about transit service to the airport.

Beyond that, the report from Transportation just doesn’t add up. Here are the questions I have about it:

  • Why is there such a focus on 100% cost recovery, when the rest of ETS operates at about 45%? Only “special event service” and charters are subject to 100% cost recovery, and even with planned fare increases to $3 by 2013, cost recovery is only expected to rise to about 54% (see Transit System Fare Policy C451D for more info)
  • Why are three new buses required and why would the total cost to acquire them be “at least $1.5 million”? First of all, based on 2008 data (large PDF), the City has no lack of spare buses. With a fleet size of 821 40’ diesels, there are at least 146 spare buses available at any given time, 19 of which are reserved for emergency deployment. So wouldn’t it be cheaper to find a way to reduce the number held for maintenance from 127 to 124? And even if we did want new buses, where does the $1.5 million figure come from? Based on the May 2008 report (large PDF) that discussed trolley buses, the cost for a diesel bus in 2010 was expected to be $425,000 whereas the cost for a hybrid was expected to be $650,000.
  • Of course, the type of bus chosen has an impact on operating costs, which for some reason are $254,000 more in the City report than in the ETSAB report (even though ETSAB used a figure provided by ETS). That same report on trolley buses found that maintenance costs for the hybrid and diesel buses are similar, but that the hybrids use 15% to 20% less fuel.

And perhaps most importantly, why do both reports focus on a ticket price of just $2.50? Especially considering adult fares are up to $2.75 now. I’d be willing to bet that most people who’d use the service would be willing to pay more. I don’t think $5 or perhaps even $10 is out of the question.

And then, on top of all of that, there’s this article in the Edmonton Sun:

The city’s transportation department is proposing to build a dedicated bus lane along the future LRT corridor from city boundaries to the Edmonton International Airport.

So they’re saying bus service to the airport is too expensive, but they want to build an expensive dedicated bus lane for bus service we don’t even offer? To be fair, this was in response to what could be done to move people were the City successful in its bid for EXPO 2017. Still, Transportation boss Bob Boutilier was quoted as saying:

“There are opportunities to build up that ridership now. The cost of building a bus way is a lot less than an LRT route but people will see the value as ridership crawls up and progresses to a higher capacity.”

I can think of a way to build up ridership right now – start offering bus service to EIA from Century Park!