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!