Federal Budget 2016, Sprawling Edmonton, Riverview Name Debate

Here’s the latest entry in my Edmonton Etcetera series, in which I share some thoughts on a few topical items in one post. Less than I’d write in a full post on each, but more than I’d include in Edmonton Notes. Have feedback? Let me know!

Federal Budget 2016

The Government of Canada introduced Budget 2016 today, saying it is “a plan that takes important steps to revitalize the Canadian economy, and delivers real change for the middle class and those working hard to join it.” The budget projects a $29.4 billion deficit. Here’s a video titled Restoring Hope for the Middle Class that highlights some of the budget commitments:

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) called the budget “a big win for Canadians” and says it will “transform the way we build cities and communities and marks a new era of federal-municipal partnership.” They like the investments the government is making in housing, transit, and green infrastructure, as well as the “new cost-sharing funding model” that will have a shorter-term impact while longer-term funding agreements are worked out.

Mayor Don Iveson is the Chair of FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus. Here’s what he had to say:

“This budget and the new, stronger working relationship between the federal government and municipalities really marks a new way of getting things done for Canadians. This introduces a new era of collaboration which will see us build stronger cities and a stronger Canada.”

The budget outlines a five-year, $11.9 billion infrastructure spending plan. There’s a focus on public transit, with $3.4 billion over three years being invested according to each province’s share of national ridership. For Alberta, with 10.28% of Canada’s public transit ridership, that works out to just over $347 million. There’s also an increase in eligible costs for public transit projects up to 50% which is a big improvement. Another $2.3 billion of the infrastructure plan will go to affordable housing over two years, $739 million of which is for investments in housing for First Nations, Inuit, and Norther Communities. About $112 million of the affordable housing allocation is to help cities tackle homelessness.

Budget 2016 extends EI regular benefits by 5 weeks, but only in three of Alberta’s four EI regions – not in Edmonton. That’s because we did not experience a large enough increase in our unemployment rate between March 2015 and February 2016. Provincially the changes could be worth about $380 million.

Like all cities, Edmonton faces major challenges around the maintenance and replacement of aging infrastructure. Budget 2016 includes funding of $50 million for infrastructure management and measurement, which should help cities collect the data required to inform decision-making. Getting a better handle on the project will be a good thing.

Sprawling Edmonton

As mentioned a couple of days ago, Council is revisiting the discussion about sprawl in our city thanks to a report that projects the City will face a $1.4 billion shortfall after building out the three Urban Growth Areas. On top of this, another $8.3 billion in non-residential assessment growth is needed to maintain the current ratio of residential to non-residential tax assessment. That’s the real reason the City is pursuing annexation, though you won’t find it in the “three reasons for annexation”.

Edmonton from Above
Edmonton from Above, photo by Dave Cournoyer

In an editorial this week, the Journal wrote:

“Now is not the time to add to chills in the development industry, but the status quo is not a good option either.”

We need to stop worrying about the development industry and worry instead about Edmonton. Mayor Iveson put it like this in a recent blog post:

“This is a critical conversation happening in cities all across Canada; I intentionally use the word ‘critical’ because Edmonton is simply not financially sustainable under our current growth model.”

The word “sprawl” is carefully avoided in both the editorial and the mayor’s post. But that’s what it is.

Riverview Name Debate

One of the three Urban Growth Areas is Riverview, where planning for neighbourhoods is well underway. Names were proposed for five neighbourhoods, and both the developers and the Naming Committee agreed on two: Grandisle and White Birch. The other three names proposed were “The Uplands”, “Red Willow”, and “River’s Edge” but the Naming Committee went with “Balsam Woods”, “Golden Willow”, and “River Alder” instead. The developers appealed, which is how the issue came before Council today.

Paula Simons wrote about the issue with her signature brand of wit:

“If the developer’s chosen names are poor, the city’s aren’t much better. Balsam Wood sounds like something you use to build model airplanes. River Alder doesn’t trip off the tongue and west Edmonton already has an Aldergrove. It’s hard to take sides in this fight when both sets of names are so depressingly bland.”

We already have The Uplands of Mactaggart too.

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Today, after an amusing debate, Council approved the developers’ proposed names. In discussing the importance of names, Councillor Loken said:

“If someone doesn’t like the name of a neighbourhood, they’re probably not going to live there…But Red Willow, Golden Willow? I don’t know.”

Maybe that’s how we can solve our sprawl problem!

Uber suspends service, TappCar prepares to launch, Alberta seeks transit strategy input

Here’s the latest entry in my Edmonton Etcetera series, in which I share some thoughts on a few topical items in one post. Less than I’d write in a full post on each, but more than I’d include in Edmonton Notes. Have feedback? Let me know!

Uber suspends service in Edmonton

Today the City’s new Vehicle for Hire Bylaw came into effect. It should have been a great day for Uber and its supporters, but unfortunately the company was forced to suspend operations due to being unable to obtain sufficient insurance to meet Provincial regulations. The Province announced its plan for what it calls “ride-for-hire services” yesterday. There are three key areas in which the Province is taking action:

  • “Insurance: by July 1, an interim insurance product that will provide adequate coverage to Uber drivers and their passengers will be in place. The interim insurance framework has been approved by the Superintendent of Insurance.”
  • “Licensing: all ride-for-hire drivers, including Uber, will continue to require Class 4 Driver Licences or better.”
  • “Police Checks: regulations will be amended to require all ride-for-hire drivers to have a police information check conducted by police.”

It’s the July 1 date for insurance that is the big problem. Brian Mason, Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation, tweeted that Uber “has known all along that insurance wouldn’t be ready til summer.” But Uber said it only learned of the timeline yesterday and apparently neither did City Council.

Uber did say that it would continue operating in surrounding communities like St. Albert where there is no approved regulation, which apparently caught Brian Mason by surprise. “I had not been aware that Uber was going to try and deliberately operate against the law,” he told CBC Edmonton. “That concerns me a great deal and we’ll be having some conversations with our officials.” Umm…where exactly has he been for the last year?

TappCar and other PTPs prepare to launch

According to the City, five regional (Metro Airport, Anytime Taxi, Cowboy Taxi, Dollar Cab and a Private Individual) and one commercial (Tapp Car) Private Transportation Providers (PTP) have been granted licenses under the new bylaw. Not much is known yet about the regional PTPs, but TappCar does look rather interesting and has been featured in the media in recent days.

TappCar
Image courtesy of TappCar

TappCar is a local company that promises “a new standard of service…that is convenient, reliable and safe.” They having been working to sign up drivers for their launch.

“TappCar offers an industry-leading mobile app, in addition to phone and web booking. Vehicles are guaranteed to be of comfortable size and quality. Drivers are properly insured and professionally licensed, and each vehicle has a two way camera installed, ensuring every ride is safe.”

You’ll be able to book a car using their app, website, or by calling the dispatch. TappCar is planning to launch mid-March if all goes well.

Provincial Transit Strategy

Today the Province announced it is looking for input on a new transit strategy for Alberta:

“There will be two streams of engagement – urban and rural – and an online public survey, all of which will inform the development of an overall provincial transit strategy and criteria for future funding for municipal transit initiatives and rural bus service.”

For the purposes of the strategy, urban communities are defined as having more than 10,000 residents with rural communities having fewer than 10,000. Clearly there’s a difference between the transit needs of Wetaskiwin with 13,000 people and Edmonton with more than 870,000, however.

Both Calgary and Edmonton have made it very clear that investing in public transit is a key priority. The big cities face unique transportation challenges, and require financial support from the Province to deal with them. Having said that, there are some common trends happening across Alberta, like the fact that young people are increasingly choosing other methods of transportation besides driving.

“In 2014, 67.2 per cent of Albertans age 18 to 24 held any class of Alberta drivers’ licence, down from 70.9 per cent in 2005.”

You can provide input on the strategy here until April 29, 2016.

Edmonton is in the middle of revamping its own Transit Strategy, a process that is expected to wrap up in the middle of 2017. Initial feedback was that Edmontonians want a fast, frequent, and reliable transit network that connects them to major destinations like work, school, and shopping, and that they place a high value on having a safe & secure, easy to use system.

The Metro Line is open: Edmonton’s LRT now extends north to NAIT

Today the oft-delayed Metro Line LRT extension from Churchill Station to NAIT opened. The 3.3 km extension adds a second operational line to Edmonton’s LRT Network Plan, and features the first new stations in four years. But today’s launch was very different than the two most previous extension openings, to South Campus in 2009 and Century Park in 2011. Those extensions opened with great fanfare featuring politicians making speeches and shaking hands. The Metro Line opened quietly this morning with no ceremony.

MacEwan LRT Station
Train to NAIT leaves MacEwan Station

The Metro Line features three new stations: MacEwan, Kingsway/Royal Alex, and NAIT. The extension is expected to add 13,200 weekday riders to the system, and ETS says it has “capacity for considerable growth” once the line eventually extends into St. Albert.

The service that launched today isn’t exactly what was planned, of course. The line has been repeatedly delayed, ostensibly due to issues with the signalling system. The Metro Line was planned to open in April 2014, but here we are in September 2015 with what the City is calling a “staged approach” to bringing it into service. Here’s what that means:

  • Metro Line trains will run every 15 minutes between Century Park and NAIT.
  • They will also occasionally run between Health Sciences/Jubilee and NAIT (weekdays after 10pm, Saturdays after 7pm, and all day Sundays).
  • Every third train running between Churchill and Century Park will be a three-car Metro Line train (most of the time).
  • Trains are operating with “line of sight” which restricts the speed of trains between MacEwan and NAIT to 25 km/h, half the planned speed.
  • This means travel time between Churchill Station and NAIT is approximately 14 minutes.

Sharon and I decided to check out the new extension this afternoon, starting our journey from our home station at Bay/Enterprise Square. It’s been chilly and raining all day (and still is as I write this) but that didn’t stop us!

Bay/Enterprise Square LRT Station

The Metro Line was designed to operate between NAIT and the existing Health Sciences Station, so both the Metro Line and Capital Line share the stations in between (and actually will share stations all the way to Century Park as part of this interim service). That means you need to pay attention to the destination of the train you’re boarding.

Edmonton LRT
On the train!

Though there are clear announcements, this is going to be an issue for new riders. As our train was leaving Churchill Station, another announcement was made and a couple in front of us realized they had gotten on the wrong line. I expect this’ll happen quite a bit over the next few weeks.

It’s just a few moments after the track returns above ground that you arrive at MacEwan Station. I would not be surprised at all if it is renamed MacEwan/Rogers Place at some point in the future. The new arena is such a major part of the station that it almost seems inappropriate that it’s not reflected in the name!

MacEwan LRT Station
MacEwan LRT Station

This station we had previously explored as it’s just a short walk from home. Thinking about it now, it would have been much faster to walk and catch the train there than waiting for a Metro Line train to take us from Bay/Enterprise Square.

MacEwan LRT Station
Future walkway to Rogers Place (and 104 Street) from MacEwan Station

MacEwan Station is just a short walk across 105 Street to MacEwan University. The landscaping and park around the station is quite attractive, though it can be a little confusing at first where to enter and exit the platform (at least from the west side).

MacEwan LRT Station
MacEwan Station

Upon leaving MacEwan Station you immediately notice the reduced speed of the train. It feels comically slow at times. Still, riding the train to NAIT or Kingsway is certainly convenient, even if it takes a few minutes longer than expected.

Kingsway/Royal Alex LRT Station

Aside from being close to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, the Kingsway/Royal Alex station is also adjacent to the relatively new bus terminal. If you’re a transit rider, the new station is going to be great. If you’re a driver though, be prepared to wait.

Kingsway/Royal Alex LRT Station

The longest wait seemed to be for cars turning east onto 111 Avenue from 106 Street. There wasn’t much traffic today, so the waits probably weren’t too bad, but during rush hour I could see a 10 minute or longer wait being very realistic. The rumor flying around this weekend is that waits will last 16 minutes or more, but the City says this won’t be the case. “To be clear — the City does not expect the Metro Line to cause 16 minute traffic delays at these intersections all the time,” they wrote.

Kingsway/Royal Alex LRT Station
Trains pass each other at Kingsway/Royal Alex Station

I really like the design of the station, with its enclosed, heated waiting areas and very attractive wood features. Oddly though, it’s probably faster to walk to Kingsway Mall from NAIT Station than it is from Kingsway/Royal Alex Station. That’s because you have to cross two roads to get to Kingsway Mall, not to mention waiting for trains to go by (which are slower than normal, remember). So this will probably be the station I use least, unless I need to make a bus transfer.

NAIT LRT Station

Once the train very slowly makes its way up 106 Street and across Princess Elizabeth Avenue, you arrive at NAIT Station. This is going to be a big win for students and means that all of our major education institutions are now more or less connected via LRT (with NorQuest getting even better connectivity when the Valley Line LRT opens).

NAIT LRT Station
NAIT Station with Kingsway Mall to the left

As mentioned it’s just a short walk across Princess Elizabeth Avenue to the Sears side of Kingsway Mall. Unfortunately the sidewalk ends almost as soon as you get to the south side of the street, and you’re left dodging vehicles racing in and out of the parkade. That’s one improvement that could definitely be made.

NAIT LRT Station
The current end of the line at NAIT

NAIT Station is currently the end of the line, but if you look northwest you can see what will eventually become Blatchford (which will have its own LRT station).

At NAIT Station
Selfie at NAIT Station!

Even though this “staged approach” is not ideal, it’s very exciting to have the Metro Line open at long last. Our experience today was very positive, but the real test will come Tuesday morning as students are back to school and everyone else is back to work. You can learn more about the Metro Line opening at the Transforming Edmonton blog.

Lincoln Ho of Yegventures rode the very first train this morning – watch his YouTube feed for the video. You can see more photos from our trip today here.

P3, or not P3? That’s the question as we try to fund Edmonton’s future LRT

In October of last year, Council approved the use of a public-private partnership (P3) to fund the Southeast to West LRT project. The decision came just days after the new LRT Governance Board was established, but it was largely overshadowed by the downtown arena news that week. Today Mayor Mandel announced, along with Minister of Finance Ted Menzies and Minister of Public Works and Government Services Rona Ambrose, that PPP Canada will invest up to $250 million to support the construction of the new LRT extension. While the funding is welcome, it is $150 million less than the City was hoping to receive from the federal government (the rest may come from a future Federal Infrastructure Plan).

“The City of Edmonton welcomes this important funding announcement by the federal government,” said Mayor Stephen Mandel. “The Southeast to West LRT is a key part of our transportation infrastructure. It will connect communities in Mill Woods and southeast Edmonton to the central core and is essential to our plans for building a better, more accessible city.”

The decision to apply for funding through PPP Canada was not an easy one, but Council did not have much of a choice. The City simply cannot afford to build the LRT on its own – the provincial and federal governments must come to the table. Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated as such by those involved, it seems the only way the Government of Canada would provide funding was through the P3 Canada fund. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been vocal about his concern around being cornered into a P3, saying “the real problem is that the only dedicated federal funding at this moment is through P3 Canada.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the very big issue that the federal government is essentially dictating how municipalities should build and maintain their infrastructure. If given a choice, would we pick a P3 to build our LRT network?

What is a P3?

A public-private partnership is basically an approach to delivering and optionally operating and/or maintaining a project. Here’s how PPP Canada defines a P3:

“P3s are a long-term performance-based approach for procuring public infrastructure where the private sector assumes a major share of the responsibility in terms of risk and financing for the delivery and the performance of the infrastructure, from design and structural planning, to long-term maintenance.”

In theory, a P3 can help to ensure projects are delivered on-time and on-budget. The idea is that having the expertise of the private sector can lead to better, more innovative solutions. Another benefit of a P3 is that the private sector takes on a share of the risk, which means that there is a profit motive to ensure the project is done well (at least in theory). This is often referred to as “pay for performance”.

The other thing that is important to know about the P3 approach is that there are a variety of different delivery models. With traditional procurement, the public sector is responsible for the design of an asset like a bridge or school, with construction being contracted out to the private sector through a competitive bidding process. After construction, the asset is handed back to the public sector for operation and maintenance. This model is known as Design-Build (DB).

Using a P3 for the procurement of new assets, there are three delivery models to consider:

  • Design-Build-Finance (DBF)
  • Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM)
  • Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM)

The level of private sector involvement goes up which each model. Under the DBF model, the private partner assumes the risk of financing the project until construction is complete and the asset is handed over to the public sector. With the DBFM model, the private sector also assumes the maintenance of the asset in exchange for payments throughout the operating period. And finally, the DBFOM model is used for projects that have long-term operation and maintenance handled by the private sector, such as roads.

The P3 model is relatively new (becoming popular in the 1980s) but is already used all around the world on a variety of different projects. PPP Canada was established in 2009 to oversee the $1.2 billion P3 Canada Fund, but that was certainly not the start of P3s here in Canada. From 1990 to 2001 more than 150 P3s were concluded throughout the country.

Can a P3 really work?

Here in Alberta, we’ve used P3s to build ring roads and schools in both Edmonton and Calgary, as well as a water treatment and wastewater treatment facility in Kananaskis (a project that EPCOR is the private partner on). It hasn’t been all smooth sailing however, as Godfrey Budd explains:

Although 18 Alberta elementary and elementary-junior high schools, built on the P3 model, opened in September, and another 10 such schools are going ahead as a P3, four high schools were dropped from what was to have been a 14-school package. In May 2009, the province, citing "the economic climate," announced that the four schools would instead go ahead on a design-build basis. Also, six months after a September 2008 provincial news release announcing the go-ahead for the 18-school package, one of the partners in the P3, Babcock and Brown, the project’s banker, collapsed under the weight of $3.8 billion of debt, and in August 2009 Deloitte was appointed liquidator.

Another issue has been the lack of transparency that seems to come with P3s – it’s not always clear whether the approach saves money or not. Some, such as Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, are convinced that P3s rarely work:

“P3s almost never work out in the public interest. Governments around the world have had experience with P3s, and in almost all cases they end up costing taxpayers more and creating enormous headaches down the line. It may look cheaper up front, but the experience with P3s is clear. The private developers are never satisfied with the amount of money the governments put on the table in the beginning, and come back asking for more.”

For its part, PPP Canada says that a P3 can work for larger public infrastructure projects, but notes that governments can borrow money at far lower rates than the private sector can. It says that “a detailed value for money analysis is required to assess whether the costs exceed the benefits.”

The case for a P3 to build the Southeast to West LRT

A couple of weeks after Council decided to pursue funding through the P3 Canada Fund, I sat down with Nat Alampi, the Program Manager for the Southeast to West LRT project. Nat has had experience on LRT projects in the past – he managed the preliminary engineering designs for the South LRT extension and the Northeast LRT extension to Gorman. I wanted to know why the City thought using a P3 was a good idea, given the risks that seem to go along with that decision. “Every project has its challenges, regardless of whether you use a P3 or not,” he rightly stated.

Nat explained that it was EXPO 2017 that initially caused the City of Edmonton to start exploring the use of a P3. That investigation led to the adoption of the City’s policy on P3s (C555) and an assessment of the entire LRT network. “We determined there would be a net savings to using a P3,” Nat said. In its presentation to Council last October, City Administration suggested that savings could be between 3% and 10% using the DBFOM model.

A private partner operating the LRT?! “Operating the train and maintaining the infrastructure so closely intertwined,” Nat explained, “that separating them carries significant risk.” While the City did assess the feasibility of retaining the operating portion of the project, it ultimately felt it would be better served by pursuing the DBFOM model. “Typically with a P3 just for build, you get a two-year warranty,” Nat told me. “In this case, we’re getting 30-year warranty.” Of course, any contract would have provisions to allow for an extension of the operations and maintenance period, further expansion of the line itself, and there would likely also be a handback condition. For transit users, the new line will still look and feel like an ETS line (though it will use low-floor technology). “We will still set the fares, the look, and deliver security,” Nat said. The City would also be able to prescribe the level of service required, to ensure it matches the rest of the system.

Nat suggested that procuring a P3 like this could take 12-14 months and would generally require having the necessary funding secured. If all goes well, a P3 contract could be in place by the end of the year, with utility relocation and other preliminary work taking place in 2014.

The case against P3s for Public Transit

When I first learned that Council was considering a P3 for the Southeast to West LRT, I immediately thought of Taras Grescoe’s latest book Straphanger. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested in public transportation and the impact the automobile has had on our cities. Near the end of the book, Taras addresses the notion that the private sector can successfully build and operate public transit projects:

For transit to remain sustainable, we’re going to have to ignore the zealots who call for its complete privatization, which has proven such a disaster in Britain and Australia. There is a reason that the transit network of almost every major city in the developed world was municipalized at some point in its history: while private companies can do a creditable job of operating the busiest lines, time and again they have filed to manage complex transportation networks in the public interest. The lessons of history show that public agencies with regional scope and unified planning oversight do the best job of running public transport.

Taras graciously agreed to speak with me in October, and I asked him to elaborate on this point. “I’ve seen how private lines can be fantastic in a place like Toyko where they have the revenue and density,” he told me. “But I’m skeptical that private companies can get the return in a low-density place like Edmonton.”

In the book Taras talks about the Canada Line in Vancouver, built for the 2010 Winter Olympics:

The Canada Line to the airport…was the first major piece of transit infrastructure in North America to be built with a public-private partnership, an initiative many commentators say was plagued by corner-cutting. Three stations had to be eliminated from the planned route, and the station platforms that were built were too short to allow future expansion. Thanks to cost overruns, the provincial government will be compensating the private company that operates the line with payments up to $21 million a year until 2025.

While many now point to the project as an example of a successful P3, Taras disagrees. “You’re essentially entering another system when you get on the Canada line,” he told me. The line uses the same fare system as the rest of TransLink, but there are some exceptions (such as the $5 YVR AddFare).

Another well-known P3 transit project in Canada is in Waterloo, where officials are also looking at a 30-year DBFOM contract. Much has been written about the potential issues with that project, but this post does an excellent job of summarizing everything. A few highlights:

  • “Probably the biggest problem with a P3 arrangement for Waterloo Region’s LRT is that it would result in higher barriers to expansion of the system in various ways.”
  • “On the one hand, using private companies to build and operate the line ostensibly means that expertise can be brought in when needed, and only when needed. On the other hand, this means that expertise in LRT construction, operation, and efficiencies thereof will never be gained by Waterloo Region.”
  • “Private operation as a 30-year contract is problematic because it locks us into one operator who can make extension difficult, and a contract which may become uncompetitive ten years down the line.”

Those concerns align nicely with the final thought that Taras left me with: “Transit is not about one line, it’s about a network and making it work for everybody.”

Final Thoughts

The first thing Taras said to me when we chatted was that “any transit construction of this kind is better than none.” While I’m definitely excited to see our LRT network expand, I’m not convinced that a P3 is the way to go. History suggests we should tread very carefully indeed. The City has not yet built anything using a P3, and that lack of experience could be an issue. In theory we should be able to take advantage of the lessons learned in other places, but we all know that’s easier said than done.

So long as we can secure the balance of funding required, It would seem there’s no turning back now for the Southeast to West LRT line – Edmonton will soon embark on its first P3 project. Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be a costly mistake.

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!

Notes on the Downtown LRT Connector Concept Plan

On Tuesday evening the proposed Concept Plan for the Downtown LRT Connector was presented to the public at a very well attended event. The plan is the next step in the process that really kicked off on June 21 when City Council approved a street-level downtown LRT route. The proposed 2.1 km route will serve as a connector for the future West and Southeast LRT lines, with 5 stops and opportunities for transfers to the existing LRT system in the downtown core. The route runs primarily along 102 Avenue, connecting to the West LRT via 107 Street on 104 Avenue and to the Southeast LRT on 102 Avenue near 96 Street.

The Downtown LRT Connector was mentioned as a catalyst project for the Capital City Downtown Plan more than once. It forms an importance piece of both the six-legged LRT Network Plan and the so-called Downtown-University circulator.

Here’s what it looks like (the purple line):

Downtown LRT Connector

The Downtown LRT Connector will use low-floor LRT vehicles, which is the style all future LRT development will use (when possible). Low-floor LRT requires less infrastructure and enables step-free, street-level boarding. And yes, low-floor LRT will work in our winter climate!

Downtown LRT Connector: The Quarters in Winter

There are five proposed stops along the route:

  1. Campus Stop – Located diagonally between 108 Street/104 Avenue and 107 Street/102 Avenue. Land acquisition would be required, including the AADAC building. Potential for development around the stop. Serves MacEwan and NorQuest. Features a third track, which could be used as a staging area to prepare for large events, etc.
  2. 105/106 Street Stop – Located in between the two streets, where there are currently parking lots. Land acquisition would be required.
  3. Centre West Stop – Located across from Manulife Place, in between 102 Street and 101 Street. Requires no land acquisition. Would feature dedicated bicycle lanes in both directions.
  4. Churchill Square Stop – Located across from the Stanley Milner library. Requires no land acquisition. A second set of escalators/elevators would be built on the northwest corner of the 99 Street/102 Avenue intersection. Easy connections to existing LRT.
  5. Quarters Stop – Requires no land acquisition. Some traffic impacts: 102 Avenue at 96 Street would be closed to through traffic, and a single eastbound lane would be provided from 97 Street to maintain local access.

Here’s a rendering of the Churchill Square stop:

Downtown LRT Connector: Churchill Square Stop

The question & answer session covered a lot of topics. Here are a few notes I took:

  • The Downtown LRT Connector would use a different signal system. Rather than an exemption (the current LRT always has right-of-way) the LRT would receive priority, but may hold at stations to allow traffic to clear.
  • Buses that currently run along 102 Avenue would of course be re-tooled to feed into the LRT system.
  • The bicycle lanes in the concept plan are primarily shared lanes, but there’s the potential for dedicated lanes in the future.
  • The location of the Quarters stop is further west than would be ideal, but as it dives into an underground tunnel to join the Southeast LRT there isn’t much flexibility. There are significant grade changes.

I also asked about the City Market, as the route would run right through the middle of it. I was told that the City has already had conversations with the City Market, and that they’re confident they’ll make it work (either spreading out along 102 Avenue a little more, or potentially just leaving everything the way it is…but with a train running through every 15 minutes).

I’m particularly excited for this route, living at 104 Street and 102 Avenue. It’ll mean I’m a block or less from both the existing LRT (at Bay/Enterprise Square) and the new lines (at 105/106 Street). Can’t wait to see it happen!

You can download the Downtown LRT Connector Information Booklet here (PDF).

The Concept Plan will be presented to the Transportation & Public Works Committee at a non-statutory public hearing on December 8, after which it will be forwarded to City Council for review in January 2011. You can check out the Downtown LRT Connector page for more information.

Edmonton Transit in 2009

I think 2009 was a very interesting year for transit in Edmonton! There were a number of big successes, such as the launch of trip planning with Google Transit, new LRT cars, the opening of the South Campus LRT Extension, experiments with dedicated bus lanes and smart cards, the release of data for developers, lots of support for transit to the Edmonton International Airport, completion of major construction on the South LRT extension, and of course, the approval of the NAIT, West, and Southeast LRT lines. There was also some sad news, such as the violence against bus drivers and other security issues. And finally, some transit news from 2009 is either positive or negative depending on how you look at it, such as the end of trolley buses.

TransitCamp EdmontonSouth Campus LRT Grand OpeningSouth Campus LRT Grand OpeningMack & DonETS PlatinumMy Bus StopWest & Southeast LRT Announcement

Here are some of the transit-related headlines from 2009:

Also: you can see the monthly In Transit newsletters here.

Some data points for 2009:

  • The 15th annual Stuff A Bus campaign collected 31,000 kg of non perishable food items, and $17,000 in cash donations.
  • On February 1, 2009, the price of an adult monthly pass rose $7.75 to $74.25.
  • In its first six months of operation, 311 fielded 116,437 calls related to trip planning, 63,980 calls related to bus information, and 6,037 calls related to transit fares. Transit was the most commonly requested service.
  • ETS Statistics and ETS Statistics for 2009 (will be updated).

TransitCamp Edmonton Competition

At the TransitCamp Edmonton event on May 30th, it was announced that ETS was releasing route & schedule information in the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format for everyone to use. We decided to hold a small competition, to spur interest in developing applications that made use of the data! The competition closed November 30th, and I’m happy to finally share our two winners:

  1. MyStops by Grayscale Apps
  2. ETS Trip Planner by Waclaw Lany

MyStops, as you probably know, is a very popular iPhone application that gives you quick access to the schedule information for your favorite bus stops. Waclaw’s trip planner combines the stop number functionality of the official ETS Trip Planner with Google Maps routing.

Our judges, Councillor Don Iveson and Edmonton CIO Chris Moore, evaluated the submissions using three criteria:

  • Usefulness to residents
  • Visual appeal and usability
  • Inventiveness and originality

Congratulations to Andrew, Sinan, Sari, and Waclaw!

2010

This should be another big year for transit in Edmonton. The last of the old GMC vehicles were retired in 2009, which means that ETS is now running a 100% accessible fleet. The South LRT extension is scheduled to open in April, and construction on the North LRT extension has begun. The U-Pass pilot ends this year, so a new deal will be negotiated, and NAIT students might get to join. And hopefully at some point the trolley wires will be completely removed! I can’t wait to see what else 2010 has in store for us.

Don’t forget: the Donate-a-Ride campaign is on until January 31!

Keep up-to-date on the latest transit news and announcements on Twitter using the #yegtransit hashtag!

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or via email.

Talking Tech with Edmonton Transit (ETS)

I was fortunate enough today to chat with Bruce Beecher and Dennis Nowicki from Edmonton Transit (ETS). Bruce is the IT Strategic Advisor for the Transportation department, and Dennis is the Director of Community Relations for ETS. Though we talked about a variety of things, the focus was technology.

I think there was some educating happening on both sides. I learned more about their situation and perspectives, and I hope they soaked up some technical stuff from me. I think it went really well!

What I’d like to share in this post is an overview of what we discussed. There’s nothing confidential here, but some of this information may still be new to you. They’re aware they need to improve on the communication side of things!

ETS has been evaluating potential technologies to deploy to the fleet for quite a while now (I wrote about some at last year’s Community Conference). These technologies include:

  • Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) – This is essentially a GPS module that would be installed on each bus.
  • Automated Traveler Information Systems (ATIS) – This is essentially giving riders access to that GPS information. That is, where is my bus right now?
  • Mobile Data Terminals (MDT)
  • Automated Stop Announcement (ASA) – No more peering out into the darkness to see if you’re at the right stop. Also important for accessibility.
  • Automatic Passenger Counter (APC)
  • Automated Fare Booth (Smart Cards)
  • Automatic Vehicle Monitor (AVM) – This would gather information about the engine, fuel consumption, etc. It’s like a black box for the bus.

Those are listed roughly in order of priority, though nothing is set in stone. In fact, the AVM might get bumped to the front of the list simply because it offers the best ROI for ETS. The ability to know what’s wrong with a bus on the fly would have a huge impact on the bottom line. Same goes for being able to determine if a bus is getting poor fuel consumption for some reason. Makes sense to me.

There are a few problems with all of this technology, mostly related to cost:

  • Edmonton has bumpy roads and extremely cold temperatures in the winter. On-board equipment needs to be hardened and reliable. We often can’t use the same stuff that San Francisco uses, for example.
  • Rough estimates place the cost per bus at $15,000. There are currently 903 buses in service.
  • By 2012, the number of buses will be closer to 1300, so it won’t get any cheaper to deploy.

Another issue is maintainability. Ideally, each bus would have one computer with a LAN of some kind that everything else just connects to, so that it’s all integrated. Otherwise you end up with many potentially disparate systems.

What I took away from all of this is essentially that ETS is keen to deploy GPS technologies and to make that information available to riders. The challenge is finding a way to make it happen.

Next we shifted gears and talked about the ETS website, Google Transit and my API idea (though I’m definitely not the only one with the idea…dub5 is another interested group). There are improvements to the ETS Trip Planner in the works, so watch for something during the summer. They’re also looking to improve the main ETS website, now that everyone has had time to digest the edmonton.ca redesign.

Unfortunately I can’t talk as much about Google Transit as I’d like to just yet, but I can tell you that a major announcement is coming in the next week or so. I plan to cover it here, and you’ll no doubt see it in the mainstream media. Bottom line: ETS is fully behind Google Transit, and that’s a good thing for Edmontonians.

As for the API idea? They like it and would like to learn more about it. At this point however, getting access to a dump of the same data that Google gets is probably more likely. It would work like this: you sign some sort of agreement with ETS outlining the terms of use (basically something like “I agree not to misrepresent this information…”, and they send you the GTFS data. From there, you could do whatever you like with it. You could build and release your own API, for instance.

Is that going to happen – are they going to make the data available? No guarantees, but they will definitely consider it. Obviously an API would be better for accessing real-time data, but even a recent snapshot would be a step in the right direction. I think this is very encouraging!

If they do go down the data sharing route, I think we should organize an API building weekend!

The final thing I want to mention is that we talked briefly about RSS. My goal is to get every City of Edmonton department publishing as many RSS feeds as possible! It’s horribly underutilized at the moment. I think Bruce and Dennis definitely understand the benefit of RSS, and I hope to see some ETS feeds published soon!

Thanks to both Bruce and Dennis for a great conversation – I learned a lot, and I look forward to keeping the dialogue going.

I want an API for Edmonton Transit (ETS)

edmonton transit When the new edmonton.ca website launched back in the fall, I was hopeful that the Edmonton Transit portion of the site would receive more than just a facelift. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Though I’m disappointed, I can understand why. Edmonton Transit is not in the business of developing websites or software, it’s in the business of transportation. They’ve got to make sure buses and trains run efficiently and effectively first, and then they can focus on everything else.

That’s not to say that the website, or BusLink (over the phone), or the other services they offer aren’t important, just that ETS has limited resources and must deploy them accordingly. That’s why I think an Edmonton Transit API makes a lot of sense.

To build an application for looking up transit information, you need both an interface and data (I’m simplifying things a bit). ETS has all of the data of course – they know all of the route numbers, bus stops, and schedule information. What they lack are great interfaces. If ETS exposed their data through an API, third party developers could build great interfaces on top with relative ease.

Here’s the kind of information I’d like to see exposed through an ETS API:

  • Route Information – return name, start and end point, and other details for a given route
  • Stop Information – return coordinates, address, photo, and other information for a given stop
  • Route Stops with Stop Times – return a list of all stops along a given route with stop times
  • Routes at Stop with Times – return a list of routes for a given stop with stop times for each one
  • Search for Stop by Location – return the closest stops for a given address or set of coordinates

That list is similar to the information exposed by the unofficial TransLink API. A good starting point would be to simply clone what they’ve done! More advanced API features could include:

  • Route Interruptions – return a list of routes currently affected by construction or other interruptions
  • Stop Interruptions – return a list of stops currently affected by construction or other interruptions
  • Search for Stop by Landmark – return the closest stops for a given landmark
  • Trip Planner – return a list of route and transfer options for a given location of origin and destination
  • Information for St. Albert Transit and Strathcona County Transit

In the future, the sky is the limit. I know ETS is testing GPS technology on buses, so why not expose “distance from stop” information for a given route? That would be wicked, and incredibly useful when the weather dips below –25 C.

It’s not feasible for ETS to develop interfaces for each new platform that emerges. They have a website, but what about an iPhone application? Or a BlackBerry application? Or a Twitter bot? If they focused their limited software development energies on building an API, I’m confident that local entrepreneurs and software developers would build a plethora of interfaces on top of it. I would definitely build a Twitter bot!

There don’t seem to be many transit systems with APIs available, but that won’t be true for long. Here are a few others I’ve found: TransLink (unofficial), Bay Area Rapid Transit (official), Portland’s TriMet (official), Chicago Transit Authority (unofficial), Charlottetown Transit (unofficial). And here are a couple other resources I’ve come across: the Public Transit Openness Index, and a list of publicly available official GTFS (Google Transit Feed Specification) schedule data feeds.

I’d love to see Edmonton Transit take the lead and offer a completely free, fully functional transit API, and I’d be willing to help make it happen. In the meantime, don’t forget that you can now use Google Maps to find ETS trip plans.

Touring the Edmonton Transit D.L. MacDonald LRT Garage

Edmonton Transit held an open house today at its D.L. MacDonald facility, known as the LRT garage, as part of Transit Centennial Week celebrations. Sharon and I decided to check it out, and arrived at Clareview just in time for the second last tour. I’ve always been curious to see where the LRT cars are housed and maintained, so I thought the open house and tour was pretty darn cool.

We were led throughout the facility, and got to see where the LRT cars are stored, where their various parts are worked on, where they are painted, etc. The D.L. MacDonald garage is an absolutely massive building, and apparently they are under construction to expand it further. It’s really quite impressive to see.

ETS D.L. MacDonald LRT GarageMack on the new LRV

The highlight of the tour was definitely getting to check out the new SD160 Light Rail Vehicles. ETS will be receiving 37 of them at a rate of two per month, finishing in December 2009. Each car costs approximately $4 million CDN. As the new cars come in from Siemens in Sacramento, the old ones are shipped out for retrofitting. The cost for retrofits is estimated to be another $25 million in total.

At first glance there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the old cars and the new ones, but I’m sure there are extensive differences to the underlying systems (better electronics, for instance). A few of the noticeable changes include: cameras instead of mirrors, digital signs throughout, windows that do not open (which means they must have A/C), more comfortable seats, and slightly different mechanisms on the doors. They also seem a little larger.

The first of the new LRVs will go into service late this year. You can see many more photos of the new cars and the rest of the D.L. MacDonald garage here.