How Uber supports Edmonton’s transportation strategy

Uber launched in Edmonton on December 18 last year, and it has been operating here illegally ever since. Now the City has put forward a draft bylaw that aims to provide a framework within which Uber can operate legally, but in a lot of ways it has just become a fight between taxis and Uber. I think this fight has shifted focus away from the bigger picture.

taxis
Taxis on the way to City Hall to protest, photo by Lincoln Ho

Edmonton’s transportation system should always be evolving to meet the needs of Edmontonians. There’s a place for taxis, but there’s also a place for new approaches to transportation like Uber.

The Way We Move, our city’s Transportation Master Plan, states:

“How easily we move through our city, the distances we must travel, the transportation choices we have and how readily we can move between different transportation modes profoundly affects our relationship with the city, the environment and each other.”

In general the strategy focuses on “mode shift” which “is about adding more walking, cycling, car-sharing and transit in Edmonton’s transportation mix.” There’s a consistent goal of offering Edmontonians more options for getting from point A to point B without needing to use their vehicles. The strategy identifies seven goals to help achieve this. Let’s look at how Uber might fit in with those.

Transportation & Land Use Integration

This goal encompasses building so-called complete communities, where people can live, work, and play, reducing the need for driving. It also highlights transit-oriented development and making it possible for people to live closer to great transit service that can get them to where they need to go.

I think carsharing services like Pogo are probably a better fit with this goal, but Uber can play a role too. In fact, they wrote about this earlier in the year:

“What we discovered is that 36% of trips started or ended within 400m of an LRT stop. Of the trips that start or end close to an LRT stop, almost 90% pick up or drop off in an area that isn’t conveniently served by public transit.”

We have a great vision for the LRT Network, but it’s a long way from being completed. Taking a train and Uber together could be a great option until more of the LRT is built out.

Access & Mobility

This goal deals with addressing the transportation needs of a diverse urban population.

“An accessible transportation system addresses the transportation needs of a diverse urban population regardless of mobility challenges or vehicle ownership.”

Believe it or not, Uber does have a story to tell here. The company often talks about the accessibility of its mobile app, which includes features for those with audio or visual impairments. In some cities, they also have UberACCESS, which “offers access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles through partnerships with fleet owners.”

Uber has also started to bring other options to Edmonton, launching uberXL earlier this year which offers spacious, high capacity vehicles.

Regulation will probably be required for this goal more than most, but Uber can play a role in ensuring Edmontonians have accessible transportation options.

Transportation Mode Shift

Though The Way We Move talks primarily about shifting transportation modes from driving to transit and active modes of transportation (cycling, walking), that can be a big shift for people to make. We know that the majority of Edmontonians agree we need to drive less, but they’re somewhat less willing to make the shift themselves.

“In recent research, 84% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Edmontonians need to reduce driving’. however when this general desire is applied specifically to individuals, the population is essentially split 50/50 into two groups, those who are totally committed to driving and those who are potential experimenters.”

Uber, Pogo, and other services could offer a stepping stone from to the other. Why stay shackled by your car? Take an Uber to get somewhere, but then consider walking or taking transit for your next short trip. It’s incredible how stressful driving is after you haven’t had to do it for a while.

Sustainability

The City has long supported carpooling because it not only can help you to save money, “it’s also an efficient and sustainable way to help reduce road congestion and CO2 emissions.”

Taking Uber still means there’s a car on the road of course, but being a passenger rather than a driver is a step in the right direction (and could mean you’re more likely to use a combination of transportation modes). Uber is not really a rideshare or carpool service, though it does offer a Split Fare feature which can make it even more cost effective and which makes it possible for even more cars to be taken off the road. And that’s important:

“In 2005, the total distance travelled daily by car drivers on the Edmonton region road network was 13 million — this is projected to increase to nearly 50 million kilometers by 2044. by providing less energy intensive transportation options, we have an opportunity to reduce Edmonton’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

I think UberX is a way for us to use our vehicles more efficiently. When discussing the Sustainability goal, the TMP states:

“Promoting the reuse and redevelopment of underutilized facilities that already exist will rejuvenate our neighbourhoods and help to optimize use of infrastructure, including investments in the transportation system.”

Considering that our cars sit parked more than 90% of the time, I’d say they count as “underutilized facilities that already exist”. Why not reuse some of them to drive each other around?

Health & Safety

Obviously Uber isn’t going to do anything for emergency vehicles, nor does it do much to encourage more physical activity. This goal seems to highlight safe walking more than anything.

But on the topic of safety, there has been a lot of discussion about what’s required to ensure Edmontonians are safe taking Uber. The company does highlight background checks, vehicle inspections, and having appropriate insurance. And last week it announced a partnership with Intact Insurance here in Canada.

As I wrote when Uber launched in Edmonton, the company has attracted a lot of controversy. Clearly they have room to improve. But I wonder how many safety incidents happen in taxis all around the world that we never hear about, simply because they’re all so isolated? A safety incident in one city is going to make the news in other markets that Uber operates. I think that greater awareness and visibility into safety issues will result in safer rides for everyone, not less.

Well-maintained Infrastructure

Reducing the number of cars on the road will have a positive impact on the City’s financial sustainability:

“Encouraging fewer single occupant vehicle trips reduces the pressure on the roadway system and reduces the need for increased roadway investment.”

Edmonton’s road network is already more than 4,500 km long. We have about 170 bridges. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting all that infrastructure. Any reduction in stress on those assets is a good thing!

Economic Vitality

Whether we like it or not, Uber, Lyft, and similar services are growing in popularity throughout cities all over the world. It’s easy to think that the advantage of Uber is just the app, and while that is part of it, I think the connection to a bigger network is also an important advantage. If I can use Uber in other cities I visit, why not here?

That mode shift report also discusses this idea:

“We are following the lead of today’s successful cities and creating urban environments that provide a high quality-of-place experience and quality of life for residents in order to attract the best and the brightest to their city. This includes providing the type of sustainable transportation choices that align with international preferences.”

We need to provide a range of options:

“Diversifying the transportation options and more effectively using our current infrastructure are critical to attract businesses for the sake of the economic development of the city as well as to allow an effective exchange of goods and services.”

I think Uber’s claims of job creation are questionable, especially with all the negative press they have received for not looking after their contractors. That said, there are plenty of stories of drivers who have made a positive financial change in their life thanks to Uber.

Wrap Up

The discussion about Uber in Edmonton lately has focused primarily on the fight between taxis and Uber, understandably. Lots of Edmontonians have horror stories to share about taxis, and there’s no question that competition from Uber will have a positive impact on the industry.

But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Uber and other transportation network companies can positively contribute to Edmonton’s transportation mix. We should do what we can to allow them to operate here legally.

Potholes in Edmonton: A closer look at 100 Avenue

Every Sunday for the last couple of months I have driven down 100 Avenue, so I know firsthand just how bad the potholes on that street are. Every week they seem to get worse, but not evenly across the street. Some places are far worse than others. It got me thinking – why are some areas of 100 Avenue so rough while others are smooth?

100 Avenue

I considered the section road from 170 Street east to 149 Street. Closer to 170 Street there definitely seem to be few, if any, potholes – for the most part the road is smooth. Right around 163 Street, the potholes get really bad. For a while there was a pothole big enough that I’d describe it as a crater! As you approach 149 Street there seem to be less, but still more than the section closest to 170 Street. Why aren’t there potholes along the entire route?

My first thought was that perhaps the traffic volumes are significantly different for each part of the street. Fortunately, the Open Data Catalogue contains average annual weekday traffic volumes for the period 2006-2011, so we can find out. Here’s the result:

Unfortunately there isn’t data for the part of the street closer to 149 Street, but I can’t think of a reason it would be much different (especially since there is nowhere to go but north or east once between 149 Street and 156 Street, more on that in a minute). So it doesn’t appear that traffic volumes would have had much of an impact on the number of potholes.

My next thought was around the maintenance of the street – maybe sections were repaved at different times. I asked the City of Edmonton on Twitter, and was very happy to receive a response:

That actually aligns really well with my empirical evidence! The newest section of road, from 163 Street to 170 Street, is in good shape. The oldest section of road, from 156 Street to 163 Street, is in really rough shape. And the middle-aged section, from 149 Street to 156 Street, is a bit better. Clearly there seems to be a connection between the age of the street and the number of potholes it contains, at least in this example.

Remember that crater I mentioned? It was located right around 161 Street. Here’s what it looked like on April 16, 2013:

100 Avenue

And here’s what it looked like in May 2012, courtesy of Google Street View:

Looks like this is one of those potholes the City patches every year! Given that the street hasn’t been repaved in nearly 20 years, perhaps it’s time?

There are a few other interesting things to note about 100 Avenue. If you haven’t driven down there in a while, take a gander on Google Street View. Here’s a quick summary:

  • From 170 Street to 163 Street, there are four lanes of one-way traffic (east). For most of this section, there are sidewalks and commercial property on either side of the street.
  • From 163 Street to 156 Street, there are two lanes heading east, one lane heading west, and one lane of parking on the north side. There is residential on either side of the street, with a sidewalk on the north and a sidewalk separated by a landscaped buffer strip on the south. Traffic is restricted from turning south.
  • From 156 Street to 149 Street, there are two lanes in either direction (though in some places the west-direction is down to one lane). There is residential on either side of the street (except for a few strip malls on the north), with a sidewalk on the north and a sidewalk separated by a landscaped buffer strip on the south. Traffic is restricted from turning south.

One of the things you’ll notice as you drive down the street is that all the potholes seem to be on the south lanes where traffic is going east. No doubt this is due in part to traffic volumes (there’s a lot less traffic heading west). But I have a hunch that there’s more to it than that. I think there are two key features that contribute to the potholes, especially for the section between 163 Street and 156 Street.

First, I think the lane of parking on the north prevents potholes from forming there. Remember that you need water and traffic to create potholes. Even if the water drains toward the sidewalk as expected, the parking lane prevents the vast majority of traffic from causing potholes. Second, I think the landscaped buffer on the south encourages more water pooling. With less sun to melt the snow, more soil to hold the moisture, and more traffic, it’s no wonder that more potholes appear there. It seems there is so much water, in fact, that it overwhelms the drains in the area.

100 Avenue

I read the consolidated 100 Avenue Planning Study, and discovered there were good reasons for that landscaped buffer strip:

A number of concerns have been identified with respect to the impact of the 100 Avenue roadway improvements on the neighbourhoods of Jasper Place and Glenwood. These include traffic noise, speeding, pedestrian safety, and the possibility of traffic shortcutting, north-south between 95 Avenueand 100 Avenue.

The Stony Plain Road/100 Avenue Facility Planning Study, approved by Council on January 8, 1985,  recommended that these problems be dealt with by the installation of pedestrian crossings, the closure of some local streets south of 100 Avenue, and the development of a landscaped buffer strip along  the south side of 100 Avenue.

The study did mention that the existing stormwater system was “inadequate” but I’m not sure if or when that was originally addressed. I’m sure the authors of the study weren’t thinking about the possible impact of the design on potholes, but we can see the effects today.

All of this just reaffirms to me the complexity of the problem! Solving the pothole problem will have an impact not just on the way we maintain streets, but how we design them too.

Potholes in Edmonton

Every year the City of Edmonton spends a few million dollars to fill a few hundred thousand potholes. Are potholes just a fact of life, or can we do something about them? I think the latter. It’s time for a more sophisticated and creative discussion about potholes in Edmonton!

Pothole
Pothole photo by More Bike Lanes Please

We hear the same thing every year. As spring approaches, dozens of stories are published about Edmonton’s pothole problem. We hear all about the freeze/thaw cycle of the winter and that’s why the potholes are bad. We hear that the City has crews out all the time fixing potholes, on average about 400,000 per year. We hear that a lot of money is being spent on the problem!

Here’s what Mayor Mandel said a few weeks ago:

“If you look at this winter — we’ve had freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing way more than any other year,” said Mandel, “and we have had a little more snow than normal. It creates havoc.”

“It’s not our intention to create a pothole … but it is a fact of life in our city,” said Mandel. “It will be there forever and we’ll never catch up.”

That sounds like a challenge!

I started digging into potholes, well figuratively anyway. I started with a series of questions, and then I just began researching. I went through old council minutes, I looked at City reports, I searched through old newspaper articles, etc. What was supposed to take a few hours turned into days! After a while I realized I had better stop and share what I had gathered, so that’s what you’ll find in this post.

Here’s a video for those of you in the TL;DR camp:

Here are some of the highlights of what I found:

  • Potholes form when water and traffic are present at the same time.
  • The City has filled more than 5.6 million potholes since 2000.
  • On average, the City fills about 433,000 potholes each year, with a budget of $3.5 million.
  • Annual pothole budgets have ranged from $1.5 million to $5.9 million since 1990, for a total of about $85 million (or $104 million adjusted for inflation).
  • Edmonton seems to fill twice as many potholes as any other large Canadian city.
  • The City maintains more than 4,600 kilometers of roads. The average quality of an arterial road is 6.1 out of 10, just below the industry standard. There is not enough funding in place to prevent this from falling.

There’s a lot more information in this PDF report that I’ve put together:

I put all of the data I gathered into an Excel document that you can download here. You’ll find some data in there that is incomplete – if you have the missing information, please let me know! If you use it to generate your own analysis, I’d love to learn from you so please share!

How can we solve the pothole problem in Edmonton? I don’t know. But doing the same thing over and over isn’t going to change anything either. Here are some ideas on how to make progress:

  1. Information is only useful if we can bring it together to turn it into knowledge. I’ve started to do some of that in the report above. In the absence of good data about weather patterns or traffic patterns, it’s easy to make assumptions. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface – there’s a lot more information that could be correlated to develop a better picture of the pothole problem.
  2. We need to make better use of the tools and expertise that we have in Edmonton. I’m thinking of tools like the Open Data Catalogue, for instance, and expertise like the transportation engineers and soil experts we have. Edmonton is one of the few cities that tracks the number of potholes filled, let alone makes that data available online, but we can do more! We also need to do a better job of harnessing the collective power of all Edmontonians for crowdsourcing ideas and data. Potholes don’t have to be just a transportation problem.
  3. There’s lots of interesting things happening elsewhere – Edmonton is not the only city that has to deal with potholes! What can we learn from others? There are self-heating roads, nanotechnology is being used to create crack-proof concrete, and all sorts of different polymers designed to make roads less brittle. How can we apply some of that knowledge?

What if we brought together engineers, scientists, designers, programmers, and other citizens for a one-day pothole unconference? What would they come up with? I think it’s an idea worth exploring.

Splash
Splash photo by Owen’s Law

I don’t think we’ll solve the pothole problem in Edmonton just by throwing more money at it, and we certainly won’t get anywhere with cheap gimmicks. Instead I think we need to get a bit more holistic and creative in our approach.

For now, I have two calls-to-action:

  1. If you’ve never reported a pothole using the City’s online form, give it a shot here. Don’t bother with forms or maps on other sites – use the official one.
  2. If you found anything in this post valuable, please share it with others.

Thanks for reading and happy pothole dodging!

It’s the season of detours downtown!

Summer means lots of construction here in Edmonton, so we shouldn’t be surprised by detours and road closures. More than $122.9 million is being invested in special projects, road paving, and other growth infrastructure projects this year! While walking around downtown today, I took some photos of a number of the projects underway.

On the east side of the 105 Street hill there’s a new sidewalk! It’s much wider, which is great for pedestrians. Looks like they are still doing some work on the west side.

New sidewalk on 105 Street

Between Jasper Avenue and 102 Avenue there is pavement renewal work being done on 106 Street:

Construction on 106 Street

There’s a lot of activity near the Legislature grounds, as the Federal Building and Centennial Plaza construction continues.

Centennial Plaza Construction

Work also continues on Capital Boulevard (108 Street). If you look closely here, you can see the street widen near the construction signs.

Capital Boulevard Construction

There’s also rehabilitation work happening on the north end of Capital Boulevard:

Capital Boulevard Construction

The most visible construction downtown is definitely the Central Station LRT Rehabilitation and Jasper Avenue Streetscaping. Basically avoid Jasper Avenue from 100 Street to 102 Street if at all possible.

Jasper Avenue Construction

They have now started removing the surface near 102 Street:

Jasper Avenue Construction

This section near 100 Street looks like it’ll be next. It has been pretty interesting to see how they do this work over the last couple weeks. It looks like the use a giant saw to slice the road (the thin straight lines in the photo below) then they’ll use the larger machinery to dig it up.

Jasper Avenue Construction

I didn’t make it up there today, but there is of course the North LRT to NAIT construction taking place along 105 Avenue and 105 Street (among other places). Here’s a great panorama from Hugh Lee:

LRT Expansion Expanded

One of the projects you’ll encounter as you enter downtown is the Grierson Hill Bridge & MacDonald Drive Pedestrian Underpass Rehabilitation. The City has been updating that page with photos.

For an overview of all current major road projects in the city, click here. Or, check out the more detailed construction schedule at Construction On Your Streets.