It’s time for Clarity on Neighbourhood Transit Options

A redesign of our entire bus network is no easy task, and there’s no way around tough decisions and tensions that lay within those decisions. Our transit system has needed a redesign for a while now in order to provide more frequent and cost-efficient service. As we look at the map of Edmonton’s future it’s important to keep a few things in mind. We need to think about the individual Edmontonian, the city as a whole, and based on our current urban form we have to keep an open mind to all possibilities.

The First Kilometre/Last Kilometre report came before Committee this week, which is really about neighbourhood scale service, did not give us a clear vision for the kind of transit options people will see in their neighbourhoods after the major bus routes are finalized and implemented in 2020.

What we need is clarity. Urban Planning Committee took good steps toward this yesterday. In November, we’ll see interactive maps for all neighbourhoods that will give Edmontonians a comprehensive picture of possible transit services at the neighbourhood level. The November report will have possible solutions, associated cost breakdowns, and a timeline for implementation and roll out. This will help the public and council see the best future.

People first approach

When building these new strategies, there needs to be a critical look at why we even have a bus system to begin with: citizens need to go places. We have to keep people like Jerome Martin in mind. Jerome is a senior citizen who lives in Aspen Gardens and moves through the city by transit. When Jerome wants to go somewhere, he walks a few minutes to the bus stop half a block away, and uses the bus to get him to his destination of the day. Jerome, at 76, depends on our bus system – to be reliable, to be safe, and to be accessible. For senior citizens like Jerome in Edmonton, the Bus Network Redesign (BNR) may determine that they walk for significant amounts of time – often with limited mobility, and through snowy and icy conditions.

I’ll also keep people like my nephew Max in mind. Max takes the #50 bus to Southgate every morning to take another bus to his Jr. High School, and with the BNR in play, his commute will be lengthened and generally more difficult to manage. I’ve heard a lot of feedback from constituents about the effects the redesign will have on their children getting to school every day.

We need to keep Edmontonians as our priority, and look critically at the status quo that we’ve created in Edmonton in regards to the bus service. I’m not questioning that the current BNR is geared towards Edmontonians and built with them in mind, but sometimes we move away from what’s working well for people in the excitement to bring on bigger change.

A combination of solutions will be the right ticket

As much as we need a new way forward, we also can’t go away from the community bus strategy for mature neighbourhoods. Until there’s virtually no ridership and no doubt that a certain route, stop, or bus is not needed, there is still an important service being provided to citizens throughout Edmonton. We often focus on the cost of doing something and neglect to think deeply about the cost of NOT doing that same thing. Isolation and lack of mobility for seniors can have dire costs and they need to be considered mightily.

On-demand, dial-up buses are a potentially good option in theory where service standards are not being met and there are some real-world examples that we can learn from and even pilot here in Edmonton. This will likely prove to be valuable technology in bridging the gap in neighbourhoods with lower transit ridership, but where some people still rely on public transit. A combination of midday reliable community bus routes combined with peak hour on-demand service may serve some neighbourhoods well where full scale on-demand service or only midday community bus service may work best for others.

There is also a fair bit of discussion about combining with private rideshare companies like Uber etc. or not-for-profit organizations like Drive Happiness to supplement public transit. I don’t think we should depend on those “as part of our offering.” It is good to know that services like these are available in the form they’re in, but our knitting is providing “public transit” and people can choose to supplement with private or alternative transportation if they wish – this is not a choice City Council should be making for them in my view.

Our bus system should mimic and support the movement of Edmontonians who use and depend on our transit system – not disrupt it without just cause and a good solution in place.

The debate will continue.

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