Edmonton Transit Strategy: Some Initial Thoughts

North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton.jpg
North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton. Photo by author.

After a lengthy gestation period, Edmonton, Alberta is finally putting its Transit Strategy Strategic Direction Report in front of the city’s Urban Planning Committee on December 7, 2016. This report aims to give direction to Edmonton Transit System in its review of the Edmonton bus system. This report is available at this link which includes background reports on public engagement and a summary of background information.

Edmonton benefits from an unusually strong hierarchy of high-level strategic documents, collectively known as “the Ways” starting with The Way Ahead and its sub plans of which The Way We Grow and The Way We Move are the most important underpinnings of transit network planning. In turn, these plans are underpinned by a variety of other plans such as the Transit Oriented Development Guidelines, the Edmonton Complete Streets Guidelines and most recently the Edmonton FastTracks Downtown Bicycle Grid. The Transit Strategy is intended to be one of these plans.

It has been quite a long road for the Transit Strategy, with work kicking off in early 2013 with Stantec and Jarrett Walker working on a comprehensive review of the Edmonton Transit System. Now, nearly four years later, there is a Strategic Direction report which is intended to set the course for an actual review of the ETS bus system.

With 106,654,119 bus boardings in 2013 (CUTA Transit Factbook 2013) making up 76.3% of Edmonton’s 139,782,594 annual transit boardings, getting the Edmonton bus system right is clearly critical to getting Edmonton right. 

boardings-per-capita-in-canada
Source: CUTA Transit Factbook 2013

While Edmonton’s boardings per capita are excellent by western Canadian standards, besting even much-publicised Vancouver, it is overshadowed by the performance of the large eastern Canadian cities. And success of course is no grounds for complacency, as complacency has been known to lead to success slipping away.

Part of the Transit Strategy process has been engagement, more engagement and yet more engagement. Edmonton does a lot of engagement and this process was one of the largest ever carried out by the City of Edmonton. There were three rounds of such engagement from November 2015 through to June 2016 for the Transit Strategy, designed initially to collect ideas, then to explore trade-offs and later to resolve unresolved issues in prioritising trade-offs. In total over 40,000 ideas were collected during this process.

One thing to understand about trade-offs are that they are inherently difficult and potentially contradictory. For example, you can ask transit customers a question about preferred walking distance and the answer is likely to be short which would imply close stop spacing to meet this need. If you ask the same transit customers if they would prefer faster or slower transit service, inevitably the response would be a desire for faster service. However, shorter walking distance and faster transit service are in counterpoint to one another. Being as clear as about what you are trading off in a trade-off is a crucial element in this conversation. Working through and prioritising the trade-offs has been a notable strength of Edmonton’s engagement process. 

So the end of this process sees the Transit Strategy: Strategic Direction Report. This is based around five pillars, as illustrated below:

strategic-direction-pillars
Transit Strategy Five Pillars, City of Edmonton 2016

The first pillar “Integrate Transit with Community Planning and Design” appears to be virtually superfluous given Edmonton’s proud tradition of good high-level strategic documents and implementation strategies. Such concepts as sustainable compact growth and Transit Oriented Development are well entrenched in the city’s strategic thinking in the higher order documents referenced above along with numerous excellent plans such as the Walkability Strategy to the Edmonton Main Street Guidelines. Edmonton is very good at planning.

The second pillar “Establish a Balanced Approach to Operating Funding and Fare Policy” borders on stating the self-evident given that the level of funding subsidy funding is a public choice that needs to be debated and made explicit and transparent. But there is something missing here. Many cities in the United States very heavily subsidise public transport, regrettably too often seen as a mode of last resort, but perversely manage to achieve very poor transport outcomes for the very people that they are seeking to help because their networks often fail to make crucial choices about what they are trying to do. The level of public funding is important but much more important that that money is spent wisely on the smartest transit network that is making clear choices about what it is trying to achieve, while recognising that by its very nature public transit has a key role in providing accessibility for people who cannot or choose not to drive.

The report only really addresses that the proportion of funding coming from fares can be shifted but it neglects the point that funding can be affected by the level of ridership and does not set clear targets for increasing ridership. [Of note is that the city has a target of 105 boardings per capita by 2018]. Additionally it doesn’t mention the fact that operationally by looking at the peak to base ratio the funding ratio can be improved, given the disproportionate expense of running peak-only versus all-day service. It can cost up to three times as much to run peak service over the marginal cost of non-peak service and ridership elasticities are actually inversely related to current level of service, meaning that frequency improvements outside of the peak achieve bigger percentage gains in ridership than peak-period frequency improvements.  Another key issue is affordability to customers. Fare policy has to navigate a tricky balance between not underpricing or overpricing travel for those for whom affordability is less of an issue while not pricing lower income groups out of the mobility that is so vital for access to all of life’s opportunities. One method that can help is to encourage less time-sensitive but price -sensitive customers is through making non-peak travel for all cheaper than peak travel. This can encourage non-peak ridership, take a bit of pressure off the peak where scaling capacity to demand is expensive, and can help cover a significant gaps in fare concessions which are, as in the case of Edmonton, often not available to working people on low incomes or those in receipt of Employment Insurance or social assistance.  

The thinking about fare policy appears laudable and defensible on the surface but misses a key element of transit productivity which is bus operating speed. Buses can spend much of their journey time stopped at bus stops or traffic signals. Speeding up bus boarding times through big discounts for pre-payment via smart card and bus operations through bus priority measures are two key measures to make the best of any city’s transit resources. In addition, other techniques such as allowing all-door boarding (with appropriate revenue protection measures), and well-thought out stop spacing can also be of significant assistance in keeping buses moving, not stuck at bus stops. The point here is that fare policy and operational funding needs to be connected to a smart, productive transit network that is clear about what it is trying to achieve and needs to be considered as key elements of optimising bus operation.

The third pillar “Develop of Market-Responsive Approach to Transit Network Design” appears to be proposing two quite different transit systems for Edmonton: A frequent network of corridor services for the urban core within the Inner Ring Road and a more peak-focused one-seat ride network for outer neighbourhoods. This is interesting as it makes explicit a point that many cities know implicitly but rarely express overtly: That the communities in the urban core that were built around transit are much more transit-friendly than the communities that were built around the car. It suggests that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for all urban contexts.

However, the waters appear to be a bit muddied by multifarious terminology about transit service typologies from premium bus, BRT, express bus, local service and crosstown service. One of the strengths of Edmonton’s LRT network is the ability to hub around major stations such as Century Park. This enables lower-frequency services to pulse to minimise bus-to-bus and bus-to-LRT transfer times or to have LRT to frequent service connections where the need for a timetable is obviated by the frequency of the service on offer. 

In Edmonton’s case, one great way to do this would be to follow the Vancouver model and use premium service with bus rapid transit elements (e.g. off-board ticketing; all-door boarding; traffic signal priority and queue jumps) as a precursor service on future (or even under construction in the case of the Valley Line) light rail lines. Vancouver used this “B-Line” approach as a precursor to the Canada Line, the Millennium Line and its just-opened Evergreen Extension and is doing so for the future Broadway subway and light rail in Surrey. 

Another Vancouver approach that could be of use is the use of smaller vehicles running as community shuttles in more suburban areas to connect to local centres and higher-order transit. These vehicles have the advantages of some reduction in operating costs, are better matched to demand and more able to navigate the “loops and lollipops” streets pattern often seen in suburban areas.

By their nature, one-seat-ride or express bus networks are choosing to do one thing well – which is get peak commuters to key destinations without a transfer. But generally this requires a peak bus to perform a single inbound trip in the morning peak and outbound trip in the afternoon peak as there is not enough time for a single bus to do two peak-direction trips. This is extremely hungry in bus operating cost and ties up the capital cost of a bus for very limited use. And by clear implication, the trade-off of the one-seat-ride or express bus networks is fewer resources for other key transit functions, including local connectivity.  In order to maintain affordability of providing the service in a one-seat ride network, it is likely that the trade-off would be limited mobility outside of the peak in the outer areas.

A better model is a connective network model to use the same bus resource to provide more frequent local service that hubs with LRT or a higher-order frequent service at a well-designed and customer friendly connection points (and Edmonton does these much better than most Canadian cities). In particularly strong corridors, this can be a combination of all-stops and limited-stop services with the caveat that the requirement to travel does not suddenly stop inbound at 9am in the morning and outbound at 6pm in the evening. All-day networks are by their very nature much more useful than peak-only networks and help balance operating costs by encouraging non-peak trips and reducing the need for additional peak buses.

Auckland, New Zealand is strongly moving to a connective network model as illustrated below which maximises the number of destinations that be accessed in an acceptable travel time by transit by treating connections as an opportunity to add connectivity and to increase frequency for all without needing significant increases in public funding.

Auckland connective network
Courtesy of Auckland Transport. Adapted from Human Transit by Jarrett Walker.

The strategy suggests branding for the different bus typologies but this is an area that needs to be approached with caution to avoid unintentionally “dissing” the lower order typologies. Transit functions best as a network, not as a collection of branded typologies. This is not to say there shouldn’t be a hierarchy of services or that there are mechanisms to communicate the higher order services through depiction on network maps and using lower digit numbers (e.g. Auckland uses two-digit numbers for frequent service) and more subtle vehicle branding. But, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it’s good to avoid the perception that “all buses are equal but some buses are more equal than others.”

The fourth pillar “Improve the Customer Experience” is the mantra of public and private sector organisations the world over. But the best way to transform the transit customer experience is to transform the transit system itself into something that is useful for a wide variety of people to carry out all sorts of different trips at all sorts of different times. A transit system that does only one thing well – typically delivering customers to key destinations such as downtowns and universities in the peak – is not achieving this. The rest of the pillar is really a list of actions that any transit agency worth its salt should already have entrenched in its business as usual processes. This is the case in Edmonton.

The fifth pillar “Develop Transit Organizational Capacity” is really about the back-of-house operations that support transit operation. As such, these should be seamless, largely invisible to the customer but at the same time key enablers of safe, connective, reliable journeys. That a city-owned public transit operator should tightly integrate with broader city strategies and desired outcomes appears to be somewhat of a truism.

Another thing to note is that there is no mention in the Transit Strategy of how the system should be maintained after the network is redesigned. It doesn’t mention how often the network should be evaluated or overhauled to rematch the resources to the demand.

My overall impression of the Transit Strategy is somewhat underwhelming. A strategy should give a clear sense of direction and a road map with clear guidance to ETS about expected outcomes based on the clear results of the thorough and in-depth engagement process that has taken place in Edmonton. Such a strategy should have a clear sense of what success would look like: What would a transformed bus system in Edmonton look like? How would it make a greater contribution to the mobility of Edmontonians? And how would it deliver better value for money for the city’s investment in transit operations and capital?

Frankly I don’t believe that the Transit Strategy does justice to Edmonton’s proud tradition of strong strategic thinking, reflected in The Ways documents and the various plans that underpin them.

Edmonton deserves a bus system that works for all of Edmonton. Here’s hoping that Edmonton gets such a system at the end of this quite lengthy process. I will be watching with great interest the journey of Edmonton’s Transit Strategy.

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