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Edmonton, First North American City with Modern Light Rail, Plans Major Expansion

Edmonton Light Rail Network Plan Map» Network would focus on reinforcing transit in urban communities, rather than speeding suburbanites into downtown.

When Edmonton opened the first 4.3-mile segment of its light rail network in 1978, it was pioneering a new approach to transit in North America. While cities like Montréal and Washington, DC were constructing huge, expensive heavy rail systems that sought to emulate the best features of older subway systems and carry hundreds of thousands of people a day, Edmonton was more modest in its ambitions. Using light rail technology and railroad rights-of-way, the city built a cheaper system that responded directly to the needs of a city whose population was less than half a million strong. As the system expanded, its focus on assuring quick suburb-to-downtown commutes rather than inner-city travel was the system’s hallmark.

Witnessing the extreme costs and the less than projected ridership of the two heavy rail systems that opened in the 1980s — those in Baltimore and Miami — other American cities turned to Edmonton’s example for expanding rapid transit. Rights-of-way are mostly secured, trains rarely run along city streets, and stations feature park-and-ride lots. This model, which attracts more than 50,000 daily riders on less than 10 miles of track, has become something of a continental standard.

Thirty years later, however, Edmonton is ready to try something new.

With a growing population, the existing south-northeast line doesn’t do enough to satisfy the travel needs of people elsewhere in the city. In response, four new lines are in varying stages of planning; unlike the existing lines, they won’t be built to compete with automobiles in travel time, possible only with few stations and isolated tracks. Rather, these new corridors will feature closely-spaced stations located in street medians. Extensions into the far suburbs, while being considered, aren’t the priority. The system’s future will be one that encourages round-the-clock use of trains in dense neighborhoods, not commutes from sprawling communities at peak hours alone. It’s a paradigm change, and if successful, Edmonton’s new system may prove to be a model for transit planning once again.

The Canadian city’s planners have been pushing a light rail network proposal for the past year, though certain elements have been under discussion for a decade. The city is currently expanding its south line five miles to Century Park from its existing terminus at the University of Alberta. A northwest line would reach nine miles from downtown by 2014. Planners insist that the central segment of today’s line, which runs in a tunnel under downtown, will reach capacity in the next few years, so any more spurs will be impossible. New routes, such as to the west and southeast, will need a new downtown connection. All in all, the city is planning a full-scale urban-style system, with 80 miles of track and six lines, a project whose implementation would cost more than C$9 billion to build and carry 500,000 daily riders by the time it’s completed. This new investment allows the city to use a different form of rail technology.

By taking advantage of low-floor trams now common in cities across the country, Edmonton can save on infrastructure costs by eliminating the expense of investing in stations with high-floor platforms. The other major advantage of this approach is that it makes it more simple to run light rail in the street as would a streetcar, and it makes stops more integrated into the surrounding communities. This will encourage people to walk up to trains from the livable, dense neighborhoods that planners argue could surround stations if developers respond appropriately to new construction. The idea that one drives to a light rail station and then gets on a train may be outmoded.

For residents of the communities likely to be affected by these new lines, however, this approach doesn’t seem all that well considered. For the C$2 billion west-to-southeast route, which has yet to be funded, running trains on Story Plain Road out to West Edmonton would mean a reduction in the number of car lanes to just one in each direction. Business owners on the popular strip suggest that this would significantly reduce their customer base because it would eliminate some 80% of cars that drive by daily. This would especially be true for commercial outlets distanced from stations, which will be located every six blocks and leave clear differences in service between areas close to stops and those further away.

In the early years, those business owners are likely right: they’ll suffer a decline in commercial activity as people used to driving to get their shopping will go elsewhere. But the opportunities for revitalization of the affected areas in the longer term will more than outweigh the pain caused initially placed on some businesses. By placing light rail in the street’s median and building closely-spaced, accessible, and convenient stations in neighborhood centers, Edmonton is repositioning itself for a future in which people depend on their feet more than their cars. The general manager of the city’s transportation department phrased it well:

“The LRT is not just about moving people. It’s about building a city.”

Indeed, this is a lesson that other cities could learn; rather than focusing on moving people the longest distances as quickly as possible, transit planners should be working to design transit corridors in a manner that emphasizes creating livable communities. From this angle, Edmonton’s approach is exactly right.

Image above: Edmonton Light Rail Long-Term Plan, from City of Edmonton

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Edmonton gets credit for having one of the lowest-cost systems in North America per passenger carried – only Calgary has done better. But the ridership in Edmonton is disappointing, again when you compare it with Calgary. The C-Train opened in 1981, serving a city about the same size as Edmonton, for about the same per-km cost. The C-Train carries 250,000 people per day, Edmonton Light Rail 50,000.

  • Chris

    Well now Calgary is about twice as big as Edmonton and it’s light rail network is far more extensive, so I would expect ridership on Calgary LRT to be far higher. In addition most people I would think believe Calgary’s bus system to be far more robust than Edmonton’s.

    In any case, Edmonton’s focus on closely spaced neighborhood stops will work, but only because the city itself is so small. Nine miles from downtown Edmonton gets you to the edge of town; nine miles from downtown LA gets you to someplace like Hollywood, still in the urban center.

    Since buses are so successful at carrying passengers short distances it seems that rapid transit should focus on carrying passengers long distances if there is a conflict between the two.

  • While Montreal and Washington were trying to accommodate the urban transport needs of crushingly-dense populations numbering in the multi-millions, Edmonton was a backwater oil town of half a million who had a few bucks to spend on trains. It’s a miracle LRT was ever built in the first place.

    Also, Edmonton and Calgary have the same metro population. Just over 1 million people each.

    I think it’s great that a city of 1 million people has large goals like this to help shape the city for the future. Edmonton is a drastically suburban landscape. Remember, this is the city that built the world’s largest suburban shopping mall in the 80s. Nine billion $ for 450 000 additional LRT riders seems quite reasonable when you consider the cost effectiveness of similar lines planned for many American cities, and the wide-flung built environment of this chilly northern prairie town.

    Built it all!

  • NikolasM

    Cities of less than 300,000 in Germany (Augsburg) have better mass transit options than this.

  • This sounds like it’s coming down right in between conventional LRT and what we’d call streetcars, at least as it applies to station spacing. But as always, exclusivity of right-of-way is what matters me in categorising a service.

    Is the proposed Edmonton system largely exclusive ROW, like typical North American LRT?

  • Woody

    The Edmonton system looks good, like a pre-Metro. an An underground stretch downtown has six stations, and the rest is an exclusive separated ROW, but with grade crossings. Much of the original section was built on CN ROW, which is being used now for a one-station extension.

  • roberta

    Edmonton and Calgary do indeed have similar populations of about 1 million. Calgary however has fewer “bedroom communities” (Edmonton has Sherwood Park, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, etc). and a higher concentration of workers downtown, both of which contributed to the higher success of their transit system. Getting a whack of money from the feds/province during the winter olympics didn’t hurt, either. That said, Edmontonians by and large have no sense of how imperilled their car-oriented system is and usually howl blue murder when anyone suggests funding alternative transportation: just wait until the bike transport plan goes to council mid-November 2009.

  • Calgary has very strong restrictions on parking cars downtown (Nearly the highest cost of parking in Canada) and many of the LRT stations have large parking lots to encourage commuter ridership to the downtown core. The Calgary C-Train system functions much like a commuter rail system.

  • AL

    Edmonton’s LRT planning is in fact *very* poorly done, with lack of transparency and accountability.

    Take for example example the proposed route to the West end of the city. *All* city studies showed the 87th avenue option to be faster, higher ridership, less expensive, etc., than the now selected preferred rout along Stoney Plain Road. In fact, the 87th route was pubclically stated by city planners as the preferred option. But then the Mayor catered to a wealthy minority that would be impacted in their houses by this route and to a wealty minority that would benefit from commercial real estate on the SPR route, and after a rather brief re-study, SPR was suddenly the winner! I don’t dispute the long-term revitalization that can occur from a SPR route, but this can also be accomplished by improved bus service and improved urban planning in general. What is completely missed in the SPR is the ability to rapidly move people from the west end to the university and then into downtown… The university district with >60,000 students and home to one of the main hospitals has a disproprtionate need for tranport links. The mayor thinks downtown must be the transfer point, rather than the university (even though a one-seat ride could have been possible!).

    Overall, this entire project shows tremendous evidence that the planners using their experience and technical skill can also be overridden by a mayor catering to personal interests rather than good planning.

  • Matt Fisher

    This will turn a lot. I rode LRT when I was in Edmonton in 2003 before it was extended south from the University of Alberta.

    You can also see my map of LRT with current plans here:
    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=101996212121253487336.00046ebef4b8040671b42&z=10
    They should bring LRT to the West Edmonton Mall, still the world’s largest. Of course, Calgary is certainly useful ‘cuz it’s more extensive currently, but what Edmonton is planning could put Calgary to shame. I want LRT to replace all of the Transitway back home in Ottawa – no more busways – and put BOTH to shame. :)
    See it here:
    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=101996212121253487336.00046eaae108ae222cb98&z=10

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