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