» Completion of city’s first transit expansion program since 1992 emphasizes attracting a suburban clientele.
Rapid transit systems can promote a variety of differing goals, from increasing the number of commuters choosing to ride public transportation during the peak hour to allowing for the multiplication of zones of walkable urbanism.
Many commuter rail systems have the stated purpose of pulling suburbanites into downtown business districts and often include hundreds of parking spots at stations to allow people who live in sprawling neighborhoods to drive right up to the station then jump on the train to make the final hop to work. At the other extreme, streetcar networks are designed for dense, inner-city neighborhoods in which most inhabitants are presumed not to have a car at all — the transit system is purely intended as a complement to a walking lifestyle.
Edmonton’s newest light rail extension, which includes two new stations and 5.6 kilometers of track, is set firmly in the first mode of thinking. With one station at a mall and the other surrounded by relatively low-density neighborhoods and a 1,200-space parking facility, its primary purpose will be to encourage commuters to get out of their cars for their daily journeys to work.
The new stations at Southgate Mall and Century Park, both of which opened for regular service yesterday, are only the most recent of the C$690 million South LRT extension program, which has been opening in short sections since 2006, when the city’s one light rail line was extended from the University of Alberta to the Health Sciences Station. Now with 20.5 kilometers of track and fifteen stations, it will carry an estimated 100,000 daily riders, roughly double what the system was attracting two years ago.
Edmonton was the first North American city to feature modern light rail. It is currently plotting a major expansion program that could include four new corridors, several of which could be finished by 2016 if Edmonton wins the right to host the 2017 World Expo. Further extensions of the line south of Century Park are likely.
Though the first segment of Edmonton’s light rail system extended northeast of downtown, never before has the city constructed stations in areas that are so residential. When compared to most U.S. cities, the communities surrounding the new stations aren’t wildly sprawling (residents live in neighborhoods of about 5,000 people per square mile). In fact, a major development specifically geared for light rail users is being constructed at Century Park.
These will not be stations many people walk to. Trains will travel straight down 111th Street NW, a wide arterial so poorly conducive to pedestrian use that surrounding neighborhoods are walled off and both stations include elevated walkways to get over the highway. Most of the residential streets on which houses are located don’t even connect directly to the main road. Other than the preexisting mall at Southgate and the redevelopment area at Century Park, there is virtually no room for the creation of transit-oriented neighborhoods.
This means that most people who want to use the light rail line in South Edmonton will be basically forced to drive to stations. This isn’t so much the fault of the transit planners, though: it’s simply a reflection of the physical environment surrounding those stations, set in stone years ago by officials clearly uninterested in developing pedestrian activity. Whether it’s a good idea to invest big bucks in new transit lines in such areas should be a matter of debate.
Nevertheless, the light rail system is likely to be well-used simply because it will be convenient, especially for those who take advantage of the free park-and-ride facilities. A ride downtown will take 18 minutes, compared to 35 to 40 minutes on existing bus routes. Bathrooms are included at each new station (and they’re being added to the old ones) and public safety has been prioritized, with security cameras positioned just about everywhere. The stops have already been prepared for five-car trainsets to handle the expected influx of passengers.
But success for a new transit line cannot simply be measured in terms of riders; if Edmonton is able to move people from its southern neighborhoods to work on rail, that’s certainly a good thing, but the system won’t allow many to abandon their cars entirely. But this approach, it turns out, is not necessarily how the city intends to pursue future system development — the West Line, currently in planning, has encountered significant community resistance specifically because it is designed to up density in the surrounding neighborhoods and limit car traffic. The South extension does not appear likely to do either of those things.
Image above: Edmonton Southgate Station, from Flickr user leendertvdb (cc)