Edmonton Expands Light Rail Service South to Century Park

» 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)

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Good news for the City of Edmonton, and it’s residents. This has been a process well over 15 years in the making. Now hopefully provincial and federal funding can be secured to finance the construction of other lines waiting in the starting gate.

    A couple notes on the article:
    – “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 is true for the most part as per the reasons given in the article, but what was not mentioned was that each of these stations along the south extension are also local bus transfer stations which act as feeder routes to the surrounding communities.

    – It will be interesting to see what the actual ridership figures are when measured in September. Estimates for the first phase of the extension was only 65,000, while the actual figure was just under 75,000. I’d guess the numbers to come back higher then the estimated 100,000, somewhere around the 125,000 mark.

  • MNSegler

    Yonah, I can’t pass up remarking on the phrase: “allowing for the multiplication of zones of walkable urbanism”. That’s a mouthful! How about “increasing areas where people can walk to transit”?

    A separate question on your final point about systems which might allow people to abandon their cars entirely: Do you mean not own any vehicles or just not require a car in conjunction with other transit trips? I support the latter, but I believe the former is neither realistic nor particularly useful in many cities for a long time. That goal is also a pretty scary leap for most people and may alienate them before you have a chance to describe the value of simply having less cars. I’d like to start by getting down to one car knowing I or other family members could get to many popular places via public transit. I’m not quite ready to put my daughter on two or three buses thru downtown for 90 minutes to get her to her friend’s house in the next suburb. I need the option to make the 15 minute drive.

    This reminds me of Patrick Condon’s recent comment on a Human Transit post (http://www.humantransit.org/2010/04/is-speed-obsolete-.html) where he IMHO came out against transit enabling longer out of neighborhood trips. That’s an unfortunate limitation. I think we can have green cars (one per family) and good public transit and retain mobility to where we want to go when we need to go there. It’s not all or nothing. Let’s gently raise automobile ownership costs as we improve alternative transit options. People may be ready for that idea.

  • David M

    Your comment that people must drive to the stations is wrong. Most of the passengers using the LRT will arrive on connecting bus services. All of the bus routes are designed to connect with the LRT and fares are integrated (single fare allows transfer between bus-LRT-bus for up to 90 minutes from time of issue). All of the neighbourhoods have connecting bus service to the two major stations, several of which are express.

  • David M

    David A – I don’t know the answer. It depends where you are in Canada. I think generally our cities are designed differently and for the most part, are transit friendly. As Yonah points out in the article, low density is around 5,000 people per square mile. Edmonton is one of the lowest density (ie sprawling) cities in Canada, most cities have higher densities.

    The LRT actually replaces express bus routes from Century Park and Southgate to downtown and the University. Eight peak hour express routes to downtown (representing over 32 departures an hour) have been discontinued with the opening of the LRT. In addition an all day express route to downtown has been discontinued. Routes to the University were cut back to South Campus when it opened last year and further cut back to Southgate or Century Park with the opening of the new line.

    Edmonton also operates a timed transfer system. Buses run between bus stations and are timed to arrive and depart at set times to allow transfer from one route to the other with no waiting. The LRT is part of this network and when the trains run every 10 or 15 minutes (in the evenings and Sunday), the buses are timed to meet the trains.

    • Ocean Railroader

      The Buses in Richmond VA are very unpreductble and some of them pick up and drop passangers off in the middle of no where. Also there is a case in Richmond where as soon as you reach the city limits the bus lines do a sold dead end even though mile 8 miled down the road there are suburbs in the next door counties that are far denser then some sections of the cities. The buses also can show up once every hour in some sections of town.

  • AL

    Unfortunately what Edmonton still lacks is effective “direct” bus service to connect the major non-downtown transit centres during non-peak times. (Non-peak is a loose term, since the times seem incredibly odd for someone with a typical 9-5 workday). Most of the suburban routes are long, meandering paths and the lack of direct buses can make the travel times exceptionally long.

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