2006: A Landmark Year For Edmonton Transit.

2006 looks like it’s going to be an interesting year for the Edmonton Transit Service (www.takeets.com). Several exciting and long overdue projects are on the burner. Not the least of those is the opening of the brand new Health Sciences LRT Station in early January. Additionally, in an effort to help connect E-Town’s surrounding communities to the city, ETS is introducing a pilot project that will offer commuter service to Spruce Grove, AB. In light of those major service expansions, basic fares are (understandably) going up. And, on a more interesting/bizarre note, ETS is field-testing a “solar powered bus stop” pole. As an outspoken advocate of public transportation, I find all this activity very exciting.

Health Sciences Station.

On January 1, 2006, ETS will open the new Health Sciences LRT station to passenger traffic. Mayor Stephen Mandel and a few other politicians will be on hand for the opening ceremonies on January 3, 2006. On January 1 and January 2, 2006 the LRT is FREE for travel anywhere along the line (Details PDF). I highly recommend that you take advantage of the free fare offer. Get acquainted (or reacquainted, as the case may be) with Edmonton’s still-small-but-growing LRT system.

Located near the Walter C. McKenzie Health Sciences Building (otherwise known as the U of A Hospital) in Edmonton, the new station provides a valuable and long overdue link to Edmonton’s world-class medical facility. The station will help relieve bus traffic pressure to the hospital and will provide much-needed fast transit access to the Jubilee Auditorium and the Canadian Blood Clinic. It will be an invaluable commuter link for thousands of doctors, nurses, students, and patients. As an added benefit it will also, hopefully, relieve some of the asscrushing parking pressure in the area. Parking at or near the U of A Hospital has always been a royal pain in the ass, so this new station should be welcomed by university-frequenting car-owners as well.

I do have one bitch with regards to the design of the new station. My concern is regarding pedestrian safety. In order to access the train platform, pedestrians must cross a set of tracks that run parallel to 114 street. No big deal, you might be thinking, and you’d be right – provided that everyone used their heads when crossing the tracks. Unfortunately, there are too many morons out there who don’t think. Of course there are train arms and lights and bells guarding the way, but I still think it’s very foolish to ignore the moron factor. I can just picture some drunken jackass stumbling across the tracks and getting wiped out by the 5:17 Northbound. That may sound crazy and unlikely, but history tells a different story. An incident like that occurred at Belvedere LRT station a few years back and that was enough to inspire a complete rebuild of that station which involved eliminating the pedestrian track crossing. The only truly safe solution for the new station is an underground pedway; a small touch that should have been put in there – no questions asked. The new station took 18 months to build and involved bringing two pairs of tracks from University Station – situated at a depth of 26 meters (85 feet) below the ground – to the surface. In light of that undoubtedly expensive feat of civil engineering, the lack of a fail-safe pedestrian underpass is rather conspicuous. If we can afford to punch a hole through the Earth to bring a few trains to the surface, could we not spend a few grand more to make sure people don’t get scrubbed out by said trains? The lack of an underpass is highly questionable from a public safety perspective. It should be corrected.

After seeing a few world-class urban railway systems (Paris, London) this past fall, I can safely say that E-Town’s commuter rail system is sadly lacking. The opening of the Health Sciences Station is a significant event for the city and continues it’s ambitious Edmonton South LRT Project, which will see the LRT expand southward with four new stations and reach Century Park (the old Heritage Mall) – all by late 2010. This aggressive expansion will give the system a much-needed shot in the arm, increase ridership and accessibility, and increase our credibility as a world-class city.

Service to Spruce Grove.

As of January 3, 2006 Edmonton Transit begins a year-long pilot project that provides commuter service to Spruce Grove, Alberta. Details can be found here. This service expansion is also very welcome. It goes a long way to tying together Edmonton’s outlying communities as well as providing a bit of internal service to the residents of Spruce Grove. Commuter fares seem very reasonable – $5.00 each way – but the logistics of this new system seem a tad convoluted. As well, the new service is limited to weekdays. I hope the project goes well and expands into weekend and holiday service. This expansion compliments existing regional ETS service to Fort Saskatchewan and the Edmonton Garrison. It also provides an accessible link from Spruce Grove to St. Albert (via St. Albert Transit) and Sherwood Park (via Strathcona County Transit). A most welcome addendum to the system.

Fare Increases.

With all these service expansions, it makes sense that transit fares will also increase (new fare info). It’s a modest increase ($0.25) and, in my opinion, completely justified. Transit passes will stay at the same low price – $59.00 per month. I’ve always thought that E-Town’s transit passes were very reasonably priced, even a tad underpriced. I wouldn’t grumble even if they went up by $10.00 per month. Of course, I say that because I can easily afford a pass. Many Edmontonians can’t. To their credit, ETS offers some decent subsidies for certain people in need (i.e. AISH subsidy; U of A special pricing). For me, $59.00 per month for transportation expenses is quite reasonable.

Solar Powered Bus Stop Poles (?)

On a more bizarre transit note, ETS is testing a “Solar Powered Bus Stop Pole” on 111 Street and 54 avenue. It’s an interesting idea – a bus stop pole with a three-button control box near the bottom and a solar-powered light on the top that either lights up the stop area or strobes to signal approaching busses depending on what button is pressed. I think that this pole is slightly on the ridiculous side, but it does have some basis in a practical problem. Speaking for myself and many other passengers I’m sure, there have been a few nighttime instances where busses have blown right by because the driver simply couldn’t see me standing there. These new poles might help eliminate that problem as well as providing an extra measure of safety for some more questionable stop locations. I think I’ll hop the #9 and check this sucker out for myself.

The Future of the ETS.

There are many other exciting transit plans on the burner. High Speed Bus Routes for the southeast, northwest, and southwest sections of the city look very promising. The further expansion of the LRT to Grant McEwan College’s downtown campus, Kingsway Mall, NAIT, and Northgate Mall is a project for the next 30 years or so. Punching the LRT from Century Park to Millwoods is another biggie. And of course, launching the train out to West Edmonton Mall is in the pipe for the next half century.

The above projects are all high priority, high-profile endeavours. They are important to us as a city. However, a few small-scale, easy to implement improvements to the system could be made today. Here are three improvements that could be made now, which would increase ETS’s stock:

  1. Public Transit service to the International Airport. Our next transit project, and one that is sorely needed, should be to provide basic public train (or bus) service to the International Airport. Simply stated, it is embarrassing and unacceptable that a city of our size does not have at least one public bus route that services its airport. To me, this is a top priority. The Sky Shuttle provides decent service, but it’s a van for gawd’s sake. The real reason why there is no transit service to the airport is quite a simple one: Cab Company lobbying. Via taxi cab, it’ll cost you between $30.00 and $70.00 to get out to the airport from within the city. The Sky Shuttle is a measly $12.00, but it doesn’t hop around the city – it’s only available at a few hotels in the central part of town. What a bogus arrangement. In the name of better service, this situation should end immediately. Regular coach service from Heritage Transit center is what is really required here.
  2. Increase the frequency of certain existing routes. The major routes run about a 15 minute frequency – even in peak hours. This isn’t enough, in my opinion. Major routes need a ten minute frequency or better every day at all hours including weekends (saving, perhaps, late night service).
  3. Late Night Service. Service until 3:00am or so should be available on major routes. It can be very frustrating to have busses stop at midnight or earlier.

I believe that I’ve yammered long enough. On January 1, I’ll be riding the LRT from the Health Sciences station to Clareview and back again. I would encourage everyone to get off their asses and do the same. Support Edmonton’s growing transit system – it’s a valuable and growing part of our ‘lil city.