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Transforming Transit – Tackling a changing transit world: part 2

Edmonton Transit Service

Step 2: Fix what is broken

It is often said, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” But what if it is broken? Like, really broken. The obvious answer might be to roll up one’s sleeves, figure it out and fix it. Spoiler alert: it’s not a one-size fits all when it comes to transit. For a variety of reasons, such as available budget, the size of a city, and ridership, what could be the right solution for one city might not work in another. The point is: tried and true versus innovative (and potentially complex) is a fine line to walk.

Last month’s article  showed how Edmonton is walking that line with its bus network redesign. The city is implementing a network model that focuses on high-frequency corridors – seen in major municipalities around the world – but Edmonton is putting its own spin on the system. After two years of extensive public engagement, Edmontonians were clear about wanting an integrated solution that includes focusing transit service along corridors with high demand. Edmonton is an expansive city with new suburban communities being developed every day. Most transit users in Edmonton also have access to a private vehicle, so public transit must compete as a transportation choice. Focusing on high-frequency service means making the century-old transit service attractive again. 

But Edmonton hasn’t always been able to find that sweet spot. Take the Metro Line LRT as an example. First scheduled to open in the spring of 2014, the city has experienced one setback after another. The line didn’t serve its first customers until September 2015, albeit under speed and operating restrictions, and continued to experience glitches and unplanned service outages into 2019. 

However, in 2018 the City of Edmonton, backed by City Council, gave the contractor a hard deadline. “It’s not easy to go in front of city council and ask them to rethink past decisions,” admits Eddie Robar, Branch Manager of Edmonton Transit Service. “But the city gave several opportunities for the contractor to get it right and it just wasn’t happening. It was simply time to lay the cards on the table, look for another solution, and move forward. I think the public – the ones paying for this – were relieved to see we were standing up for them.” While the chapters of the Metro Line continue to unfold, the honest and open approach taken to “fix the mistakes” was an invaluable lesson in regaining the public’s and council’s trust in public transit investment. 

Tackling big challenges doesn’t stop there for ETS. Since taking the chair in January 2016, Robar has led redesigning the bus network and remedying the plagued Metro Line, all while work continued behind the scenes. His first year on the job was spent focusing on a major reorganization both within transit and the City of Edmonton. “We had to align ourselves to work better and be more integrated, not only within transit but with our partners across the corporation,” he says. “It can take time for the dust to settle, but the work keeps moving forward.” 

As that dust has settled, Robar has noticed gains in corporate culture – so much so that staff trust coming to management with serious issues. Last winter, the media reported that ETS uncovered training certificates being fraudulently issued. This resulted in a full audit, reporting the discovery to the province, and making many changes to in-house practices and policies. 

“As we continue to peel back the layers of the organization, if we find something’s not right, we are going to be open and honest about it, and then we are going to fix it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an obvious problem like the Metro Line or something that has been hiding behind the curtains. Our people are our strongest asset. Taxpayers are our most valued customers. And we owe it to them to make things right,” says Robar. 

By getting the back of the house in order while fixing the public service, ETS is confident all the pieces of the puzzle will start to fit together.

Next month features the final installment of Transforming Transit and looks at new technologies and today’s customer expectations for recovering ridership.

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