Transforming transit – Tackling a changing transit world: part 1

Edmonton Transit Service

Step 1: Back to Basics

“Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to make leaps forward,” says Eddie Robar, Branch Manager for Edmonton Transit Service (ETS), when explaining why he has taken the last few years to reset Edmonton’s transit system. Since moving his family across the country from Nova Scotia three years ago, Robar and team have been neck deep in changes.

Not only is Edmonton looking to transform an outdated transit system, ETS is contending with stagnant ridership, rapid city growth, technological advancement, rideshare market competition, and expansion challenges (both with existing projects like the Metro Line and future projects like electric bus integration).

When it comes to how many people are taking public transit, Edmonton is like many other cities across the country, watching ridership trickle down the last few years. Initially, the downward trend was easily (and traditionally) correlated to economic slowdown. However, Edmonton has had added pressure on ridership from increasing transit fares. But, as the economy stabilizes, other influencing factors have become crystal clear. People simply expect more.

Today’s generation has different incentives to take transit. In the past, people would take transit because it was more affordable or better for the environment. While those values are still inherent with some riders, today’s public transit needs to “up its game” to attract a new generation of riders. Transit riders now have choices with the availability and affordability of ride-sharing services and they expect more conveniences, such as wifi, or integrated services, such as coffee shops and stores as part of a transit station.

Meeting these new expectations isn’t cheap. Plus, change takes time. What’s more is that many Canadian transit properties are also grappling with outdated fleets, infrastructure and a myriad of other local issues. So, how does a city breathe life back into its transit system? Start with the basics.

For Edmonton, this meant going back to the drawing board on foundational pieces, such as the design of bus routes. It’s been almost 25 years since Edmonton overhauled its transit service. At the time, Edmonton had a population just shy of 625,000 and a new “pulse” model was the right choice. Using key locations, such as a transit centre or a landmark location, routes could be scheduled to arrive within close proximity to maximize transfers.

Edmonton has exploded since the 1990’s in both population and geography. The city now has a population of nearly one million, recently annexed nearly 9,000 hectares of land (or about 16,000 football fields) and is closer than ever to neighbouring communities, amounting to over 1.3 million people. With additional people comes additional municipal development, road construction and congestion, and longer commute times. These meant the old “pulse” network had seen better days and was no longer meeting the needs of residents with longer travel times through a busier city, making it harder and harder to stay on schedule or provide attractive service to new neighbourhoods. It was time to press the reset button.

Come late summer 2020, Edmonton will be introducing a “hub and spoke” network design to its transit system with a focus on high-frequency service along major corridors. It will make transit attractive again by leveraging the traditional reasons people have taken transit (affordable, quick, and reliable) while integrating new opportunities, such as alternative transit options and real-time service notifications.

“Imagine taking the frustration out of being behind the wheel and getting precious time back to read something interesting, get in a little extra work or studying, or catch up with friends. That’s the kind of experience, the kind of lifestyle choice Edmonton will market to its citizens and customers in order to get people back on buses and trains,” says Robar.

The new bus network isn’t the only major reset for Edmonton. Next month, this series explores fixing what is broken as Edmonton continues to overcome public transit hurdles.

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