Train To Nowhere

Edmonton’s LRT rush puts good planning and public consultation in the backseat

I can trace my nerdy fascination with urban planning back to junior high.

In Grade 9, I job-shadowed my neighbour, who was an engineer with the City of Edmonton transportation department. He let me muck around his office all day, poking through different maps and diagrams of everything from the widening of Calgary Trail to plans for the ring-road that is now nearing completion.

Since then, I’ve lost the naïve fascination with plans in and of themselves and honed an appreciation for how these plans affect the way in which people live and get around in the city.

In Edmonton right now, the decade-old Transportation Master Plan (TMP) is currently being updated, as is the Municipal Development Plan (MDP)—both key policy documents are due within the next year. Unfortunately, we are now rushing ahead to extend our LRT instead of waiting for these big-picture decisions.

Co-ordination between the TMP and MDP is possible later this year, but that’s not good enough. The city could miss key opportunities for large-scale development near LRT stations. Building homes and businesses near public transit is crucial both for the success of the LRT and the livability of the city. The only way Edmonton can overcome the challenges of the 21st century is if those two planning documents are actively harmonized by civic leadership—not simply dealt to hired consultants as an afterthought.

With an aging population and rising gasoline prices along with possible fuel shortages due to the global peak in oil production, we need to act as quickly as possible to catch up with growth and prepare for those new realities. That said, we shouldn’t rush into any multi-billion-dollar extensions without adequate and careful analysis of all possibilities—especially given the cost of getting it wrong. A comprehensive review of all potential LRT corridors and land-use planning around them will be worth the delay in getting it right.

Administration must then meaningfully engage the public as an integral part of consultation and decision-making, and that hasn’t really happened yet. In fact, according to a summary report, over a third of the representatives on the West LRT advisory committee felt planners weren’t listening to them, and half thought the process and parameters used were ineffective and inappropriate.

“Evaluations were done on getting people from Lewis Estates to downtown,” says resident Nancy MacDonald, “and under that analysis, any northern route... will always fail in comparison to 87 Avenue, because it will take longer and it will be more expensive. Let’s try and develop a route where you have more frequent stops, and develop a community of people who almost don’t [need to] use cars.”

MacDonald says she hadn’t given LRT a lot of thought before she attended the last of three open houses, curious to learn more about its impact on her neighbourhood. She came away from the event offended by the whole process. And she’s only one of a growing number of Edmontonians who have started asking larger questions about where the city should build its LRT. The proposed alignment might be the fastest way to downtown from Lewis Estates but, as MacDonald argues, “There might be better ways to get there... where we can start to develop a more densified and walkable city around those train stations.”

If we stop using travel time for suburban commuters as one of the primary benchmarks for new LRT routes, all sorts of possible densification opens up. Mayor Mandel and councillors want to see alternatives, but experts and officials are tied to a flawed process, and it’s not in their mandate to expand the scope of the project.

We need time to step back from the debate, so we can develop a new comprehensive, transparent, and holistic approach. If we can intelligently fuse transportation and land-use planning with the framework of a detailed LRT master plan, we can avoid the suicide of urban sprawl and reap the long-term benefits of building up instead of out.

Editor’s Note: Jordan Schroder is a local public transit advocate and urban planning geek. This is the first column in a three-week series on the LRT. For his expanded thoughts on Edmonton, check out www.jamunion.net.



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