Metro Line Woes: The anti-transit bias of media coverage

Photo courtesy of ctv.ca

By now, the failures of the Metro Line LRT extension are well known. Originally slated to open in early 2014, the line only began service this past September, with running speeds limited to 25 km/hr. This article will not analyze the reasons for this delay, as the relationship between City transportation staff and the signaling contractor Thales continues to be acrimonious and blame can’t be assigned with any accuracy. Rather, I want to look into the hyperbole and anti-transit rhetoric surrounding the perceived traffic delays/inconveniences that many assume to have arisen in the aftermath of the line’s opening.

The imperfect Metro Line implementation, including the snail’s pace of construction and slow running speeds during operation, are certainly grounds for legitimate criticism and this article will not try to defend these deficiencies. However, if one looks at the more recent media coverage of this service, someone unfamiliar with Edmonton would assume that the new LRT was put in place solely to inconvenience drivers. Headlines such as “Metro LRT to cause major traffic delays”, “City’s LRT plans will only make congestion worse”, “Rush hour traffic delayed up to 10 minutes by Metro Line LRT” paint a picture of snarled traffic, frustrated commuters and an intolerable burden placed on the city. However, is the situation really as grim as all this or are local media outlets too focused on the reported frustrations of motorists, reports that may not be accurate in the first place?

Reading through the coverage surrounding the Metro Line, it’s immediately striking how much ink is spilled describing the driving experience, as opposed to any major spotlight on transit riders or the potential city building benefits of a new rapid transit line: stories almost entirely focus on reported wait times for vehicles in the vicinity of Kingsway Mall and NAIT. Breathless descriptions such as City councillors were stunned when they learned…..that vehicles could be delayed up to 16 minutes during peak hours at Princess Elizabeth and 111th Avenues” and “Drivers can expect to sit behind the wheel and watch the light change from red to green four times before they clear the intersection” fill the bodies of the articles listed above. It’s important to note that these wait times are not based on a scientific study, rather, they are the perceptions of drivers previously used to the (generally) car-oriented infrastructure of our city. In spite of this, you can clearly see that criticism of the new LRT is almost completely focused on these perceived motorist delays.

Admittedly, in amongst all of the driver-centred criticism of the line, there are some notes of concern for how the Metro Line problems have affected transit riders, especially the effect on heavily used bus routes 8 and 9 in the Kingsway Transit Centre area where the Journal reports that ETS has been adding extra vehicles to keep the frequency reasonable throughout the entire route. Indeed, the slow speed of the current service is a very real concern that threatens Edmonton’s goals of boosting alternative transportation and should indeed be highlighted for the general public. However, concerns facing transit service are few and far between when compared with the laments of motorists reproduced in Edmonton’s local media.

This is not to say that there are no delays for motorists at all. A city report on this issue in October 2015 reported that while a few 10 minute waits did take place, they were not the norm and were at the very upper end of wait times. No one wants to see undue hardship placed on motorists, but with studies showing wait times for the train that are often much lower than the common perception, repeated media stories focusing on traffic delays do a disservice to city building in Edmonton. Even with the signals operating as planned and trains running at the full 50 km/hr, motorists will still need to wait for the LRT to pass. We also still have yet to see a public media discussion of how bus routes can be modified to take the surface train crossings into account. As the current transit strategy process advances it will be interesting to see if journalists take more of an interest in these issues or whether they continue to write articles based on their view from behind the windshield.

Given that building a more ‘urban’ LRT system (and the vibrant, livable city that this supports) will involve many more such interactions between cars and transit, drivers will ultimately need to cede some road priority and, when running properly, the Metro Line will be a useful test case for how everyone can learn to share the road in the new Edmonton. Proponents of transit and urbanity must do a better job of countering the narrative of motorist pain, by engaging with media outlets and helping to shift the conversation towards more positive depictions of LRT, transit and urban life.

3 comments

  1. Upon opening of the Metro Line, Dorian Wandzyk (spelling?) of the City’s Transportation Department was seen and heard on all Edmonton media: (I paraphrase…) “The citizens of Edmonton will get used to the signals and they will naturally over time find their own driving routes.” To me that reads: “Stuff it car drivers, find your own damn way.”
    Alas, the LRT system is essentially being dumped upon the city without proper planning to integrate it into the bus system or with the general driving public. In fact the Metro Line was altered at the end of its design phase by a “back-of-the-envelope” request from city council to move the NAIT Station. No traffic plans were completed. It was just tacked onto the final design. The Century Park line was designed and built without computerized signalling at one of its busiest points; Southgate Mall. People waited for 45 minutes for traffic lights that never changed. We can see the results of this short-sightedness in the “short-cutting” problem plaguing many Edmonton residential neighbourhoods.
    Several things are not helping matters: Certain anti-car members of city government foisting their dreams upon engineers and planners. The lecturing and hectoring of drivers from green-urban activists. Blaming the media coverage.
    Planners and engineers must be given the time and resources to properly design our modern transportation system so that it works well and is broadly supported by the citizenry. We must end this tradition of randomly dumping huge projects onto the city whenever funding is cajolled from other levels of government just to satisfy the whims of politicians looking for monuments to themselves.

  2. Hi there Chris,

    Thanks for your comments, I always appreciate lively debate on my writing.

    First of all, the article was not necessarily meant to be a catch all defense of the Metro Line. The slow line speeds remain a problem for motorists and transit riders alike. Thus, I share your concerns regarding how signalling is being implemented and hopefully the City can work with Thales to have the service running optimally. This will lead to more predictable light cycles in the Kingsway and NAIT areas.

    However, I will dispute that “certain anti car members of city government are foisting their dreams upon engineers and planners”. Investments in public transit are being made throughout North America as urban areas realize that solely developing in a car centred manner is a profoundly negative way to build one’s city. Furthermore, people of all ages are actively looking for alternatives to car use; this is a trend that Edmonton cannot ignore. In spite of this, the media outlets in this city persist in viewing all developments through a driver lens; as if nothing should be built at all if it “gets in the way of traffic”. It’s exactly this sort of thinking and mindset that has held us back as a city and my piece was trying to give a different perspective than that seen in the current popular discourse.

    In fact, I have sources that say complaints about the Metro Line have fallen drastically since the new year, proof that drivers are indeed finding their own routes or perhaps riding the train themselves. The plans for LRT expansion have been approved by council for years, meaning that the Metro Line was not ‘randomly dumped’ onto the city and since polls show a majority of Edmontontians want expanded transit we will hopefully see more such projects in the future.

  3. Thanks for the reply. A couple of responses for you:
    Of course complaints have fallen drastically. The line is done. It’s not moving. It would take many tens of millions of dollars to fix. In a couple of years we are going to start to hear complaints of short-cutting through Queen Mary and McCauley, which will then lead to contentious traffic-calming measures, which will again fuel more angst. We are also going to receive news, sooner or later, of the first death of a patient in an ambulance sitting behind a signal arm within sight of its destination. This will unfortunately cause more opposition to transit.

    Second, city council may have planned LRT for several years but for the Metro Line, they almost literally drew up plans on a napkin by altering the NAIT station (as part of the Blatchford development). Engineers were given a month to incorporate changes into the final plan, with no time to study the ramifications. This is not how cities should be built.

    I am all in favour of a well-planned transit system. Edmonton is generally not getting well-planned transit. I hope that changes. I hope engineers and planners are given the proper authority to use their skills, free from political interference. I thank you for your informative coverage of these kinds of issues.

Comments are closed.