Bus Rapid Transit Seen as Option Until LRT Lines Are Citywide: Trains more expensive, seen as most desirable choice for commuters

Media Appearances, Transportation, Frontier Centre

If you use the LRT every day, I suspect you love rapid transit.

I certainly do.

I took the bus or drove to work for 20 years before moving to a neighbourhood served by LRT, and there’s no comparison. LRT is vastly superior.

No more slow traffic, no herky-jerky stops and starts, no wobbly drivers on their cellphones, no pedestrians and bikes to slow me down, no stress to push forward as fast as I can. The train does all the work, quickly and smoothly roaring up the track to the downtown, as I sit and read the newspaper.

What’s not to love, save for the fact that Edmonton’s LRT still doesn’t go to enough places?

This city council is committed to the $6-billion to $8-billion plan to send LRT lines to every corner of the city as soon as possible, but it’s no easy matter for any city government to raise that kind of capital.

In the meantime, what do we do? Tens of thousands of other Edmontonians would also love to get around fast on rapid transit, but they’re left waiting, waiting, waiting, stuck in traffic.

One solution, says Toronto public policy analyst Steve Lafleur, is to bring in bus rapid transit or BRT, an idea rejected by Edmonton city council four years ago.

Lafleur recently worked with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Calgary to put out a report that claimed LRT isn’t working out so well in that city, mainly because of the multibillion dollar cost of putting in new lines.

It’s worth noting here that Lafleur isn’t some anti-transit, pro-car, gasguzzling rich guy.

He wants a walkable city, with far more people and activity in the city centre, not a sprawling car city.

"I couldn’t be anything further than a car guy. I cannot stand the idea of having a suburbanized city that relies on automobiles to get around," he says.

Lafleur simply believes BRT makes far better economic sense than LRT, and points out the system is now working well in many large South American cities, such as Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia.

The new BRT buses have dedicated lanes, so they don’t have to fight traffic, and are far more comfortable than the typical Edmonton bus or even an LRT car, Lafleur says.

The big issue, though, is that building BRT is a small fraction of the cost of light rail transit, Lafleur says. "The question is, always: Is this (LRT) the best use of money?"

There is a broad consensus that BRT is cheaper than LRT, but there’s no consensus that it’s better, as Lafleur suggests it is. But we may soon be able to find out first-hand.

Coun. Karen Leibovici says the new LRT lines planned to head to Edmonton’s west and southeast are to be built at grade, at road level, so any stations built for them could be used temporarily for BRT. The stations could simply be taken over for the trains when the track finally goes in.

Until then, buses could run on dedicated lanes out to West Edmonton Mall and Mill Woods -rapid transit on wheels.

"Why do people have to suffer as commuters when we’ve got another option we can institute that serves some of the same purpose?" Leibovici asks.

"It’s less sexy, perhaps, as going onto the train, but it works just as effectively for the short term, not losing sight of the fact that we want to have a network of LRT throughout the city."

Bob Boutilier, Edmonton’s transportation general manager who led the charge against the BRT plan four years ago, now appears to be leaning toward Leibovici’s take on this, though he talks about "superexpress" buses on the southeast and west LRT lines, not BRT.

As the LRT is built out from the centre, the train will meet up with super-express bus lines, which will get shorter and shorter until they’re not needed, Boutilier says.

But he makes it clear that LRT is the city’s best overall rapid transit option. For one thing, businesses and homeowners are prepared to invest along rail, not along bus routes, he says.

"When rail arrives, there’s a sense of permanence. There’s a sense that this is serious, we’re here for the long-term, we’re not about to just shut the system down. There’s a confidence that if I put my business in place or if I move here, I’m going to have that transit service forever. "Cities aren’t built on bus routes. They’re built on rails."

It’s also worth noting that even with dedicated lanes, buses just can’t move the same big numbers of people through cramped city areas, Boutilier says. A train can take as many commuters as 10 or 15 buses.

Plus there’s the comfort issue, the notion that people are willing to get out of their cars, even their luxury cars, for the ease and speed of a train ride, but they won’t do it for a bus.

Even an express BRT won’t do the trick of luring drivers, Boutilier says, and his assessment sounds about right to me. I’ve met many car lovers and many train lovers, but rarely a bus lover.

That said, if a form of BRT goes in ahead of the LRT to the west end and the southeast, we’ll all be able to judge this system for ourselves. Perhaps BRT will be all that its advocates claim it to be. For now, though, this city is LRT-crazy and justifiably so.