A New Way to Think About Transit
March 24, 2020
At first glance, Edmonton’s new Valley Line LRT will look much like any of the dozens of light rail transit lines that snake through cities across North America. First glances, though, can be deceiving. Edmonton’s new 27-kilometre low-floor train system will be quite different from its cousins, and that’s because city planners, engineers and design consultants have adopted a design philosophy they’re calling sustainable urban integration or SUI.
Planning for Edmonton’s Valley Line began in 2011 with a simple question: what do we want the new transit corridor to look like? Planners already knew generally where it would be, but they had yet to settle on what it would be. Traditionally, transit has confined itself to moving people from A to B with little concern for community considerations beyond the engineering challenges. The city wanted something different. They wanted the new line to be integrated into the community, to be a destination as well as a transportation tool and to re-vitalize neighbourhoods, particularly downtown Edmonton. They wanted people who traditionally drove cars to choose it for their commuting needs.
“The first and last miles are key,” says Antonio Gómez-Palacio, an urban planner and designer at DIALOG, the Canadian design firm that is the lead planning consultant for the project. “The transformational potential of an LRT is in its ability to connect communities, revitalize businesses and reshape cities through transit-oriented development.”
Also key is community consultation. In Edmonton’s case, planners chose two levels of consultation – first through a broad set of community meetings and open houses where residents were free to offer any input they felt important. A deeper consultation sought input from a more involved group of participants, including stakeholders, business owners and professionals throughout the length of the design phase.
The result was agreement on some key features designed to appeal to users and better incorporate transit into the communities where they live. Among them, lines and stations at street level, eliminating the need for stairs or escalators or overbearing platforms, and bike lanes and walking paths that lead seamlessly to those transit stations with barrier-free access along the entire corridor.
In short, says Gómez-Palacio, SUI answers a fundamental question, “How do we make sure that when we’re building transit we’re also building community?”
It’s a philosophical shift from the traditional engineering-centred approach to transit corridors, which was largely focused on traffic instead of people, and was largely unconcerned with what existed between stations or around them. Despite billions of dollars being spent on transit mega-projects, it’s still rare to find systems that provide safe and reliable local connections that don’t involve unpleasant walks or drives to transit stations. Gómez-Palacio says building more car-based infrastructure to solve congestion is akin to “curing obesity by giving people bigger belts.”
It’s an approach even engineers acknowledge isn’t working any longer.
“We’ve been trained to solve technical, schedule, budget challenges,” says Georg Josi, an engineer at DIALOG who’s been working on the Valley Line LRT since the beginning. “For SUI, we’ve got to put ourselves in the shoes of the average user, be it the passenger, the resident living along the corridor or the customer shopping at a transit-oriented development (TOD) site. We have to mind-shift from technical to experience. Transit needs to be something a user chooses to take, not something they are forced to take.”
There are scattered examples of transit projects in North America that were ahead of their time. Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct, also known as the Bloor-Danforth Bridge, was built in 1918 to accommodate subway cars, which didn’t appear until 50 years later. San Francisco demolished the Embarcadero Freeway and turned the bayfront land into a pedestrian-friendly mall with access to shops, restaurants and residential areas – all built around a transit system that allows easy access to the north and south parts of the city.
For a more robust example of SUI at work, both Gómez-Palacio and Josi agree that planners can look to Europe. In Copenhagen, city planners faced a very North American dilemma in the 1970s. Long a bicycle-oriented people, Danes had turned en masse to commuting by newly affordable cars. By the late 1960s, cycling reached an all-time low of 10 per cent.
Planners, facing spiralling costs and pressure from an emergent environmental movement, made a deliberate decision to reduce car traffic by offering affordable and pleasant transit alternatives – transit that Copenhageners would choose to use. The result was a series of metro stations like the newly rebuilt Nørreport, one of the busiest in Europe. It’s designed to accommodate pedestrians and thousands of bicycles through a series of easily accessible platforms. It has retail and public space, is well-lit and, above all, safe. The result? 350,000 users every day.
Copenhagen, says Gómez-Palacio, is a great example of what happens when SUI principles are employed properly. “People will choose the option that works best for them,” he says. “They will walk, bike, use transit or take the car. Transit has to be a great experience and it has to be a choice.”
He’s confident more Edmontonians will make that choice when the Valley Line LRT is complete. And he sees a much bigger role for a SUI approach in transit projects in other cities. “Millennials want a sustainable, eco-friendly solution to mobility as they move away from cars. They want a deeper connection with their communities and activities.”
For Gómez-Palacio, sustainable urban integration is not just a theory, it’s a way of life. He and his family walk, bike and use transit to get around their community in downtown Toronto. He hasn’t owned a car for 22 years.