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September 20, 2019

Happy Rails

Happy Rails Why fewer Edmontonians want roads, and more of us want accessible transit. by Omar Mouallem Illustration by Jason Blower From the time that the plan was announced in 1989, it took 20 years before the first passenger boarded a train at McKernan-Belgravia, Edmonton’s first above-ground residential LRT station. …

Happy Rails

Why fewer Edmontonians want roads, and more of us want accessible transit.

Illustration by Jason Blower

From the time that the plan was announced in 1989, it took 20 years before the first passenger boarded a train at McKernan-Belgravia, Edmonton’s first above-ground residential LRT station. 

Twenty years of bickering over traffic congestion, construction noise, decimated trees, bulldozed houses, presumed decreased property values  and predicted increased crime. Two decades; three mayors debating, door-knocking, scrounging for funding, consulting, consulting, consulting, sending citizens to Calgary to see a working residential station, consulting and, finally in 2001, holding a plebiscite that passed with overwhelming support. 

Now, residents aren’t just benefitting from the time-saving conveniences of having a neighbourhood station, they’re reaping monetary rewards. According to Royal LePage, the value of homes in both neighbourhoods has outpaced the rest of Edmonton. McKernan prices have risen almost twice as fast and Belgravia nearly quadrupled its prices with 17.5 per cent growth in three years. These findings are consistent with residential stations across North America and one of several reasons Edmontonians are warming up to the once-stalled train.

“The first benefit you see immediately is in the pocketbook, then it’s to your lifestyle,” says Erum Afsar, who’s witnessed the system grow by about one-fifth since starting her role as a City transportation engineer. In the same period, however, annual ridership has soared 75 per cent to 97,000, so it’s not just expansion that’s to thank – it’s a complete shift in how we view rapid transit.

There’s no doubt that cars are still important to Edmontonians. If you set a Google Alert for “potholes” + “edmonton,” your inbox might explode, but support for the LRT is also bubbling up. In Avenue‘s latest survey of more than 1,200 readers, 80 per cent said access to transit and LRT are very important, compared to just 64 per cent who felt the same way about major roads. Pedestrian friendliness (94 per cent) was twice as important to them as parking, which also indicates many Edmontonians are turning away from vehicles.

Somebody check the water.

“In 2008, there was a shift in policy to move to an urban style [station],” says Afsar, an Avenue Top 40 Under 40 alumna. “To not just build a system that we’re most familiar with – taking commuters to the core – but to build communities in the process and create a more compact urban form. So it’s not just about moving people from A to B as quickly as possible, but along the way helping with development.” When the first three north route stations open next year, around MacEwan, NAIT and Kingsway, they will resemble the contentious McKernan-Belgravia station. The design strips away traffic and parking lanes and still tests drivers’ patience with traffic control arms routinely swinging into view.

Though The Way We Move: Transportation Master Plan hashed out the details of this new model in 2009, its praises were sung long ago, as far back as 1990 when then-mayor Jan Reimer was being berated by Belgravia and McKernan residents upset about losing trees. Back then, underground rails and Park ‘n’ Rides were the fashion but now that communities are more comfortable with LRT, it’s walkability that residents want, says Afsar.

“It [LRT] starts to become part of the language and fabric of the community when people see it more.” But, she admits, “We still get pushback of people saying, ‘Edmonton is a car city and people need cars.'” She tells them it’s not about losing your right to drive, but gaining your right to more transportation choices.

All of their fears – regarding traffic, crime and safety – complex as they are, Afsar can sum them up in a single word: “Change. We’re changing what the city’s going to look like, we’re changing how we move people, and that’s scary. It’s not known.”

Though she doubts the expansions to the north, west and south of Edmonton could ever keep pace with the city’s seam-busting suburban development, she and her colleagues have already started consulting with Castle Downs residents on the planned northwest route. 

Without funding, however, the plan is tenuous and it could be another 20 years before the first boarding, to which she heard an odd complaint from residents: Build it faster. 

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