Big Idea 2012: Bright Lights, Big City

Walking down Whyte Avenue after the clubs have closed on a Friday or Saturday night can be a harrowing experience. Just ask Sergeant Maurice Brodeur, an Edmonton police officer since 1993, who’s been on the avenue’s late-night beat since early this year. He even has a name for that point…

Walking down Whyte Avenue after the clubs have closed on a Friday or Saturday night can be a harrowing experience. Just ask Sergeant Maurice Brodeur, an Edmonton police officer since 1993, who’s been on the avenue’s late-night beat since early this year. He even has a name for that point in the evening, the time when otherwise intelligent people can be found doing incredibly dumb things: The Witching Hour.

“When we’re working Friday, Saturday nights, we’re not worried about arrests,” says Sgt. Brodeur. “We’re trying to keep the lid on chaos. We’re all working together trying to save people from themselves.”

There are a lot of people who need saving, too. An economic impact assessment prepared by the City of Edmonton reported that 237 late-night entertainment establishments operated in the city in 2010, with a total licensed seating capacity of over 70,000 and attendance of more than 20 million people. This sector contributed almost $700 million to the local economy.

But while those 20 million visits are good for business, their impact is debatable for the people who live near the three main entertainment hubs. Whyte Avenue, Jasper Avenue and West Edmonton Mall all have approximately 10,000 licensed seats, which fill up fast on weekend nights. When it comes time for them to empty, though, the absence of public transit and scarcity of available taxis can create a backlog of intoxicated young people who either have nowhere to go or no way to get there. That’s when the trouble starts.

The textbook case is Canada Day in 2001, when the bars emptied en-masse and a fight between two men quickly snowballed into a full-fledged riot on Whyte Avenue. The local community demanded a response from the City of Edmonton. They got one in 2006, when it joined forces with the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission and local police to form Responsible Hospitality Edmonton, a working group tasked with finding a way to bring order to the late-night (and early-morning) chaos that plagued places like Whyte.

Their efforts include a more proactive police presence on the street, drunk-friendly infrastructure (such as indoor public washrooms like the one that went up earlier this year on the northeast corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard) and a late-night bus route that ran from January to April as a pilot program.

Think of it as the alcohol-oriented version of harm reduction – a holistic approach designed to relieve the pressure that naturally results when large crowds of well-lubricated young men and women who have a hard time finding a way to get home but are told they have to.

“If we have lots of people all competing over a cab, and they’re hungry, and they’re tired, and they need to go to the bathroom, and they can’t get a ride home, and they’d still like to get a girl, then that can become a pretty volatile situation,” says Angela Turner, the program manager for Responsible Hospitality Edmonton. “It can escalate quite quickly.”

Bars and clubs are doing what they can to ensure that they’re not adding fuel to the fire, too. “I really think it’s the operator’s responsibility to ensure that it’s not a bunch of over-served drunk hooligans pouring out the bars at closing time,” says Mike Yasinski, the president of Hudson’s Canadian Tap House. “It’s a team effort – the police maintaining a presence, the bar operators making sure they’re not over-serving and the City making sure that we can get these people home safely.”

Yasinski’s five Edmonton bars are among the 42 that have received certification from Best Bar None, a voluntary program that began in Edmonton in 2010 and has since expanded to Calgary. It uses a combination of accreditation, assessment and awards to help establishments ensure that they’re in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of liquor laws, and Yasinski has been happy to participate in it thus far. “It’s a wonderful program, and it forces you to make sure that your policies and procedures are up to a standard. It makes you run a better business.” Meanwhile, the operators that aren’t in compliance with the law get taken care of, Sgt. Brodeur says. “When a bad bar comes along, we’ll clean them up pretty quickly.”

Ward 8 Coun. Ben Henderson, whose riding includes the Whyte Avenue entertainment area, says their efforts are paying off. “There’s been a lot of time and effort put into it,” he says, but adds that there’s still one major challenge, something everyone – he, the City, the police and the bar owners – agrees needs to be addressed.

Put simply, there aren’t enough rides available out of the city’s three key entertainment areas in the early morning hours.

Yasinski thinks the answer to that involves more cabs. “The big, big issue with taxis,” he says, “is the inability to get them on weekend evenings.”

But Henderson says that the city has studied the issue extensively, and the economics simply don’t support the issuance of more licenses. “We’ve done everything we can to try and improve the taxi situation, but it’s problematic in a whole bunch of ways,” he said. One major problem is that the City can’t grant taxi licenses valid only during the late night and early morning hours. Even if it were feasible, Henderson believes such licenses aren’t economically viable for cab owners. “You can’t afford to run a taxi on that basis,” he says.

Instead, he thinks the solution lies in more transit, an option the recent Night Ride pilot program explored. The late-night and early-morning bus service from Whyte Avenue to Southgate Station evaluated whether patrons would not only use the service but also the potential for users to end up disrupting a different neighbourhood’s sleep patterns.

The results, according to Turner, were positive. “Night Ride really turned out to be about whether or not we could safely and securely give people a ride home late at night without impacting the surrounding communities,” she says. “And from that point of view, Night Ride proved to be very successful. People were as well-behaved as they were on other routes.”

The biggest problem with the pilot program, she says, is that it didn’t go far enough. “Some people wanted to go further [south], while others didn’t want to go south at all. Some people weren’t even on Whyte Avenue. The biggest piece of feedback that we got was that it wasn’t nearly comprehensive enough.”

Her feedback, for what it’s worth, is the same. “I think we need to come to grips with he fact that we’re becoming a 24/7 city, and we need to provide 24/7 services,” she says. “We’re not a nine-to-five city anymore.”

City officials are working on plans to build on the Night Ride pilot. Funding for an expanded set of late-night and early-morning routes, making hubs out of existing transit centres, such as Southgate, may be voted on as early as this fall. Ideally, they would serve not just late-night partiers and the people with the mixed blessing of serving them, but also people working early-morning shifts.

Henderson worries that it might be a tough sell, but he thinks extra funding for late-night public transit is more a question of when than if. “At some point, the city’s going to have to step up and do it,” he says. “Have we gotten to that breaking point? I think we’re pretty darned close.”

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