Should a city’s bus network be expected to cover every neighbourhood?

That’s the question public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker is asking Edmonton city council to answer as it works on developing a new transit strategy for the city.

Walker, who has helped re-design public transit networks in both Portland, Ore., and Houston, Texas, says it’s time for the city to wipe the slate clean and rebuild Edmonton’s transit network from scratch.

The goal, he says, is to build a simpler, grid-based network of higher-frequency services making it easier for Edmontonians to get around 24 hours a day.

“I can’t begin to stress how much that high frequency grid makes a difference because once the bus is coming better than every 15 minutes, it starts to feel more like a road,” Walker said. “You can go out there and use it any time you want.”

But that improvement might come at a cost to some lower-ridership neighbourhoods like Cameron Heights, where the city is spending a substantial amount of money to service only a small number of households.

Walker said the city’s policy to ensure transit within 400 metres of most homes, regardless of how heavily the route is used, further adds to the resource strain particularly in newer neighbourhoods where twisting subdivision roads are the norm.

“In a sprawling city like Edmonton or Houston, if you stipulate that there [has to be] a bus next to absolutely everyone’s home, you’re going to run a lot of predictably low ridership bus services,” he said. “You’re going to go into neighbourhoods that are just not suited for bus service to succeed.”

Right now, not even half of ETS routes are meeting what Walker calls “good ridership.”

Planning transit for today

Like Houston, Walker says Edmonton’s existing transit system is based upon how the city used to be rather than how it operates today.

“It was a network that had evolved historically and that nobody could really explain anymore,” he said of Houston, where the downtown core once played a larger role in local culture than it does today.

After two years of discussion and analysis, Walker found that 60 per cent of the routes in Houston had “good ridership,” but that the other 40 per cent were under-used given the city’s transit investment.

When the new routes are put in place this summer, 80 per cent of Houston Metro Transit  resources will go where there are a lot of transit riders, with only 20 per cent being devoted to offering coverage in lower-use areas.

“They have pretty much completely erased the entire network and put it down differently,” said Walker. “I think something like 80 to 90 per cent of the services will change in some way.”

Walker would like to see Edmonton Transit make a similar change be reducing buses along less-used routes to increase frequency of service in higher-traffic areas.

However, he acknowledges the news would not be welcome to some transit riders — particularly those in smaller, harder to reach neighbourhoods.

The City of Edmonton will be conducting its own wide-ranging review into public transit over the next several months.