Bus system overhaul moves forward after debate

Edmonton's first transit strategy overhaul in 20 years got one step closer to reality on Wednesday, with a commitment to designing more efficient bus routes across the city.

'Do we want higher productivity and efficiency out of the $300-million that we spend on the buses today?'

Mark Tetterington, president of Amalgamated Transit Union, speaks about a new Edmonton transit strategy report on Wednesday. (CBC)

Edmonton's first transit strategy overhaul in 20 years got one step closer to reality on Wednesday, with a commitment to designing more efficient bus routes across the city.

But some councillors said they were "more than a bit nervous" about voting for the plan, which aims for faster, efficient, and more reliable bus service.

Part of that hesitation stemmed from short references in the 82-page transit strategy report to "explore options with private sector transportation services." Those partnerships would be explored for use in areas referred to as the "first mile/last mile"  — the distance between a major, busy transit route and someone's home.

A room-full of transit union members arrived at the meeting wearing t-shirts with the words, "Keep Edmonton Transit Public" in response to those passages.They said public transit provides safe and reliable service, and they encouraged looking at systems such as Dial-a-Bus for low-ridership routes.

'Blown out of proportion'

But Mayor Don Iveson called the ride-share issue a "distraction" from the larger report, which focuses on realigning bus routes for better efficiency on major, high-frequency bus routes.

"It was something that was floated as a trial balloon but people have taken it as something to be much more serious than something that was just a side comment," he said, outside council chambers.

"I think this whole question of the ride sharing has been really blown out of proportion and it's a distraction from the significant strategic decision that lies before council, which is do we want higher productivity and efficiency out of the $300-million that we spend on the buses today?"

The transit report suggests that focusing on major bus routes through Edmonton would require taking 10 per cent of service from winding local routes. People in those areas would have to walk longer to a bus stop but, in theory, the buses on those major routes would run more frequently. 

The meeting attracted several speakers who said the walk is too already too far, and the system is too onerous, especially for seniors or people with mobility issues. Many also noted that route cuts already happened across the city earlier this month, before this transit strategy was approved.

New approach

Matthew Monteyne flew from Ontario to attend the meeting, to promote his company that uses technology found in ride-share systems (such as on-demand, mobile requests for rides). He said the technology could be used by a public system, especially in first mile/last mile scenarios.

"We've shown you can provide a service that's more dynamic...when users are booking to be picked up, and if you're using the right sized vehicles you get very high capacity," said Monteyne, the co-founder of RideCo.

The company recently completed a project in Milton, Ont. that took commuters to a major train station via a fleet of taxis that operated on-demand and, he said, ran at capacity most of the time.
About six dozen bus routes in Edmonton will be cut back, or slashed altogether, as part of route adjustments that go into effect on July 2, 2017. (CBC)

"We have this platform that's designed to allow users to book trips. And then we have this platform that organizes the vehicles on the road to move as many people as possible with as few vehicles a possible...whether they're run publicly or privately."

Mark Tetterington, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 569, said he'd be open to looking at the technology, if the drivers remained public sector workers. 

He said concerns about private companies in ETS were legitimate.

"It was in the strategy and it was mentioned five times. We just want to make it known we've been providing (service to) the pubic transit system for 100 years and we'll continue to do so."

The city's urban planning committee voted to pass the transit report to city council, which will consider it next week.