There has been a shift from LRT to Bus Rapid Transit in cities around the world since Edmonton initiated “The Way We Move,” as cities realize that buses provide an effective, affordable, and fast way to meet their public transit needs. The Edmonton Transit System Advisory Board noted in their October report to council that “BRT provides the ability to deliver mass transit comparable to the LRT in both speed and capacity, at a fraction of the cost, infrastructure, time and operating costs.”
Besides offering these major advantages, BRT represents a greater commitment to public transit as it uses existing roadways and therefore enables more transit-service improvements to be implemented earlier, with much lower capital investment. It also offers a much nimbler system that can be continuously tweaked to respond to growth patterns, special events, environmental disasters such as flooding, and even the passage of emergency vehicles – rather than blocking them. In this way, upgraded bus services or BRT provides some critical safety benefits. Considering Edmonton’s own density (low) and geography (steep river valley, unstable banks full of old coal mines, risk of flooding), it seems buses would be a more appropriate system than LRT for our city. However, when we asked if the City performed an LRT / BRT comparative analysis, the reply was “the City didn’t perform a BRT vs. LRT analysis, as the preferred transit system for the southeast route has always been LRT.” We would like to know how the City determined LRT to be the preferred system if other systems were not considered.
The Edmonton Transit Advisory Board has noted specific features of BRT that incent ridership: high frequency operation, prepayment like LRT, and 80+ capacity buses that board from any door. Another feature they did not mention is clean-fueled public transportation systems. More than half of Alberta’s electricity production is still sourced from coal-fired plants, so at least in the immediate future, LRT might not be so green after all. One engine manufacturer has just announced development of a natural gas fueled engine that has “near zero” harmful NOx emissions; its use in buses could provide much greener public transit than LRT. Electric buses are a quiet and perceived clean-fueled option but they still rely on power sourced from the grid. In the future, when the grid power is sourced from cleaner forms of electric energy production, a mixture of electric buses and LRT could become the ultimate choice for environmentally responsible public transit. In the meantime, as transportation author Taras Grescoe noted during his recent talk in Edmonton, “If you’re going for bang for your city’s buck, sometimes slapping in a billion-dollar rail project is not the way to go.” He then cited Bogota’s excellent BRT system as an example of what to do instead.
Bus Rapid Transit offers potential to radically improve public transit across Edmonton immediately – rather than making the west wait for decades – for a lower cost than the Valley Line LRT. While we acknowledge that LRT is currently viewed as more favorable, there is much that can be done to market and elevate the public view and ridership by introducing new, sleek-looking, cleanly fueled, high-capacity, efficient buses and heated bus shelters. At the very least, BRT should be a step before LRT in order to enable evaluation and tweaking of the line. BRT could follow the Valley Line route, and do so in a less destructive way by making use of existing transportation corridors and infrastructure.
 See Edmonton Journal article “Limited cash for west Edmonton LRT until 2034” by Elise Stolte (February 22, 2015).