A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and green pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

“Messages To: The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” by Lindsey Bond

The other day after a visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta (Mistresses of the Modern is still on so get down there!) I was walking through Churchill LRT Station and saw this poster in one of the ad spaces on the wall.  “Oh,” I thought, “that’s Lindsey’s new thing.”  I have a passing acquaintance with Lindsey Bond from her time as Assistant to the Director at Visual Arts Alberta — on her typing skills I inflicted the absurdly long titles of my absurdly small paintings.  I noticed the QR code on the display and, of course, got out my phone. How interesting: I was standing in front of a piece of public art which is part of an attenuated show displayed across more than a dozen public transit stations. And the entire virtual gallery is now also in my phone.  This is good!

I thought of one day many years ago in the Mexico City subway when I noticed that at decent intervals through the station there were screens displaying brief history lessons — public education indeed.  I thought at the time it was such a good thing to be using public space for education and information rather than marketing.  Lindsey’s multi-platform photography exhibit (it will be launched as an old fashioned book at the end of March) is a wonderful marriage of good old public art and the ubiquitous smart phone.

But, I haven’t even touched on the substance of “Messages To:”

Before now I hadn’t known that illicit messages are openly passed from the outside to those held in the Edmonton Remand Centre by the ancient medium of chalk on the sidewalk.  Unlike many I’ve met in Edmonton, I know where the Remand Centre is — I find it amazing that a big building pretty much right in the heart of the city is invisible to most citizens.  If the building is invisible, those inside certainly and sadly must be as well.

But Lindsey’s photos of the chalk messages to inmates heartbreakingly shows that those inside are not ignored by at least a few outside.  Pink hearts abound in the sidewalk drawings.  Even the more concrete messages such as to “Call Ashley” take the time for endearing pet names.  While we are zipping across town in a crowd of commuters, all of us staring at our phones, there are those held in Remand, whatever their alleged crimes, who look out the narrow window for a bit of outside personal loving contact from chalk on the sidewalk, contact which will be hosed away at nightfall.  This chalk is the one tweet they’re allowed to receive for the day or the week or the month.  Lindsey’s exhibit preserves this virtually unknown communication medium and shows us a place in our society most of us don’t — or don’t want to — know about.  This is really good.

The downtown Remand Centre is going to be closed soon, replaced by an obscenely large new holding facility on the northern edge of the city.  I don’t expect the sidewalk will be as visible there, and that is a loss.

Lindsey Bond’s “”Messages To:  The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” is in LRT stations and in your phone until June 7.  QR the virtual gallery and enjoy some thought provoking art — both Lindsey Bond’s photographs and the chalk messages the photos preserve  — on your way to work or school or on your way home, and text or tweet about it to your friends.  I might even think about chalking the QR code onto the sidewalk in front of my house.

The Book of the Project will be launched on May 26 at Latitude 53, 10248 – 106 Street.