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By Jason Pfeifer

Excerpt from Curb 5.3. “Are We There Yet?!”

A new era presents its own unique challenges and designs in response to the private automobile legacy of regional scale urbanization at low densities. LRT is a relatively new transit mode but has quickly grown to become the signature mode in Western Canadian cities: Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver with its comparable skytrain.

LRT functions as a middle child between railroad and streetcar. As a “light” technology it is capable of frequent stopping, but is most often deployed at high speeds and low stop frequency outside of central downtowns. With greater distance between stops, little opportunity for land use integration exists between. The effect is that development influence is limited to distinctly separate “nodes.”

3d frequency graphic

Graphic: Jason Pfeifer

Malls have become the most politically expedient targets for LRT stops. Large scale redevelopments are more probable than smaller ones because of the mobility advantage granted to discrete points of geography. LRT came of age in the era of automobile dominance with stops surrounded by residential of primarily single-family housing. Pressure exists on the system to provide large tracts of parking, as surrounding land use would provide a lower than desired ridership on its own.

Southgate LRT Station (1)_small

Southgate LRT Station in Edmonton. Image: Jason Pfeifer

Large-scale transit node projects can be relatively instant successes in marriage of land use and transit ridership, but can also represent single points of failure. Edmonton’s Century Park is an example with grand Vancouver style ambitions that stalled during the financial crisis. The city temporarily leases land for a park and ride, and political pressure is mounting to maintain the drive to transit function indefinitely.

CRITICAL QUESTIONS EMERGE

“Transit oriented development,” “compact urban form,” “shifting modes,” and “walkability” are some de rigueur goals in today’s strategic planning documents, and LRT is deployed as a means to those ends for western Canadian cities. But are they being achieved?

When considering what the lasting record of LRT systems will be, it’s worth reflecting upon the streetcar as a form of mobility that generated walkable mixed-use streets and neighbourhoods. Without the limits for LRT that existed for an earlier heavy railroad, could mimicking the streetcar’s high stop frequency shift conceptually from nodes back to a system of interconnected public streets? Or does this question wax naively nostalgic when considering the shape of cities today geographically, politically, and economically?

Jason is an interdisciplinary designer from Edmonton and Vancouver, working primarily in the fields of architecture and urban planning.  

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