It’s no secret that Old Strathcona is an anchor point for the City of Edmonton. It is one of the most vibrant, best preserved, and historically significant neighbourhoods in the city. It makes sense, then, that when the city holds public consultation sessions about land use in this area this spring, they will proceed with an excess of caution. However, I believe the city’s number one priority for improving Old Strathcona should be to reduce the use of motor vehicles in the area and encourage public transportation.
Without extra support for public transit, proposals to redevelop empty spaces like the Farmer’s Market parking lot are unlikely to succeed. Old Strathcona is a destination, and businesses and festivals in the area rely on visitors from other areas of the city. Without fast and reliable public transportation, it will be hard to sell business owners on the idea of eliminating surface parking. Eliminating parking without sufficient public transit support would also make it difficult for patrons to get to and from Whyte.
I could not count the number of times I’ve gone to Whyte Avenue for a night out, only to be irritated by the sound and fumes coming from vehicles making their way through the district. When I go out to get drinks on a summer patio, I want to be able to hear my friends talk instead of the pop of a backfiring motorbike. I certainly don’t want to choke on exhaust every time I walk outside.
During COVID-19, we were given a glimpse of what Old Strathcona could be as a true pedestrian and cyclist-friendly urban environment. Especially since multiple lanes usually dedicated to cars were closed to make more outdoor space for businesses. This made Whyte a much more inviting space to me, since as a pedestrian I no longer felt confined to a narrow sidewalk.
However, advocates of sustainable urbanism tend to ignore the concerns of working people who are just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Many urbanists point to experiments in cities like Paris as proof that banning cars outright in urban environments can be a boon for residents and visitors alike. But, there are clear differences between the historic centre of Paris and a city like Edmonton. Much of our city was designed with the use of cars in mind, so it would be unfair to put unnecessary barriers in place for people who have little choice but to use them.
With that said, I think a ban on through traffic on Whyte between 99 St. and 109 St. is not too wild an idea, since Argyll Road/63rd Ave. could absorb a fair amount of the traffic between the university and Sherwood Park Freeway. I know this is controversial, but I think it should be discussed rather than dismissed offhand.
More importantly, though, it seems bizarre that the centre of Old Strathcona, one of the most attractive and busiest areas of the city, has so few options when it comes to public transportation. There are no express bus routes from important but distant transit hubs (like West Edmonton Mall) serving the area. The routes that do run are infrequent and travel time is high. While e-scooters and dedicated bike lanes on adjacent streets may have started freeing local residents from car dependency, it is still difficult to get from many points of the city to Whyte Avenue without a personal vehicle. This is why rapid transit connections should be devised throughout the city. With renovations due on the High Level Bridge, there might even be an opportunity for a direct, year-round streetcar connection with downtown.
Lastly, safety needs to be made a priority for Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) in order to attract new riders. Visitors and residents alike should be able to enjoy everything Old Strathcona has to offer without interference from vehicles. But, many residents encounter safety issues while riding transit, especially at night. The city has implemented a transit safety program that employs a team of peace officers and social workers to more actively monitor activity and direct people to social supports. Hopefully, these measures will be enough to address residents’ safety concerns.
Without fast, convenient, and safe public transit support for Old Strathcona, proposals to improve the urban environment by redeveloping surface parking are unlikely to gain sufficient public support. Whyte Avenue is a destination for much of the city, and businesses in the area benefit from incoming traffic regardless of its impact on the urban environment. Therefore, without rapid transit, the parking lots of Old Strathcona will remain.
Implementing rapid transit, on the other hand, would create an opportunity to build one of the most desirable, walkable, and interesting spaces in Alberta.