Abdul Malik is a photographer and writer based in Edmonton who covers climate justice, decolonization, and worker organizing in the era of extreme climate change. In this post he argues Edmonton doesn’t just need more public transit, it needs free public transit.
By Abdul Malik
Alberta’s already got a reputation for NIMBYism, from the criminal potential of trees to the terrifying blight of solar farms — the latter in a town best known for the sight and smell of its enormous slaughterhouse.
Recent news reports, though, take the idea of Not In My Back Yard to a new level, boosting a cranky petition to block new light rapid transit development in Edmonton, including the Valley Line extension, because of its cost to taxpayers and the inconvenience to motorists during construction.
This is precisely the opposite of what needs to be happening in Edmonton right now in light of Alberta’s well-known economic woes.
The idea of divesting from Edmonton’s transportation future is a particularly troubling frame when we consider the impact of a cruel provincial budget. Calls by some of our wealthier residents (and one city councillor) to cut jobs and municipal spending in tandem with provincial austerity are not just callous, they’re counterproductive, and most of all, deeply indicative of the city’s class divides, particularly as they fall along the lines of mobility.
In light of the way the UCP budget is likely to exacerbate wealth inequality in Edmonton, it will fall to the municipality to pick up the slack. Yes, the LRT should be built. And when it is, it should be free.
Indeed, all public transit should be free.
Edmonton is a city of immense class stratification. Many of our poorer residents don’t drive. Most of them face transit inconveniences that make the rush-hour traffic faced by folks with cars seem totally insignificant.
When a wealthy citizen complains to the local paper about the inconvenience of driving down 104th Street during LRT construction, please pardon me for playing the world’s smallest violin.
Cuts to municipal funding proposed by the UCP, and similar cuts proposed for municipal budgeting in Edmonton, are bound to hit the poorest and most disenfranchised Edmontonians hardest. To deny them access to vital transportation corridors that have long been the domain of car owners is a deliberate disinvestment from Edmonton’s economic future.
What’s more, if austerity is supposed to deliver prosperity, it won’t work.
More than one study has demonstrated that the primary factor in escaping poverty is access to transportation. A person’s ability to escape tough financial circumstances is dependent on their ability to get from Point A to Point B. This doesn’t just speak to poverty, it speaks to the potential for employment, greater purchasing power, a more educated workforce, and a more connected city. Where there is more opportunity, every citizen can flourish.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says he wants property tax increases to remain stable at no more than 2.6 per cent.
But if they need to increase so we can have a city with more equity, where there are fewer people living in poverty and where economic opportunities are abundant, they should.
If we can invest in other projects for this city, even in tough economic times, we should also invest in our ability to travel without being beholden to automobiles.
Public transit is a public service, and public services should not be operated at a profit. If Edmonton’s more solvent residents have to carry the load by a percentage point or two, that’s an appropriate way to pull together in tough times.
What’s more, there’s the obvious environmental benefit.
The City of Edmonton has climate targets it intends to meet and for that to happen, there will have to be changes that make some drivers unhappy in the short term.
Make no mistake though, a more equitable and less car-dependent city will help everyone.
Arguing that we should replace LRT trains with electric buses as a compromise is shortsighted — and a bit disingenuous. Buses compete for space on the road. They can’t move as many people as rail transit. They are, in the long term, less efficient.
In terms of capacity, the Valley Line is barely enough. Buses would be even less than so.
Even with a new depot under construction, Edmonton’s capacity to store and maintain additional buses is limited. If you think the city spends too much on its workforce now, as many do, don’t forget that it will cost money to maintain an expanded fleet of buses too. How much more stress would residents feel comfortable putting on the mechanics who are already overworked maintaining our current bus fleet?
A better solution is to treat the traffic woes of the 1% as a necessary inconvenience to make a better city for our biking, walking, transit using public.
Now, tough times might seem like bad times to invest in public service, but it’s actually the perfect time for the city to take a look at its most underserved citizens and develop a plan that will benefit everyone.
Investing significantly in public transit will guard against future cutbacks, recessions, and economically hard times. It’s a lynchpin of diversifying the economy through economic opportunities that are led by working people who have been hamstrung by poor public services. It’ll create myriad economic and social benefits.
Building public transit is expensive, but it’s not a short-term investment. It is a long-term investment in people, the economy and a better life for all. To even have to frame an argument for free public transit around economics is troubling, because equity should not have to be framed around economic potential. No one should have to pay for transit at the point of entry. It’s an unjust barrier that unfairly affects the homeless, racialized, Indigenous, and the less well off.
Over time, the economic benefit will be obvious, even if many of Edmonton’s wealthier residents don’t see it yet. In the short term, it alleviates significant amounts of financial pressure on a group of people under siege by sweeping, cruel austerity.
Expanding transit makes sense in tough times. But in good times and bad, it should be a priority. There will be fewer tough times in the future with expanded and fare free public transit.
Edmonton can prove free and efficient transit isn’t a last resort for an ailing society, but the first one for a society that’s going places.
We can build to a greener, more connected, and more economically advantageous city. Expanded public with no fares or low fares is an essential part of how to get there.
We shouldn’t let a few well-to-do complainers in luxury automobiles get in the way of a better future for Edmonton.
You can follow Abdul Malik on Twitter @abdulymalik, and find more of his work at abdulymalik.photo, and through his podcast, Kino Lefter. Like all guest posts authors on AlbertaPolitics.ca, he is known to the publisher, that is to say, me. DJC