Sunday, 4 August 2013

BREAK SOMETHING EDMONTON (A Punk DIY Approach to Civic Discourse)

Happy Heritage Weekend, everyone! For those of you not from here, the Heritage Day long weekend is the apogee of Edmonton's glorious but cruelly short summer, that time of the year when Edmontonians are at their happiest and energetic, each one trying to outdo one another in having a "Really Good Time." As such, I couldn't think of a better time to launch my own grassroots campaign aimed at kicking civic discourse in this city up a notch. Here we go.

For those new to this blog, I've been an Edmonton resident since November of 2008 and I've somewhat grudgingly come to love the place. I say 'grudgingly' not because of any ill feeling towards the city, but because I really never had any intention of ending up here. Having grown up Victoria, B.C. I always identified myself as a west coast kid, and certainly never imagined I'd end up building a life here in central Alberta. And yet here I am, far away from granola-munchin', dope-smokin', pipeline-protestin' Van Isle with a career stretched ahead of me here. I'm an Edmontonian now. Curse you Edmonton!

But that said, I really do like my adopted hometown. As Canada's fastest-growing urban centre at the heart of Canada's biggest growth engine, there's an energy here that you don't see in many places. There's a palpable sense of optimism that big things are possible. The city's political culture is complex, defying normal left/right characterizations, and above all else pragmatic. And the arts scene here trumps experienced anywhere else in the country. The grassroots support for the arts is phenomenal, and unlike in larger centres like New York, Montreal and Vancouver, artists here actually seem to help each other rather than stick to their own factions. And as for the climate, well, it's a great place to be a creative person. As a modern dance colleague of mine aptly put it, "In winter we huddle indoors and create projects, and in summer we bring them out for the festivals." Makes perfect sense to me.

Todd Babiak, Edmonton man-crush #1
As a professional communicator in the city, I've found the PR/marketing/communications community here in Edmonton to be genuinely warm and supportive, and I've succeeded in making many friends within it, within a very short period. And this same sort of collaborative energy is very apparent within this professional community as well. The "Make Something Edmonton" campaign is a clear example of this. The campaign, for those of you unfamiliar with it, was launched by author, bad-boy journalist and quintessential Edmontonian Todd Babiak who sought to supplant the city's parade of underwhelming slogans like "City of Champions" and "Gateway to the North" with something more genuine. He coined the phrase "Make Something Edmonton," citing the city's enduring creativity and can-do spirit.

"People who are from here love the city but have a hard time explaining why," said Babiak at the IABC Edmonton "Dare To Lead" conference in May of this year. "And everyone else thinks it's a shithole." He then went on to explain that this is a city populated largely by people like me, people who never really intended to be here but ended up carving out a beguiling life in this deceptively pretty and enchanting city on the U-bend of the North Saskatchewan River. I consider that I've accomplished more professionally in my four and a half years here than I have in all of my professional career, and I very much credit the energy, openness and connectivity of the people in the Edmonton communications community who have supported me. I still dearly miss the coast, but I'm not about to move back there anytime soon.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to give Edmonton a free pass. After all, civil society, with which Edmonton is replete, is all for naught if you don't try to tackle a community's warts. And in homage to Todd Babiak and the Make Something Edmonton campaign, I would like to take this opportunity to launch my own corollary campaign entitled "Break Something Edmonton."

Now before you start sending me hate mail for inciting vandalism and wanton property damage, when I say "Break Something Edmonton" I of course don't mean that literally. The name is merely meant as a cheeky slogan that hearkens to the old punk DIY spirit as a means of breaking through a community's Gordian knots with radical, outside-the-box solutions. Everybody living anywhere has their own big pet peeves about their community, things they would desperately like to change. We all have our own personal axes to grind, be it institutionalized sexism, racism, poverty, anti-intellectualism, rampant bureaucracy, cultural elitism, potholes, dangerous driving etc. #BreakSomethingYEG is intended as a forum for such discussion as well as a space for formulating creative, DIY solutions that can help alleviate these problems.

There are only two rules to the #BreakSomethingYEG campaign. Firstly, you have to bring forward an existing problem and explain how it hinders civic live here in this city. And secondly, you have to propose a solution achievable both through lobbying and through individual actions. This is about grassroots solutions to complicated problems, so please don't bitch for its own sake without offering solutions. We're all good at complaining, but usually not as good at offering alternatives.

The river valley is very pretty. If you can get to it, that is.
With that, I'll start with my own personal Edmonton peeve, which is public transportation. To preface, this is not intended as a criticism of the Edmonton Transit System (ETS); in fact I've found the buses here to be remarkably punctual and the drivers extremely courteous. But as a system, ETS is woefully inadequate for a city of over 1 million people spread over a geographical area larger than Toronto. Unless you work in Edmonton's downtown core and live along either the very limited north-south axis of the LRT system or in the vicinity of West Edmonton Mall, with access to express buses, public transit is a time-consuming and frustrating way to get to and from work, especially in roughly 13-month period of the year when you're huddled in an unheated bus shelter in approximately 16 layers of clothing, shuffling from one foot to the other while your breath freezes and shatters at your feet.

But in actual fact my bone to pick with transit in Edmonton isn't just about inadequate service, it's about the overall public attitude towards it. In Edmonton people talk about improving public transit, but when it comes down to it it's not a priority for most, or at least among the economically privileged adults whose voices tend to dominate civic conversations. I'll never forget attending a talk by Dr. Ted Morton, who at the time was running for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, and hearing him talk about public transit in Edmonton. "We need to make sure we provide good transit service for those students and young people who don't have cars." To me this entirely missed the point. A "good" transit system is one that everybody uses, from 21-year-old interns to 60-year-old company directors. What about trying to actually get people out of their cars?

I'll readily admit I'm part of the problem. In my four-plus years as a working professional in Edmonton, I've mostly used public transit to commute to and from work. When I worked at Native Counselling Services on 124 Street it was pretty straightforward, but significantly less so at Merit Contractors Association out in the city's northern industrial asteroid belt. And now working at Edmonton International Airport, getting to and from work has become such a production, involving a combination of transit buses and the Edmonton Skyshuttle service (free for staff, which is nice) that I finally broke down and opted for a second car for our two-person household. So now I'm among the ranks of Edmonton's single-occupancy car army, after swearing I never would be, clogging the roads and burning fossil fuel, because the alternative is spending an hour and a half commuting to work each day in a crowded shuttle.

Every problem has a solution. (source:
To give you an idea of the problem, imagine you live in Edmonton's relatively low-income northeast and are contemplating taking a job in one of the new developments in the west of the city, say in the new Acheson Industrial Area in Parkland County, outside Edmonton's western boundary. By car the trip would take you about 20 minutes. By bus? Try over two hours, if you can even are get a bus connection. Not only is this a colossal obstacle for low-income people who can't afford a vehicle, but it's also a hindrance to business development on the city's energetic periphery. How much more commercial activity would you have if, for example, people had easy access to these areas from the city, and felt inclined to go for drinks in local pubs after work knowing they could stumble onto a comfortable bus thereafter? The area around Southgate Mall has boomed since the lengthening of the LRT line and the creation of a Japanese-style station/mall agglomeration there. You could have a dozen such developments around the city.

So why does the city of Edmonton, a city with one of the highest GDPs on the planet, continue to put up with a public transit system that many developing world cities would be embarrassed by? My feeling has always been that most Edmontonians don't think about it because they've never experienced what it's like to have a really good system. Many people in this city have visited London, Paris or Tokyo as tourists, but very few have actually lived and worked jobs in these places. I lived and worked in Tokyo for four and a half years, first as student and then  as a communications professional, and in all that time the thought of buying a car never even occurred to me. Mind you, Tokyo's daunting traffic and exorbitant parking fees were a factor, but the quality and quantity of subways and overground commuter trains made it totally unnecessary. And in Tokyo, everybody rides the train.

Public transit is often characterized as a liberal, left-wing issue, but pro-business fiscal conservatives also need to be concerned about Edmonton's sub-par transit system and low 11-percent rider rate (compared to 20 percent in Ottawa and 16 percent in Calgary). Already there are signs that the city's lack of user-friendly public transit is having a negative economic impact. In a recent conversation with Tom Koep, Manager of Economic Development and Tourism for Parkland County, he cited the Edmonton region's sub-par transit system as a major threat to economic growth in the city's currently thriving periphery by making it difficult for such areas to attract low-income workers.

“We need a regional transit plan,” says Koep. “So far we’ve seen a scotch tape approach, with St. Albert, Strathcona County, Leduc and Spruce Grove all developing their own systems. There are real transportation issues that need to be addressed. They're talking about building an overpass here which would cost three quarters of a billion dollars. That would pay for a hell of a lot of buses.”

TransMilenio BRT system in Bogota, Colombia (source:
To its credit, Edmonton's municipal government under the leadership of outgoing mayor Stephen Mandel has truly walked the talk when it comes to public transit, with LRT expansion not just on the books but under construction. But there's much more that could be done in the city to encourage transit use, and at significantly lower cost than building expensive rapid transit lines. What about a Bus Rapid Transit system like that originally developed in the Brazilian city of Curitiba and now ubiquitous across South America and many other developing world cities like Istanbul, Jakarta and Ahmedabad, India? Articulated buses running on dedicated lanes along major arteries like St. Albert Trail, the Anthony Henday Highway, Stony Plain Road and so on would provide the same level of efficient service as a train system at a fraction of the cost. Ottawa has this system, with Saskatoon now set to introduce BRTs.

An even more straightforward answer would be a regional carpooling program. Why do we not have dedicated carpool lanes on the QEII and St. Albert Trail, like they do in cities like Vancouver? Carpool lanes coupled with a social media-driven carpooling program could, if done properly, significantly reduce the number of single-occupancy cars on the road. How about a social networking site dedicated to carpooling, giving Edmontonians the opportunity to both save a bit of money and do some good for the environment but also make new acquaintances and forge new business partnerships (and have good conversations) to and from work? It would strike me as fairly easy: you sign up, plug in your commute route, and meet up with people who live in your area and commute to roughly the same area you do. Besides, us grown ups are often complaining about how hard it is to meet new people. Why not do this?

Various carpooling apps, primarily aimed at parents driving kids to school, already exist, and most of which are free.The Carpool School Edition allows you to find out who lives near you and invite them to form a carpool group. You can add members of your group manually or import them from your contacts. The app allows you to manually create a schedule or generate one automatically based on your preferences. If you have a note or update for the group, you can add it in and everyone will be notified. How handy would it be to have an Edmonton-centred carpooling app designed around the needs of working professionals, drawing on your Facebook or LinkedIn contacts? Drop off your kids at school or your dog at the local Stay-n-Play, pick up a colleague at a designated point along the way, and voilà: one less car on the road.

How hard would this be? (source:
So this is my #BreakSomethingYEG challenge: get out of your damn car, or find a carpooling partner. I realize this is easier said than done, but it takes a decisive shift to change deep-seeded attitudes. I will start with a call-out to anybody living in Edmonton's west end who commutes to the Nisku area near the airport. Want a carpooling buddy? I'm your man. And to anybody reading this post, I challenge you to do three things. Firstly, try taking the bus to work at least once a week. Secondly, try finding a carpooling counterpart, thereby making your trip to work (at least occasionally) a two-occupancy car deal. And thirdly, with a municipal election in Edmonton coming up shortly, press Councillors Leibovici, Iveson and Diotte on these issues - and remind them that this is not simply an issue for the city's students and "young people who don't have cars."

We may live in an oil and gas-rich region, but we all know we can't live like this forever, both for the sake of the planet and our regional economy. Let's put that #MakeSomethingYEG can-do ethos to the test and really start prioritizing public transportation, and reducing our enslavement to the single-occupancy car. We have tremendous civic energy here, as well as access to our leaders, especially now in the era of social media. If anybody can do it, it's us.

So what's your beef about this city, and your proposed remedy? Every problem has a solution, so let's hear yours!

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