Search for solutions: How do Edmonton leaders improve the LRT system?

WATCH ABOVE: Some Edmontonians are seeking solutions as concerns are being raised about the safety of the city's LRT system. Morgan Black reports.

This is Part 3 in a three-part series on LRT transit safety in Edmonton. This topic was also explored on television on Global News Hour at 6 Edmonton from April 27-29. Part 1 focuses on the rider experience. Part 2 explores how the LRT impacts nearby neighbourhoods and general community safety. Part 3 features city council and Edmonton police as both groups explore solutions.

What will the City of Edmonton do to help people feel safe?

It’s an urgent call Global News has heard from numerous LRT riders during the course of a three-part series on transit safety.

Those concerns have escalated in the past few days following what police believe was an unprovoked attack on an Edmonton senior.

The woman was pushed from the Jubilee LRT platform onto the tracks on Monday.

Read more:

Man charged after ‘unprovoked attack’ on senior at Edmonton LRT station

In a news conference about transit safety Thursday afternoon, a city official said she is concerned about the well-being of all of those on the LRT system, but insisted the system is “safe.”

“We take the safety of our riders and our staff very seriously,” said Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, branch manager with the Edmonton Transit Service.

“We have a lot of eyes on the system and we have zero tolerance for harassment, criminal activity, causing harm to others or any other forms of violence on transit.”

The city is set to provide an update on transit safety to city council on May 24.

Search for solutions

On Wednesday, Global News asked Mayor Amarjeet Sohi how his council will take steps to make people feel safer on the LRT in the short term.

“We have worked with Edmonton Police Service to have that presence on LRT stations. We have hired more transit security officers,” he said. “We have monitoring through our cameras.

“We need to do more and we are willing to do more.”

On Thursday, the mayor released a statement on Twitter concerning LRT safety in which he said “everyone deserves to feel safe when getting around our city.”

A number of LRT riders told Global News they would like to see immediate action to improve the feeling of safety on transit.

Some believe that would be achieved with the return of previous loitering rules or by building fare gates.

Sohi said his understanding is that the current bylaw in place does allow transit or security officers to remove people from the system who are causing safety concerns.

The mayor said he also agrees with LRT riders that the city “absolutely need to up our game on security.”

“I think fare checking is something we need to think about,” said Coun. Tim Cartmell. “The problem is that sometimes those modest infractions are used by (biased) authorities to persecute or prosecute people.”

Sohi said even if these changes were made, they are “Band-Aid solutions” to much bigger problems.

He said it all ties back to housing, mental health and substance issues — all of which are the responsibility of the provincial government.

“Unfortunately, the province hasn’t stepped up to provide that support,” he said.

“We will continue to implore them to do what they need to do.”

In a statement, the province responded by pointing to previously announced funding meant to support cities like Edmonton. It also pointed to Budget 2022 support.

“First, and foremost, anyone who takes public transit should feel safe,” the statement reads.

“Alberta’s government is also making significant investments in providing treatment for people with addiction and helping them get on the path to recovery and wellness. Our government has given police the tools to connect people with treatment for addiction. We view the police as part of the solution to the public safety concerns being shared by Edmontonians.

“Public safety is a responsibility of the city, and it should be funded appropriately by the mayor and council.”

Past, present, future

Former city councillor Michael Walters said he believes historically there’s been a fear within council and city administration of creating “a perception of danger on the transit system” that could scare away potential riders.

“What I see these days is what I call an over-conflation of trying to make transit safer and trying to solve the long-term root causes of poverty, mental health and addiction,” he said.

Global News asked Cartmell if he believes there is a fear within council of making a controversial move to address the transit safety problem.

“I do. But from my understanding, watching other cities who have gone through this situation, there’s been an emphasis on finding root causes,” he said. “Or not over-prosecuting people. I think most of us believe in supporting — in every way we can — a vulnerable person.

“But I also think most people I represent want to return to some level of accountability. Yes, there will be voices that will not want to see that reaction, but I think it’s necessary.

“I think what we have lost along the way is a safety-first approach.”

Staff Sgt. Mike Zaparyniuk is in charge of the EPS’ crime suppression unit and the ETS crime reduction safety project.

His team has looked at all LRT stations and the 12 larger Edmonton transit terminals, assigning them to members of the EPS.

“So now, as part of regular duties for members in each division, they have ownership on these locations,” Zaparyniuk said. “That means they are spending more proactive time at these locations, with a zero-tolerance policy.”

The Bear Clan Patrol’s Judith Gale works with vulnerable people. She said that group wants to feel safer too.

She thinks a section of the LRT tunnel system should be open to people seeking shelter, instead of letting them spread through the entire LRT.

“We need to ensure they will be safe together and come out alive on the other end,” Gale said.

Looking elsewhere

Have other cities found the answer to transit troubles?

Metro Vancouver Transit Police told Global News the SkyTrain system is generally considered safe by its thousands of users, though it has seen “somewhat” of an uptick in “stranger assaults.”

Const. Amanda Steed is the media relations officer for the Metro Vancouver Transit Police. She said she noticed a change in safety levels once a texting service was implemented where riders could anonymously report disturbances to transit police. One of its 183 sworn members can be dispatched to attend the call.

“Our fare-gate system is fairly new,” she said. “But I don’t think the gates will stop (people who won’t pay). Enforcement in terms of not having a ticket has increased.”

Steed said the most frequent calls attended to are related to mental health and substance use, but overall, it is rare for riders to encounter any trouble.

What’s next for the LRT in Edmonton?

An expensive expansion to the LRT system is coming to Edmonton. Sohi, Cartmell and Walters said they believe it will have a high ridership.

“Overall, more people are using our transit system,” Sohi said. “Our overall ridership is recovering.

“The more people on the system makes it safer for everyone. That doesn’t mean we don’t increase enforcement. I think it supplements having more eyes on the system.”

But the LRT in its current state is scary, according to some riders.

“We’ve seen our houseless population double,” Sohi said. “That’s not how it will be in the future. We are tackling societal issues and we are encouraging the province to be partners. We are building a system that will be here for decades and decades in the future.”

The Transit Watch phone number is 780-442-4900 and can be called or texted to reach the transit control centre 24/7.

In an emergency situation, riders are encouraged to still call 911.

–With a file from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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