Transit Proposal: Edmonton


Edmonton is a sprawling prairie city on the North Saskatchewan River that is home to just over a million inhabitants. Like its counterpart Calgary, Edmonton proper counstitutes much of its namesake metropolitan area, which has a population of 1.4 million. This makes it the 6th largest metropolitan area in Canada by population.

The city is characterized by low-density sprawl common in the prarie cities. Incredible amounts of suburban growth occurred between 1950 and 1990, and then again in the 2000s. Like Calgary, Edmonton is highly monocentric with a dense, strong city centre. The entire city is set on a grid system of numbered streets. There is a tightly knit grid of streets in inner Edmonton – streetcar suburbs that developed during the height of the Edmonton Radial Railway. Several streets that border or cross the river do not adhere to the grid, but are continuous and integrated. However, much of the postwar growth only retains the gridded arterial system, while local roads follow the cul-de-sac design. Arterials are excessively wide, even through the city centre.

Large continuous districts of Edmonton in the northwest, south and southeast are solely industrial. The flat nature of Edmonton with few obstacles has allowed sprawl to occur in every direction in a balanced manner – but this, combined with wide right-of-ways (and ‘stroads’), allows for a simpler rapid transit network.

There is a strong case for expanded rapid transit in Edmonton:

  • It is a relatively fast-growing city with more permissible zoning

  • Existing transit ridership in the city is very high, despite the small rapid transit network (over 100,000 riders per day on a 24 km LRT)

  • A growing frequent bus network has formed high-demand transit corridors that could be candidates for rapid transit

  • Existing railways and right-of-ways are widespread in the city

  • A strong city centre that is relatively large for a North American city of its size

Image: Skyline of Downtown Edmonton in 2019 (Photo by awmcphee, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Transit in Edmonton Today

Edmonton punches well above its weight when it comes to transit. While the LRT network is small (24 kilometres) transit ridership in the city is still very high. In 2019, the LRT had 113,000 daily riders. By comparison, Portland’s 97-km MAX system carried 120,000 riders per day, and San Diego’s 105-km Trolley system carried 117,000 riders per day on average during the same period.

Total transit ridership was 235,000 per day in Q2-2022. This places Edmonton’s ridership on par with Denver, and higher than Atlanta and Miami.

Edmonton’s ridership recovery achieved 84% of pre-pandemic levels in the summer.

Bus network

The high ridership of the LRT is both a product of high service levels (3-6 minutes during peak hours) and a decent bus network. In 2021, ETS launched a redesigned bus network – moving towards a simplified system with frequent corridors. The current network has 12 bus routes that operate every 15 minutes or better all day (many operating every 10 minutes or better), and additional trunks where interlined routes provide frequent all-day service. Most local routes operate every 15 to 30 minutes depending on the time of day. The system is peak-oriented and increases service significantly during rush hour, with many local routes having frequent peak hour service and frequent express service.

An ETS light rail train crosses over the North Saskatchewan River towards downtown. (Mack Male, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Future of the LRT network

In 2023, the first phase of the Valley Line LRT will open – the first significant rapid transit expansion in Edmonton. Its low-floor, local design is more akin to an urban tramway than the existing lines. The 13-kilometre first phase is expected to carry 100,000 riders per day.

Edmonton is proactively planning LRT expansion. Other active rapid transit proposals undergoing design and engagement are as follows:

In addition, the Festival Line and Energy Line are unfunded proposals with no firm in-service date. I do not include them in my proposal as the interlined service concept is suboptimal for the network.

This momentum should be taken further – this is where my crayon comes in!

An ETS light rail train crosses over the North Saskatchewan River towards downtown. (Mack Male, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rapid Transit Proposal

I have proposed a rapid transit concept for Edmonton for 2050, with a population of around 2 million inhabitants.

The ambitious, fully built-out network consists of:

  • Three metro lines, with a total length of 86 km with 44 stations

  • Two light rail lines, with a total length of 41.8 km with 47 stations

  • Four bus rapid transit lines, with a total length of 58.7 km with 59 stations

  • Two regional rail lines, with a total length of 77 km with 15 stations

  • Two streetcar lines operating in the city centre (6.8 km)

  • 10 rapid bus lines


The metro serves high-demand transit spines connecting major nodes across the city with moderate station spacing, allowing for fast trips.

As part of rapid transit expansion, the existing M1 and M2 lines will undergo further grade separations to increase corridor capacity. Crossing gates will still remain at minor crossings. The trains remain largely unchanged, using modern high-floor LRVs.

M1 and M2 stations will continue to be built for 125-metre 10-car (5-pair) trains with a capacity of up to 950 riders.

M3 stations will will be built for 50-metre 4-car trains with a capacity of up to 380 riders, with provision for 6-car trains. Automated frequent service compensates for the shorter trains.

Light Rail Transit

The system branded as ‘light rail’ differentiates the original ‘metro’ LRT lines from the more urban LRT lines. They are tramways with closer, more local stop spacing, key grade separations at some points, low-floor stop designs and serve shorter trips along busy local corridors.

Both L1 and L2 will use the current 7-module trams.

Regional Rail

The regional rail system will utilize small 2-4 car DMU trains almost entirely on existing railways. Since the metro network covers most longer distance trips in the contiguous urban area at competitive speeds, not a lot of capacity will be invested in the regional rail network nor will it be electrified at inception. This makes it rather inexpensive to construct.

Edmonton’s contiguous urbanized area generally sprawls 12-15 kilometres from the core in every direction, which is largely served by the metro. Regional rail will primarily serve satellite towns beyond this area.

Bus Rapid Transit, Rapid Bus and the Normal Bus

The BRT system serves many crosstown and orbital trips in Edmonton, replacing busy bus corridors that do not warrant metro lines. BRT also operates in dedicated median lanes (or curbside where space is lacking) with transit signal priority. Local bus parallel bus service will still continue at reduced frequency.

Rapid bus lines have some elements of BRT, such as high frequency and sections of dedicated lane. They fill the remaining gaps in the network.

It is assumed that the general bus network will be further improved into a frequent arterial grid of 15-minute or better routes supplemented by 30-minute feeder routes. A frequent, transfer-based bus system will be integral to increased ridership.

Alignment methodology

Rapid Transit Concept overlayed on a Population Density Map of Edmonton, based on the 2021 Census.

Alignments were chosen based on perceived demand, existing infrastructure, and rights of way.

Transit demand in an area can be measured by population density, income demographics, current and potential transit-oriented development nodes, and ridership patterns on the existing bus network.

Rapid Transit Concept overlayed on a Population Density Map of Edmonton, based on the 2021 Census

I also aimed to provide a higher density of rapid transit services and rapid bus lines in low income transit-dependent areas. This correlates to where some of the busiest transit routes are today – just north of downtown Edmonton.

Map showing the prevalence of low income across Edmonton neighbourhoods in 2016 (Source: Edmonton Social Planning Council)

I also considered where the busiest bus routes are today. In-depth ridership data is not available, but the frequent routes and trunks identified in the system map provides insight on the busiest corridors.

The rationale of each new line, line extension or modification and additional details are summarized as follows:

M1 - Capital Line

  • Likely 2nd busiest line in system

  • One-stop northeast extension to Gorman (potential for TOD)

  • South extension serves emerging TOD at Desrochers and Heritage Valley Town Centre

  • Shared M1-M2 track fully grade-separated

M2 - Rose Line

  • Likely busiest line in system

  • Northwest extension on St Albert Trail replaces 5-route bus trunk

  • Northwest extension connects to Castle Downs Terminal

  • Supports future Blatchford redevelopment

  • Southwest extension connects to Leger Terminal and emerging TOD at Windermere

  • Shared M1-M2 track fully grade-separated

M3 - University Line

  • New automated line serving as primary east-west crosstown spine

  • Serves dense 82 Avenue corridor through Strathcona – one of the busiest bus corridors in city

  • Replaces 4 frequent routes on 82 Ave and 87 Ave

  • Replaces 3-route trunk to Sherwood Terminal

  • Potential for TOD at Sherwood Centre and Bonnie Doon

  • Connects dense tower cluster at Callingwood and potential TOD at West Edmonton Mall

L1 - Valley Line

  • Southeast corridor of line will be modified for more grade separations and gated crossings to allow for full priority in this section – to serve as southeastern spine

  • Improvements in southeast improve connection to nodes at Bonnie Doon and Mill Woods

  • Central portion remains an urban tramway serving more local trips along 104 Ave/Stony Plain Rd

  • No extensions to line beyond what is already in official plans

L2 - Capilano Line

  • Shorter urban tramway connecting dense neighbourhoods in central Edmonton

  • Connects to Capilano Terminal in east end (potential for TOD), replacing 3-route bus trunk

  • Alignment east of downtown follows dense tower corridor along Jasper Ave, provides some redundancy to central Valley Line

  • Replaces 1 frequent route along Jasper and 124 St

  • Serves 124 St, an urban street with medium densities

BRT Lines

  • All BRT lines replace major bus trunks where several routes interline or high-performing frequent routes and also aim to provide perpendicular transfers to the metro

  • B1 and B2 serve as suburban east-west crosstown lines for the southern and northern suburbs respectively

  • B3 provides a north-south corridor for the western suburbs and industrial area

  • B4 is a central orbital covering several bus corridors

Elevated, at-grade or underground?

To minimize costs, most of the metro system is designed to be at-grade, trenched or elevated. M3 (University Line), being an entirely new-build line, is completely grade-separated. M3 will be the only line with a significant tunnel-bored segment. About 5.6 kilometres of tunnel will be built under 87 Avenue and 82 Avenue. 82 Avenue is a dense, more narrow corridor in its central segment which necessitates tunnelling.

To improve capacity on M1 (Capital Line) and M2 (Rose Line, formerly Metro line), the full length of the shared section between the lines from Southgate to Churchill has been fully grade-separated. Outside of this trunk, the M1 and M2 alignments have gated crossings across minor streets and underpass/overpass structures across major intersections.

Light Rail lines have some grade separations. The Valley Line’s southeastern leg has been improved through grade separations and crossing gates to provide a proper transit spine to southeast Edmonton.

A note on regional rail: The most significant additions are a short 3 km spur to the airport for S11, a new bridge across the Saskatchewan River to downtown for the S1 trunk, and a new downtown station. The new bridge and downtown station should be built regardless for a future Calgary-Edmonton intercity rail link.

Ponder at these alignments in detail below:


The network by the numbers

Night/evening service on all rapid transit lines terminate at 01:00, and overnight service between 01:00 and 05:00 is provided by parallel night routes operating every 20-30 minutes. Regional rail to the airport is the exception, which operates 24 hours and every 30 minutes from 21:00 to 05:00. Headways for the regional rail are as follows:

I have made estimations of travel time between stations, graphically presented in these tables:


This is an ambitious but not unreasonable expansion of Edmonton’s transit network. It should be noted that official municipal plans for LRT expansion are quite ambitious – calling for a 5-service LRT network. The network I have proposed offers a more varied approach, with significant improvements to the bus network and through implementation of bus rapid transit while upgrading the core light rail lines to a faster, higher capacity metro-like system with less interlining.

Given the high performance of the existing system, there is demand for more transit in the city. This, coupled with relaxed zoning and high growth, sets a future where Edmonton is a dense, transit-saturated city much different from the sprawling car-centric city of today.