Tight budgets call for tough questions: Let’s focus on the city we want to become

We know active transportation infrastructure makes cities better: we love shared-use paths, safer crosswalks, improved sidewalks, better bike lanes, and more. We’ve written about it (just scroll through our blog). Big players in Canadian cities have written about it too, including the U of A Centre for Active Living, BC Healthy Communities, and the Canadian Institute of Planners.

In December 2022, we were thrilled when City Council approved $100 million in the capital budget specifically for active transportation! Funding the Active Transportation Network Expansion means expanding shared-use pathways networks, better signage for way-finding and road rules, and upgrades to crosswalks that will make life better for everyone walking, rolling, and even driving through our City.

But City Council is approaching some tough budget adjustment decisions this month, and all investments and services are under threat of being scaled back or cut altogether, including the $100 million for active transportation infrastructure. We get it; running a deficit is not an option for a municipality (according to s 244 of the MGA), budget decisions are always a balancing act.

As they consider the difficult choices before them, we call on City Council to focus on continuing to build the city we want to become and the city that more Edmontonians deserve. It’s a city where everyone has safe and efficient transportation options and vibrant public spaces. Budget decisions should be evaluated based on their alignment with the City Plan. This is even more crucial in the context of limited resources.

Municipalities need to hone in on their core services and mandate when facing these tough questions. There’s nothing more core to a city than the street outside your house, the streets we all use to access and explore our home. Investing in renewal and rehabilitation of our local transportation infrastructure is paramount and there’s many ways this supports our broader city goals:

1. Active transportation investments pay off for society

Cars cost more for everyone; driving a car isn’t just expensive for individuals. It has major costs for society including pollution, collisions, and infrastructure construction and maintenance. A calculator from the City of Calgary estimates that driving costs society approximately 46 cents per kilometre travelled, on top of the costs to the individual car owner. Active transportation, on the other hand, actually generates a net benefit to society of 7 cents per kilometre (biking) to 15 cents per kilometre (walking). Other research has put the per-kilometre savings for society even higher, since active transportation infrastructure costs are only 1-3% of those for car infrastructure and require less maintenance, in addition to substantive health benefits for individuals which saves tax dollars.

2. Reducing this investment won’t get us very far, budget-wise

While $100 million is a big number, in context, it only accounts for 1.27% of the city’s $7.9 billion capital budget for 2023-2026. And there are larger infrastructure projects funded in the same four year cycle such as:

  • Yellowhead: $1 billion for 15 km
  • 50 Street: $179 million for one overpass
  • Terwillegar Drive: $120 million for the first 4.5 km
  • Hawrelak Park: $134 million

You don’t have to take our word for it, either: the city’s latest budget info specifically states that retracting funding for active transportation network expansion “will not make a significant difference to the tax increase”. 

On the operating budget side, this project will only account for 0.02% of the 2024 operating budget, rising to a high of 0.15% in 2026.

3. Edmonton’s gotten some exciting international attention for our leadership; don’t make it awkward

We’ve received international attention for this investment (see Shifter, Chris Bruntlett, Daily Hive and The Globe and Mail, among others). Edmonton is being rightfully recognized as a leader that’s putting effort into innovative solutions for mobility options and climate change. We’re also set to host the Winter Cycling Congress here in February 2024, which will host guests from all over the world. Frankly, it would be pretty awkward if the city backtracked now.

While cutting funding for active transportation might seem like a quick fix in the moment, it will end up costing the city more in the long run, since it perpetuates the cycle of sprawl and car dependency that got us here. Car dependence is expensive, both for individuals and for the city, and making active transportation an option is key to putting the city on a more fiscally sustainable path in the future. Building better transportation options increases opportunity, relieves congestion, improves health, and saves everyone money in the long run, including drivers. Ultimately, this makes the city a better place for everyone. 

So, what’s next?

We’ll be following the budget discussions closely – follow this blog and our social media for updates and ways to support!

As always, the best thing you can do is contact your councillor; make sure they know that you support this funding and want to see it maintained this fall.