Missed connections: Unexpected closures plaguing Edmonton pedways

An older pedway sign is seen near city hall in downtown Edmonton. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC - image credit)
An older pedway sign is seen near city hall in downtown Edmonton. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC - image credit)

Ryan Williams found himself stuck in Edmonton's pedway system on Tuesday night as he tried to get from a restaurant on 103rd St. to his car in a nearby parkade.

He encountered a blocked staircase, due to escalator repairs, then closures near the Central LRT Station and locked doors between shopping and office buildings.

"I could understand if it was super late at night, but it was 7:00 p.m. on a game day and I have honestly never had a lot of trouble getting through there back to my car before," he said.

Williams isn't the only person who spends a lot of time downtown and has had problems with pedways lately.

Andrea Travas has also encountered pedway closures downtown, with and without signs, and recently had to call security to find out how to get out of the tunnels.

She said there's no way to know what will be open on any given night.

"You kind of are at the mercy of whoever is managing those areas," she said.

According to the city and professional organizations that represent business owners and managers downtown, closures came in response to a rise in social disorder and discussions about increasing access are underway.

Williams said the closures are more than just a minor inconvenience for pedway users.

"It's a symptom of a much larger problem in our downtown core," he said.

Why the pedway was created

The pedway system of underground and above-ground walkways dates back to 1968, when city council approved the idea of a "downtown pedestrian circulation system."

According to a concept plan from 1977, pedways would reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicle traffic, link destinations, shelter pedestrians from the elements and create a safe and stimulating pedestrian environment.

The report said cost-sharing agreements had been set up with property owners and that the city had made "substantial investments" to encourage construction.

Private and public investments continued over the years and today approximately 13 kilometres of walkways link more than 40 buildings and parkades.

The city has revamped signs in recent years and is spending millions of dollars on a new section that will connect a housing development just north of downtown with Churchill LRT Station.

Madeleine Cummings/CBC
Madeleine Cummings/CBC

City maps say unless otherwise stated, pedways are open between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

Councillor Anne Stevenson said pedways owned and managed by the city are open during those posted hours, but some "crucial connections" are owned by businesses, who began limiting access during the pandemic.

She said seniors who live near the pedway system and rely on it to get around have been raising the issue with her office.

Stevenson said she discussed it with the city's director of downtown vibrancy, who is in conversation with other pedway owners.

"Prior to the pandemic, there were shared operating hours for all pedway owners. That was something that was coordinated, and so it's really just trying to get back to that," she said.

She said the city lacks the authority to require all the pedways to be open during certain hours.

Rise in social disorder

CBC News contacted multiple property management and security companies, but none agreed to an interview.

Lisa Baroldi, the president and CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association, said a group of them came together to discuss pedway problems in 2020.

"What's been happening in the past two years is really a response to amplified incidents that building owners and managers had never seen before," she said.

Those incidents include vandalism, defecation, parties and fires in the pedways.

She said business owners and managers want to see busy pedways again and are having conversations about increasing access — the group of about 35 people is still meeting virtually every two weeks — but pedestrian traffic on weeknights remains low.

Madeleine Cummings/CBC
Madeleine Cummings/CBC

"This has to be resolved because there's so much activity that's now resumed downtown," said Puneeta McBryan, the executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association.

She said the pedway problem is a messy one because of the tension between businesses. Many business owners that rent space want open and predictable pedestrian access downtown, she said, but property owners and managers are grappling with high security costs and they like being able to adjust access based on traffic volumes.

More communication wanted

Williams said he'd like to see better access to drug treatment beds, more safe shelter spaces and more security in the pedways.

Travas said she'd like to see more coordination between pedway owners and more communication about closures with the public.

Baroldi said her organization could help with that.

"If that would be helpful, then I think that's an action item," she said.