Opinion

A look down the road, at Calgary's future roads

“Enter my generation, the first in 60 years that sees vehicles as a luxury instead of a necessity.” Willem Klumpenhouwer on how demographic change gives us a chance to redesign our city.

'We have an opportunity to revolutionize our transportation system, and thus our relationship with our city'

Much of Calgary has been built with a car-first philosophy, but changing habits and growing demands on the transportation network have now placed the city at a crossroads, says Willem Klumpenhouwer. (CBC)

Cars or people? Calgary has a choice to make.

And in keeping, I find Robert Frost's quotation quite apt:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,         
And sorry I could not travel both,
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could...

So let's look down our Calgary roads.

The economic downturn is not only putting pressure on wallets, it is causing us to re-think the nature of our city — how we live, how we work and how our city is structured.

Across North America, in cities like New York, Toronto and Vancouver, a broad shift in values is leading to a new philosophy about transportation. Traditionally car-centric cities such as Houston are struggling to implement good public transit as part of an understanding that cities are, ultimately, for people.

Car ownership in a well designed city can be seen as a luxury, not a necessity. And this applies to Calgary as much as any other city.

We have an opportunity to revolutionize our transportation system, and thus our relationship with our city.

But it's going to be a bumpy road.

The old ways

Once you start to look, signs of car-before-people design appear everywhere.

To get a sense of the change taking shape, we must first take a step back into history and see how Calgary became the car-dependent city it is today. We are a city of roads that divide us as much as they unite us.

Calgary has expanded rapidly over its lifetime — big population booms mean a lot of people looking for a place to call home. Rising house prices mean people have continued to "drive 'til you qualify" out into the suburbs.

And those suburbs are designed in a way that disrupts good public transit. Curvy neighbourhoods discourage an easy walk to a bus stop, and the bus routes that do exist are usually one-way loops with few useful, connected stops along the way.

Decades of car-oriented design are also visible on a more human scale as well. Calgary has wide streets and pathways and sidewalks cede much of their width to accommodate parking.

Balancing people, cars, and transit is nothing new. This is Eighth Avenue looking west, in Calgary, circa 1915. (Glenbow Archives/PA-2806-1)

But it's as much a philosophy as an infrastructure issue.

Consider the "beg button" that pedestrians must press to ask permission before crossing a road already controlled by a signal.

With an average of one pedestrian a day being struck in Calgary in 2015, city council is scrambling to react to a "pedestrian problem" that is symptomatic of a city that moves mostly by car. Pedestrians aren't really the problem; design and priorities are.

Enter my generation, the first in 60 years that sees vehicles as a luxury instead of a necessity.

New thinking, new ways

We Millenials are making different choices. You can see it in the decline in drivers licences across North America, in general, and here in Alberta.

A quick Google search for "car-averse Millennials" returns a multitude of blog posts and newspaper articles. This movement away from cars is the driving force behind a re-thinking of North American streets. But it's not just my generation.

As Baby Boomers age, they are more frequently seeking out livable, walkable communities in lieu of retirement homes. The AARP, a massive American lobby group for those over 50, promotes walkable streets and neighbourhoods that support "aging in place" where people can fulfil the majority of their needs with a short walk.

But there's the challenge: We built our city one way, and now we want to it to work another way.

No easy task.

The bumpy road of change

If the city continues to grow the way it has, the road network will not be able to scale to accommodate the increased number of cars and length of trips.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra was quoted in a May 2015 Calgary Herald article as saying: "If the next million Calgarians drive as much as the current Calgarians, we're doomed".

But we don't have to be doomed. We can change.

Of course, change of this magnitude rarely goes unopposed.

Calgary's gradual adoption of this people-first way of transportation is often met with fierce opposition. A pithy claim of a "war on cars" forces us all to pick sides in an imaginary battle instead of examining what we want from cities, and what cities can offer us.

Has public transportation been set up to fail in parts of Calgary designed primarily for cars? (CBC)

Critics attack transit over long travel times and winter breakdowns, not realizing that the success of a transit system is less about good management and operations and more about city layout and infrastructure. Form often dictates function.

A large part of the resistance to change is precisely because Calgary's road network is efficient, while transit is handicapped by the historical design of the city.

But love or hate cars, our city has to make changes.

Our population tends to grow, and roads and highways simply cannot scale in the same way that transit can. Our roads will get busier and more congested with longer commutes. On top of that, we are increasingly aware of the environmental and economic costs of driving.

The silver lining is that this just might make public transit a more appealing option.

People without cars, cars without people

The most talked about transportation technology these days is driverless cars, with experts predicting utopias and doomsday scenarios alike.

Some predict that robot cars may drive around mostly empty, creating more congestion. Others see the potential for efficient sharing of vehicles and a movement away from individual car ownership, though the common factor here is still car dependence.

While technology can change the way we behave, it cannot change the basic geometry of cities. Driverless cars are not going to change the fact that cities by their very nature bring people closer together, while cars push people apart.

Of course, cars can't and won't disappear.

Cars are useful transportation tools that afford us access to the mountains we love, and allow us to travel easily outside of the city. Car ownership may decline, but access to a vehicle when it is necessary will likely still be possible.

And that's just it. This isn't an all or nothing proposition. We can mix it up.

Looking west towards the Calgary skyline and Memorial Drive (CBC Calgary)

The most successful examples of transportation in cities have found the balance between space-efficient transit and useful cars. We need to find that balance here.

With great transit and good streets, we can replace the freedom granted by a personal vehicle with the freedom of easy and safe movement around the city without having to search for parking.

This is not an impossible future; it exists already in many cities around the world, and it can exist in Calgary too.

We are standing at a fork in the road.

To the right is familiarity, complete with more curvy suburbs, a wider Deerfoot Trail and a city centre that buzzes during the day but is empty at night.

To the left, though, is the road less travelled. It requires hard work, careful thinking and a willingness to experiment and embrace potential failure.

As we stand at these two divergent roads, I want to follow Frost on this one.

Take the road less travelled by; that will make all the difference.


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Engineering PhD Student

Willem Klumpenhouwer is a PhD student studying public transit at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering. He's also the founder of Spur The New West, a website devoted to discussion of transportation and other civic issues.

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