Calgary ranked as world's best driving city — but doesn't deserve it, prof says

A recent survey ranked Calgary as the best city in the world for driving, but Alex de Barros, a transportation and engineering professor at the University of Calgary, says some of the measures were "a bit misleading."

Some of the survey's measures were 'a bit misleading,' says Alex de Barros

Traffic on Calgary's Deerfoot Trail is a bit different during rush hour, pictured above, compared to at noon, when the survey examined it. (CBC)

A recent survey named Calgary as the best driving city in the world, but anyone who has gotten stuck on Deerfoot Trail during rush hour would probably beg to differ — and rightly so, according to one Calgary professor.

The 2019 Driving Cities Index, sponsored by British company Mister Auto, evaluated 15 infrastructure, safety and cost factors related to driving friendliness and gave Calgary the highest overall score out of 100 cities. 

The Calgary Eyeopener sat down with Alex de Barros, a civil engineering professor at the University of Calgary, to explore whether Calgary actually deserves that ranking.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What do you think of the fact that Calgary was placed in the top spot overall?

A: Well, the devil is in the details. First of all, the ranking was done by a British company that is the equivalent of Canadian Tire. They're an auto parts store. 

There are a lot of details in that study that we need to dig deep into in order to understand why we're ranked first. They did use a few criteria that sometimes confuse contributing factors with outcomes, like, for example, the quality of public transit. That's something that contributes to how heavy traffic is in the city, for example, but it doesn't really determine how good it is to drive in it.

There's also the way they measured some of these criteria. So for example, Calgary actually ranked the highest in what they call the city speed score. To measure that, what they did was they took one car and one driver and drove from the Central Library to the airport at noon on a September day.

This screengrab from the Mister Auto website defines how the city speed sample score was determined. (Screenshot from Mister Auto website)

That's a bit misleading, because in Calgary, what that means is you're driving on Memorial and Deerfoot toward the airport during an off-peak time of the day when there's no traffic. That makes it very fast. And if you look at other cities around the world, the airport may be located in a place where the access from downtown is not that simple. That's how Calgary ranked so high. Because it really is fast to reach the airport from downtown in Calgary at noon.

Q: Well, let's set the survey aside for a second then. How is the congestion in Calgary? Overall, how does our city rate?

Overall, in terms of congestion, we're not bad, especially when we consider two things: first, that we are actually a mid-sized big city, 1.2 million people. We have very low density, so when we compare to cities like New York, or Los Angeles, or even Toronto in Canada, we don't have that many people or that many cars on the streets compared to those places. So it's actually a lot easier to drive in Calgary than it is in those cities, because there's a lot less congestion.

There's also the fact that we are going through an economic downturn, so there's a lot less business going on downtown. So there's a lot less traffic than there was a couple of years ago in Calgary.

Q: What about drivers and driving behaviour? How does that contribute to whether or not we can be considered a good or bad driving city when it comes to driving?

A: If you ask any Calgary driver what it is like to drive in Toronto, they will tell you that it's terrible because people are aggressive and drive very fast. If you ask any Toronto driver what it is like to drive in Calgary, they will tell you that it is terrible to drive in Calgary because people drive too slow and are too polite. It's all subjective.

I've driven in many other places in the world as well, and I have to say Calgary is still one of the places I like best in terms of driving. But it may be that I am biased as well, because this is where I am accustomed to driving.

Q: What do you think some of the big challenges are in our city when it comes to driving?

A: I think the biggest challenge we have in our city is that we are a winter city. Any time there is a winter storm — and that happens often in Calgary and over a long period of the year — then we have all these disruptions. That's not something that we can really control, because we can't really control the weather.

Q: From a city planning point of view, should we assume that the downtown will fill up again and plan our traffic patterns around that, or are we looking at a new reality now?

A: Well, whether it's going to fill out again, that's the million-dollar question. Even if it is, what we need to be doing is thinking about what we really want to do as a city. Do we still want to be a city where we drive everywhere? Or do we want to actually improve our public transportation system so that we have fewer people driving? Again, that's the million-dollar question. 

In my personal view, and based on what I've seen around, if we want traffic to improve, we can't simply keep building roads. We do need to invest more in our public transit system.

Q: That said, are you worried about the Green Line and the rumblings about its future these days?

A: Yes and no. The fact that we are in an economic downturn probably means that we may not need the Green Line as soon as we thought we would. But again, eventually we're going to need it. Yes, we do need to invest in it at some point. When? Well, when are we going to get out of this downturn? I don't know. That's the question.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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