Fact check: How much does Calgary spend on drivers?

In car-friendly Calgary, a recent call for a "Motorists' Plan" is a head scratcher. What do the numbers say?

Is City Hall doing right by motorists? A look at the numbers.

Morning rush hour traffic on Calgary's Deerfoot Trail. (CBC)

Is City Hall being overrun by a gaggle of Fitbit-wearing bike nuts?

A loose paraphrase to be sure, but that's the thrust of a recent opinion piece in the Calgary Herald with the headline: "City is ignoring the plight of motorists."

The grind of the commute, as anyone who makes a daily trek on the Deerfoot will tell you, isn't a barrel of monkeys, but whether drivers are getting a raw deal is worth a closer look.

First, the claim.

Stephanie Kusie, the head of a special interest group formed in 2013 called Common Sense Calgary, says the city is devoting too many resources to pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of drivers.

"I especially find it frustrating" she writes "that much of city planning seems to focus around an infrastructure and lifestyle that is an exception and not the norm in Calgary."

She goes on to question why the city has walking and cycling strategies, but lacks a "Motorists' Plan."

The question of how Calgary spends its transportation budget, particularly in the Nenshi era, is at the intersection of any number of civic issues. Indeed, with construction of the next leg of the downtown cycle track about to start, the topic of bike lanes has morphed into a type of municipal shorthand. Opinions are split along the same familiar lines that divide proponents of building out-versus-up or those who prefer the term affordable housing to urban sprawl.

That said, a call for motorists' rights in a city built for cars is still such a head scratcher we decided to dig deeper. 

The next leg of the city's cycle track is about to start construction. (CBC)

Here's what the numbers say.

Since 2009, Calgary's transportation department has spent 63 per cent of its infrastructure budget on public transit, 34 per cent on roads, and three per cent on pedestrians and cyclists.

In dollar figures that translates to $2.12 billion for transit, $1.13 billion on roads, and $104 million for things like sidewalks and bikeways. (A look at the annual breakdown suggests construction of the west LRT line skews the transit figure higher. In 2010 and 2011, transit spending is roughly double that of other years). 

Is three per cent for walkers and cyclists too big a slice of the pie?

It's certainly a change from Calgary's history. For much of last century, infrastructure spending was devoted almost entirely to drivers. In 1978, that changed with the first leg of the LRT. For the next three decades, according to Calgary's Transportation department, spending was split about equally between roads and transit. In the last six years, the mix has changed to include bikes and pedestrians.

In relative terms, going from not much to something is noteworthy. As ever, though, opinions on the right amount to spend are in the eye of the beholder. 

Kusie, who also did an interview on CHQR in a bid to get traction for the idea of motorists' rights, thinks it should be less. Since most Calgarians drive to work she believes that's where the money should go. 

"The planning and the attention we've seen in the last few years has focused on other forms of transportation," she told CBC. "City Hall really needs to do more to accommodate motorists." 

Where's the money going? 

Again, the numbers.

Calgary plans to spend roughly $6.14 billion on transportation infrastructure in the next 10 years (a number that includes early estimates for the southwest ring road). Of that, 63 per cent will go to roads, 31 per cent to transit, four per cent to pedestrians, and two per cent to cycling.

Splitting out the bike number that means $12.3 million a year will go towards cycling. Roads, by comparison, will get $387 million a year.

Travis Gaede, a strategist with Calgary's transportation department, says for their $12 million a year Calgarians will get a network of cycling infrastructure that will not only offer more options to move around the city, but also help traffic congestion by taking cars off the road. The spending is also a piece of a bigger strategy, outlined in the Calgary Transportation Plan, which considers how the city will grow over the next 60 years.

"You get a lot of bang for the buck," he says. 

Compared to the cost of building roads and overpasses, the dollars spent on cycling are indeed in a different league. In terms of specific projects, the city, for instance, recently spent $91.5 million to allow 52 Street SE to handle more traffic.

The city, says Gaede, doesn't think about transportation as one mode versus another. In the big picture, driving, walking, biking, and public transit all need to work together. More options, he says, means everyone wins.

Common sense suggests a plan for motorists, by any other name, is still a Motorists' Plan. 

So what's the verdict? According to the numbers, drivers don't need to organize a rally at City Hall. Calgary's status as a car-friendly city isn't in any jeopardy.


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