Earlier today while coming out to Calgary for a company training session, I decided to see a little more than the airport and hotel this time, so arrived a little early and took a walk around downtown Calgary. Read on for some thoughts...
While flying in you can't help but notice the suburban sprawl laid out across the flat landscape with little to prevent its expansion. The fact this is the middle of February and there is barely any snow on the ground raises the question... is this warm winter just a one-off or is it a result of climate change? Will it be the new norm? Has suburban sprawl played a part? Today, at least, it made for a pleasant walk!
A quick check of some stats shows Calgary has a population of about 1.2 million, the downtown has a resident population of just 15,000 or so, about 1.25%, and an employee population of over 140,000. It tells the storey of a City where the majority live outside of the downtown core and many work within in it, of the total employed population of around 800,000. Of course there are many other places of employment scattered across the City.
After attending SFU's lecture by Tim Flannery on Climate Change and viewing the climate change problem from a transportation perspective it was very clear that any new suburban car dependent development was a part of the problem! Essentially, every new house built on greenfield land is pretty much guaranteed to create new car trips which goes against the global need to reduce private car trips. It is very easy to draw those conclusions living somewhere like Vancouver where housing is expensive, gas is expensive and land is scarce due to the constraints of the ocean and mountains. In the Vancouver scenario, density absolutely makes sense, there is no other option to increase the population.
The problem, when it comes to reducing transportation impacts somewhere like Calgary is that there is space to keep building out, house prices are relatively low for a big city, gas cheaper, income likely higher and I would hazard a guess that there is an expectation amongst the majority that you will own a house on your own piece of land. Thats how Calgary has grown to date, i'm not entirely sure how you change that because it takes time for mindsets to change to favour urban living. If suburban development continues unabated, congestion will get worse, roads will be widened, congestion will ease a little and then get worse again. The grow, widen, grow, widen model is not sustainable and at some point a different model will be be necessary.
Anyway, onto my walk around, as I walked around the downtown, it seemed quite quiet even though the temperature for this mid February day was touching 10 degrees. It was Alberta Family day, hence there were likely very few office workers who would typically be around, but the downtown appeared very quiet, it would be interesting to compare a typically weekday with the weekend, do people come in or go elsewhere?
One of the things I was really keen to see was some of the City's new protected bike lanes. The City implemented a complete network of protected lanes in the downtown core in a very short space of time. My taxi driver from the airport did complain about problems picking passengers up where the bike lanes exist. The first lanes I cam across were on 8th Ave SW, one-way lanes on each side of a two way roadway, separated for the most part by plastic delineators with concrete barriers at the start of the lane. There were a few locations of high conflict where green paint was used to make drivers more aware of the bike facilities. Turns are encouraged to be made with pedestrians in two steps where necessary.
I turned onto 7th St SW where a two-way separated bike lane runs on the east side of the roadway. The lane is again protected by delineators in places but concrete median curb provides greater protection in places.
Paths and Trails
The sidewalks and streets are pretty nice to walk around, helped in part by the favourable temperature. What I didn't realize at the time, is that all the pedestrian bridges connecting the buildings actually form a network of climate controlled pedestrian routes. Not the greatest solution for getting people on the street and creating a lively welcoming environment, but when the weather dips, needs must! Below are some examples of 8th Ave which is in part pedestrianized with access for bikes and presumably service vehicles.
Below are some examples of the conventional sidewalks and wayfinding information located around downtown.
The Bow River which runs around the northern edge of downtown features walking and cycling paths as well as dedicated bridges free of traffic, this makes for a very enjoyable walk away from the city, but just next to it. I like the pressed concrete pavement markings.
Before I crossed back in to downtown I thought I should check out this interesting looking staircase which seems to be the Calgary equivalent of the Grouse Grind, a mini version at least with many doing multiple laps up and down!
I didn't use transit, but did come across the 7th Avenue LRT or Tram route, this was unusual compared with the European model where trams would essential run at the curb if not in a shared space with pedestrians where you would step up on to them. In Calgary they pull up to a platform that is raised up a metre or so in the air to allow passengers to board level with the car. Functionally both systems work, the Calgary system feels more like heavy rail as it effectively has a conventional platform, its less easy to run across the street to catch the train with this system.
I didn't drive so can't comment from that point of view. While walking around there are many wide one-way streets. Something often frowned upon as it can encourage speeding due to the lack of opposing traffic and often requires drivers to travel further to get to their intended destination.
Watch out for escalators impersonating stairs in the mall...