An Open Letter to ScrewCalgaryTransit.com

Dear ScrewCalgaryTransit.com,

First off, let me congratulate the owners of your fair site for attempting to stir up community discussion. The problems of Calgary Transit cannot be solved without community involvement and it is laudable that a social forum exists for the discussion of Calgary Transit’s ills and possible solutions. This is great.

We need to come up with suggestions and plans to make our city’s transit better than before, more useful, and more efficient.

However, I am going to write from a different angle. It may not be pleasant, but I urge you to hear me out. I think that Calgary’s transit is as good as it can be for the city as it stands. You will note the second part of that sentence: “the city as it stands”. I propose that the problem with Calgary Transit is not a lack of trains, buses, and drivers, but a problem with the layout of the city itself. It is critical that we recognize this now and change our city or else our modifications to transit will be hopeless.

Compare Calgary to Manhattan and you’ll quickly see how our city’s layout is killing transit.

Manhattan – Packed like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box

New York City, Manhattan in particular, is the gold standard of transit systems. Using the New York subway, with entrances every four blocks, a commuter can travel virtually anywhere in Manhattan in less than half an hour. The cost of transit is two dollars and trains run at all hours of the night and day.

72% of Manhatten residents commute using public transit and only 18% drive. 75% of Manhatten residents don’t own cars[1]. The transit is just that good. I’ve been there. It really is.

Is this not what we want for Calgary? A transit so useful that everyone uses it by default and yet it rarely gets crowded and rarely breaks down. How could such an astoundingly good transit system develop?

While many individuals were involved in the construction and evolution of the New York subway system, it was necessity that was the primary driver. At some point in history overground private transportation was good enough for New York but as the density increased it became more expensive, frustrating, and inconvenient to travel. Sharp-eyed businessmen saw this and began the development of the subway. Digging the tunnels was doubtlessly hugely expensive but when the trains started running the investments were recouped and profit resulted. More profits led to more subway lines which led to more users. The system took decades to grow but every new line helped a little bit and was profitable.

Compare this to Calgary where rates on the C-Train sit at 2.50 and continue to climb. Expansion is lethargic and the costs of running the train always overrun the cash taken. No wonder our city leaders are loathe to sink much into rail and station development. Every new station costs more than the last. Why bother?

Manhattan’s density sits at 27,597 souls per square kilometre. Calgary’s density sits at 1,436 souls per square kilometre. Why would anyone build transit here? There’s nobody around to use it.

The City that Never Sleeps

“Oh ho!” I hear you saying, “nobody around to use Calgary Transit? Then why are the trains so full in the morning?” Good question, sir or madam. Evidently there are a lot of Calgarians attempting to use transit… between the hours of seven and nine AM, and four and six PM.

Calgary’s Transit is used almost exclusively to get to work and to get back from work. At other times it sits idle. Manhattan is not like this at all. In the morning the business folk are taking the subway to work, and the night shift workers are taking the train the other way back home. In the mid-morning, bleary eyed students zip to their universities and colleges and society folk zoom to get brunch and do a little shopping. At midday people go to lunch or maybe go for a quickie with the missus uptown, and in the afternoon the shoppers return home. When the business folk start going home the students are going to the bar, and when the students are coming home from the bar late at night, the night shift crew are going to work.

There’s always someone waiting to take the train in New York. What do Calgarians do after they get to work? Stay there. What do they do when they get home? Stay there. Or drive to wherever the fun is.

Also, have you noticed that everyone in Calgary is always going to the same place? Morning commuters are always going downtown. Afternoon commuters are always going as far away from downtown as possible.

That’s because in Calgary downtown is where you need to be during the workday. Because your job is there. Because almost all white-collar jobs are there. There is no reason for this. With today’s technologies- cell phones, Internet, fax machines, video conferencing, smartboards, etc.- you can put your company anywhere you please. Even if you need to ship a box of chocolates to an associate at another place in town, FedEx can get your package there in a day and kamikaze bike couriers can get it there even faster.

I work at a company near Chinook station. The train is packed at Sunnyside when I get on but by the time it leaves downtown I’ve got half a train car all to myself.

If Calgary wants to be like Manhattan what we need is multi-purpose zoning. Apartments and housing close to commercial development. Trendy bars by office towers, and worthy pubs in the suburbs. Schools downtown, uptown, everywhere, in every quadrant. Quite simply if we can get people going to different places at all times, we kill the rush hour crush.

On Walden Suburb

“But I don’t want to live in New York,” you say, “I like my space, my community lake, my fertilized front yard.” Okay. I’m not one to judge. But be aware that you have chosen an existence that is downright hostile to transit.

As Calgary grew it grew out. Surrounded by cheap farmland it was natural for developers to eat up the hectares on every edge of the city. Land was cheap and so was house construction. For a nominal fee you too could have a suburban home. With a two-car garage and bonus room over it, a big, empty backyard to mow in the summer, and a community lake you rarely go to. What you wanted you got. And so did your neighbour. And so did your neighbour’s neighbour.

Dare I say that what you didn’t think about was transportation. Or perhaps you did and assumed owning a car filled with cheap Alberta gas was good enough. That was good enough. Until everyone started doing it and the price of gas skyrocketed (for a while anyway).

Another thing that happened was that all the things you need in life- schools, shopping, grocery stores- were not built in the suburbs with you. Why not? For one, the developers had no reason to. Nearby shopping was not in demand by a lot of customers. For another it was considered downright rude to build commercial stuff in a housing development. There are a lot of reasons why this was assumed. If you have a lot of patience read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or get the short story from the docu-movie Radiant City.

South of Chaparral they’re building a new suburb called Walden. Anyone versed in English literature should be horrified by the way the title of a book about self-sustained living in the woods is being used to sell a suburb utterly dependent on the Wal-Mart and Safeway many kilometres down MacLeod trail.

The result is many low-density suburbs of twisty little roads full of people having to take transit downtown between seven and nine, and back from downtown between four and six, complaining all the while that it takes so damn long.

The beauty of Manhattan, by contrast, is that you can get things done without even using the subway. Most apartments are walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, and bars. Rather than having suburban Superstore super-stores Manhattan has many little independent grocers selling fresh vegetables and a variety of food every few blocks. Ditto with pizza places and restaurants. Not only do you not have to drive to do shopping in New York, you don’t even have to take transit.

Little stores can only thrive if there are customers, and that means density. Companies are more likely to build stores in a high density suburb. Calgary’s suburbs don’t yet have the critical mass to attract anything more than the ubiquitous Mack’s for the teenagers to hang out at.

You can Change the World

It’s simple. If you want better public transportation you have to restructure the city to make transportation attractive. While City Hall has to take on some of this, individually we have to change our tastes and expectations on what life in Calgary is like.

  • Move out of the suburbs. Move closer to your kids’ school, your job, a good grocery store, a train station… near to the things you need.
  • Live in a smaller house, in a denser community. You don’t need all that space.
  • Move your company out of downtown. Convince your boss to let you work from home.
  • Open a grocery store, pub, or restaurant in your suburb.

Don’t expect that pouring more money into transit will make it effective. Build yourself a city where transit naturally works. You know, a real city.

[1] Wikipedia: Manhatten – Transporation