Calgary Light Rail

Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities

» Calgary’s popular transit system proves public transportation can work even in a sprawling boom town. But a downtown where auto use is discouraged is a must.

Calgary is a boomtown — the center of Canada’s resource economy, whose explosion in recent years has led to big gains in Calgary’s population and commercial activity. It’s the sort of place that might seem completely hostile to public transit; 87 percent of locals live in suburban environments where single-family homes and strip malls predominate; surrounding land is mostly flat and easily developable farmland; the city is almost 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, meaning it was mostly built in a post-automobile age; and big highways with massive interchanges are found throughout the region. Even the transit system it has serves many places that are hostile to pedestrians and hardly aesthetically pleasing.

It’s an environment that looks a lot more like Dallas or Phoenix than Copenhagen.

And yet Calgary is attracting big crowds to its transit system, and those crowds continue to increase in size. Like several of its Canadian counterparts, Calgary is demonstrating that even when residential land use is oriented strongly towards auto dependency, it is possible to encourage massive use of the transit system. As I’ll explain below, however, strong transit use in Calgary has not been a fluke; it is the consequence of a strong public policy to reduce car use downtown. It provides an important lesson for other largely suburban North American cities that are examining how to reduce their automobile use.

Much of the trend of increasing transit use has come recently, in part because of the expansion of the city’s light rail network, C-Train. That system, which opened in 1981 and has been expanded several times (it now provides service on 36 miles of lines), has become the backbone of the municipal transit agency and now serves more rides than the bus network. C-Train is now the second-most-heavily used light rail system in North America.

But, as the following chart demonstrates, that growth has not come to the detriment of the bus network. Indeed, Calgary buses now are providing about 20 million more annual rides than they were in 1996. Overall, the transit system is carrying about 80 million more riders annually than it was 17 years ago.

As the following chart shows, that growth has significantly exceeded even the dramatic population growth that has occurred in the city of Calgary during that period (the city accounts for the large majority of the Calgary metropolitan region). While population increased by about 50 percent over that time, transit ridership soared by more than 90 percent. In other words, the increase in transit use is far more than simply a response to population gains.

If Calgary’s transit use had started at nothing, these trends could be less impressive, suggesting the city was simply doing better than it used to. In fact, per capita, Calgary’s population is using transit at lower rates than peers in Montreal and Toronto. Yet those cities were developed earlier than Calgary and a significantly higher proportion of their residents live in pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighborhoods that are supposed to be amenable to transit use.

But Calgary’s transit use is far more similar to that of those older Canadian cities than it is to American boomtowns. In 2013, Calgary’s transit services provided about 168 million annual trips, compared to about 70 million in each Dallas and Phoenix. Those metropolitan areas each have more than four times the population of Calgary. In other words, people in Calgary — an energy-driven, Western sprawl town — are using transit at about 10 times the rate of people in U.S. peers.

The difference between Calgary and a city like Dallas is not simply a reflection of differences in investment (after all, Calgary could be paying for sensational transit offerings that are simply not offered in the American sunbelt). While both Calgary and Dallas have spend hundreds of millions of dollars building out their light rail system, Calgary’s provides three times the daily rides on less than half the track miles. What gives?

At the heart of the matter seems to be a radically different view about how to manage automobiles downtown. Decades of progressive thinking about how to run downtown have produced a Calgary where there are no freeways entering the central city. Citizens there have been vocally opposed to building highways there since the 1950s, with the consequence that it is simply not that quick to get into downtown by car. This has a number of related effects, including the incentivization of non-automobile modes and the reduction in outward suburban sprawl (since it takes a longer amount of time to get to the center of downtown).

In Dallas, on the other hand, six grade-separated highways radiate from downtown, a loop tightly encircles it, and state highway planners have been pushing for a new tollway directly adjacent to it — in the middle of a park.*

Perhaps most impressive have been Calgary’s parking policies. For decades, the municipal government has managed parking supply downtown, in part by directly owning a huge proportion of the spaces. The city has also limited the number of spaces allowed to be built in the center. In 1981, the city had 25 million square feet of offices downtown and 33,000 parking spaces (1,320 parking spaces per million square feet), but today, it has more than 40 million square feet of offices (and more under construction) and 47,000 spaces (1,175 spaces per million square feet, an 11 percent reduction). The limitations on the number of parking spaces has resulted in an expensive parking market; the city has the second-highest parking rates in the Americas, after New York City.

For car users wishing to get downtown, the city has compensated by investing in 17,433 park-and-ride spaces at almost every light rail station, of which 36 percent are reserved for people who have paid $80 a month, a considerable discount off the downtown rates. This emphasis on park-and-ride spaces departs from the typical urbanist emphasis on transit-oriented development as a strategy for station areas, but it seems to have worked in Calgary.

These policies have produced the overall city transit ridership noted above, and have been particularly relevant in affecting travel trends downtown. Between 1998 and 2014, the share of downtown workers using transit to get to work has increased from 37 percent to 50 percent; a rise has also been noted in the share of people walking and cycling, which has risen from 8 percent to 11 percent over that period. That transit share is just a bit lower than that seen in Chicago’s Inner Central Area (55 percent in 2000), a central business district that was developed far earlier and which has a far more developed transit system.

Pro-transit policies have not produced a dramatic move of businesses away from Calgary’s center city — the fear many politicians and business promoters point to when complaining about limitations on automobile access to downtown. In fact, Calgary’s office market is doing quite well, with five office buildings over 500 feet completed downtown since 2010, compared to just one in Dallasone in Houston, and none in Phoenix. Calgary’s downtown population has expanded rapidly to 16,000 people and now hosts 140,000 jobs and eight shopping centers. It should be noted that the Calgary municipal government has also played an important role in advocating for a compact city and directed local policies to support that goal.

In other words, restricting automobile use and encouraging transit ridership not only don’t hurt business — they may be encouraging it.

As I referenced at the beginning of this article, while Calgary may be an exception to the rule when compared to many major U.S. regions, its experience has been similar to several other Canadian regions that have prioritized transit use even as they have grown spectacularly. Canadian cities from Calgary to Winnipeg, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto each have significantly higher transit shares than you might imagine given their populations. Those cities each have also avoided the dominance of automobile use in their downtowns.

Calgary’s success — unlike that of Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, for example — comes despite its relative lack of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and a transit system that has encouraged them. To a significant degree, it is clear that it is possible to boost transit use simply by making it more expensive and complicated to drive to work, and relatively easier to take transit. These results fall in line with the survey responses documented by Transit Center in its Who’s On Board report from earlier this year; that study showed that people offered transit “benefits” (tax subsidies`) by their employers were five times as likely to use transit as those who weren’t (page 20). Another recent study found that higher parking costs were associated directly with higher transit use.

Does Calgary’s example mean other issues frequently associated with transit, from a mix of uses to walkable blocks, are unimportant to building transit use? To some extent, probably; peoples’ travel decision making is heavily informed by the time and cost of their commutes, so it doesn’t necessarily matter so much how they experience the surrounding urban environment. But the goal of building dense, diverse cities has other important impacts, from higher walking and biking mode shares to higher non-automobile use for non-work trips.

A more useful reading of Calgary’s success is that even highly suburbanized regions can be reoriented towards transit successfully. But doing so will require not only raising the cost of commuting by automobile, but also ensuring that jobs are concentrated downtown, where they are most easily accessed by transit. If the former goal is tough to envision for many sprawling U.S. cities, the latter may be a fantasy in a country where jobs have increasingly suburbanized.

* Though there recent are signs that the Trinity Parkway, as the new Dallas downtown tollway would be called, will not be built.

Image at top: Calgary C-Train, from Flickr user Calgary Reviews (cc).