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).

39 replies on “Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities”

Urban expressways are horrible in so many ways, that they should mostly be ripped out. It’s nice to know that this will cause soaring transit use as well.

“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,”

“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.”

I dunno. Even if we consider that the park-and rides are responsible for ~26000 daily boardings (based on an extremely high utilization rate of 150%) that is still less than 10% of the nearly 300 000 total. So they obviously didn’t manage to f**k everything up, but that also doesn’t mean it was the best option.

A significant difference between Canadian and US cities, especially smaller ones, has been the absence of the federal highway funding program akin to the interstate system. Smaller Canadian cities do not have the elaborate freeway systems that many us ones do, and this is a factor that encourages transit uses as the cities grow and there is limited new capacity for cars, especially into the downtown. Calgary only has one north south and one east west freeway and neither go right through the downtown area. A new ring road is being completed (which may encourage more suburban employment growth) but currently the city is well-suited for transit ridership growth because the city avoided the worst of the US 1960s era road building binge.

Calgary is actually pretty different from typical US cities in that it’s surprisingly compact. Yes, most of it is relatively low-density suburban, but once that ends you just get fields. There are no exurbs, and the total distance from the edge of the developed area to the city center is quite small: about 10 miles at most. This means that the light rail system of 33 miles goes from downtown all the way to each corner of the contiguously developed area. That means that downtown congestion is a proportionately larger part of the commute, especially since there are no downtown freeways, and the light rail running on separated ROW is the rational choice. And once you have that strong backbone of a transit system, everything else can be built around it with buses meeting at stations for coordinated transfers.

I think overall, this is mostly a result of actual city planning, which provided for the ROWs to build light rail on, and guided the development to stay within range of the connecting buses if not the light rail stations themselves.

“Calgary has remarkably little sprawl for a 20th Century city. Look at it in satellite view. It’s shockingly compact.”

Well, only in that it tends to grow in a concentric fashion rather than a tentacular fashion as in many North American cities. If you look at housing, it is squarely a North American 20th century city with mostly single-family houses on relatively large lots (500 to 600 square meters, so 5 000 to 6 000 square feet). 70% of the population lives in single-family detached houses, which make up 58% of the housing stock. This jumps up to 76% of population if you include semi-detached houses.

The form of Calgary is probably a result of the road network. Calgary, as the author mentioned, has no expressway through its CBD and it has a strong grid of arterial roads. This means that speed on Calgary’s roads are limited, and as speed is limites, there is an incentive to shorten distances between one’s home and workplace/shopping center/etc… The result is one born of geometry: a relatively concentric city, which is typical of cities without strong expressway networks.

I would say density in the city bottomed out decades ago. The typical brand new house on the edge of the SE probably has a 300-400 sq. m lot, and the typical new community would also have a number of 4-6 storey condo buildings along the major roads.

As measured in ridership the Calgary transit system is a successful example indeed.

But it is a fair question to ask given the associations made between such a system and advocacy for a more compact city, whether a designed ‘drive to transit’ function isn’t just a supplemented automobile enabler of continued suburban growth. If one can drive 15 minutes to a park and ride, and take an additional half hour train downtown versus (for argument purposes) a 2 hour car commute, what else is present to suggest it does not enable one to purchase a home further and further away from the core? At a certain point a large number of homebuyers balance the trade off in home price and travel time, and LRT such as this expands that time / distance relationship.

As opposed to other North American LRT systems or even the historic streetcar that have a more integrated relationship with land use, and distribute density and commercial functions throughout the city, Calgary’s LRT stations outside of core all remain single family housing and large tract surface parking.

Changing land use at stops would take a lot more intestinal and political fortitude.

Streetcars shared the association with great public walking streets and small scale neighbourhood retail in most cities where it once operated. LRT park and rides are not attractive places where many people willingly choose to spend free time on a weekend.

Calgary’s system is successful by the measure of ridership, but I’ve seen little currently that suggests it’s helping the city evolve its urban form over the long term. But that could change.


I visited Calgary this fall, (so this is a visitors view but still better than nothing) and it sure looked like the inner ring suburbs near the C-Train where urbanizing nicely (while the outer areas were definitely spawl). So not perfect, but still good.

Oops, I should have added that outside of downtown the C-Train is very fast and reliable….and even in downtown it is faster and more reliable than cars (at least at rush hour).

Great piece and a shining example of what can be done when you put a lot of focus on your downtown and transit network regardless of your city’s level of suburban development. I would note that, at least when speaking to those outside of transit and urban advocacy, language about “restricting car use” should be replaced with language that focuses on reducing car subsidy, especially in the form of easy and abundant parking. The park-and-ride approach seems to have made sense for Calgary, at least for now. But one would hope that they avoid building out big garages in areas that are already walkable or have the potential to be so with more development.


Indeed, there is this risk that transit is used simply as a way to free up roads and to keep an urban model that relies mainly on motorized transport, whether private or public, without the strong mixed use walkable and bikable urban form. That is indeed an issue, transit is indeed more efficient than cars, but walking is still way more efficient than transit on every level. From this point of view, the LRT was simply useful by making transit more competitive.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s no better than cars. Transit is indeed way better on many levels:

1- It has a much lower entry cost: If you have a few dollars, you can use transit. If you need motorized transit and transit doesn’t do the job, then you must spend thousands of dollars to buy and maintain a car. If businesses and jobs are accessible by transit, then anyone can access them. If they can only be accessed by cars due to poor or inexistent transit service, then you shut out a lot of people. Transit is thus a matter of social equity.

2- Transit is space efficient, so even if you have park-and-rides at transit stations in the suburbs, the downtown area is still strongly supported by the transit system, bringing tens of thousand of people downtown each day without the need of parking or wider roads. This leaves more space for densely built offices, housing and retail, helping to create a walkable downtown. And indeed, all I’ve read on the subject seem to agree the LRT has done wonders to revitalize the CBD and prevent job sprawl, which is a serious issue. Having rapid transit connecting walkable urban areas all along the line is the ideal, but walkability tends to start downtown. If the CBD is just a glorified office park, it’s rare that the rest of the city is walkable.

So your point is well-made: walkability is the most important point to put forward, a city where you need to take a bus to buy a pint of milk is not much better than one where you have to drive to do the same. Still, transit can be the first step in a transition to a more walkable city, to convince people to think without their car and consider their alternatives.

No argument transit is better than cars. There are different types of transit, and different ways to design land use in relation to transit.

1. Calgary transit out of central area is oriented to the drive to transit function of cars, to engage your point social equity could be increased by developing mixed use multi-family housing and commercial adjacent to stations that allowed some people a more affordable housing type, with possibility of living without a car and expense. Historic Streetcar is associated with the most walkable mixed use neighbourhoods in most North American cities today. As a transit mode it travelled slower but stopped more frequently, distributing mobility advantage more equitably. LRT as a faster mode has stops further spaced apart, granting mobility advantage at more discrete points of real estate / geography.

2. Agree it’s good for downtown. My point is it’s neglected to change much of anything of the condition outside of central area (in which I include inner ring suburbs from era of streetcar), and indeed may assist the city to continue extending its suburban reach. A more ‘compact city’ is frequently cited as a transit goal. Transit is space efficient, parking is not, and surface parking is worst. Job sprawl and urban sprawl are bad, but differentiation can be made between sprawl and distribution.

Downtown model places pressure on Calgary’s transit peak times in rush hours. When at UBC, my prof was working with Calgary on this problem. At the extremities of the C-Train it is often so busy that people have to wait a number of trains to get on. Some people resorted to driving a few stops past their closest stop to the almost empty incoming train instead of catching the nearest outgoing. Calgary actually had to institute a policy where everyone at the end of the line has to get off and line up again.

There is nothing wrong with having jobs at density (ie. not sprawl) centred around transit stops, and it helps to alleviate somewhat the problem of the crush of full trains going downtown in the morning and returning to the burbs virtually empty. Vancouver has started to see this where almost as many people are travelling out of downtown on transit as are going in. Richmond has become one such other job centre connected by skytrain.

“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.”

This is the part I find surprising. In the typical US scenario, I would have expected job sprawl to ensue. Anyone out there have any insight into what’s kept a lid on the formation of new Edge City-type job centers? Is it perhaps something about the oil and gas industry, where all of the white collar functions want to cluster together and are willing to pay a high premium to do so?

“Is it perhaps something about the oil and gas industry, where all of the white collar functions want to cluster together and are willing to pay a high premium to do so?”

Until very recently, this was the case. It wasn’t just the city that created Calgary’s downtown, but also the companies that were willing to stay there despite the high rent and expensive/limited parking.

We’ve just had two high-profile companies, Imperial Oil and Canadian Pacific Railway, move their offices out of downtown and into a brownfield development called Quarry Park:

Thankfully it’s not completely auto-dependent. There’s a ROW set aside for a future southeast LRT, and a BRT in the near term. It’s also not at the edge of the city, but probably 10 km from downtown.

Jake brings up a good point, something I was wondering about as well. Looking at aerials of Calgary it’s obvious that downtown is the major focus for jobs with lots of highrises. There’s still an awful lot of parking though, so it’s not THAT far off from other North American downtowns. The sharp cutoff from sprawl to countryside is quite fascinating, but if you look closely it’s not quite as definitive, especially in the fringes of the north and northwest suburbs. Those are getting more into exurban development typologies, and there’s several places outside the city limits where what looks like fields from a distance are actually large lot “rural sprawl.”

Anyway, since there’s no noticeable job center other than downtown, it makes sense that it can capture most of its commute trips with transit, much like Chicago does. However, even though there doesn’t seem to be much commercial/office sprawl, there’s some monstrously large industrial parks on the northeast and southeast sides of town. That’s a particular type of job sprawl that’s very hard to service with transit because warehouses these days take up a ton of space being all single-story, so walking distances are prohibitive, the streets need to be engineered for semi tractor trailers, and sidewalks rarely enter the equation, and fewer and fewer people actually work there due to automation. So I’m curious how these large areas factor into the transit ridership equation.

There are “ranches” to the west and NW in places like Springbank and Bearspaw that are rural sprawl. This isn’t housing for the masses, though. These are multi-million dollar mansions on 4 acres.

It’s quite an irony that the oil and gas industry–ultimately the enablers of sprawl–have a strong desire for concentrated development. Is that true in Houston as well?

Some points:
1. Calgary does have high downtown employment. However, the downtown still accounts for only 20 – 25 percent of regional employment. So everyone is not commuting downtown. A small city like Calgary needs to focus on downtown. Vancouver went with the plan to have multiple centres, and it does not work in smaller cities, because as Vancouver shows, there is not enough concentration to encourage transit use.
2. Calgary is working on a primary transit network with increased crosstown service to the industrial parks, to capture more non downtown work trips.
3. Transit is more than work trips. Calgary transit does well serving shopping malls, and many people take transit to the malls, just as in other Canadian cities.
4. Service matters. Calgary provides vastly more transit service and coverage than its American peers. Of course more people use transit when they have transit to use. Most people in Dallas cannot walk to a bus with full service.
4. Calgary relies on feeder buses to get riders to the LRT. Park and ride is a small part of the transit network.

Vancouver’s downtown is radically different from Calgary. It’s not about size per se, there are cities in developed countries with as much if not more population than Vancouver that have only one center. The big difference is that Calgary’s downtown is located in a plain and is free to extend in all directions, so people coming to downtown can do so from the North, South, East and West, the downtown is the geographic center of the city.

Vancouver’s downtown is not well situated at all, it is stuck on a small peninsula with the ocean to the West, mountains to the North and a bay to the East. As such, almost everyone going downtown is going North or West. Vancouver’s geographic center is probably the Metrotown station, which isn’t even in Vancouver but in Burnaby. So creating new centers to bring employment and services closer to the center of the region makes a lot of sense.

As to the point about park and ride, indeed, only a minority of users can use them, but their impact on all users by preventing development at stations is major.

A little late to this very good article. The downtowns of Calgary and Vancouver are sigificantly different. Vancouver has nearly 100,000 people living in its compact downtown and is very walkable year round. Forty percent of the residents of the West End do not own cars. The newer high density developments of Yaletown have atttracted so many families there is a severe lack of public school space – in downtown! Lastly, with the doubling of the population there, and the advent of two subways, the SeaBus, the West Coast Express commuter rail service, and the concentration of many bus routes, the traffic into and out of the downtown penninsula actually decreased by almost 20%.

I don’t think my old hometown of Calgary is quite that successful yet.

I should point out that Metro Vancouver now has a 20% transit mode share, whereas Calgary is 16%. This is higher than Seattle, the much-lauded Portland and, I believe, San Francisco and LA.

Is that God-awful smog in the photo at the head of this article, or just a poor-quality picture that makes the air look extremely polluted?

Its quite impressive, when i read this article i feel jellaous. In my country (Poland) our capitol have hard problem with inteliigent transport system, we have similar amount of peoples but 3x more cars and truck compare to Berlin or Moscow. We rly need to look at towns like Calgary if we wanna have good balance on the streets. Anyway sorry for my english ;-)

The park & ride policy (pages 112-114) seems quite nuanced – as indeed does much of the planning for transit in the city’s 30-year outlook: Route Ahead: A Strategic Plan for Transit in Calgary (PDF).

For map geeks unwilling to trawl: the frequent network map is on page 93; the future capital projects (LRT, BRT, Transitway) on the second-last page. (I wish Yonah still had time to craft his own maps – there were some things of beauty.)

You left out one particular genius of Calgary’s parking policies: rates drop to almost nothing on evenings and weekends. After-4pm rates at many of the downtown parkades are only $2, and there’s a $5 Friday rate that starts at 11am.

Calgary, having discouraged cars from coming downtown during the office peak (when demand is highest), then invites them in the evening. Having so much nearly-free parking helps subsidize a healthy restaurant and cultural scene downtown, ensuring that it doesn’t empty out at 5pm.

The big difference is that Calgary’s downtown is located in a plain and is free to extend in all directions, so people coming to downtown can do so from the North, South, East and West, the downtown is the geographic center of the city I surprise how much effort you set to create this type of wonderful informative web site.

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