Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Out(road)rageous: $5 billion could go a long way

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We seem destined to always talk about transportation. Public transit, including the long-sought southeast LRT line and the nuances of where to put the north-central line; the mess that is Calgary’s taxi system; bike lanes; pedestrian safety improvements; two-way roads through the Beltline; and now the revelation that the southwest portion of the ring road will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion.

It’s been about 50 years since the first studies were done on a ring road for Calgary, and the southwest portion has always been a contentious issue. There’s the Weaselhead natural area and the Elbow River as well as the Tsuu T’ina reserve to deal with. Negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina Nation stopped and started until a deal was finally inked last year as the rest of the ring road neared completion.

This is the kind of thing that makes all the other transportation debates seem kind of quaint.

First there is debate as to the efficacy of building ring roads. It’s been proven over and over again that building roads only invites more traffic rather than doing anything to effectively relieve congestion. It contributes to sprawl, pushing people ever further to the margins. Does Calgary need a better way for people to get from one end of the city to the other? Probably, but there’s no indication that this will serve that purpose in any meaningful way. It will benefit those trying to escape to the mountains from the south, and will provide a trucking route through the southwest, but aside from a bit of relief on some central roadways, this will just invite more traffic and more sprawl.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that we need the ring road and that it will speed up cars travelling across our sprawling city.

What we don’t need is another major thoroughfare crossing over our water supply and tainting the Weaselhead natural area. If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride your bike or walk through this natural park at the end of the reservoir, you’re missing out. Pathways and walking trails wind their way through trees and scrub along the Elbow River — it feels miles away from the city at its doorstep. What’s not missing from the idyllic scene is a highway bypass roaring over the river and the reservoir wetlands.

But it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. The debates about protecting the headwaters of our drinking supply are over, the land deals have been made, the plans largely put in place. So let’s talk about the price tag. You can get a lot for that kind of money.

The $5 billion is for the remaining 41 kilometres of the ring road, from Highway 22X near Spruce Meadows to Highway 1 near Canada Olympic Park. We’ve already built 63 kilometres for the relatively paltry sum of $1.9 billion.

As has been noted elsewhere, the $5-billion price tag just happens to be the same figure that’s tossed around for the entire north-central/southeast LRT line — from Panorama Hills all the way to the South Health Campus. Heck, you could cut the ring road cost in half and still be able to build the southeast portion of the LRT route.

The city’s Route Ahead plan calls for a $13-billion investment in transit over 30 years to keep up with Calgary’s growing population. Five billion gets us a long way there.

Of course there’s been another transportation option that has been whipping critics into a frenzy: the Centre City cycle track network, a plan calling for protected bike lanes through downtown and the Beltline. Hands have been wrung, tears have been shed and prophecies of doom have been prophesied by those how don’t even blink when major interchanges are built.

If we were to take the cost of the southwest portion of the ring road and apply it to protected bike lanes, we could build 1,786 lanes equivalent to the proposed First Street S.E. lane, or approximately 5,000 kilometres worth of cycle tracks based on the estimate of $1 million per kilometre. We’d basically blanket the entire city in protected bike lanes. Hell, we might even have enough left over to install in-pathway heating to keep the ice away.

In other words, there are far more effective ways to utilize $5 billion if what we’re really interested in is easing congestion and providing transportation options for the citizens of Calgary — improved pedestrian safety, separated and marked bike lanes, transition to two-way streets in the Beltline and investment in bus rapid transit and LRT lines, to name a few. But those options would be considered social engineering, right?

Big ideas we’d like to see

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When compiling this list, we asked ourselves: what kind of city, province and country do we want? What ideas would help get us there? This list is by no means comprehensive, but intended to start a discussion about where we’re going and where we should go. Have you got your own big ideas? Let us hear them in the comments section.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

Creating a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton has been on people’s minds since the ’70s, and yet there are no trains. Hell, there aren’t even slow trains. If the line was built using maglev technology, with a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour, the trip between Calgary and the capital would be reduced by over a third.

Reports suggest that the line could have huge economic benefits for the province, but the cost of constructing the line, the worries over the economic viability of the operation and the tricky question of buying the necessary land for the right-of-way, have all gotten in the way of the project moving forward. Estimates for the costs range from $5 billion to $24 billion (the aforementioned maglev being the most expensive option).

Obviously there are some serious questions here, but we’d still like to think that the long-dreamt-of line will one day become a reality, providing better transportation in what’s known as the Golden Corridor. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

LEGALIZE DRUGS

Seriously, just legalize the damn things already. Need some more taxable income? Legalize it. Want to combat crime and starve criminal organizations of vast sums of money? Legalize it. Courts tied up and police overworked? Legalize it. Want to help addicts rather than punish them? Legalize it. Interested in new job creation? Legalize it. The list goes on and on.

This one is just so damn obvious. Everyone knows that the war on drugs is a failure, it costs millions of dollars a year, it ties up our criminal justice system and it disproportionately targets disadvantaged Canadians, including First Nations. Politicians the world over never have the guts to say we should legalize, or at least decriminalize, drugs when they’re in office, but there’s a large number of them that say so as soon as they retire. We’re saying the government should legalize all drugs, but legalizing marijuana would be a good start. It’s not as though it’s a dangerous substance like, say, booze.

So what’s the federal government doing? Implementing mandatory minimum sentencing and laying the groundwork for a rise in incarceration and the associated societal degradation that follows. That’s just irresponsible.

FREE TRANSIT

Sounds radical, doesn’t it? At a time when the whole world is concerned about emissions and global warming, we should consider alternatives to the car in a more concerted way. Getting more people riding transit is a good start and what better way to create that incentive than to take away a major disincentive? Of course, nothing’s free. The costs for operating transit would have to come from somewhere, most likely property taxes or a hike in the gas tax.

Some mid-size cities have implemented free transit, mostly in Europe, to some success. Implementing it in a larger city would be difficult, but not impossible. If you want to tackle traffic issues, parking issues and pollution issues, and give a leg up to those who can’t afford cars or transit passes, this is a no-brainer.

CITY-WIDE WIFI

Sadly, it’s extremely difficult to operate in today’s economy without constant connection. So, should the city provide a service to its digital-age citizens? Yes. Fairly cheap to establish and maintain, with huge net benefits, a city-wide WiFi service, paid for like any other utility, would be a great equalizer and make Calgarians some of the most connected citizens on the globe. It’s a quality-of-life booster and a business efficiency measure all wrapped up into one.

Some cities in the states have city-wide (or close to city-wide) coverage, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. In Canada, Fredericton has a city-wide system in place. Vancouver has been wrestling with the idea for years, but hasn’t yet implemented a plan. Calgary’s young population and penchant for all things digital makes us an ideal candidate for blanket coverage. Now, who to award the contract to…?

CULTURAL ZONING

Take a cruise through the city and try to count the number of vacant or under-utilized buildings within its limits. It might surprise you. Now consider that the most common problem facing artists and arts and culture organizations is a lack of space.

The city should relax zoning regulations for cultural events, groups and individuals within the city, making it easier for them to utilize these buildings and help grow our cultural scene with little or no investment. The now-defunct artist studios in the East Village fish market were a great example of temporary cultural space in an otherwise abandoned building, but we need to go beyond that. The city should make it easy for productions, musicians, art markets and cultural performances to be staged in unlikely places. The organizations will have more space, the costs will be lowered and citizens will have more opportunities to take in our local scene in surprising places.

TAKE MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY

Our mental health system is a nightmare. It’s hard enough for people without mental illness to navigate its murky waters in order to help others find the help they need. Those without support are, well, screwed. There is a shortage of space in the limited psychiatric wards, there’s little followup and too often the solution is to medicate and then ignore.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. This is a huge number and exemplifies why we need more, and better, help. It also goes to show that the stigma attached to mental illness is problematic. We need frank and open conversations about mental health and we need the facilities, the practitioners and the access required to help those in mental distress.

TAKE AFFORDABLE HOUSING SERIOUSLY

This ties into the last idea, at least on one level. Many people who suffer from mental illness also struggle to maintain housing and employment. But that group isn’t the only one that needs help in this regard. The city has a policy on affordable housing, offering incentives to developers with a promise that our overheated rental and home ownership market will be able to accommodate those without the means to buy in. These incentives and the partnerships between the city and developers is not creating enough affordable housing. Providing a cheaper alternative should become a prerequisite of any large development deal.

Creating affordable housing should not be a cattle-penning exercise, putting up towers and herding poor people in. Housing works best when there is a mix of incomes and lifestyles, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the provincial, federal and municipal governments step up their game. The creation of the Affordable Housing Task Force by the province in 2007 was a good first step and its recommendations resulted in the creation of 3,615 units in Calgary as of September 2011. But that’s not enough. The cost of living in Calgary is rapidly outstripping the ability of anyone who doesn’t work in the oil and gas towers downtown to rent or own without breaking the bank. If we’re not going to consider rent controls, we need to get better at creating more affordable spaces.

MAKE DEVELOPERS PAY

Mayor Naheed Nenshi tried to make this happen, and managed to get a partial deal, off-loading some of the costs for constructing new infrastructure in far-flung suburbs to the developers who reap the financial rewards. In 2010, that subsidy has resulted in $1.5 billion of debt, half of the city’s total. Although it’s great that council passed the motion requiring developers to pay half the cost of extending that pricey infrastructure to the edges of the city, we think that the balance is still off. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing sprawl and we should not be building housing on the periphery that is artificially cheaper. And no, there is no contradiction with our call for more affordable housing. That need is required, with or without more expensive suburban homes.

CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM

Let’s not mince words. It’s absurd that Calgary, a city of over one million people, doesn’t have a collecting contemporary art museum. There have been efforts over the years to establish one, but the plan always seems to fall apart. The latest effort is by the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (formerly the Triangle), which signed a memorandum of understanding with the former standard bearer, the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art. This is an effort that Calgarians and all three levels of government have to get behind.

World-class exhibitions are bypassing Calgary on a regular basis, and despite some excellent programming at places like the Glenbow (no, seriously), we are being starved of more impressive, innovative and historically significant work. A strong architectural presence in the inner-city showcasing big exhibitions and internationally recognized work is a much-needed notch in our cultural belt.

PROTECT WATERSHEDS

The provincial government recently released its land use plan for the Lower Athabasca Region. It is the first land use plan that is focused on the major watershed areas of Alberta. Although there is some good news in the plan, including setting aside an additional 16 per cent of the land base for conservation, it doesn’t go far enough. The government should create a binding document that is fierce in its protection of our water.

The next regional plan, which is open to public input until December 6, focuses on the South Saskatchewan region, which encompasses Calgary. With logging activity just west of the city in our own watershed, and with population pressures increasing, it’s imperative that the government comes up with strict and enforceable regulations around our water — in terms of use, habitat protection and, if need be, moratoriums on industrial activity in sensitive areas.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.