Green Line project should be built for the long term

by Willem Klumpenhouwer

Saturday, June 13, 2020

This article was originally published in the Calgary Herald as an opinion piece.

When a quarterback is making a pass in football, they aim for where the receiver is going to be, not for where they are now.

Next week, Calgary city council will see two ideas for the Green Line: The city plan, delivered by staff as a result of years of planning and citizen engagement, throws to where the receiver is going to be. A last-minute amendment by a group of councillors throws to where the receiver was.

Just listen to the language: Phrases like “economic catastrophe,” “biggest mistake” and “boondoggle” are all designed to induce fear and discourage thought. Instead of panicking, let’s put on our thinking caps and see why this amended proposal falls short.

Transportation planners know that travel is a derived demand. This means that people are travelling as part of another activity: work, shopping, visiting restaurants, or attending concerts and events; all things that are part of a healthy economy. Public transit supports these activities and will be a vital part of Calgary’s economic recovery.

But transit has to serve all of these activities. This means providing connections all across the city, not just in and out of downtown.

Even if working from home sticks (and it’s not clear it will), fewer commuting trips is not a terrible prospect for transit: Commuters create lots of one-way trips at rush hour, meaning buses and trains are only full in one direction at a time. Combined with the fact that these periods of high demand happen at both ends of the day, scheduling drivers for this extra demand is inefficient. If working from home continues, transit can shift focus to delivering quality service to those making crosstown trips with various destinations.

Through the use of needless transfers, an ignorance of the past and short-term blindness, the amended plan misses who the Green Line is really for: Calgarians present and future.

Small change, big effect

Transferring from one route to another is one of the most disliked parts of a transit trip. Extra waiting (often outside), breaking up your trip, and all of the difficulties that come with getting on and off a bus. These parts of a trip are unpleasant for anyone but are especially arduous for those with mobility challenges, manoeuvring a stroller or carrying groceries. And that’s just on a nice spring day.

Transit systems go to great lengths to minimize the impacts of a transfer. Toronto’s latest Ontario Line plan boasts “cross-platform transfers,” where riders are able to move seamlessly from subway to train. Hong Kong built a complex two-station transfer system on their subway line where tracks weave in and out to allow people to transfer across a platform. Planners know that if you make transferring hard, people will avoid your service.

The bridgeless plan is the definition of arduous: A transit user would have to exit the station at 7th Avenue, walk three blocks to the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line, and board the bus northward, all to travel in the same direction! Imagine what a transit rider in 2048 might say as they push their stroller through the snow to continue their trip. “Why did they design it this way? It makes no sense!” I hope the councillors proposing to cut the line in half will be around to provide an explanation.

Looking back from the future is a good way to judge the quality of a long-term plan. We can also look back from where we are to learn from the past. There are examples right here at home; Calgary’s Blue and Red LRT lines are full of learning

Take Chinook, where the station is located on the other side of a large arterial road and a couple of blocks from the mall. Both the mall and the city have recognized and paid for this mistake with a street redesign and a covered overpass — a patch-up job on a structural crack.

We can also learn from other cities: Ottawa’s need for an LRT was driven by a capacity problem for its existing BRT system. Buses were lining up on their way to downtown as there was no place to handle passengers. Ironically, Ottawa’s recent troubles with its LRT system are a result of a short-term lowest-cost approach to procurement, but we can learn from its long-term planning. Centre Street already has buses running one after the other, a sure sign that it’s ready for LRT.

Lose the short-term blindness

As is typical, federal, provincial and municipal governments are splitting the bill for this first stage of the Green Line roughly three ways. This means that Calgary is getting investment in its city from across the province and across the country.

And transit is a good investment in a city. Some estimates show a $4 return for every $1 spent on transit. An analysis of the Green Line itself lists $4.7 billion of increased property values, $940 million in additional provincial income tax revenue and $630 million in additional property tax revenue to the city and the province, to name a few figures.

These are just the easily counted benefits. Transit supports better public health, combats climate change and creates safer neighbourhoods. All of these impacts have been documented, and all of them save both individuals and governments money.

The Green Line isn’t a project that runs from 16th Avenue N to Sheppard. It’s a 46-kilometre line with 29 stations from North Pointe to Seton. The decision that council has before them is a century-long decision. When you listen to them talking about this project, understand that they are talking about the next 100 years of Calgary.

It’s human nature to look at where we are and assume it will always be that way. But if we focus on the now, we are blind to the bigger vision. We lose sight of who this Green Line is for.

It's time to run the play

The case for the Green Line is a strong one. In the southeast, a vital missing link will attract new riders to the system. In north-central Calgary, the ridership is already there; Centre Street is ready for an LRT upgrade.

These two ends are not at odds. They are not silos. It’s not one or the other. They are part of the same city, and purposely severing the connection between them would do a great disservice to the future of this city.

In this Green Line conversation, the voices that are most important are the ones that will use the service. Many of them haven’t been born yet. These are the people who will incorporate the Green Line into their future plans.

There are two ways this can go. Either we throw to where the receiver was, or to where they are going.

Let’s make the right call.