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Learning from Calgary

As Auckland develops I find it’s always useful to compare how Auckland performs in relation to other similar cities around the world. It allows us to see what they do well and what they don’t and use that information to guide us in making our city better. There are two cities we frequently use as examples Vancouver and Perth. Both cities are larger than Auckland – 2.4 million and 1.9 million respectively – on average have less population density (not that I particularly like that measure) and have similar levels of CBD employment as Auckland. Both cities have also invested quite a bit in public transport over the last 30 or so years. Vancouver has built their Skytrain system after having no rail network at all while Perth started out with a diesel network carrying about the same number of passengers our network currently does, it has electrified and expanded the system considerably and patronage has grown. They even managed to find a city to sell their old trains to (us).

But with this post I want to suggest a new city we should be adding to the comparison list – Calgary.

So why Calgary? Well first of all unlike the two cities already mentioned which have larger populations than Auckland- and therefore are useful to compare where Auckland might be in 20-30 years’ time, Calgary’s population is slightly smaller at about 1.15 million. Yet over the last 30 years the two cities have shown remarkably similar growth with Auckland’s population having increased by 81% while Calgary’s increased by 85%.

Auckland vs Calgary Population

Like the other cities mentioned, on average Calgary is also less dense than Auckland and being on a river plain there is little geographically to stop development from spreading in all directions. It does seem to have a slightly higher share of its population work in the CBD but the numbers are on par Auckland if you included the fringe areas like Newmarket, the Hospital etc. Further if you look at the CBD from satellite maps you can see massive amounts of car parking on otherwise empty sites all around the city. So by most measures you would expect that Calgary would perhaps perform fairly similarly to Auckland when it comes to public transport – and by similar I mean poorly. But it doesn’t as you can see from the graph below (note the big dip in 2001 was due to an almost two month strike).

Auckland vs Calgary PT

When you combine the population and PT boarding’s you can see that the key difference between the two cities is that Calgary managed to slightly increase its per capita PT boarding’s while in Auckland the number more than halved in the 10 years from 1984 to 1994.

Auckland vs Calgary PT per Capita

What was different between the two cities that meant Calgary was able to keep its PT system performing and improving while in Auckland things went through the floor? I’m sure there are quite a range of reasons however one of the most obvious has been the effort that has been put into developing a rapid transit network for the city. Starting in 1981 the city built its first light rail line and have expanded it quite a bit since then. But this isn’t just an old school street running tram system, like the one that used to exist in Auckland but a rail network that runs on exclusive right of ways through much of the urban area with occasional level crossings. In many parts it runs in the median or to the side of motorways, much like the Northern Express. The only place that the system runs in the street other than a level crossing is through the CBD where the route is only shared with buses and emergency vehicles. The Calgary Transit site has a useful history of the system showing how it has been frequently been extended.

1978 – construction of the first leg of the CTrain began.
1981 The 10.9 km south line from Anderson Road to 7 Avenue S.W. was officially opened on May 25.
1985 – Service commenced on the northeast leg of the CTrain. The northeast, 9.8 km line extends from the east end of 7th Avenue, across the Bow River and northeast to Whitehorn Station.
1987 – The third leg of the CTrain system was completed in the northwest. The northwest line extends from the west end of 7th Avenue, across the Bow River and north to the University of Calgary.
1990 – The northwest leg was extended to Brentwood Station, increasing the line to 6.6 km.
2001 – The south CTrain line was extended to Canyon Meadows (2.0 km) and to Fish Creek Lacombe (1.4 km.
2003 – The northwest CTrain line was extended to Dalhousie (3.0 km).
2004 – The southwest CTrain line was extended to Shawnessy and Somerset/Bridlewood (3.0 km).
2007 – The northeast CTrain line was extended to McKnight-Westwinds (2.9 km).
2009 – The northwest CTrain line was extended to Crowfoot (2.2 km).
2012 – The northeast CTrain line was extended to Martindale and Saddletowne (2.9 km).
2012 – The West LRT CTrain line opened, between downtown and 69 Street W (8.2km).

The map below shows the reach of the system with each colour representing one of the extensions above, the most recent of which was less than a year ago.

Calgary Existing LRT

Calgary Transit doesn’t break down the patronage by mode but some figures they do release suggest that the LRT system accounts for 50-60% of all PT trips. The LRT network is also supported by a bus network that has a similar design to what Auckland Transport is about to roll out with buses that connect into stations and allow transfers rather than try to be everything to everyone.

But it hasn’t just been a case of extending the LRT network as Calgary has also focused a on a number of Transit Oriented Developments (TODs). The one in the image below is a place called Saddletowne, a greenfield site at the end of the North East line. The satellite images cut off half way the centre through however you can quite clearly see the beginnings of a town centre (looks like a strip-mall though) next to the station. Houses radiate out from it. The LRT line was extended to the town centre just over a year ago and a recent study suggests that over 8,700 begin or end at the station every day with 63% of people getting to the station by walking. To put it in perspective, that is busier than Newmarket. What’s more you can quite clearly see that the city has planned for potential future expansion by leaving a corridor of development heading north for the next sprawl suburb.

Saddletowne TOD

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Calgary is how they are planning for future PT expansion. They have just completed a 30 year plan called Route Ahead which looked at exactly how they will expand and improve the PT system. But this wasn’t just planners deciding how they will develop the system but they involved the public all the way along, including what corridors and modes would be used. Most of the plan is fairly typical including stuff about how people will access the system, what the customer experience will be etc. As part of the process they have created and published a future RTN map showing how they intend to connect the rest of the city up with a comprehensive system of LRT, BRT and Transitway (Bus Lanes).

Now this on its own isn’t unique and many cities have these types of plans however the thing that interested me the most was that the city is planning to fast track a large proportion of the network over the next 10 years. That plan also includes starting to build the patronage on what will be the third pair of LRT lines but starting off initially with a cheaper BRT solution. The future RTN and the 10 year fast tracked system is below.

Calgary future RTN 10 year plan

Why this is so interesting is that it is a similar approach we have suggested that needs to be taken in Auckland with the Congestion Free Network. We have shown a vision for how we could develop a high quality RTN network that covers much of the city that is a fraction of the price of the massive roading spend up planned and have said that we should fast track it to really reap the benefits.  By doing so we could quickly get a much greater balance in out transport system giving Aucklanders some real choice in how they get around.

The development of places like Saddletowne – while not perfect – also provide an example of what we should be doing with the greenfield Special Housing Areas recently announced. If we have to sprawl then we should at least be trying to do a much better job of it than we have in the past by designing them right from the start to be easy to serve with public transport.

The one thing that is clear from the example of Calgary is that the on-going development of an RTN quality service has been absolutely critical in the performance of their PT network and making it attractive to use by a large number of people. Auckland didn’t really start developing its RTN until 2003 with Britomart, over 20 years later. Further, to get to where they are now (and what they are doing in the future) they have put effort into creating an easily understood vision and getting the public on-board. I firmly believe that if AT/the council were to present a comprehensive vision for PT in Auckland like we have done with the Congestion Free Network then many of the conversations and arguments we as a city would be having would be quite different. They would largely turn away from bickering about individual projects to discussions about how we get if built sooner.

20 comments to Learning from Calgary

  • Fred

    Excellent post. Yes we can learn a lot from Canadian cities because they have similar land use patterns to Auckland but vastly higher levels of PT use.

    Calgary is also hardly a left wing liberal city politically either!

  • iiq374

    Unfortunately until we stop electing people paying lip service to PT and therefore needing huge expensive projects to try and show progress its not going to happen.

    We need a Mayor that doesnt kill off developments wanting to pay for their own station by hiking the cost on them by $30 mil. One that realises that catching the train doesn’t mean having your chauffeur drive the car into work at the same time. Perhaps one that has managed to build more than 3 km of bus routes in 9 years?

    However I suspect the city has just elected its favorite mayor of inertia, incompetence and nepotism again.

    • So which mayoral candidates ticks the boxes for you?

      Whatever you may think of Len he is at the very least the lesser of the evils on offer. The other candidates have just been negative and offered no positive solutions other than empty platitudes (I am afraid, much like your comment). The only really positive policy I have heard is Minto’s free PT which is not politically or financially realistic.

      I know it is much easier to just criticise people who are trying to achieve things but that is bringing democracy to its lowest level and is exactly the sort of attitude that leads to such low voter turnout as we are seeing. Len is not perfect and I actually think he has been too timid but at least he has ideas and sees the need to work with the relevant players.

  • SF Lauren

    I just did some quick numbers based on the developed parts of the city areas and I got Vancouver with 5000 people per whereas Auckland was 20% less at 4000 people per

    • What parts of the city are you using in each case? That density seems high for Auckland, across the urbanised area it’s around 2,900 to the km. Even just the isthmus, which is the most densely settled part, is about 3,200.

      Anyway, just goes to show that broad measures of density are both tricky and often irrelevant. The reason Vancouver does well is that it has a lot of it’s density clustered around train stations and frequent bus routes, they’re like villages in a sea of low density housing. Auckland has that to some extent, but far less pronounced. But in Vancouver you can quickly catch a bus from your low density housing to a high density transit node anyway, and soon Auckland too.

      The most interesting thing from our perspective is the ridership and operations, it’s quite similar to us. LIke us, and unlike Australia, their staffing and operation costs are relatively low making operations fairly affordable. And like us, but unlike the united states, their riders are “norma” middle class people, often commuters and students. In the US ridership tends to be the poor working class (outside the largest cities at least), a real welfare situation where the fare take per passenger is low. The upside is we, like Vancouver, have a shot at a transit system that is both affordable to operate and one that is used well and recovers a lot farebox.

      • SF Lauren

        For Vancouver it was rather simple as a quick google search gives you the population and the area without including vast amounts of farm land.

        For Auckland I got the population of Auckland and then measured the area to find that only 350 of the 1086 of Auckland was actually developed with the remainder being farm land, lifestyle blocks and regional parks.

        • Ah I see, looks like you’ve googled the City of Vancouver, which does indeed have a gross density of around 5,000 to the km. However the City of Vancouver is just a local government area covering downtown and the inner fringe suburbs of the old, pre motorisation, grid. About the equivalent of the Auckland CBD out to PT Chev, Balmoral and Remuera.

          FYI Auckland Council reports the area inside the MUL is 482km2 with 1.4 million residents, giving an urban density of 2,900 people to the km2.

      • SF Lauren

        I agree that high density is not one of the 10 commandments of good PT however. But it does force more PT use in the event of nothing else being planned.

        Case in point being the harbour bridge. As a road it has an ideal capacity of 100 to 130k however demand in excess of this keeps pushing it over this but also results in lots of people taking the bus or one of the ferries.

      • SF Lauren

        Yes that’s why I tend to not just use the quoted numbers for area on the internet. The numbers quoted often include vast areas of grassland meaning that cities with lots of large parks work are apparently low density even though everyone lives in apartments.

        Anyway, I have now worked out the greater Vancouver area and got of developed land giving a density of 4900 people per Still about 20% more than Auckland when being measured like for like.

        • Key point though is that a good Transit system will drive increased density around nodes (all else being equal) but high density can’t make a good Transit system happen by itself: That requires political will.

          So Transit first; new improved urban form second.

  • Chris

    Another thing Calgary does right is fare transfers. I lived about ten minutes’ walk from a C-Train station, and I walked in the warmer months, but when it was too cold to walk, I could take a bus to the station and use the same ticket on the train.

    The lack of good outer crosstown routes (such as between the Shaganappi area and the airport) stands out, so you have to change buses or trains to get from (eg) the NW to the NE, and it takes a while, but at least you don’t have to pay twice.

  • Konrad Kurta

    But do Calgary residents have to cut their own berms?

  • Martin W.

    Great article Matt, and it outlines one essential thing, i never understood here in Auckland. In most cities I’ve lived before the transport was first (so building e.g. a train, bus-connetion or whatever) and then the development starts. Here it is the other way round, and because not planned, it is then more expensive to get it somehow there. Hope the council, government and AT take it as an example.

    • Actually the do do that here, only the only transport that is built are roads. Case in point is the Northwest, just finished the Upper Harbour Motorway and the extension of the Northwestern, and the growth starts.

    • Actually in that example of Saddletowne, the development went in years ago and there were buses that fed into the closest LRT station. What they did though was plan the area with the intention of extending the rail network so left the corridor free making it easier to do later. In other words it doesn’t have to have the high quality PT from day one as long as it is designed with it in mind.

      • Martin W.

        Yes, it would be already good to have planning with growth potential. I.e. I visited a couple of weeks ago the new development in Long Bay. Nice place though but in terms of connectivity i doubt that it work. I miss a station like central bus stop. Or a connection corridor to the motorway for busses e.g. At least i could not see it from the plans and even when I asked the guys there they had no clue if there will be any PT.

  • Rick R.

    Having lived in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton I think Edmonton might be a better city to compare to Auckland from a PT point of view. Edmonton metropolitan population was 1,230,056 in 2012. The light rail system is underground in the city center and above ground outside that area. The light rail system is less developed than Calgary’s in part because of the cost to built the underground portion (very well done and better suited to winter climate) but there are now plans for major expansion above ground. Edmonton’s deep wide river valley (in contrast to the relatively broad flat Calgary River valley) presents issues similar to (although less than) those presented by Waitematā Harbour. Or could a central underground crossroad pattern like that in Edmonton be another option with the next underground line out of Britomart going to the North Shore? With Auckland’s climate could an ground level city track (like Calgary) be a cheaper and better option for the CRL or perhaps topography rules that out? Perhaps Calgary has done PT better but why not add Edmonton into the mix and see what we learn?

    • SF Lauren

      Wow, Edmonton looks like something from SimCity. Very planed with little organic growth. You can see the huge reserves the have left for their ring road are about 1km in width rather than the 50 to 100m we give ourselves for rural expressways.

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