Calgary has a lesson for Toronto Transit: try pragmatism
By Adrian Morrow
When I lived in Calgary, fellow inner-city dwellers constantly complained about our rapid transit system, the C-Train. They admitted that the system worked fine as a commuter train, ferrying suburbanites to the downtown core, but did little to connect the various city centre communities to one another.
Why did the Beltline, Calgary's most densely-populated neighbourhood, have just one C-Train stop? Why did Inglewood-Ramsay, the city's historic district, have none? Why couldn't the city build a decent, downtown-focused subway system, like Toronto and Montreal?
I was always curious about this perceived oversight in public transit. So one day, at the end of an interview on a different topic with a member of the city's planning department, I asked him about it.
It turned out Calgary did seriously consider building a subway system in the late 1960s and early '70s. The plan called for several downtown stations to be built underground, with the train emerging to the surface for short jaunts into the suburbs. But planners ultimately decided the idea was impractical: the population wasn't dense enough to justify the high cost of putting a train underground.
Instead, the city opted to build a light rail network.
The system runs above ground, primarily in its own right-of-way, fenced off from traffic and pedestrians. Where it intersects with the street, the train has an automatic right-of-way, allowing it to reach subway-like speeds without having to pass underground. The network is laid out in a hub-and-spoke pattern with lines running from the central business district to suburbs in the south, northeast and northwest corners of the city. The suburban stations themselves act as hubs, with buses funnelling commuters to the train.
These strategies have paid off: in the nearly 30 years since it opened, the C-Train has built up a weekday ridership of about 270,000 -- more than any of the numerous American light rail systems that began cropping up around the same time. In the last eight years, under an infrastructure-obsessed mayor, the city has added about 15 kilometres of track and five new stations to the system; eight more are scheduled to open by 2012.
The lesson here is pragmatism. Calgary planners rejected a subway system because it didn't fit with the city. Subways are great for dense metros with a large inner-city populations. But in Calgary, a post-war-style city with the vast majority of the population spread out in sprawling suburbs, it wouldn't make any sense. Planners realized this and developed the C-Train accordingly, as a sort of light rail commuter train. The above-ground design was cheaper to build than a subway, allowing the city to extend the tracks to the city's most distant suburbs rather than blowing the capital budget on subterranean infrastructure.
It's important to keep this lesson in mind as Toronto develops its much larger rapid transit system. The current plan calls for an ambitious expansion of light rail over the next decade; one mayoral candidate is calling for the building of new subway lines instead, another is promising to put rapid transit on hold and a Toronto Life op-ed even suggests privatizing the system.
Toronto has an unusual, mid-western layout, somewhere between the European-style density of Montreal and the car-inspired sprawl of Calgary. Perhaps more than any other city, it needs a pragmatic transit system designed to fit its unique design. One-size-fits-all just doesn't work here.
It's a bad idea to build subways in low-density areas where the ridership doesn't make up for the high cost. It's an equally bad idea to save money by building LRTs in areas where high ridership and residential densities would justify a subway.
It's a lesson that Calgary's old rival to the north has learned first-hand. The Edmonton LRT, which pre-dates the C-Train by a few years, is roughly a third the length of its Calgary counterpart, has just 13 stops (compared to 37 in Calgary) and consequently does less than one-third the business, despite Edmonton's metro population being only slightly smaller than Calgary's. The reason? Alberta's capital built part of its LRT underground.
Adrian Morrow is a veteran of the Star's radio room who rides the TTC to work. He also worked as a summer reporter last year. firstname.lastname@example.org