Let’s take advantage of the beauty and efficiency of our city grid

Calgary Transit should embrace the grid

When I talk transportation with Calgary’s politicians, residents, and planners I will inevitably hear some form of the phrase “Calgary was designed for the car.” Upon hearing or saying that, many people shrug and give me a “what can you do?” look.

I disagree with the sentiment on two levels. For one, cars are not to blame for how our city operates. The fact that 75% of trips in Calgary are made by car is not because neighbourhood planners gleefully plopped down car-only roadway in an effort to exclude or drive out any other form of transportation. They designed newer neighbourhoods based on shortsighted (and often cost-driven) ideas about the future of cities, and a misunderstanding about space. Their shortsightedness was in turn a symptom of how governments have pretty consistently under-valued the cost of travel in a city by car. These mistakes compound, meaning that each new neighbourhood built is progressively harder to access by something other than a car.

For me, once you stop having a choice of how to travel, you no longer have true freedom of mobility.

I also disagree with the implied sentiment that cities are unable to change or adapt. The design of a city can be influenced by alternative means of transportation, such as transit. Calgary has developed around its LRT lines in the past 30 years in a way that would not have happened without them. Thus, to me, the shrug of inevitability is just plain incorrect.

The Magic of the Grid

When I talk about cities and transportation, I often talk about them in terms of simple geometry. Cities are all about balancing the inherent benefit we get from living close together with the need for space for different uses, such as getting around. Designing, planning, and changing cities is all about figuring out, as a community, how we want to balance the push and pull of the space we need, and the closeness that benefits us.

When we talk about space, geometry plays an important role. Today, I want to talk about the simplest and most common shape we see in many cities around the world, especially in North America: the grid.

A grid can provide more efficiency and flexibility than any other connected network shape. This is in large part because a grid to provides a large number of connected nodes. Connected nodes are, essentially, intersections that you can move between in a relatively straight line. Take a look at what is probably the most striking example of the difference between a grid system and a non-grid system of roadways, divided by Shaganappi Trail in the Southwest of Calgary:

The end of the grid at Shaganappi Trail [Google Earth]

What you see here is an example of the differences in a two-dimensional area between straight and curved lines, and between connected and disconnected nodes. Almost every intersection on the grid has four streets leading away from it – the same cannot be said about the street network to the West. You can also see that the density of houses, businesses, or any kind of “destination” is lower on the left. The lower the number and variety of destinations in an area, the more car-dependent the area becomes.

Transit and the Grid

So what does this have to do with Calgary Transit? Well, serving a neighbourhood that is “off the grid” is especially problematic for transit agencies. Curved roads increase people’s walking distance to transit and increase the distance buses travel to pass the same number of houses. The lack of connected nodes means that making a network of one-dimensional bus lines to serve a two-dimensional city is especially difficult in these areas. On top of that, the lack of “on the way” destinations means people are not using the route for a variety of trips at different times of day.

This is where the grid becomes a powerful transit ally. Bus routes that run parallel to each other, close enough so everyone can access one of the routes but far enough away to avoid “wasteful” doubling-up of routes. If everyone has access to a north-south route, and an east-west route, moving around the city is as simple as finding out how far horizontal you need to go, and how far vertical. You ride the East-West bus for your horizontal distance, and your North-South bus for your vertical distance.

A simple two-bus trip on a grid [OpenStreetMap]

This is admittedly an oversimplification. At the moment, Calgary does not have the uniform “destination” spread that such a system would require, with people travelling roughly equal amounts from any one point to another (instead of, say, mainly into and out of the downtown). Calgary Transit also does not currently offer a service where busses come frequently enough to make transfers not suck, especially in the winter. In this scenario, even though you only transfer once, you almost always have to transfer, so those transfers had better be quick and painless. That does not mean, however, that Calgary Transit, and in turn our city, cannot change to be this way.

We Are Currently Ignoring the Grid

There is a lot of talk about the city-shaping potential of the huge Green Line LRT project being planned. Councillors and planners alike seem to understand that the Green Line project will have a huge impact on the future of the city in terms of density, use, and how people get around. I think that all transit routes, whether bus or train, can have that impact, if they are taken seriously.

Currently, our bus system in Calgary is very radial-cetntric. This means that many routes go directly downtown, or spring off the LRT system like branches high up on a tree. Right now, our transit network looks like this:

A snapshot of the current transit network [OpenStreetMap]

Which, for demonstration purposes, I have translated crudely into this:

A crude idealization of Calgary’s transit network

With every “branch” in the network we are losing connectivity. There are, really, very few connected nodes in such a network, and so for people travelling around the city it’s often neccessary to make two transfers, both of which are necessarily going to be long and inconvenient. On top of that, we have lost the multi-purpose use that makes transit truly successful. It’s no surprise, then, that the most popular bus routes on the network, are the 3 and the 1, which run pretty much exactly north-south and east-west respectively, as well as the 72/73 circle routes which provide some sort of connectivity between non-downtown parts of the city. Even in Calgary, with its huge downtown commuter rush, has a strong demand for more grid-line transit options.

Embracing the Grid

Calgary Transit has already started the process of creating more of a grid network in the city. Crosstown busses on 16 Ave NW and 17 Ave SE, as well as the Southwest Transitway and its associated routes are all examples of “gridding up” the network.

But I think we can do more. The political willpower that is behind the “city shaping potential” of the Green Line is just as applicable to creating a simpler, easier to use bus system that embraces the power and pleasure of the grid. People will use transit if it is useful, and that includes a system that is intuitive, frequent, and diverse.

Let’s take advantage of the grid we have.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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