Transitway a net positive, but has some potential drawbacks.

Critiquing Calgary’s southwest transitway

Note: This article was originally published on February 25, 2016 at Klumpentown. It was featured in a Metro news article, and I discussed the issue on News/Talk 770.

Recently, the City of Calgary has been developing ‘transitways’ for a couple of areas of the city which have been deemed to lack sufficient high-speed transit service, but do not warrant a larger-capacity type service such as an LRT line. Today I am going to try my hand at something new: critique, with a critical eye, the Southwest Transitway project.

Plan Overview

The Southwest Transitway project is a system of various dedicated bus lanes that will connect to form a route from downtown Calgary through the Southwest portion of the city. The route runs approximately 35 kilometers round trip, and services communities that have traditionally felt under-serviced by the LRT system, for potential reasons discussed in this post. If you are not familiar with the area, I have created a map highlighting the route and points of interest that are mentioned in this post, so you can follow along in the discussion.

 Transitway Goals

One thing that is very important when discussing studies such as this is to evaluate them in the scope of their stated goals. It’s not fair to suggest that a project fails in an aspect it is not trying to succeed in. Whether or not the stated goals are ‘correct’ is another debate which I will not get into in this post. I will distill each of these goals down into a bolded key word; I will refer to these goals throughout the rest of the post by bolding them when they are affected.

So what are the goals? It’s probably good to start by looking at the city’s description of what a transitway is supposed to be:

A Transitway is a road or lane system dedicated exclusively to transit service. Transitways are an efficient and cost-effective way to keep Calgarians moving; they enable transit to provide customers with reliable, frequent service.

Here are the key terms in that statement, which we will use to evaluate the plan as proposed.

  • Road/lanes dedicated exclusively to transit.
  • Efficient (fast) and cost-effective.
  • Provide reliable service.
  • Provide frequent service.

The Stantec report which outlines the plan also lists several goals, including to “focus investment on ridership increase”  and “design a connective network between activity centres”.

The Good

There’s plenty to say about the positive aspects of the Southwest Transitway plan – most of them are more fundamental in nature than the criticisms that follow. It’s important to note that I am not discussing the basic idea that such a transitway should exist, rather I am identifying areas where the proposed plan might fail to meet the goals set out in the report, and by the city.

The goals, as stated, include increasing ridership and improving the level of service through reliable and frequent routes; the plan is fundamentally a good idea (I said I wouldn’t get into the merit of the goals – maybe just a little). Calgary Transit needs to provide a serious alternative mode of transportation to Calgarians, outside of the current high-coverage and peak-only emphasis that it currently displays. The South Transitway will (in theory) open up a large number of communities to more flexible access to areas of interest and activities outside of work. These are all good things.

With that being said, let’s have a look at some of the potential shortcomings of the project.

Geometry Problems: Glenmore Reservoir and Mount Royal University

Problems caused by city geometry, while important, are not so much a fault of the designer as they are an underlying constraint on the situation. Even if they are no-one’s fault and cannot be changed, they must be considered.

I think one of the main reasons for the current lack of express transit service into the southwest quadrant of Calgary in general is due to a geometrical problem: the Glenmore Reservoir. To the west of the reservoir lies the Tsuu T’ina First Nation, making the reservoir a natural barrier to travel directly North-South (this is emphasized by the way the road network bends to accommodate it, though a ring road is proposed to run west of the reservoir through the reserve). This geometry causes a natural push of any planned route towards the existing South LRT route that follows McLeod Trail, causing potential riders at those points to be drawn towards the faster, smoother, more frequent LRT service.

The second issue is the location of Mount Royal University (MRU) with respect to Crowchild Trail. Given the high potential ridership of students, and that (MRU) is a common topic in complaints about what’s wrong with the West LRT routing, having the service include MRU is pretty much a non-negotiable. Unfortunately, it means that the route must violate the “be on the way” principle, and it must run in mixed traffic while it does so, negatively impacting exclusivity, speed, and reliability of the transitway.

The final geometry issue lies on the section of the route that runs along 14 St SW, between the Rockyview Hospital and Southland Drive. On this section, a two-way bus-only road is proposed for the west side of 14th Street (closest to the reservoir). In this area, there is an interesting issue: the activity centres (Hospital, Heritage Park, Glenmore Landing) are on the west side, while the neighbourhoods are on the east side of the road. I suppose then the question is this: are they expecting more transit demand to and from the activity centres than they are from the neighborhoods? Or, perhaps: Who is more important – riders from the communities, or riders to the activity centres? If this line is designed for the people living in those communities, it makes more sense to place the transit road on the east side and improve pedestrian access (nobody likes to climb a bridge over a busy road on their way to work). I do not know if this was taken into consideration, but there appears to be precedence for using the east side.

Frequency Problems

Here’s my biggest beef: the report states that buses will run at 10 minute intervals in peak periods, and 20 minutes in off-peak periods.

If ridership is one of your stated goals, then frequency is incredibly important. It reduces waiting time (increasing the speed  of service), improves reliability (a broken down bus will have another along shortly), and it makes connections easier, improving the quality of the overall network. Look at all those bolded words! The proposed 10/20 minute intervals are, frankly, disappointing. As a comparison, the LRT service runs 5 minute (often less) interval service during peak periods, and 10-15 minute service off-peak. If one of the goals is to provide a feasible alternative to the South LRT (as stated in the Stantec report), this is not the way to do it.

There is an upside to this problem: improving frequency doesn’t require changing or competing with the geometry of the problem – you can just run more buses. Yes, it will cost more – but lowering frequency to the point where the service becomes slow to the point of cumbersome during the day is not a good way to go.

Reliability Bottlenecks

Despite the Transitway concept being touted as providing exclusive transit lanes, there is a significant portion of the service which will run in mixed traffic, much the same as a regular bus. If this happens for short periods in areas where traffic is commonly very light, this might not be a problem. In the proposal, however, the route as it exits the downtown core in mixed traffic will be subject to the large fluctuations in traffic at peak periods, and as such outbound bus service may suffer from poor reliability. Once the route leaves Crowchild Trail to stop at MRU, it is again subject to mixed traffic and a number of turns and directional changes that may cause problems. Without slowing the bus service to implement holding control and improve the reliability, these areas will knock the bus off schedule, which is difficult to recover from. These reliability bottlenecks degrade the quality of service both in reality, and perhaps more so in perception.

Conclusion

The Southwest Transitway is an exciting concept for Southwest Calgary, as it has the potential to provide top-quality service to an area of the city that has historically felt left out from Calgary Transits large projects. With that in mind, it’s important that when this project is done, it’s done right and with respect to the people it services. More than anything, this means offering high frequency service similar to the LRT at peak periods, and doing everything possible to remove the reliability bottlenecks in the system.

If you have any thoughts about this project or about my critique, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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.

3 comments

  • Glen Hannaford

    METRO-NEWS CALGARY – MARCH 11-13 2016 PAGE 5 .

    Seems to be confused , “bus-only roads run along the east side of 14 Street _______”.

    This seems “CONTRARY” to city Website SW TRANSITWAY & Stantec Report
    http://www.calgary.ca/Transportation/TI/Documents/Transit-projects/sw-transitway/sw-transitway-functional-plan-summary.pdf
    Kindly Have Metro correct if contrary to your ‘findings;’ glen

    Reply
    • Yes, the Metro article incorrectly confused the east and west discussion; corrections have been made to the online version of the article. The main question (where should it be) still stands, though. There are good arguments for both.

      Reply
  • Great Job! As an arm-chair transit critic, I’m in agreement with what you’ve pointed out here, and I’m so glad that you’ve offered some solutions! Frequency is key – I really don’t understand why we can’t improve bus service NOW along 14th street. The whole detour to Rockyview, then up to the retirement home is a 5-7 minute detour off 14th street, depending on light timings, which the busses don’t appear to trigger.

    Reply

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