What would a Green Line LRT/BRT hybrid look like?Green Line: When bus meets train
Believe it or not, Calgary’s Green Line LRT was originally going to be a rapid bus service.
The project included two parts: a North Transitway which was to be aligned on Centre Street, and a SE Transitway which was to proceed from the Centre City out into the Southeast, following the current Green Line alignment.
As funding opportunities came from both the Federal and Provincial governments, we had the chance to turn the project into something truly forward-thinking: A massive LRT line that would add 26 stations to the existing 40 on the network.
With this jump in excitement and available cash, the original plan fell out of discussion. As council plans the Green Line from the Centre City out, they have (so far) avoided cutting corners when choosing the best options for the long term.
Staging the Green Line
The reality, though, is that these projects are expensive. Especially with non-committal Provincial support, some Councillors are pushing the cheaper (in every sense of the word) options for a line that will serve Calgary for many generations to come. The argument, even made by Nenshi, is that is it difficult to plan a project without a good sense of how much money is available.
This is understandable for such a big project. Even to do the project half-baked is going to cost a lot of money, and doing it right is going to cost more. This is why projects like this are often built in stages. Working from the inside out, you build the best system you can with the money you have, and plan for expansion. This was the original goal for the Green Line. Start with a rapid bus service, and upgrade to LRT down the road.
There’s one legitimate problem: part of the Federal funding promise is contingent on serving ridership. “If we can’t build a railway all the way from North Pointe to Seton”, someone other than me might argue, “it won’t be buildable at all”.
The Train-Like Bus
This is where rapid bus service comes in. I use the term “rapid bus service” to avoid confusion with the more common term BRT, which in Calgary seems to mean buses that stop less but still run on regular roads. We are approaching the right idea with the Southwest Transitway: Rapid bus service has dedicated right of way, with elevated platforms, good shelter amenities, and dedicated buses that look something like this:
The idea would be to construct the right of way from North Pointe to Seton, build the LRT as best as possible as far out as money allows, and run the rest of the service on a rapid bus. This would allow for easy future expansion, and to build ridership on the corridor, furthering the case for an LRT down the road.
Other than the wheels (and perhaps the fuel source), there is very little difference between a rapid bus service and an LRT. Buses like the one shown above provide a smooth ride similar to an LRT.
For a commuter-centric city like Calgary, the further from the core you are, the less capacity you need (notice that the LRT is always more crowded near Downtown than at the edges). This means that there may be a point at which the capacity you need to accomodate everyone is better served by buses. An analytical paper from the U of C looked at exactly this, and showed that the original optimal endpoint of the Red Line fell somewhere between University and Brentwood in the Northwest, and between Anderson and Canyon Meadows in the Southwest, with the rest of the (now LRT) route served by rapid bus service. This is pretty close to how the city first built the system.
The main take-away from both the literature and from real-world experience is that there is strong precedent for an LRT/BRT hybrid on the Green Line. If the budget is not there, looking into less capital-intensive options where capacity is less needed is a much better idea than cheaping out on the core part of the line. Rapid bus service builds ridership and introduces Calgary to the true potential of various modes of public transit. In turn, this will increase our chance of getting future funding opportunities by showing that we take public transit projects seriously.