New projects may ‘get it’, but we need to fix what we have

The Calgary pedestrian experience

Last weekend, I had the chance to be part of the planning process for the Southwest Transitway that is part of the larger expansion of the city’s primary transit network. The meeting was full of great input from community advocates who know their neighbourhoods like the back of their hand, and I learned a lot about that part of the city and about the project itself.

One thing that stood out to me about the input during the breakout sessions was the strong desire to create a pleasant and useful pedestrian experience around the transitway project. This included being conscious of pedestrians’ desire lines around stations and transfer points, wider and more walkable sidewalks, and even suggestions of pedestrian oriented signal systems in certain road crossings.

It just goes to show: whether you live in the Beltline, Haysboro, or Woodbine, a good walking experience is important.

This positivity stood in stark contrast with my experience getting to and from the meeting. I took the C-Train to Southland LRT station and make the 10 minute walk from the station to the Delta hotel. During my walk, I made note of just a few things that stood out as convenience barriers to making this journey an even remotely walking experience:

  • The LRT station connects only to the west side of the tracks. To access the east, you have to walk up a set of aging stairs. If you can’t do stairs, you’ll have to go about 150m further and cut directly across the bus loop.
  • Crossing both Horton Road and Macleod Trail requires you to arrive in time to push the beg buttons, or risk crossing on the wrong signal timing. Mcelod Trail has at that particular point 7 lanes of traffic, and the walk signal moves almost immediately to a flashing hand as if shooing you along the crosswalk.
  • At one point, the sidewalk literally makes you go under a traffic sign. I couldn’t think of a more perfect symbol for how much my 10 minute walk was dominated by design that accommodates vehicular traffic and nothing else.

Walking (and ducking) under this sign actually made me cuckle [Google]

This walk, much like the areas being thoughtfully designed along the 14th street transitway is a major access from a skeletal transit system. 

Transit relies heavily on people accessing their transit system on foot. I would in fact say that your transit experience starts the minute you leave your house. Not many people are going to hike long distances or walk through difficult terrain to get to a bus stop, especially if a vehicle is readily accessible.

It’s great that the city is working hard to build new, useful transit systems, but we can’t forget that what we have needs improvement too. When your walk to the station looks something like this…

An artist’s sketch of my pedestrian experience. [Claes Tingvall]

… it’s hard to blame someone for having a bad impression of our transit system.

As we work hard to build out our transit network to accommodate the next 1 million Calgarians, we have to remember that improving our existing station areas can be just as important as planning new ones. My disjointed experience is representative of the mismatch between projects form 30 years ago, and projects today.

Sure, it might not make for a great headline with a smiling politician, but it makes for a better Calgary.

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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