If transit is about serving people, a strong core is everything.

The Green Line through the lens of density

There’s been a lot of hubbub about the Green Line in the past few weeks. First, a Herald article about an internal document on phasing the project – building the city centre parts of the route first, and adding on as funding allows. Then, Mayor Nenshi’s response about avoiding phasing. More recently, the city has floated some possible changes in the alignment through Ramsay, to the ire of some residents.

It seems that the Green Line project has gained some newfound media attention, and with it, some fairly strong statements by politicians and other interested parties alike.

What caught my attention was a recent surge in insistance on the importance of LRT reaching communities in the far southeast of the city, from the Mayor as well as Councillor Keating (though he represents a sizeable chunk of the southeast portion of the line, so can you blame him?). Herald reporter Trevor Howell referred to these communities as “transit starved” – a very charged and pithy term that sounds bad but really has no quantitative meaning at all.

The Green Line is a huge project, by pretty much any transportation standards. The effect it will have on Calgary is larger than any of us individually, and the time scale is decidedly long term. This project is not about getting a train out as far as we can as quickly as possible. It’s about building and growing this city to be a better place for Calgarians.

To that end, we need to treat this project like the permanent piece of city-shaping infrastructure that it is. It needs to respect the areas and people it serves by serving them to the best of it’s ability. It’s important that we don’t think about how far we build the tracks, but how well we build the service.

In some cases, the latter requires the former. In many cases, however, it does not.

Looking into Density

If we truly are interested in serving people, then it’s important that we look at where the people are. There are different ways to do this, but I want to look at one simple yet powerful measure: density.

Density isn’t a perfect tool, but it is a useful and accessible way of seeing where people really live and travel from, and therefore can help us start to understand how effectively we can serve as many people as possible.

So, let’s look at the Green Line through the lens of density.

A quick disclaimer here: I am working with the open data provided by the city, much of which is coarse grained and imperfect. This is an illustrative example, not an academic study.

The first thing I did was download the City of Calgary’s 2017 Census by Community, and take all the communities that are adjacent to the Green Line’s proposed alignment, all the way from Panorama in the north to Seton in the south. Then, I calculated their residential densities and put them on a map:

Green Line adjacent communities with density. Darker is denser [Data from City of Calgary]

Some communities (the SE industrial parks) don’t have any residential density, and so they are blank. These are the “gaps” that Mayor Nenshi mentioned in his comments about wanting the line to extend all the way to Seton.

You can immediately see how much denser the core of the line is. If you aren’t convinced, here is a bar chart of all of those neighbourhoods and their densities. Don’t worry about the units, they come from the mapping software’s calculations. What matters here is the relative densities.

Density of communities along the Green Line [Data from City of Calgary]

There are four communities that stand out as immediate powerhouses. They are Chinatown, Beltline, Downtown, and East Village – all core communities. In fact, these “Big Four” (as I have decided to call them) have 150 to 200 percent of the next community in the list, Greenview.

Here’s the same chart with the communities ordered (roughly) from North to South:

Green Line adjacent communities ordered North to South [Data from City of Calgary]

Aside from the “big four” standing tall in the middle, you can also see that the North side of the line generally has more density along it than the South. In fact, if you take averages for densities along each of these three sections, you get the following North-Centre-South breakdown:

Average densities along corridors [Data from City of Calgary]

I’m showing you this to make two points about the discussion we’ve been having recently about the Green Line:

  1. The core matters. For more reasons than “it’s the starting point of construction and phasing”, the core is dense, and the Green Line, when it arrives, will serve a lot of residents. The city core is not just used by commuters, people live there – a lot of them – and they deserve a transit service that respects and understands that. Cutting corners in the core is the wrong answer to funding problems.
  2. Why all this press about the southeast? Why is there less political and press coverage of the north leg of the LRT, when it has more density? Perhaps this has to do with the local area councillors, or maybe it’s already understood that the north leg of the Green Line will come first when phasing is decided on.

The upshot is this: ideally we would be able to build the whole line as planned, with all the proper considerations for each neighbourhood. Given the level of transit under-investment in Calgary, this is a sensible option from all levels of government. If the money isn’t there right away, however, we still need to focus on a strong core. Even from a cursory overview it’s clear that building a strong core of the line will benefit everyone as the line grows outwards. Cutting corners weakens the entire system.

Plan the best LRT system we can. Fund it when we can. That’s long-term thinking that I can get behind.

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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