Safety breeds diversity, the network makes it useful.

Why Calgary’s cycle tracks are exceeding expectations

There are, in my mind, two key ingredients to a useful and popular transportation system of any mode: Diversity and connectivity.

Today’s feature image on the left sent to Calgarians for Cycle Tracks really encapsulates this first ingredient. The cycle track, more than any other cycling infrastructure, draws people to it because it allows people of all ages, backgrounds, and confidence to travel in our city by bike. Our whole city should be a safe, healthy place for children (even after dark), because a safe place for children is a safe place for adults, while the reverse is not always true. The cycle track that we have been piloting serves commuters and little explorers alike. This is the first ingredient to a good system: it enables a diversity of uses.

The system has been exceeding expectations all summer and people continue to cycle even through the fall. Counts are higher than predicted, and (probably most indicative of the success of the system) the number of female and young cyclists is up. There it is again, hard evidence of our first ingredient.

I know that I personally have been biking home from the Saddledome after a concert late at night and passed all sorts of people coming the other way: women in dresses heading out a bar or people biking home from a late shift. Heck, you might even find a Councillor or two out on the paths. People feel safe on the cycle tracks. Who knows, as the system continues to grow in popularity and effectiveness we might even see this:

A family on a bike in Amsterdam

A family on a bike in Amsterdam

It Takes a Network

The second key ingredient for a good transportation system is a connected network. I’ve written about this before with regards to the SW BRT, but the same idea applies here.

The power of a connected network comes from some basic geometry. Imagine we have built a cycle track in a simple rectangle like the figure below:

network1

The most basic network

With this network, we have served all the destinations along the rectangle, and we have provided two options for travel between A and B and any points on opposite sides of the rectangle, but only one shortest path between any two other points like C and D. This is the most basic network we can make in a city grid, and it serves only a very small amount of the city. People who are drawn to the cycle track because of it’s safety are not likely to venture far from this network and so the system only serves that perimeter.

Now, watch what happens if we add two more tracks:

network-b

The start of a true network

We have increased the amount of cycle track out there only by half, but we have increased the number of routes from A to B from two to six, and the number of shortest-routes from C to D has gone from one to two. This has vastly improved both the connectivity and capacity of the network, since each destination along our new routes has also encouraged more bike use from outside the network (outside the downtown). On top of that, there is less space between each part of the network and so people have to venture less far from the safety of the cycle track to reach their final destination if it is not on the network. This process continues and with each new track comes a compounding increase in places to cycle to and ways to cycle to them.

This makes the system more useful, and a more useful system will get more use, thanks to (in this case) our friend induced demand. Whereas a vehicle road network suffers from induced demand, cycle tracks and the ability to fit more cyclists than cars in the same space will thrive as they become more useful.

In Calgary, our centre city cycle track pilot just barely resembles the first of the two networks I showed you:

Cycle track pilot map downtown [City of Calgary]

Cycle track pilot map downtown [City of Calgary]

The “H” like structure (with the jog on 7 st) is really the barebones of what could be considered a cycle track network, and yet despite this the service is in such demand that it is still breaking records and encouraging other cities to follow suit. Edmonton, for example, looked to our success and fast-tracked a much more robust network of cycle tracks:

Their network actually features a grid system like the one I described above. It’s not cycling on every road, but it’s provided a critical backbone that is sure to attract more riders. Calgary can do this too, but we must start by keeping what we have already established.

This is what makes the cycle tracks work. It’s ability to attract a variety of users for a variety of purposes, and their formation in a network. It’s not about weather (which is arguably less amenable to biking in Edmonton), it’s about geometry.

The Future of Cycle Tracks

On December 8, 2016, two important transportation decisions will be made by the Special Program Committee on Transportation and Transit. One of them will be the future of the cycle track. The program has been so popular it has spawned support groups and a wonderful photography project, but it still needs council support to match its obvious success.

Travelling in our city by bike shouldn’t be any more daunting than walking, and the success of the cycle tracks prove that this can be accomplished without causing traffic chaos or spending huge amounts of money. If you feel the same way, consider contacting your councillor and letting them know that you support even the most basic cycling network in 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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