Riders, experts discuss how services can improve

In cities such as Paris and New York, using public transit is deemed to be a way of life for most citizens.

But, for a car-centric city like Calgary that spends — according to Noel Keough, University of Calgary urban studies professor — $5.2 billion per year on its vehicles, maybe not so much. So how can we establish a public transportation network that can be a more attractive option for getting around?

This was the big question Calgarians gathered to try to answer at a panel discussion, hosted by TransitCamp YYC, on April 14 at SAIT Polytechnic’s Gateway with about 60 people attending, including alderman Richard Pootmans.

TransitCamp is a civic action group dedicated to developing citizen-based solutions to our city’s transit challenges.

Jeremy Barretto, TransitCamp co-founder, said the purpose of the event was to gather users, transit planners and local government to discuss what our transportation system should look like.

Better service through better neighbourhood design?

Panellist Jarrett Walker, Portland-based transit planning consultant and author of “Human Transit,” said that “the success or failure of transit is often not about what transit’s doing, especially around the periphery of Calgary.”TransitCamp YYC members Chris Davis, left and Jeremy Barretto pose behind activity boards in SAIT’s Gateway during TransitCamp’s Better Transit in Calgary event on April 14.
Photo by: Shane Flug

He said certain neighbourhood designs make it “geometrically impossible to run reasonably cost-effective transit service,” citing the example of communities designed around a main inner-loop roadway, such as Cranston in the southeast.

“That kind of suburban design is about keeping development away from the straight-line paths of the expressway but transit too needs to have straight-line paths,” Walker said. “Once you’ve driven through the middle of two or three of these developments, nobody wants to stay on the bus.

“We have to be realistic about what can be achieved once you have chosen to build a community as a cul-de-sac or in a form that transit can’t get to…. Once you’ve chosen to live there, you shouldn’t expect that transit service is going to be very good.”

He said that good service outcomes come from older, gridded neighbourhoods like Ogden, where many people can easily walk to a transit stop from all directions.

“The beauty of the grid is that it allows lines to be straight, whereas a line of a lot of the newer suburbs is just endlessly twisting the thread of a labyrinth that’s been built.”

Real time may keep system on time

Lee Easton, a daily transit user and university professor, commutes to Mount Royal University from Bankview.

He said that while that a lot of times his trips on transit are almost as fast as driving, he mentioned one main problem with the system is buses arriving late.

“Sometimes it feels like buses just come whenever they want,” Easton said.

Panellist Doug Morgan, Calgary Transit’s new director of transit, said that real-time bus information is set to arrive in 2014, and added that implementing real-time information, which launched last year for the LRT, has been benefiting operations as much as it has customers.

Morgan said real-time information has also helped improve ability for the train to arrive on time.

“It gives us an information flow that’s much more comprehensive on the operations system,” he said.

“All of the back-of-house stuff that we do in order to design the system can actually get better. Right now, as you can imagine, we have to follow every bus — we can only do so much in measuring.”

TransitCamp YYC member Chris Davis attended the Better Transit in Calgary event on April 14 sporting a black T-shirt of Manhattan’s subway system map. Davis, who majored in urban studies at the University of Calgary, said he rides Calgary Transit once or twice a week.
Photo by: Shane Flug

Change won’t come overnight

Morgan said that starting in the 1970s, Calgary Transit’s main goal began to shift from coverage everywhere in the city to peak commuter trips, which concentrated on serving growing numbers of suburbanites getting to and from work.

The LRT system launched its service on May 25, 1981.

He said there needs to be more of a focus on a cross-town network, referencing visions outlined in the Calgary Transportation Plan. Such a network could also serve all-day travel.

However, Morgan added that “it takes transit a long time to change.”

“Our struggle and our challenge is, ‘How do we transition away from that obsession with the peak and feeder buses to a more mature network?’”

Morgan said that such a transition would begin in the inner-city first because of geographic design structure of that area better serving the ability to provide such service delivery.

Pootmans said one key insight from the panel for him is that feeder buses should not be seen as “subservient” to the LRT line, a point Walker mentioned, but rather as a more “integral part of a transit solution and one [public transportation method] is not more valuable than the other. They work together very carefully.”

He added that while the southeast LRT would be a large solution to bettering service in that quadrant, it wouldn’t necessarily be “the ultimate answer for all of the challenges.”

Maintaining positive dialogue

Chris Davis, 24, a TransitCamp member wearing a T-shirt displaying Manhattan’s subway map, said dialogue on bettering transit should be based on ideas and not complaints.

“People usually show up when they have something to complain about,” he said. “They don’t usually show up when they have something really positive to add.

“When people input their ideas, good things happen and people start listening.”

Interactive activities before the panel discussion featured feedback boards on specific topics, such as what Calgary Transit and the city should do to improve areas of service and who should cover operating costs.

Jonathan Lea, senior transit planner, said a 30-year strategic plan called RouteAhead, is in the works to help determine our transit system’s future in areas of customer service, service delivery, governance and funding.

He said feedback from the TransitCamp event will be collected as a part of the stakeholder engagement process currently underway over the next few months.

sflug@cjournal.ca