Noel Keough has experienced the lack of good transportation infrastructure in Calgary first hand.
Keough, president and co-founder of Sustainable Calgary, remembers wanting to use the C-Train to go downtown. By the time trains arrived at the Sunnyside station — just one stop from the city’s centre — he’d have to wait because they were full of people from Tuscany, a neighbourhood on the northwestern edge of the city.
While frustrated at the lack of infrastructure, Keough took this as an opportunity to envision where Calgary could be improved.
“On one hand you could say, ‘Well, what a crappy way to get around, look at all of this congestion.’ On the other hand you can say, ‘Well, there’s obviously a demand here, why don’t we build more of it?’” said Keough.
Keough noted that Calgary was connected by tram lines in the 1950s and 1960s.
“What the tram does is it starts to knit a system together with a rail system that’s underneath the LRT. . .. It’ll be less costly to implement and it tends to be local or inter-neighbourhood,” said Keough.
Calgary is a car-centric city but Keough and Sustainable Calgary believe people can ditch their vehicles for a healthier lifestyle while reducing their impact on the Earth. However, the group argues the City of Calgary needs to invest in better public transportation and mobility options for that to happen.
Envisioning things differently is essential to the transition between a car-based lifestyle and alternative forms of transportation, said Keough.
“If you can give people the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I don’t really want a car. I have needed it in the past, but I don’t need it now because there are options for transportation.’”
However, he added, it’s a slow process that has to build over time.
“You start to reduce the number of automobiles, increase the opportunities for convenient transit and, ultimately, that’s how you get to a city that you can live in without an automobile.”
There are downsides to Calgary being a car-based city. A 2015 CBC article stated Calgary planned to spend more than $6 billion on transportation infrastructure over the next 10 years.
Keough said that, collectively, Calgarians are spending close to a few billion dollars a year on automobiles, including expenses such as insurance and gas.
Meanwhile, Calgary has received $4.9 billion dollars of infrastructure from the local, provincial and federal governments for the new Green line LRT project.
If Calgary’s costly car industry is not enough, Keough wants to remind people how dangerous cars can be.
“People don’t realize it’s one of the largest causes of death on the planet. Over a million people a year die as a result of automobile accidents,” said Keough.
The dangers of cars do not stop at deadly collisions. The automobile industry is also known for how badly it has impacted the environment.
“[If] you live in a Canadian city, the more unhealthy you’re going to be because you are sitting in automobiles all day. The carbon dioxide … goes into the atmosphere and causes climate change. There’s also ground-level air pollution associated with automobiles,” said Keough.
However, Celia Lee, executive director of Sustainable Calgary, acknowledged some of the difficulties of leaving cars behind.
“We certainly have a very large city, geographically, and very low density and density might be one of the larger challenges we face,” said Lee.
“We have to recognize a lot of our city is built that way. You can’t just ask people who have kids and multiple jobs to just make sure you fall on that sword for us all.”
Srimal Ranasinghe, the community lead at Sustainable Calgary believes that the city could take inspiration from other places in the world that have better infrastructure for public transportation and walkability.
Ranasinghe said in places like Berlin and Munich, you can take a train, pick up sandwiches from the store and when the next train comes, you climb right in.
He questions why bus stops can’t be spaces that encourage spending time together, places that share creative stories from the community. He sees this as an opportunity to make using public transit more attractive to Calgary residents.
Last year, in Marlborough, in the city’s northeast, Sustainable Calgary collaborated with several different groups, including local artist Daniel Kirk and his firm Blank Page Studios.
“They built an interactive art piece and worked with school students to create a mural they put on the back of benches,” said Ranasinghe.
Lee said she hopes Calgary and its residents could benefit from better infrastructure, including improving pathways and changing zoning in communities so people could have a local coffee shop or bar close by.
“We’re saying it’s not about laziness. It’s about being rational,” Lee said. “And it’s rational to walk when it’s safe, comfortable, interesting and attractive to do so.”