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The route ahead for Calgary’s Route Ahead plan

It’s time for honest conversations about Calgary Transit expectations, said Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer.

Calgary Transit is has launched public engagement on the Route Ahead strategy 10-year review. They want Calgarians’ input on priorities for the next 10 to 20 years.

Route Ahead is Calgary’s 30-year-plan to guide future investments the city transit system. The plan was first developed in 2012 and approved by council in 2013.

Coun. Spencer, who’s participating in a working group for the Route Ahead review, said a lot has changed in 10 years. There are some aspects of the city’s transit system that need a hard look.

“I think the priority is having an honest conversation about where transit is right now and why it’s falling short,” he said.  

“And then being open and optimistic about where it could go in the future but also at the same time, not glossing over the fact that it’s not going to be a smooth transition.”

Spencer’s also got a vested interest in transit over the next 20 years, particularly with how the approved $5.5 billion Green Line services his area. He wanted to be a part of the conversation and stay on top of costs associated with it.

The Ward 12 councillor also thinks that public transit is a critical connection point – not only for transportation but for social aspects as well. It’s also important to smooth out commuting access for Calgarians from different socio-economic backgrounds.

“The better that it runs, more people in the city take it, and it becomes one of those natural, amazing bumping places where people of all walks of life get to know each other and share their stories,” he said.

“I think it’s the best future.”

A decade of change

Chris Jordan, manager of service design for Calgary Transit, said the original plan did prescribe a periodic review. In the past decade, the Calgary Transportation Plan and the Municipal Development Plan have been updated, and a Climate Change Strategy has been added.

“It’s time for a refresh on our Route Ahead plan,” Jordan said.

A big area of change over the past decade is land use. Jordan said transit and land use are very closely linked.

“One can’t be successful without the other,” he said.

“So, just identifying those changes that are tied to city growth, and changes in land use development plans will be important to validate existing transit infrastructure plans or looking at changes or new priorities.”

Big changes aren’t limited to how the city’s growing. Technology has leaped forward; the public’s perception of the transit’s value had changed, Jordan said. He said connections with affordable housing and other social priorities are different than 10 to 12 years ago.

Both Jordan and Spencer talked about the emergence of the first-mile, last mile philosophy. Different options have emerged: E-scooters, E-bikes, carshare and the multi-modal connections for bikes and other wheeled transport.

Right now, Calgary Transit is piloting bikes on transit at any time. Previously they weren’t allowed on during peak times.

“I really hope the conversation we have as a city doesn’t just lament what we will lose if we do make this change, but also looks to a potential future where we leverage some of these emerging tools to make those last linkups,” Spencer said.

Jordan said without the Route Ahead plan, riders today likely wouldn’t have the MAX BRT lines criss-crossing the city. The plan also originally talked about a convenient payment system and trip planning tool. Today both of those exist for riders.

Pandemic patterns and transit security

A transit peace officer walks along the platform at 7 Street SW station in Calgary on Thursday, April 9, 2020. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

The Covid-19 pandemic played havoc with the city’s transit system. Ridership reached all-time lows percentages in the mid-teens when compared with pre-pandemic travel.

Jordan said today it’s hovering around 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. As in-person events, post-secondary and workplaces continue their return, they expect that number to go higher.

It’s informing the future direction with transit, Jordan said. Not only the impact of the pandemic, but the recovery as well.

“We know if someone says, for instance, I wish there was more room at peak period on the CTrain, they may only be talking about three days a week if they work in the downtown,” he said.

“If they work in the industrial area, they may be talking about seven days a week, or five days a week.”

They will examine the data behind travel behaviours to see how things evolve, Jordan said.

One of the hot-button issues coming out of the pandemic is safety on transit and at stations.  Daily, Calgarians are exposed to social disorder – personal crimes, drugs, vandalism – and it’s dissuaded many from hitching a regular ride on Calgary Transit.

Jordan pointed out that investments have been made in safety and security on transit over the past 10 years. They will continue to respond to rider needs, he said.

Spencer was a little more critical.

“If, as a society, the places that we gather become places where we’re known for violence and conflict and places that are unsafe, I mean, to me that points to much larger (issue),” Spencer said.

“Transit just becomes the place where that shows up.”

Feedback from Calgarians

Jordan acknowledged that the many citizens are well informed on Calgary Transit.

“People have access to much more information today than they might have a decade or two ago,” he said.

“We’re looking very much forward to some well-informed feedback on where we can go as an organization and as a transit system.”

When asked how they were getting feedback from those Calgarians who use transit every day but may not have time to get as “informed” as others, Jordan said that’s an ongoing process.

He said they gather feedback daily from clients via the 403-262-1000 phone number. Data could also be collected via 311. Jordan also said they hear from their operators on a regular basis about operational aspects of the business.

“They also… convey the customer’s perspective, and things they hear from customers day in and day out,” Jordan said.

“Through those avenues, combined with this engagement over the next month, we’ll have a lot of information that we can work with and to help inform the plan.”

The future for Calgary Transit

The original Route Ahead document speaks at length about a Primary Transit Network (PTN). That’s a fast, reliable, efficient skeletal system that provides service every 10 minutes (or better). It criss-crosses with the LRT system to provide overall service. What it doesn’t do is hit every neighbourhood in the city.

Spencer said there apparently wasn’t the political will to push forward with the PTN. Instead, the city continued toward a coverage model. That meant neighbourhood buses servicing citizens – with the tradeoff being the benefits of the PTN.

The future might mean a shrinking of that coverage service to focus on the PTN.

“We can focus the service levels where it makes sense and really focus on hopefully increasing ridership by providing less at a higher quality, in terms of more frequent service or reliable service.

“Then, Calgarians are comfortable planning that into their day.”

Spencer said his lofty goal is to build Calgary Transit into a legitimately viable option for most Calgarians. There are headwinds to that: Security and safety, continued outward growth and overall resilience. He said that became apparent during Covid-19.

“It wasn’t a preferred mode of transportation,” he said.

“I think the biggest question is whether or not we can make this one of the preferred modes of transportation for Calgarians. Even given the challenges that we have here with being spread out, and trying to cover an awful lot of ground, which, of course, costs dollars.”

Public engagement goes until Sept. 23.