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The trade offs in a Primary Transit Network examined in Calgary Route Ahead debate

Calgary city council is at a crossroads – er, tracks – of sorts with the future of Calgary Transit.

Coverage-based, frequency-based, or both?  The latter comes with a roughly $185 million cost in addition to the current base Calgary Transit budget.

The approval of fundamental changes to Calgary’s Route Ahead strategy for Calgary Transit’s next 30 years narrowly survived at committee Thursday. It passed in a 6-5 vote, with Couns. Andre Chabot, Peter Demong, Dan McLean, Sonya Sharp and Jennifer Wyness voting against.

It still must pass an upcoming test at Calgary city council before feedback is collected and the final Route Ahead draft is presented sometime in Q2 of 2023. Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Couns. Sean Chu and Courtney Walcott and Raj Dhaliwal weren’t in attendance at the Infrastructure and Planning Committee meeting.

The major change was a shift from Calgary Transit’s current coverage-based model to that of frequency based. The focus would be on roughly 30 heavily used routes that would make up what’s called the Primary Transit Network (PTN).  They would have 10-minute service, 15-hours a day, seven days a week.

Calgary Transit has roughly 160 total bus routes in the city that make up its base service. Many of those bus routes would see changes in order reallocate resources to boost frequency on the PTN.

Ward 14’s Peter Demong was worried that meant a deterioration of local service in many communities.

“If you live near or within walking distance or 20 minutes of the PTN that’s going to be very good for you,” he said.

“For those that are having to take a community bus to the PTN, it’s going to literally be longer because they have longer routes to wait for the bus and then those routes have become longer to actually get to the PTN. It’s not necessarily helping those in the communities.”

The trade off

Ward 2 Coun. Jennifer Wyness was concerned that the city was abandoning ease of public transit commute within communities in favour of a way to move people faster in and through the downtown.

“What I’m reading is we’re still focused on a downtown core but not trying to meet the riders or meet the demands of what the riders are telling us,” she said.

Jordan Zuckowski, acting coordinator of strategic transit planning at the City of Calgary, said the PTN system emphasizes crosstown routes, many that don’t go downtown. They often connect to different activity centres. Plus, it’s not as though they’re abandoning neighbourhood service, it will just be different.

“It’s important to note that a primary transit network really needs to be supported by good base transit level services as well,” she said.

Primary Transit Network – Calgary by Darren Krause on Scribd

Further, the city would encourage first-mile last mile connections with different systems. That could be car share, e-mobility options or on-demand transit service.

Chris Jordan, manager of transit service design, said in changing the system to frequency-based, tough decisions will have to be made. While it will impact new suburban communities, it could impact neighbourhoods that have had regular transit service for years.

Coun. Dan McLean mentioned stops in Belmont, Yorkville and in Millrise had been cut. The latter meant that seniors would have to walk a couple of extra blocks to a transit stop, he said.  

“Those are exactly some of the tough trade-offs that will be made as part of bus service reviews and communities in order to realize more frequent transit network,” Jordan said.

Jordan said the PTN is a corridor-based approach. They would review the bus routes in an area around a PTN route that would contribute to the 10-minute frequency for the main network.

He said Calgary Transit is at about 85 per cent of the service level required for PTN on the CTrain. Reaching full capacity is possible within the current four-year budget, Jordan said.

‘Do one thing really well’

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said it’s worth a deeper dive with all of council into what the specific trade-offs in this switch would be.

“This is a big file to understand. It takes a little while to wrap your head around,” he said.

Spencer said after his own analysis of the value proposition in the PTN in having a better and more efficient city, the switch made sense to him.

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian, who sat on the Route Ahead Advisory Group and moved the recommendations, said one of the big reasons why she ran in the last municipal election was because transit wasn’t meeting people’s expectations.

She cited the pandemic, the budget, and the way the city’s been built.

“So, one of my suggestions was, I think we should try and do one thing really, really well,” Mian said.

“That’s investing heavily in the PTN and on frequency, which is the number one thing that we hear from residents that they want.”

Mian encouraged her council colleagues to step into the debate and say why they aren’t in favour of the PTN strategy, given that the current transit system doesn’t work for thousands of Calgarians.

“I think given that we’ve declared a climate emergency given that transit hasn’t been meeting people’s expectations, like we need to make a move, and we need to all be bought into it,” she said.

Councillors also approved the updated capital project prioritization list.

Updated Transit Capital Project Prioritization List 2022 – Route Ahead by Darren Krause on Scribd