Four lessons for Calgary from Human Transit by Jarrett Walker

I recently finished Jarrett Walker’s book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. TransitCamp YYC has organized a free public lecture by Jarrett Walker at 7 pm on April 12 at the Central Library.

Here are a four relevant ideas for improving transit in Calgary from the book:

1.      Transit oriented design starts with the geometry of our streets

One of Walker’s main points is that the geometry of streets and urban planning significantly influences the effectiveness of a transit service. Every transit rider is a pedestrian for some time before and after their trip. The greater the area served around a transit stop, the greater the effectiveness of the transit service.

Consider the two street layouts in the figure below. The slightly darker lines in figure on the left shows the streets within walking distance from a transit stop in a typical suburban street layout. The slightly darker lines in the figure on the right shows the streets within walking distance from a transit stop with the grid street layout.

Source: Human Transit

I grew up in a suburb in south Calgary. Like the figure on the left, It has a main boulevard with dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs branching out. Walker notes that this type of street network is more difficult to service with transit than a grid-layout (that you see in some older and inner city areas of Calgary). As we construct new communities we should consider how the street layout might assist or inhibit future transit service.

2.           Transit maps should clearly indicate the frequency of transit service

Walker points out that often transit maps don’t clearly indicate the frequency of service (which is perhaps the most important aspect of transit service). The bus network from Calgary Transit’s system map for my neighborhood is below.

Source: Calgary Transit

The lines for the 7, 107 and 414 bus routes look similar. However the frequency and duration of these services varies greatly:

  • Route 7 is a 7-day service with 5-minute frequency at peak times
  • Route 107 is a weekday express limited-stop service available only at peak times
  • Route 414 normally has a 30 or 60 minute frequency and doesn’t run in the evenings

Calgary Transit’s system map could present the frequency of its bus service more clearly. A different colour could be used, for example, to indicate frequent, express and intermittent services.  This would promote more casual trips outside of peak times. Here is an example of a high-frequency map that Walker cites from Minneapolis:  

Source: Metro Transit

In fairness, Calgary Transit does use a different colour line for the BRT and LRT services. There is a – somewhat complicated- table where riders lookup the frequency for 100+ bus routes. The point from Human Transit is that frequency information is vital and should be clear.

3.      Allocations for dedicated transit lanes should follow the percentage of ridership

Walker presents a cogent argument for dedicating lanes to transit service. He argues that people travelling downtown on transit instead of cars deserve at least the same percentage of road with as drivers, especially considering that they are using the space more efficiently. This will decrease delays in transit service due to traffic and often make transit less attractive than driving.

The percentage of Calgarians travelling downtown with transit during peak times has increased from 38.4% in 1999 to 46.4% in 2010.There are a few transit priority lanes on Centre Street North, 9th Avenue SE and the 7th Avenue transit mall. However, based on the fact that almost half of commuters use transit to get downtown, many more roads should include transit priority lanes especially during peak times. 5th and 6th Avenues downtown are potential locations for transit priority lanes worthy of serious consideration.

Source: City of Calgary Cycling Strategy (2011)

4.      Is Calgary Transit’s primary goal to serve all areas of the city or to increase ridership?

Human Transit covers two distinct goals for transit service: the coverage goal and the ridership goal. The coverage goal aims to provide transit service throughout the service area regardless of ridership. The ridership goal concentrates transit on areas with maximum potential ridership and associated environmental benefits (usually high-density and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods).

It seems that Calgary City Council mandates that Calgary Transit simultaneously achieve both of these goals. I understand that planning regulations require a transit stop within a certain distance of every new residence in Calgary (a form of coverage goal). Other counsel directions require Calgary Transit to recover 55% of its costs from the fare box (indicating an interest in the ridership goal).

High-density areas of Calgary do not always have better transit service than low-density areas. In the Beltline in particular, busses that originate in other communities (the 3 and the 7 come to mind) are often full by the time that they reach the inner city. On the other hand, it is important to maintain some level of transit service throughout the city, especially for riders without alternative transportation.

If Calgary City Council wants transit coverage spread relatively equally throughout the city, then it should revisit the revenue-cost ratio. However, if City Council wishes to maximize ridership then transit service should be concentrated in higher density areas where ridership can quickly increase.


2 thoughts on “Four lessons for Calgary from Human Transit by Jarrett Walker

  1. Sorry, should have replied to this post, not the older one…

    njoyed the talk last night. Thanks!

    Who was the guy in the audience from Calgary Transit who asked a question right at the end? He claimed the city is well on its way to implementing your recommendations, but clearly we’re not. We still have 200 m stop spacing, one-way loops (#6 and #7 come to mind), and routes that sacrifice directness for coverage. Also our maps are still difficult to read because all the community shuttles and rush hour services are indistinguishable from the more useful routes.

    Was he referring to future plans? Or did he just want to appease the audience?

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