In a city renowned for its freeways and sprawling suburbs, more residents are choosing to live closer to its centre — and even forgoing hopping behind the wheel altogether
Who needs to own a car? Not Jennifer Lee.
The 21-year-old moved to Calgary two years ago to study and work in the city’s burgeoning IT sector. And like a growing number of millennials, she doesn’t own a car and has no plans to own one soon.
While that may not sound altogether revolutionary, Lee represents a wave of change in a city renowned for its multi-lane freeways, suburban sprawl and increasingly congested roadways.
Lee takes the bus, the LRT and walks to get around. And when she does require a car, she uses car-sharing program Car2go.
“I joined Car2go when I first moved to Calgary just because it was easier for me to get from point A to B, and it’s pretty much everywhere now,” she says. “As a student, it’s a lot cheaper for me than paying for insurance for a car for a year.”
Lee is among 82,000 Calgarians who use the car sharing company every year, picking up a Smart car when required.
“Car2go has become a key component in the daily commute of thousands of Calgarians, making over 2,000,000 trips since we launched in 2012,” says Car2go’s Calgary general manager Jon Wycoco.
The Germany-based, car-sharing company isn’t the only sign change is afoot in Calgary with regard to how residents choose to live and get around.
More Calgarians are choosing to live downtown; they’re using more transit than ever before. And walking and riding to get to work are more popular choices for commuters
In many instances — like Lee — Calgarians are even choosing not to own a car, says city councillor Evan Woolley, who sits on the city’s Standing Policy Committee on Transportation and Transit.
“We’re not really driving this change. It’s happening on its own. Even driver’s license applications are down about 17 per cent in Alberta,” he says. “It has to do with a generational shift that is occurring as a part of the growth of mobile technology.”
Residential developers have been taking note for the last decade, catering to the city’s growing demographic of young professionals and empty-nester boomers seeking an urban lifestyle. Multiuse, high-density high-rises have sprouted up in the city’s Beltline and other neighbourhoods in and around downtown.
And council recently even approved zoning for the city’s first car-free high-rise — N3 Condos, which does not have parking.
While the city may not be driving development of high-density housing, it is facilitating it through its major planning documents: the Calgary Transportation Plan and Municipal Development Plan, says Don Mulligan, director of Transportation Planning with the City of Calgary.
“Together they form our strategy for the long term as to how the city should grow in terms of housing and how people get around,” he says about the master plans, which lay out the city’s development for the next several decades.
At the heart of the transportation blueprint is the expansion of mass transit, including the eventual expansion of LRT lines to the city’s Southeast as well as increased rapid bus access.
Mulligan says Calgary’s 30-year transit plan—called RouteAhead—is about making transit as user-friendly as possible, as opposed to focusing solely on massive infrastructure projects like underground lines found in other major cities in North America.
“It addresses the question: How can we make transit great? Because if it’s great, people will use it, and it will work more effectively.”
But the future of getting around in Calgary involves more than increased access to rapid transit. It also includes Transit Oriented Developments—or TODs—which are big mix-used hubs of high density residential and commercial areas built around major transit stops.
Woolley says the central concept behind them is to foster “live, work and play habitability.
“That’s important because people are making decisions to live closer to the inner city or closer to amenities and they’re looking for a different quality of life.”
The city is also increasing pedestrian access with more bridges crossing major freeways, and its Cycle Track Network provides bicycle-only routes along major thoroughfares into downtown.
And Calgarians are responding. Since 1996, bicycle use has increased 122 per cent and an estimated 12,500 bicycle trips occur daily downtown.
Moreover, transit is now the primary way for Calgarians to get downtown during rush hour.
“The reason we have more than 50 per cent use of public transport is because we build a very effective network that allows people to get downtown very quickly,” Woolley says.
Of course, Calgary is by no means an outlier among major cities. Metropolitan areas around the globe are looking for ways to get cars off the road and reduce traffic congestion — and all the headaches that come with it, including smog and greenhouse gas emissions.
For example Dublin has a plan in place to make certain sections of its downtown car-free. Stockholm recently announced it will ban cars from its downtown one day in September as one of 200 cities participating in European Mobility Week. Then there’s Helsinki. It’s planning to be a car-optional city in the next decade, says Noel Gerard Keough, an assistant professor of urban design at the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
“They’re looking at an integrated system where you have a sort of transit card that you can use to get on the bus, to hire a cab and to rent a bicycle.”
While Calgary is a ways from being able to ban cars from downtown streets—though some already do, including 7th and 8th Avenues—Keough says demographics are driving a cultural change in the city.
“In the ‘60s, it was a rite of passage to get your license and a car, but that’s not so much anymore,” he says. “There are other things they’d like to spend their money on than paying for a vehicle.”
Still the automobile isn’t going anywhere. He says Calgarians spend about $5 billion annually on private automobiles. Yet as more young adults weigh the cost of housing versus the cost of car ownership, many are deciding to devote their financial resources toward a place to live, he says.
“The two largest expenditures are housing and then transportation in Canada.”
For young professionals and growing families, it’s difficult to afford both.
All this points to the ‘American (and Canadian) Dream’ is changing.
“It used to be a big house, a big yard and a big car, but that’s tilting toward a trend now where people are more interested in quality public space, which includes transit, you don’t require as much private space,” says Keough.
And city planners are paying attention.
“Sprawling cities are mostly sprawling because of the demands of an automobile,” he says.
“What we’ve really built in Calgary over the last 50 years is car habitat, and now we’re in the process of rebuilding human habitat.”