How it’s done.

Check out this suburban intersection in Calgary:

Obviously, not my personal favorite style of development. But if you are going to build this sort of low-density, segregated-use, single-family (and a lot of us prefer this stuff), this is how to. The right-of-way banking at this intersection is agnostic – it could support a grade separation with uninterrupted movement on either the east-west or the north-south arterial. On the non-road side, there’s a good heirarchy of green space – improved parks/ballfields within the neighborhoods, and the much-vaunted “open space” with trails outside.

A lot of the big MPCs in Houston do a good job with this sort of park heirarchy. The Woodlands comes to mind. But the Woodlands absolutely fails at moving the massive east-west traffic flows which attempt to use its arterials every morning. It can take longer to get from the back of the Woodlands to the front than it does to get the rest of the way downtown via the Hardy or the HOV.

People tend to brush past this when they talk about Calgary being transit-centric. Certainly, it’s got a great system – the C-Train provides 21-22 hours of a coverage a day and runs every 15 minutes from the moment the trains start, every 3 minutes during the rush. But when you hear people talk up Calgary’s transit, they’ll say stuff like “the city chose not to build freeways connecting Downtown.” That’s technically true, in the sense that there’s no “10th Avenue Expressway” spitting out traffic right at the heart of the core. But Calgary didn’t and doesn’t exactly neglect auto infrastructure.

For one thing, Downtown has a dense arterial network connecting it to those freeways which don’t quite go all the way there. From the west, a combined 14 lanes are available via Memorial, Bow Trail, and the 11th/12th Couplet. From the east, there’s 12 lanes between Memorial and 9th alone, more if you count some of the other arterial routes in.

For another thing, Calgary is big on grade separations. Streets have a few (Blackfoot) or maybe five or six (Memorial) or even twelve (16th Avenue). You can actually get pretty good performance out of an arterial network this way. A 45mph arterial grid with grade separations (Calgary) can provide the same travel times as a 60mph freeway network which interfaces with a 35mph arterial grid with stoplights everywhere (Houston).

So give these guys credit for planning. Give ’em credit for running an LRT system that doesn’t degrade into suburban bus-type headways after 10pm like Trimet does. But don’t drop any narratives about “showing a way forward with less dependence on cars” or some sort of thing like that. Calgary’s got a solid highway network, and they’re planning for more.

3 thoughts on “How it’s done.”

  1. Calgary has a lot of arterials, but notice the following differences with American practices:

    1. There aren’t freeways slicing downtown and the other inner-urban areas.
    2. Downtown parking is limited, as the city developed parking lots to increase downtown office concentration; the monthly parking rates in Calgary are the highest in North America outside New York.
    3. The zoning near train stations permits higher density than in the US.

    Point #2 is especially important if you believe Donald Shoup’s theory that emphasizes mandated free parking as the cause of auto-dependence.

  2. Glad to see you’ve restarted this blog. I appreciate the perspectives in it – even if Houston is not exactly my favorite city in America. Do you have a contact address by any chance? I’d love to get your permission to reprint one of these. Thanks, Aaron.

  3. I’m not convinced that I’d rather live under a Calgary-style parking regime than a Houston-style one. (And by “not convinced,” I mean “completely sure that I wouldn’t”).

    But if you are going to take the “drastic steps to increase transit ridership” route, I think a city parking monopoly with high prices is MUCH gentler than then congestion charges, HOT lanes, or intentionally underbuilding roadway capacity so everything is jammed all the time (a la Metro 2040).

    I find it intriguing that while Calgary’s day rates are high, the “evening rate” starts at 4pm and is $2.00 maximum. Almost a subsidy for having shopping and nightlife downtown. So Calgary is actually pursuing two strategies: before 4pm, it’s encouraging transit ridership; after 4pm, it’s following the “build more parking and they will come” civic strategy you’d expect from western or sunbelt American cities.

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