In defense of Calgary Transit

Posted on March 26, 2009

There's probably two things you can talk to any Calgarian about to fit in.  The first is the weather.  You can fit in with any Calgarian talking about the weather because you can make statements and get an expected response back, like they were an old friend.  "Man, this winter just never ends" usually yields a "No kidding".  It feels good to know what a stranger in the elevator or at the checkout will most likely say... it's like you get them.  You suddenly have confidence talking to members of the opposite sex that you never had before because you know they'll appreciate your anecdote about how the weather sucks here (getting to a new line of conversation after the weather is the tricky part, and I wish all CalgaryUrbanite readers good luck in your romantic endeavours). 

The other sure fire line of conversation on which Calgarians relate is of course, our public transit.

"The c-train broke down again", "Can you believe they're going to charge for parking at the pay & rides?", "I had to wait 45 minutes for the bus". Most Calgarians will relate to these statements, and you'll be able to stumble along in some sort of a conversation with someone you never knew with this as your material. But, along with the weather conversation, your statements will have an unintended consequence: YOU WILL BE A TOTAL DOWNER!, and downers suck - and they're unattractive.  So instead, I'm challenging all you out there to start appreciating the near impossible task bestowed upon our public transit system.  Once you appreciate their struggles, you might start talking positive about Calgary Transit!  Being positive will get you dates.


So why does Calgary Transit have such a hard time getting things right? How hard can it be to stop the track switch between the 8th street and 10th street C-Train stations in downtown from breaking? Why are Park & Ride lots charging money now?


The real culprit: Urban Sprawl

New Yorkers regard their transit system quite highly.  Calgarians do not.  What's the difference?  New York City's population density is 10,482 per square kilometer. Calgary's density is 1,436 per square kilometer. I always seem to break out a little more math than I should in my posts, but this means that Calgary Transit has to serve over 7 times the area that the New York Metro Transporation Authority covers to reach the same number of riders. Meaning that Calgarians would need to spend 7 times more money than a New Yorker to hope to get the same level of service. Well, needless to say, we don't spend 7 times as much, and we never will. A New York subway monthly pass is $81USD, a Calgary Transit monthly pass is $83CAD.  So if we aren't willing to pay $567USD a month on a transit pass, something else has to give.

It should be noted that Calgary's low population density doesn't mean we weren't as smart as New York City when it comes to urban planning. Times were good and Calgary had nearly unlimited geography to expand to, whereas New York City never had that option. It's interesting to think how much geography affects a city's culture.  Now that we know our spawl has gone too far and put undue pressure on our city, it's time for a change.

Something has given. The latest sacrifice is the new $3 fee at the Park & Ride lots. Is the fee a drag?  Of course, fees always are, but the strain our cities size puts on our transit system has to be paid for somewhere.  We were all subsidizing Calgary Transit equally before, but now those in communities farther away are paying into the system at a slightly higher rate.  This seems fair to me, since the primary expense Calgary Transit faces is serving such a large urban footprint, the footprint that those living in the outer suburbs helped create.  It's not like those of us living in the inner city get a free ride either, we might get better transit due to placing less pressure on the system, but rent & property values are a much higher burden.  Either way there is a cost to living in Calgary, so it's unreasonable to place disproportionate strain on our transit system because you needed a double garage out in the 'burbs and yet expect the same cheap transit rates.

We can't expect Calgary Transit to serve these human sized rat mazes at a low cost and still have excellent service can we?

It might be hard to believe but Calgary Transit has one of the highest riderships per capita in North America. So we clearly use our transit system, which is great, so let's rally behind it, and not against it.  I think the fact our transit system does maintain the service it does have, at such a low cost, over such a large area, is pretty exceptional.  If you'd like a more sustainable Calgary Transit with better service while maintaining low fares, you can always move into the inner city, but oh yes, it's going to cost you :)