In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, building safe, separated bike infrastructure has become one of the lighter, quicker, and cheaper strategies utilized by cities to attract high-tech businesses, talent, and retail activity into their centres. Led by visionary Mayors, predictable players like New York, Chicago and Vancouver – alongside less likely ones such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Memphis – have assembled ‘minimum grids’ of protected bike lanes – piece by piece – over the past 10 years.
These networks had another thing in common: they were completed one street at a time, pulling off the proverbial Band Aid slowly (and rather painfully). But on the morning of June 17, 2015, Calgary announced its own arrival on the international scene, cutting the ribbon on an entire network of downtown cycle tracks – the first of its kind in North America.
Unlike their counterparts, Calgary’s network wasn’t the product of a ‘top down’ approach from a single political entity. Rather, they were the result of a non-partisan, grassroots campaign (paired with a strategic measure of brokering and championing by Mayor Nenshi) that captured an entire city’s imagination, and demonstrated the undeniable demand for safer cycling facilities.
“Calgary really is a ‘show me’ city”
Calling Calgary’s downtown cycle track network an overnight success is a disservice to the five years of groundwork laid by dedicated volunteers needed to make it a reality. Bike Calgary President Kimberley Nelson points to the City of Calgary’s Cycling Strategy as the foundation, passed unanimously by council in July 2011 after 12 months of engagement with dozens of community stakeholders. It recommended 50 distinct actions to make Calgary a bike-friendly community, including a late motion by Ward 9 Councillor Carra to explore a network of north-south, east-west separated bike lanes for the centre city.
“This document resulted in the Transportation Department’s hiring of a full-time Cycling Coordinator in 2012, as well as two other bike-specific staff members,” Nelson recalls. The following year, the 7th Street Cycle Track was unveiled: 750 metres of bidirectional, curb-protected bike lane in the city’s southwest quadrant.
This modest and disconnected lane was critical for two reasons. Firstly, it proved that ‘if you build it, they will come’, quadrupling numbers almost immediately, to more than 1,100 bikes on that stretch the day after it opened. Secondly, it allowed Calgarians to experience just how comfortable and easy getting on a bicycle can be, when the stress of sharing the road with motor vehicles is removed from the equation.
“Calgary really is a ‘show me’ city,” says Nelson, “and we have a long history of rallying against projects we ultimately accept once we encounter them first-hand.” She points to the Peace Bridge and the CTrain as two such examples of infrastructure investments first resisted, and then ultimately embraced by Calgarians. And in four short months, Kimberley believes the cycle tracks are already another endeavour worth adding to that list, having quickly won the hearts and minds of the 59% of Calgary residents ‘interested, but concerned’ about city cycling.
“We couldn’t have anticipated the response”
It was around the opening of the 7th Street Cycle Track that Agustin Louro moved to Calgary from Vancouver, and – having experienced their first steps towards a network for all ages and abilities – decided to get involved with Bike Calgary to make similar strides in his new home. Louro had heard rumblings of a series of protected bike lanes to be built over the next few years, but when Mayor Nenshi and other councillors started floating the idea of building them all at once, he and others at Bike Calgary felt it was too good an opportunity to sit back and let fate decide.
“David Low of the Victoria Park Revitalization Zone and Rob Taylor of Beltline Communities were early and important champions of our cause, and it was out of their support that the five-person group Calgarians for Cycle Tracks was born,” Louro revealed. Their mission was a simple one: to raise awareness and support of the proposed cycle track network, and galvanize the votes necessary to have it approved by council. “We started by asking local business leaders and community groups to write letters of endorsement, but once word got around – we couldn’t have anticipated the response we received.”
Within a couple of weeks, the ‘Calgarians for Cycle Tracks’ campaign had swollen to a team of 30 volunteers, amassing 1,500 Facebook followers in just four weeks. It was clear they had amplified the latent demand for safer cycling, receiving endorsements from over 70 local businesses, chambers of commerce, real estate developers, the Chief Medical Officers for both the city and the province, two MLAs (one Liberal and one Conservative), a four-time Olympic medallist, and leaders from the environmental and arts communities. On April 28th, 2014, city council narrowly approved the network – on an 18-month trial basis – by a vote of eight to seven, to open in July of 2015.
“It’s Not Rocket Science”
Although the project was approved in the spring of 2014, after the engagement and design processes, the actual construction of the network was given just a six month window. Thankfully, city staff had inspiration from other cities to draw on, including Vancouver’s own downtown bike lanes. But where Vancouver’s efforts were more permanent, the key to Calgary’s implementation was that they were being built on a trial basis.
“Putting in cycle tracks is not rocket science,” says Thomas Thivener, the City of Calgary’s Cycling Coordinator, “we just had to be sure to keep it cheap and temporary.” This meant that instead of using a lot of concrete, they opted for flexible delineators, planter boxes, and parking curbs where possible. Also, instead of hardwiring traffic signals, posts were placed on floating pedestals, with wiring attached overhead.
This approach worked in favour of the project, which was completed two months early at a cost just over $5 million – a whopping $2 million under the approved budget. Not only is this a win for the project, but should the cycle track network become a permanent piece of the downtown transportation system, it establishes a recipe that can be replicated throughout the city.
“We acknowledge the network doesn’t go the full distance,” said Thivener, who admitted that for the program to really work for all Calgarians, it will need to eventually connect right across the inner city, to regional destinations like the popular river path. Thankfully, although still very early into the project, the evidence of its success is very apparent, both in the data and the reality. 5th Street, once used mainly by those willing to brave high speed traffic, is now one of the busiest routes, seeing upwards of 1,450 riders per weekday, nearly three times as many as before the installation of the bi-directional cycle track.
In fact, all of the tracks, including the existing one on 7th Street, have seen significant jumps in ridership since the network opened, which the city happily shares on their online Bicycle Counts Map. This data is also summarized every month and delivered to council, who will make their first review of the project this December.
This success and public acceptance hasn’t happened without tireless work from the Bike Ambassador Program. “There was definitely an initial rush of confusion, but people are getting used to it. Through the extensive engagement, we are seeing confusion drop off and people walking, biking, or driving are doing well on the corridors, despite the many changes to signals, striping, and signage”, Thivener happily reported. The successful campaign included signage, online videos and over 20,000 personal interactions with cyclists, pedestrians and drivers to help them get used to the new conditions. This hard work has paid off, and in more recent weeks, calls of concern to the city have tapered off.
“It seems we’ve uncorked something”
In the ‘show me city’, the best evidence of the cycle tracks’ success is in the diversity of the people using them. Prior to implementation, female mode share was just one in five per weekday – a number that has increased by 50% in the four months since the cycle tracks opened. Sidewalk cycling numbers have all but disappeared, and collisions have declined, not to mention an increase in families with young children using the tracks on the weekend.
Druh Farrell, councillor of Calgary’s Ward 7, mused, “With their implementation, it seems we’ve uncorked something, and people are embracing it.”
Without doubt, there will still be battles ahead to secure the permanence of the network, but it looks like Calgary is on the right track. As ridership continues to grow, those councillors initially not in favour will find it harder to question their validity, especially as the demographics of the city change. Not only are younger generations opting for alternative options to the private automobile, but the ageing population wants to remain mobile and active – a lifestyle only possible when given safe, accessible choices.
While Calgary will not be shedding its label as an “oil town” any time soon, it seems that despite the nomenclature, they are ready to enter a new chapter in their transportation history. The implementation of a complete network provides proof to other cities that with a little ingenuity and simplicity, success can happen in an incredibly short amount of time. While others are taking their time, Calgary may just forge ahead and become one of North America’s great cycling cities, and we are excited to see where they go from here.