Last week I spent four days in Calgary. In terms of layout, there are many similarities with Ottawa: our Ottawa River (albeit a tad bigger) is Calgary’s Bow River, the Elbow River meandering from the south is our Rideau River. Ottawa has the Queensway, Calgary has its railway tracks running through down town. (I once spent a few days in the Fairmont Palliser and the rail cars barrelling right underneath the window kept me awake half the night). Calgary has a car free Stephen St, Ottawa has car free Sparks St.
There is a big difference between the two streets though. A large part of the pedestrian mall on Stephan St. has only two or three story buildings. This allows for more sun in the street earlier and later in the season. There are great restaurants to be found. At one side of 8th Ave is the Olympic Plaza which in my memories of previous visits was a deteriorating park. It looked much better this time.
The city has put a hundred or so free chairs out, similar to a place like Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris for example, where people read, take their lunch or coffee or just enjoy seeing other people walking by. Not that Calgary is particularly the Paris of the west, but you get the jist.
The NCC here in Ottawa has set up a similar concept on Elgin, north of the NAC. Not quite the same, but they do have free Internet.
Calgary claims to have about 700 km of pathways, virtually all of them along the river and through parks. However, there is not much other bike infrastructure. I noticed the odd faded sharrow on the street. But that is about it from what I saw. There are several bike advocacy groups in Calgary. I met with members of Tour de Nuit Society and the Calgary Pathway and Bikeway Advisory Council (CPAC), while on a business trip out West. There is also Bike Calgary and Civic Camp’s Calgary Bicycle Advocacy, that later integrated in Bike Calgary as an advocacy group. (Are you still with me?)
I saw few people cycling down town, bike racks are rather empty. Certainly compared with Ottawa, where bikes are oozing out of every rack you can find. Granted, I was out after the rush hour, so I possibly missed a number of cyclists, but the racks should be full, unless they all park inside LEED certified buildings with hundreds of bike parking spaces underneath, which I doubt.
Talk in Calgary
On Wednesday, September 7 I gave a talk about cycling in the Netherlands at Calgary’s central library and I extended the presentation with a short overview on the state of cycling in Ottawa. It was on the day that the counters in Ottawa counted the 80.000th bike trip in front of the library. And this within two months. There were lots of questions afterwards, from the width of bike lanes to maximum speeds, from Bike rental schemes and critical mass to –obviously- the Laurier bike lane. Problems appear to be the same as in Ottawa: bike lanes often don’t connect and there was little money set aside for cycling in the past (although the new Calatrava Peace shared bike/walk bridge cost 25 million dollars, but voices say that it could have been spent much better – I tend to agree). Interesting though was that the shared path along the river attracts quite a few people, obviously a sign that people like cycling away from traffic. An estimated 3000-5000 people ride their bike to work.
Not as redneck
Calgary has big plans. They want to upscale the city from a large provincial town to a more cosmopolitan one. You will be surprised to read that oil town Calgary is actually not as red neck as you’d think. The mayor is Naheed Nenshi, a tenured prof, and on the list of best scoring ridings of the Green Party, Calgary West (Harper’s riding), scored 40th, out of 308 ridings. Not that people cycle to be green; the majority cycles to work because it is cheap and they get some exercise in, even when you putter ahead with 18-20 km an hour without working up a sweat. Mayor Nenshi showed a lot of interested in Ottawa’s cycling initiatives: we discussed several options to get things going.
“Calgary changed the rules to have a terrace in front of restaurants, and now 8th Ave (Stephan St) is already much more alive”, Josh White of the Mayor’s office told me. I don’t think cycling is allowed on 8th (update in 2015: it now is), but I saw people using it anyway. Josh is passionate about creating a more vibrant city. He explained me that the whole area around the new library will get an overhaul. There are some pretty dreadful buildings there. (Update in 2015, I am starting to appreciate Brutalism more) Regina has some similar ones, so I guess it is a Canadian Prairie meets Brutalism style.
It is going to happen
But back to cycling: Calgarians assured me that Ottawa doesn’t get as much snow as Calgary does. I don’t have the numbers ready, but I doubt there is a big difference. And probably, it is not so much the quantity, but the frequency of snow fall. Is it really the cold? It sounds like shared paths are better maintained in winter than in Ottawa. Is it probably the last mile into downtown, that is not developed yet? Calgary wants more cyclists down town too for reasons of congestion, clean air, health and all the other right reasons. And I think it is going to happen.
Start with low hanging fruit
After listening to Calgary cycling enthusiasts, I am convinced that Calgary can get its bike modal share up relatively easy as there appears to be a lot of desire from the cyclists to see better infrastructure. Calgary should quickly start researching the low hanging fruit that can be implemented with little money and little discussion, such as on street bike lanes to make drivers more aware of cyclists, creating a possible east west and north south corridor in one way or another. The city hasn’t moved as much as they should have, but currently there is a political will to move forward. Cyclist groups should seize the moment, join forces and work in a cooperative spirit with each other as well as with city staff and aldermen.
Calgary is probably about 3-5 years behind Ottawa in terms of commuter cycling, but I sensed a bike vibe in Calgary. Some good things are going to happen in the next few years. A real cosmopolitan city has people in its streets; cycling is am important part of that. Think Amsterdam, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, to name but a few.