Learning About Transit from Cities that Work

By William G. R. Partridge, CAE

(Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or position of BOMA Calgary.)

I recently had the pleasure to visit Washington DC, the capitol of the United States. It is more configured like “Fortress Washington”. The security measures in place around the White House, the Capitol Building and other key government buildings are not like similar measures we take in Canada so in a way they are quite unnerving. Armed police everywhere with a cornucopia of weapons, dogs, double fences, cameras and sensors. Despite these measures, as we have seen, there are still breaches of security. This strongly suggests there is little that will stop a determined person. It raises the question has paranoia surpassed vigilance?

Streets that were once open to traffic as well as pedestrians are now closed. The security perimeter has steadily moved outward. These measures telegraph that there is danger present. That’s not a good thing for a city.

This article however, is not about security. It is about the city itself and more specifically about transportation – public transportation.

My first visit to Washington was in August 1968. I have travelled there regularly since and have observed many evolutionary changes. Most notably of this is the impression that Washington was built as a capitol and not as a city.

The first time I was there I noted that there were not many retail establishments and certainly not much in the way of residential, at least not until you ventured far away from the government sections. Not surprising given its size. Also not surprising that you will need upwards $1.5 million to purchase a townhouse in most of the DC residential areas according to the published listings.

The District of Columbia is a federal district with an area of 68.3 square miles and a population (2013) of 646,449 people. Compare this with Calgary’s area of 318.65 square miles and a population (2014) of 1,195,194. But the metropolitan population of DC is (2011) just under 6 million. This presents an interesting transportation challenge in a city where traffic congestion is legend.

I notice that each time I arrive at DCA – Reagan National Airport – there are many public transportation options available with abundant taxis, buses and the metro a short walk away. DCA moves about 20 million passengers per year compared with YYC’s 15 million.

Washington is a very walkable city with wide pedestrian ways, segregated bike lanes and many, many buses even on weekends. Even the metro, which is relatively new (1976), has 117 miles of track and 91 stations. It is the second busiest transit system in the US. The trains carry about a million people a day and the buses another 400,000. Not surprising since most residents live in Virginia and Maryland well outside the district.

While I think many of the stations lack imaginative design, the system is easy to navigate and, once you figure out a mildly complex ticketing/payment system, the metro efficiently whisks on away to Old Town Alexandria, Virginia in a few short minutes for a fare of $3.95, which is the off-peak fare. By comparison, a taxi would cost you about $35 with tip, and take a good 45 minutes on a weekend and I shudder to think what it might take time-wise during the week.

So how does this relate to Calgary? There are a number of similarities as has already been noted. The population is moving to the periphery trading off housing affordability for higher transportation cost and lengthier travel time. The exception is that there is an observable increase in the number of residential construction and conversions in Washington, especially in the NE quadrant. This trend is also emerging in Calgary.

Where it seems to be divergent from Washington is in the area of public transportation. Now I have to admit I am no longer a customer of Calgary Transit simply because for me it is neither convenient nor efficient for where I need to go or when I need to go. I am a driver and an occasional cyclist.

The Washington Metro has several transfer stations where one can change from one line to another. On Calgary’s LRT, one must travel to the downtown core regardless of the final destination. Buses are omnipresent even on weekends, and people are riding them. The fare is based on distance. The further you travel the more you pay and conversely. There is equity in the fare system. In Calgary, there is a one fare system whether you travel from Seton in the deep south east to downtown, or whether you hop across the Bow River from Kensington. I think Calgary has to re-examine its fare structure.

What does stand out is the taxi system. Taxis are literally everywhere. Stick your arm out and one will be to the curb almost instantly. The fares are not unreasonable. (For example, the airport to downtown was $25 with tip versus Calgary which from my house to YYC can be as much as $75 with tip.)

Convenient and efficient access to destination is key to the success of a transit system as it is to how people enjoy their cities. It makes you wonder if Calgary had more buses and a better designed LRT, one with transfer stations and a more and better taxi system if Calgarians could make more and better use of all there is to enjoy in our fabulous city.

It certainly is food for thought.

Image via http://www.docomomo-us.org/register/fiche/washington_metropolitan_area_transit_authority
Aydan Aslan