Imagining Calgary and its public transit in 2040
What if one of the coldest major cities on the planet Earth became a global city with a state of the art public transit?
In an imaginary future, Calgary (Alberta, Canada) experiences fast population and economic growth and transforms into a “global city”. Following a sharp increase of demand for public transportation and in a context of mass transit revolution in North America, the light rail system of the city is upgraded with new extensions and lines. With a great dose of optimism, I envision how this light rail network could look like in 2040. The article also pushes a bit further by highlighting the potential of Calgary and the reasons why this city could matter internationally in two decades from now. Nb: this project is fictional and its predictions should not be taken too seriously.
Falling under the radar
People outside Canada tend to be familiar with Toronto, Montreal Vancouver. Sometimes Ottawa because of its status as the capital of the country. But if you them if they know about Calgary, you’re likely to get more mixed answers. The 4th most populated urban agglomeration in Canada curiously tends to stay under the radar. In terms of reputation, it probably belongs more to the “Class B” cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg than to the worldclass cities mentioned above. Indeed, Calgary is not a name you hear often in the global news. You maybe did when the city hosted the Winter Olympics but this was in 1988.
To be fair, Calgary is not located in the most dynamic region of the Americas. The map below shows the city’s fair isolation from the global economy. Edmonton is the only major urban center within a reasonable driving distance.
Isolation is not the only argument against Calgary. Sitting in the western part of the Canadian Prairies, Calgary is just 1 hour away from the Rockies Mountains. The city experiences a harsh climate with winters about 6 months long, if not more, and temperatures dropping as low as -40° is a regular occurence for Calgarians. Only the neighbouring city of Edmonton can claim a comparable climate amongst cities of more than 1 million inhabitants in Canada. Outside the country, only a few major cities at the edge of Siberia, north of the Korean peninsula or in the steppes of Central have colder winters.
The lack of diversification of its economy is also an undergoing problem. The Oil and Gas industry is admittedly one of the most lucratives ones in the world but is unstable and may hinder the development of other segments that could take Calgary to the next stage. And when it comes to politics, the Stampede City is still perceived as a conservative hot bed. The absurdly large trucks and cowboy culture might appeal to some but it can also be a huge turnoff for some demographics like young professionals and students.
A diamond in the rough?
All these considerations factored, I still believe that “cow-town” making it one day into the exclusive club of global cities might not be as unrealistic as it sounds. You would have to leave some room for imagination but Calgary has a lot of going for it and some of it strengths should only exacerbate in the years coming.
The Century Initiative — a policy recommendation that aims to increase Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100— might well be a pipe dream (no pun intended) but Canada is still forecasted to experience significant population growth the decades coming due to high immigration rates. As more and more people will seek a place with cooler temperatures and less environmental risks, climate change could also boost Canada’s population, making plausible a high-growth scenario like in the following chart.
Being a popular destination for new immigrants and Canadians moving from other provinces, Calgary will naturally reap some of the benefits of the country’s demographic growth. Calgary is already one of the fastest growing municipalities in Canada and there is nothing suggesting this will stop anytime soon. The trend should even intensify as the two main destinations for new immigrants in Canada, Toronto and Vancouver, are reaching saturation levels regarding housing and are limited by their natural boundaries. This geographic disadvantage does not apply to Calgary. It is surrounded by nothing but fields and empty land, making possible the ongoing expansion of the city (Calgary is building 13 new communities in 2022). Virtually, there is infinite land to exploit in all directions of the quadrant.
Not so conservative
Politics undeniably play a key role when it comes to attracting new people and developing a city. One could argue that Alberta’s conservative politics are a drawback to Calgary as they are an impediment to economic diversification and other progressive measures such as expanding public transit. This is probably true to an extent as the succession of conservative leaders in the province has not done the greatest job at reducing the economic dependency on oil and gas. Though, it is too often forgotten, or ignored, that Calgary is keen on electing progressive mayors, the latest being Jyoti Gondek, a woman of Punjabi descent.
There’s a deep connection between Calgary and the federal Conservative Party. This makes us seem — and think of ourselves as — conservative. But, and this is the important part vis-a-vis the cognitive dissonance we provoke, Calgarians tend to hold clearly progressive policy attitudes in municipal politics. CBC, 2021.
The following article does a great job at explaining the reason for that and what are some the consequences on some of the city’s policies.
Why 'conservative' Calgary keeps electing progressive mayors | CBC News
Every four years, on the day after Calgary's municipal election, political junkies across Canada suffer a collective…
Proselytism excluded, this is an argument for Calgary if one political side sticks too much to the status-quo. The mix of provincial conservative policies and progressive municipal policies can provide a nice balance, while provoking change. This pragmatism tends to be appreciated by talents and corporations, especially when the combinaison mentioned above can give them the best of the two worlds.
My Calgary 2040
So where does this lead us? In my fictional world, Calgary eventually fullfils its potential. The city achieves its economic diversification and becomes a new green energy hub. Canada’s population explodes and many of the new immigrant streams direct to Calgary. Considering the population of the municipality increased by almost 300K inhabitants between 2011 and 2021, I estimate in a best-case scenario that the population will hit 2.5M people by 2040. The metropolitan area would reach 3M people.
Such population changes must be accommodated with a transformation of the public transit system. In Calgary, public transit comprises of a network of buses and a light-rail system called the C-Train, which will be the object of our focus. The C-Train is a light rail rapid transit system functioning much like a light metro system, at the exception of the downtown core where it operates similarly to an urban tramway given the density of stations in the free-fare zone. It began operation on May 25, 1981 and has continuously expanded as the city gained inhabitants. As of 2017, it is one of the busiest light rail transit systems in North America, with 306,900 weekday riders (Wikipedia.com). Two lines are currently in operation (Red Line and Blue Line) with one additional line (Green Line) planning to be built in the years coming.
In our fiction, progressive policies at the city hall gives a strong support for for new light rail lines in response to the population growth and a boom of demand for public transportation across North America. The C-Train system gets revamped with extensions on the Blue and the Red Lines to serve the furthest communities. The construction of the Green Line becomes a real growth accelerator as the economic benefits legitimate the need for further light rail lines. The city enters a period of public transit boom after 2030 and converts some of the busiest exiting bus lines into light rail with the construction of the Purple, Pink and Cyan lines. To To smoothen the connection to YYC International Airport, the city also initiates the development of the Grey Line, linking the two airports terminals to the Blue and the Green Line and hence the downtown core.
The Calgary-Edmonton corridor being one of the fastest developing region of Canada, a high speed link named “Alberta Express” is built between the two cities, with funding exceptionally coming from all levels of governance. The link could take the form of an Express Train or Hyperloop. The location of the terminal station in Calgary sits next to the airport, as it was recommended to the Standing Policy Committee on Transportation and Transit in 2020.
All these changes would lead the Calgary C-Train network to look like ths in 2040:
Comtemplating the pace of the development of the Green Line (it has been proposed nearly a decade ago), it is highly unlikely that the C-train map will even come close to the one I conceived. That being said, I am a firm believer in the potential of Calgary and the ability of its people to realize it, in conjugation wih favorable external factors.