Calgary goes big, with big results

As the City of Sacramento prepares the Downtown Specific Plan, which will provide high-level environmental review for projects to add at least 10,000 housing units in the Central City over the next 10 years, this is the first in a series of blog posts examining how other cities are dramatically improving bicycle transportation and roadway safety in urban neighborhoods.

Like Sacramento, the city of Calgary, Alberta on the Canadian prairie is shedding its image as a Cowtown. The city is denser than Sacramento, with a population nearly three times bigger. But with its flat landscape, a river running along one edge, a regular street grid and a railroad mainline running across the middle, downtown Calgary looks a whole lot like downtown Sacramento.

In the summer of 2015, Calgary – which already had one 7-block-long downtown cycle track (also known as a protected bike lane or separated bikeway) — took the unprecedented step of adding an entire network of cycle tracks in a single big project (green dotted lines on the map below). The longest, the 12th Ave cycle track, runs for about 1.3 miles, roughly the distance between 5th St. and 22nd St. in downtown Sacramento.

The Calgary City Council approved the network as a pilot project and 18 months later voted to make it permanent. The experiment paid off spectacularly. Three months after the network opened, bike traffic had increased by 95% on the streets with cycle tracks compared to year earlier. Overall, the project increased bicycle traffic into downtown Calgary by 40% in just about a year, including a larger share of women traveling by bike. Better still, the project came in more than $1 million under budget.



There are big differences between downtown Calgary and Sacramento, besides the weather. For one thing, downtown Calgary has wider streets than downtown Sacramento, which provides more space for bicycle improvements such as cycle tracks. Nevertheless, the Calgary experiment holds these lessons for Sacramento:

First, it shows that building an entire network all at once produces big results, very quickly. While the ridership increases seen in Calgary are fairly typical of cycle tracks installed in other cities, the impact is magnified when it involves multiple streets in a network, rather than a single street. Sacramento’s Bicycle Master Plan calls for increasing the rate of bike commuting to 7% of all commute trips by 2020, more than triple Sacramento’s current bike commuting rate of just under 2%. Nothing short of this kind of network will get us to that goal with less than three years to go.

Second, it shows that travel by bike works best when bike routes are continuous. This isn’t news to anyone who uses a bike for everyday transportation, but it’s yet another argument for continuous routes rather than the piecemeal, disconnected improvements we’re accustomed to seeing. Sacramento’s Bicycle Master Plan sets the goal of creating continuous “low-traffic-stress” bike routes throughout the city. Cycle tracks are designed to provide low-stress conditions on the busiest downtown streets and Calgary shows us how well that can work.

Third, it shows that a willingness to experiment can pay off. Experiments aren’t automatically more complicated technically, but they require courage, creativity and openmindedness at City Hall, as well as the ability (and will) to make the right investments. Creating that culture of experimentation may be the biggest challenge for a city like Sacramento.

As Sacramento plans for a future with a lot more downtown residents living in denser neighborhoods, bicycling (and walking and public transit use) will become a better, faster, cheaper way to make short trips – but only if the vision is bold and the commitment is big.

Read more about Calgary’s downtown cycle track project.

Take a ride through the downtown Calgary cycle tracks with Tom Babin, author of the Canadian bike blog, Shifter