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How to ease congestion in Calgary
Thursday, 16 April 2015 - 10:15am
What would you do with an extra three days of your life back every year?
Calgarians spend an estimated 68 hours in traffic gridlock each year, according to the TomTom Traffic Index. While Calgary was rated last week as the "least congested" of Canada's seven major cities, a closer look at the numbers should give you more than one kind of pause.
Canadian cities are not leading the way when it comes to effective traffic flow, so there's no reason to applaud Calgary being the best of a bad bunch. Data shows that Calgary is twice as congested as Kansas City, and well behind U.S. leaders such as Phoenix and Indianapolis.
The numbers become even more troubling when you consider Calgary's future growth. Between 2001 and 2011, the cars travelling daily on Deerfoot Trail south of Anderson Road doubled to 120,000. Conservative estimates by the Alberta government project that Calgary's population will more than double to 2.4 million people within 25 years.
As tempting as it may be, the answer is not always more and bigger roads to try and combat the problem. Nor is it to give large but well-intentioned transit projects a free pass. Infrastructure investment is important, but we have to think and build smarter as we grow.
Better technology means faster, cheaper and safer travel for all Calgarians, regardless of how they need to get around.
For example, tweaking a single turning light on Macleod Trail resulted in a two-minute reduction in traffic delays to downtown. Improvements like these cost little, reduce noise and air pollution, and make transit more reliable.
Data from TomTom Traffic Index, which uses GPS data from millions of users to rank cities worldwide, can also be used to measure Calgary's road network and pinpoint other areas where traffic flow can be improved. More objective criteria should be used to judge if we're getting the best return on all projects - from the shortest bike lane to the biggest interchange.
Calgarian Dustin Jones made headlines when he obtained past police data and made a map demonstrating the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians. Such data should be public for free, and used to design safer intersections that also allow for better traffic flow. The city must stop acting like gatekeepers of information, and work harder to get it to whom it belongs: the people.
While getting better, the city's lack of good data has unfortunately undermined support for cycling - a good transportation option for many, but not all, of us. Questionable practices, such as sending staff to street corners to count bikes with a clipboard, have needlessly set businesses and cyclists against each other.
Solid information can reveal opportunities for both. For example, better enforcement and crash reports could help pick better locations for infrastructure, save cyclists, and lead to safer vehicles and streets.
In fairness, transportation planning is challenging because there is no one way of moving people that accommodates all needs perfectly. But competing directions from council have counterproductively led city hall to restrict the mobility choices of Calgarians, rather than expand them. That means our time and money costs have gone up, while our overall competitiveness and affordability have gone down.
Mayor and council like to trumpet data-driven decisions, yet consistently work against competition and tech-savvy firms such as Uber and Car2Go. While they can help Calgarians get from A to B more efficiently, mayor and council have made it difficult or impossible to innovate. Taxi passengers face a type of restriction that is almost unique in the First World: artificial shortages caused by an archaic government-regulated taxi system that limits the number of cabs on the road.
When council tries to pick winners in private business, we all lose. Its main focus should be competitiveness. Let's consider Calgary's ranking as a warning, and think smarter about mobility.
Jeromy Farkas is a research fellow at the Manning Foundation and the creator of CouncilTracker.ca
This column was published by the Calgary Herald on April 16