Improving Calgary Transit in the city core

I’ve gone back to taking the bus. While biking to work is (believe it or not) faster than taking the bus, I’m not too fond of the idea of biking down the side of the hill (switchback or not) in the dark, where I know coyotes tend to lurk. I’ve seen them in my neighbourhood — some distance from the river — so I know they hang out in the bushes.
Besides, I’m a lazy bastard and right now I’m having a hard enough time getting out of bed let alone biking 11.4 kilometres first thing in the morning.
One observation that I’ve made as I take the bus (which, I should point out, isn’t going too badly, compared to previous situations) is that the traffic downtown is a bit nightmarish at times. Especially because of all the buses that flow in and out during rush hours.
Add to that the complexity of having one avenue completely closed to anything but public transit, and another one that’s half-closed to nothing but pedestrian traffic. And a whack of one-way roads. And a rail line that runs along the bottom of the core, a river across the top, and only eight entry/exit points.
Yeah, it gets messy. And Calgary’s core isn’t that big. (Yet — it’s growing. Last I counted, I could see 13 cranes from my desk, and I’m not even next to a window.)
So how do we solve what will become a real mess in later years?
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest something really crazy: bury Calgary Transit. Literally.
For Calgary Transit to be really effective, it needs to run where there are no other vehicles to slow it down. The C-Train needs to run without having to cross all the roads (especially in the North East quadrant … but that’s another topic). The idea of burying the C-Train isn’t new (there’s even a roughed-in C-Train station under City Hall), but I think it should go one step further, and bury the bus lines, too.
Buses would still enter the downtown area above ground, like everything else. But as it gets closer to the core, the bus shifts to dedicated lanes, and eventually goes right underground. Entering the underground, the bus enters a racetrack-like loop that runs across most of the width and part of the height for the downtown, hitting the major areas, and then exits at the appropriate location.
Calgary’s core is ideally suited to this for two reasons:

  1. It’s small. The core is only about 14 blocks wide and not even 10 blocks high at it’s tallest point. Most of the main buildings are in an 6×10 area.
  2. The downtown already concentrates much of the radiating transit services.

So here’s what I propose:

Allow me to describe the above diagram in more detail.

  • The existing C-Train line is buried under its current route — 7th Avenue — and rerouted to start using the City Hall station. New underground stations are built at:
    • Centre St.
    • Between 2nd and 3rd St. SW
    • Between 5th and 6th St. SW
    • At 8th St. SW
  • C-Trains enter the downtown from the North East along the same route as present, but go underground before they cross 4th St. SE.
  • C-Trains exit the downtown to the North West along the same route, but remain underground until they pass under 5th Ave. At that point, they could turn into an overpass over 4th Ave. Or go under 4th Ave and have a steeper approach to the bridge over the Bow River.
  • The new West Extension would remain underground until passing under 14th St. SW, coming out next to the car dealerships.
  • Buses entering downtown along Bow Trail/9th Ave would enter the underground system just west of 11th St. (before all the traffic lights).
  • Buses exiting downtown towards Bow Trail would exit just west of 11th St. along 6th Ave., thus bypassing all the traffic lights.
  • Buses entering/exiting downtown from the south enter through the underpass at the railway tracks along 2nd St. SE (aka MacLeod North), and exit via the underpass at the railway tracks along 1st St. SE (aka MacLeod South)
  • Buses entering/exiting downtown via Centre St from the north will enter and exit through ramps starting around 4th Ave, so the curve into the racetrack isn’t too blinding (e.g. tight corners).
  • Buses entering/exiting downtown from the east via Memorial Drive will enter from the 4th Ave flyover into a tunnel leading into the racetrack, and exit onto the 5th Ave flyover via a similar tunnel.
  • Buses travelling down 10th Ave. into Kensington will enter the racetrack (southbound) via 9th St. once they cross over the river into the core.
  • Buses travelling out of the core to go up 10th Ave. into Kensington will use a tunnel that exits out onto 4th Ave., where they can turn onto the bridge without a light. (This assumes the C-Train has also been suitably diverted.)

The “racetrack” is effectively a rectangular course that runs in one direction (counter-clockwise) under the existing streets, bordered by 9th St. SW in the west, 9th Ave. S in the south, 2nd St. SE in the east, and 6th Ave. S in the north. Buses would stop at designated areas along the 9th Ave. section (between 8th St. and Centre St.), 2nd St. SE, and along 6th Ave. SE (between 1st St. SW and 7th St. SW).
The stops would be shared across several routes (as there are probably over 50 that come into downtown during rush hours), taking advantage of schedules that don’t have buses all arriving at the same time. Buses would stop at 2-3 different points in the racetrack before exiting (possibly looping once before leaving).
In theory (I stress that I am neither a city planner or a transit expert), this would reduce surface traffic (less buses stopping and changing lanes, and freeing up 7th Ave. back to vehicular traffic), and improve bus performance (fewer lights, easier movement underground, less traffic).
Furthermore, having all the transit underground means people could avoid the nasty, cold weather during the winter months. The space could be easily ventilated for fumes, and the underground situation balances heat and cold seasonally.
Any thoughts? I’m curious to know if I’m just on crack, here…

Join the Conversation


  1. While c-trains may very well go underground in the core one day, don’t count on it for buses. Most buses run on time. It will cost a lot of money to do it for trains. Trains are the priority for most transit riders and city hall. Going underground will cost more money then this City has. Either municipal taxes will cover it or the Province will have to kick in some money.
    A few changes in the design and scheduling of certain bus routes will kill most of the problems they have in running late during the rush while having to go through the core. Some ideas that I can give you based on driving the bus during rush hour for years:
    -Routing of all routes that go through the core should be looked at so that there is not too much overlap between routes and routes are run efficiently. Where it is known that there will be higher loads of people or more traffic, more time on the schedule should be added. At the moment, most buses have same headway no more if its AM rush, PM rush, mid day, or late night.
    -Create a dedicated bus-only lane or several of them (eg. right most lane on 5th Ave, 6th Ave, 9th Ave during the rush hour).
    -Limit buses to the right most lane unless they have to lane-change.
    -Eliminate from all bus routes in the core the concept of buses having to move over 3 or more lanes at the next light (less than a block away) after servicing a bus stop in the right most lane on a busy one way street. All stops for buses are on the right. What sense does it make on routes like 2,6,3, 301 and others which have to perform such movements daily in rush hour? It not only messes up other vehicles but also delays the buses. They literally either have to be a bit aggressive in their driving to change that many lanes or wait for someone to give them a chance. In this city, good luck.
    – All buses should be eliminated from 7th Ave. Buses on 7th Ave (1,9,7 mostly and some others) are helping to delay trains. Trains run on schedules that are in ‘seconds’ and not minutes. The rules for buses to follow on 7th Ave also cause them to be late whenever coming on and off of 7th Ave.
    -Do a better job of synching the traffic lights on 7 Ave to get trains through intersections, similar to how 301,3 and others have T.S.P. (transit signal priority) which with a push of a button on certain buses will prolong a green light or shorten a red light along center street, 17 ave SW and even a few places on 6 Ave.
    -At the moment on trains doors open for 18 seconds and then the driver closes them. The train cannot move until all 12 doors on the platform are closed. People are able to ‘hold open’ doors for their friend 3 blocks away in rush hour. There has to be a way where they can eliminate that and have doors close after a certain time no matter what. Vancouver, Toronto and other places have this system.
    -Give back `LRT signal priority` to c-trains between 4th Ave to 6th Ave and all the way into 8 St station. Up until a few years ago, the traffic lights used to hold for trains. Now trains have to waste up to 5 minutes each to get through that section. A few people complaining to their Alderman caused this.
    -A flyover above 4th,5th,6th Aves that goes from 8 or 7 st (depending on which way the train is going) to the Kensington bridge would be welcome. It would be good for cars and trains.
    The Encana-Bow construction has made a joke out of Center Street and even those Transit only lanes with cement barricade (including 1 Westbound on 5th Ave) don’t really work well for buses. They are killing the flow in the Afternoon on 5th Ave and all the time on 6th Ave. Every road in the area from Mcleod, 1 St. S.E., 1 St. S.W. and Center street are seeing increased volumes. It is now generally accepted that buses running in the core during either rush hour will be late. They make up their time after the rush hours by short turning somewhere if it is an all-day bus. AM and PM extras just book their overtime.
    There is nothing wrong with the NE LRT setup as far as crossing gates goes. Trains have the Right of Way over railroad tracks. That is the law of this land be it CN, CP or Calgary Transit’s trains. If people are going to complain about crossing LRT tracks during rush hour during 5 minute service each way then good luck, it won’t get you anywhere. All along the right of way there should be fence along the cement barricade. Another thing is the City should have at least 1 powered facing point switch between Bridgeland and Whitehorn. As it sits now if a train gets stuck or breaks down at say Franklin, the entire line is out of commission and no trains can get around until supervisors manually throw switches and all other trains are held between an area (which can stretch from Whitehorn to Bridgeland). Until the reverse running train crosses back over, no other trains can move. Aside from that there is no real problem in the NE.
    Ultimately the city has to decide whether they want to improve Transit or improve car use. Sorry to say in the case of the LRT signal priority that was taken away, they have chosen cars. Any type of improvements will cost some serious money. Most people are all for it but when it comes to actually pay with higher taxes how many will actually want to pay then ?

  2. I think instead of spending all that money on transit, the city should subsidize individuals to purchase Jet Packs. Let’s move our commuting to 3 dimensional instead of just 2 dimensional. Okay, going underground is almost 3 dimensional, but it is limited to only one more layer. If everyone had a Jet Pack then we would save oodles of dollars on infrastructure. Commuters could use the ‘as a crow flies’ route drastically reducing commuting time. Sure, it would be a bit hazardous in inclement weather, but just wait, we haven’t had our first real snow fall yet – I wouldn’t consider the snow we got last night to be significant.
    Think I’m crazy? A little far fetched? Ya, that’s what they said to the Wright brothers, or to the guys who wanted to put a man on the moon. Mark my words, Jet Pack commuting is coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.
    For now, I’m happy just telecommuting and not having to deal with the pushing and shoving to squeeze in a sardine can only to waste two hours of my life every day.

  3. Tom, not everyone can do telecommuting for their work. Most people in this city work downtown. The City purposely set parking rates too high for many people to afford it. Even if you can afford it, finding a parking spot is hard enough. C-train is a no go for many people because by the time they get to Somerset or Whitehorn or Dalhousie the parking lots are full there.
    Why does the city artificially limit parking in downtown? Either they should provide us with half decent Transit or give us free parking downtown. They have blown too much money on c-train already this year. Bow Trail and Sarcee should have a traffic light-less interchange for the amount of traffic that intersection sees. Ditto for 16 Ave and 68 St N.E. It is time they spent more money on linking up major routes that aren’t linked and building interchanges where traffic flow is major. East-West routes have long been ignored in this City. It also wouldn’t hurt to raise speed limits on some streets and adding in a few extra lanes in others.

  4. Good some good stuff here, so I’m going to tackle these in two replies…
    exBusDriver — I think you’ve got some very valid (and obviously well-informed) answers, but I think you’ve actually contributed (somewhat) to my argument:

    1. Buses run on-time because the scheduling has allowed for the time it takes to cross through/around downtown. If buses had freer reign on movement, would it not be possible to tighten schedules and provide faster service?
    2. Dedicated bus lanes remove a lane for cars. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — it makes a lot of sense — but as you’ve pointed out, no-one driving a car is going to stand for that.
    3. Having buses change lanes is difficult for all because buses are designed to service a lot of stops, but still negotiate large multi-lane roads. Mutually exclusive. Having an entirely dedicated road would help a lot to minimise the impact. (This has been very effective in Ottawa, where OC Transpo has its own roads.)
    4. Separating bus and C-Train routes (e.g. no direct overlap) eliminates the issue of buses holding up trains (or other traffic holding up both)

    And as a question back:

    1. Routes have to overlap to some extent, don’t they? Since the core is a central point, you’ll have overlap until the routes radiate out enough to separate from one another. (Given, there are express routes that overlap other routes directly, but they are more limited runs designed to ferry people to more distant points, making loads on local buses more bearable.

    As far as the Bow construction, it’s little more than a necessary evil. We should be happy that the streets were reconfigured to allow any bus traffic through. It could have been handled much worse. Since the demolition ended, at least the traffic flows more easily now.

  5. Jack, you’re kind of missing the point here. Public transit is not about trying to drive downtown. Right now, people are doing it because public transit is not meeting the needs (too slow, too far, unable to get into a bus/train to get downtown, etc.)
    Widening roads only encourages people to drive into a downtown core that will never be able to accomodate all the drivers. There are only 10 ways in and out of the downtown area. That sounds like a lot, but this is heavily restricted as there are various barriers (e.g. river and railway). Putting more parking downtown will only make driving there even worse. I dread what will happen when six floors of parking opens under the Bow.
    That said, I’m totally with you for an interchange at Sarcee and Bow Trails. That light timing is unfuriating (at least when I’m trying to drive out to the Trans Canada).

  6. Geoff,
    I agree that there has to be some overlapping and for the most part it works well but in some places there’s too many buses going in the direction in the same stretch of road. 3 and 301 have a bit too much overlap in the North end to the core for my liking, albiet the 301 does have limited stops. In the offpeak at night they run mostly together.
    One idea I forgot to post about in my last post was: how about a bylaw that says when a bus signals to change lanes or leave a bus zone, you must let them in? In Vancouver on the buses it says that it is the law and there is a fine. I have heard that most people there will gladly let a bus in to avoid the fine. A lot of problems downtown for buses in rush hour is lane changes (multiple ones esp) and people not letting them in. Like anything else, it depends on the driver a bit too. Some are way too aggressive. Some not so much. Most are assertive. People still try to speed up to not let a bus in front of them. This causes delays too and sometimes accidents. I think elminating multiple lane changes and dedicating 1 lane for buses will get traffic moving faster in the core during peak rush. Add in the rule about making it a bylaw to let City buses go in front when pulling out will help too.
    Another idea is to limit right turns off of 5th, 6th, 4th and 9th onto certain streets between both rush hours. One car turning right waiting for pedestrians (lots of them) to cross will hold up an entire lane for an entire light. Happens everyday of the week.
    Bus only roads and/or imbedded vehicle traps are useful in giving buses shortcuts where cars can’t follow them. Unfortunately in this city there has to be some kind of physical restriction to force cars to stay away and stop them from following buses. Bus traps would work well in that regard. A couple of examples include: The Beddington bus trap and the Queensland traps (1 on each side). They really save a lot of time. The message should be that those that take buses get there faster while those that drive will get to take the long way around.
    Some routes haven’t been altered in their timings or the actual route despite a few hundred-thousand extra people moving here and changes to roads and intersections. The Route 20 is a classic example. It is still 4 minutes to get from 54th and Crowchild S.B. (the stop where after you leave and everyone is flying in excess of the 80 Km/h speed limit to goto that flyover onto E.B. Glenmore) upto Rockyview Hospital. Rockyview Hospital’s routing has been changed. There has been some new traffic lights put in at the hospital. Just to go around all the Carewest area and to get to where the bus stop is can take 4 minutes alone. Nevermind going through the fun part of Glenmore around 14th st. In rush hour it is not uncommon to have in the north end (78th ave and center street N.) 4 different route 20s running together and for a period of time a gap in the south end of the route just due to that early 1990s schedule and 2007’s traffic volumes. Surely they can fix stuff like that by either tinkering with the routing or the schedule itself.
    At the end of the day it is up to the city to choose: cars or transit. I know the car people want to complain about things like having to wait at crossing gates but don’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? If the city chooses transit then they have another choice: which out of LRT or Bus do you give greater priority to? They both need each other to function, but LRT’s schedule is in seconds while a Bus’s schedule is in minutes and can turn around easily at some bus loop or even take a detour. A C-train turning around takes a bit more work and causes more disruption. C-trains (3 cars) carriy 600+ people and a single bus has a max of around 75 people. You need like roughly 8 buses jam packed to replace 1 jam packed train worth of people. That is also anywhere from 300 to 600 potential cars that are off the road.

  7. Outstanding points, Jack!
    I honestly was surprised to find that there is no right-of-way given to buses. That just seems to be obviously logical. I ride the 301 home, and I often find that when it has to cross from the far right lane of Bow Trail to the turning lane to go down 37th St. (a really dumb place to put the bus stop, especially since there’s one on 37th St.), the bus can often sit and wait for minutes before someone slows down to let the bus through.
    Sadly, you’ve nailed the issue on the head: Public or private transit? The city has to pick one to focus on, because they are (to a large degree) mutually exclusive. If you focus on private (e.g. cars), then public transit is forced to fit in with that system. And fitting in causes problems.
    Focusing on public transit allows for things like dedicated lanes, specific bypasses for transit, turning lanes to support transit (and then traffic) flow, etc. But someone needs to make that call. And it won’t be people driving the cars…

  8. I believe that the 7th Ave refurbishment project of downtown C-train stations is a temporary solution that could be solved if the money allocated to the project was put to building an 8th Ave and 7th Ave subway system. Between 8th Ave and 7th Ave the City of Calgary should try to have a goal of having six subway tracks run underground to keep pace with high volume of transit rider ship.
    The first set of two subway tracks will be under 8th Ave and service Route 201 (Somerset-Bridlewood / Dalhousie) like the original plans. The second set of two subway tracks could be under 8th Ave and 7th Ave to service Route 202 (West LRT / Whitehorn). And finally the third set of two subway tracks could be under 7th Ave and a bit of 6th Ave to service the future Route 203 (SE LRT/ North LRT).
    Another option could be to put all three routes stacked under each other underground all through 8th Ave like in London, England’s Subway System, if it can be done??? This way all C-Train stations in the downtown core will be underground under one 8th Avenue, where passengers can get off each train and connect to another route without having to walk to a station located above ground and a block away.
    The current C-train stations in downtown Calgary should be removed along 7th Ave, which then can be used for Calgary transit buses only. I know this method would cost the city a ton of money but it would be worth it to avoid waiting for traffic lights in downtown Calgary for the LRT. Does anyone have any suggestions for improvements of the LRT in downtown Calgary?

  9. Oh, memories of London. I think it would be ideal for Calgary to plan for London’s size now. It might never be that large, but unless the plan is made, you’ll spend way more time and effort in the future trying to make it happen.
    As for location, I have to admit that I’m not sold on between 7th and 8th Aves, for two reasons:

    1. Seems a bit too far south. As was mentioned in a previous comment, even 7th Ave is a bit debatable.
    2. If you run between Avenues, you’ll have to go much deeper to account for the foundations of the office buildings.
  10. I use an electric Bike.. greatest thing since sliced bread too..
    too many rednecked cops in Alberta still too for my liking

  11. What I think should happen is that there should be a central transit centre. Basically, any route that goes into downtown goes to that transit centre, then continues on or goes back. Ideally this would be at one of the two customer service centres/station streets(for instance, it would be at Centre Street and 7th Avenue, so that it would be served by the train at 1st Street and Centre Street stations, and the Centre Street transit office).

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