“You’re going to need a car.”
As I was getting ready to move to Calgary way-back-when, this was the near-universal advice from friends who’d lived in the city or knew even a little bit about the place. The idea was not really up for debate: Being able to drive and having a vehicle were part of my conditions of employment, so there was no question as to whether I would own a car.
For years after settling into Alberta’s largest city, I took for granted the idea I would always need to rely on my vehicle for almost every trip of any significant distance — and this despite being consistently vocal in public about how useful transit could be.
Sure, I’d occasionally take the CTrain to an event at the Saddledome or Stampede Park. When Calgary Transit began its bus rapid transit service to the airport, that became my preferred transportation option for catching a flight and returning home, whenever this was possible. A handful of times a year, I’d randomly take the train somewhere — usually for a photowalk, other times just because. But for commuting to work, going to the gym, running errands or visiting with friends, the car was king.
Eventually, several events occurred over the span of a few years which would cause me to think about my choices when it comes to travelling longer distances within Calgary.
The first was a test at my optometrist’s office which required my pupils to be dilated, meaning it was not a good idea to be driving after the test was completed. I took the bus to my appointment and the ride turned out to be far more pleasant than I expected. The second was a friend who chose to live in Inglewood for a time. I was able to take the bus to visit rather than drive there and do endless laps in the neighbourhood looking for a place to park. The third was work. Our office moved to a location closer to light rail, which would theoretically be helpful for commuting by transit. (I had experimented once years ago with taking the train and bus to our old space and, at that time, found the commute and connections too long.)
The fourth trigger was far less organic but effective nonetheless. In September 2016, Calgary Transit implemented a remodelling of the bus network in parts of northwest and inner-city Calgary. Through a related marketing campaign, I learned many of the places I frequent on my days off would be (or already were) conveniently accessible with transit.
The wheels in my head began to turn. Maybe I don’t need to drive to do my groceries. Maybe I don’t need to drive to get to the shopping mall. Maybe I don’t need to drive to go to the gym. And … gasp … maybe I don’t need to drive to work every single day.
There’s nothing new with the idea, really. When I lived in the Montreal area, I loved taking the bus and métro to school and to work, so much so I delayed getting a driver’s licence till I was in my 20s. My commutes were as long as 90 minutes each way for certain activities and for the most part I didn’t mind it one bit.
And so I began an experiment of sorts — more of a self-challenge really — to see how much I could get by without being anywhere near my car.
It started in fall 2016 with non-time-sensitive transportation on my weekends and I eventually incorporated commuting to work the following winter.
How do you get there from here?
As far as scheduling is concerned, I picked a good time to start this project. Between a smartphone app called Transit, Calgary Transit’s own app (based on Transit), native tools in Google and Apple Maps and more, there are a proliferation of tools to help a transit commuter to get around. They all use the same openly available schedule data and GPS bus locations provided by the transit system. Each gives slightly different advice when it comes to destinations requiring a transfer. (And oddly, the other day, while using Google Maps, the system seemed to be unaware of the existence of the Tuscany CTrain station.)
Apart from knowing which line to catch, and when and how often the bus or train is coming, there’s the matter of actually showing up to the stop when you should. This was an old muscle I hadn’t exercised in a long time. It reminded me how fortunate I’ve been not to have to worry about this since I started driving on a regular basis. Of course, there was a safety net of sorts in knowing that if I or the transit system was having a really bad day at the start of my activity, I had the option of running back home and getting into my car.
Physical and mental health benefits
On work days, I quickly took advantage of not having to drive the vehicle I was travelling in: I could work while going to work. It was nice catching up on email and doing some required reading/research ahead of arriving at the office. There were a few days where I would get to my desk with just minutes to spare before starting my shift and having to attend a meeting — but it was not that big a deal because I knew what I needed to know to get my day going.
I don’t drive when I’ve had alcoholic beverages, so I’m more often able to enjoy a drink on a night out or while visiting with friends.
Unexpectedly, riding transit has allowed me to do more leisure reading. I even started reading novels and other works of fiction (and shockingly, finished them!) for the first time in many years.
On some days, I’ll stop for coffee or lunch downtown near where I transfer from bus to CTrain, so there’s been a small bit of economic benefit passed along to a few businesses in the area.
Walking to get to the bus and train has also meant I’ve been a little bit more active than if I’d been driving.
Hell, when things are going well, commuting is actually relaxing.
But when things don’t go well …
There were a few days when I ended up walking more than I had planned because of late buses, missed connections or, on at least one occasion, a bus that never showed up. I found the driver at the terminal and she admitted to me she skipped the stop where I was waiting … because there was never anyone there. Huh? (The links are to a Twitter conversation I had with Calgary Transit about this incident. Part of my rant is presented below.)
More recently, the bus linking the area around our office to the closest CTrain station had its evening service hours cut back, so I now have no choice but to walk to the train when I leave work. That being said, the bus used to come only every 45 minutes or so at that time of day and if I didn’t wrap up work exactly in sync with the schedule, I would walk anyway because it would be a complete waste of time to wait for the next bus to arrive. This is one concrete illustration of how ineffective a bus line can be, under certain circumstances.
Then, there is the potential for CTrain disruptions. I can understand unplanned service interruptions will cause a bit of chaos. The way our light-rail system is set up, especially with so many level crossings, it is practically an invitation for non-transit vehicles (and sometimes, people) to get in the way. It also feels as if this winter has been extra brutal on transit equipment — train doors not opening or closing properly, frozen switches, signal problems and the like. You kind of have to put up with this stuff as it comes along, perhaps even to the point of having a Plan B reliant exclusively on buses.
Oddly, I’ve seen planned LRT interruptions create their fair share of confusion. For those unfamiliar with the practice: Several times a year, transit will shut parts of the light rail network on a weekend to do regular maintenance. I’ve used the system on a few of those occasions and it’s always felt as if history repeating itself. Train drivers not enunciating when announcing the disruption and issuing instructions to customers on how to carry on with their journey. Passengers not knowing where to catch shuttles. Shuttle buses not showing up as promptly as they should. Some riders not realizing shuttle-related delays will cause them to miss the last buses leaving downtown destined for outlying areas. When all involved are (or appear to be) unprepared for the experience, it can leave people feeling frustrated.
There’s also a quirk with real-time schedules: They don’t work for CTrains when things aren’t running normally. If trains are arriving too late, if they are arriving in the wrong sequence or if service is only running on part of a line, apps will fall back to showing scheduled arrival times rather than actual arrival times. I would argue that when abnormal transit operations occur, this is when passengers need real-time data the most.
Transit is also over-reliant on Twitter to share information on delays, schedule changes, service adjustments and the like. There are a lot of people who don’t use this social media platform and they miss out on critical information regarding emergency service changes. Once, while standing at a bus stop on the 7 Ave. transit mall, I found myself relaying information across the street to a CTrain platform where passengers were waiting for trains that weren’t going to come anytime soon.
Early to bed
Living and working the hours I do, I wish the bus network in the city centre would operate for another hour beyond its current end time. At present, the final bus trips for major bus routes out of downtown are co-ordinated to depart around 12:20 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays and around 11:45 p.m. on Sunday, even though CTrains operate till much later. Bus service on some routes during the 10 days of Stampede was a pleasant anomaly: The last buses left downtown at 1:20 a.m. (Rejoice!)
If I’ve had an extra long night at work, it’s pretty much guaranteed I will not be able count on a bus connection for the last leg of my trip. I end up with a two-kilometre walk to the CTrain and a further two-kilometre walk to get home. More than once, on a night off, I’ve found myself huffing it all the way home on foot from wherever I’ve been hanging out because I dared to stay too much past midnight. I quite like walking when the weather is co-operating … but when it is not, it can become irritating.
(And I definitely keep in mind not everyone is able/willing to include this much walking into their transportation routine.)
When it’s not their fault
Sometimes, the issues are not at all Calgary Transit’s doing. For example, there are no sidewalks in many parts of our industrial park, so my colleagues and I have been known to walk in the street to get to the train. Add this winter’s seemingly interminable snowfall and the city’s iffy snow clearing policies into the mix … and the situation quickly gets dicier (and icier).
(Insert your favourite idiom here)
A lot of my potential aggravation is alleviated by incorporating time for possible delays, knowing my commuting options and understanding how the system is designed to work.
Did you know bus stops on the streets near The Bay and the Suncor Energy Centre constitute a transfer zone? Did you know about the co-ordinated departures I mentioned earlier? (I learned this randomly from a fellow passenger while waiting for a bus one night.) Do you know what regular bus lines — not replacement shuttles — are useful alternatives should you be faced with an extended CTrain disruption?
The transit service needs to be more vocal about getting information like this out to the public and passengers need to do a little bit of research and give themselves more than one travel option, if possible. This sort of knowledge will go a long way to giving riders more peace of mind, making our commutes far more comfortable and reducing the likelihood of people becoming grumpy or exasperated when things don’t happen as planned.
Of course, Calgary Transit could additionally choose to further streamline and focus its network: Something less-complicated with better frequencies and better connections might make the system easier to understand and use, so the transit user’s experience doesn’t necessarily go straight into the toilet when even the smallest thing goes awry.
From my experience, Calgary Transit’s network will most often get me where I need to go. When things work as they should, the system is quite pleasant to use. The problems I’ve encountered over the last year are mostly to do with timekeeping, equipment/infrastructure reliability and span of service. But even with the service hiccups I’ve experienced, I think I’ll carry on with my attempt to make transit my go-to transportation option whenever I can. It’s partly to do with the reawakened transit proponent in me, partly to do with wanting to support my local transit agency as it tries to make itself more useful to residents. And it’s always seemed to be the right call to do my small bit to help free up our roads for people who truly, absolutely need to drive.
Of course, I know to take my observations with a grain of salt. I’ve been predisposed from a young age to using transit and I appear to have a high tolerance for unexpected scheduling issues. I am also aware the things I find to be minor, tolerable irritants can be a real pain in the neck (and maybe even a deal breaker) for people whose lives run on tight schedules.
Your mileage will certainly vary and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments section below about your transit experiences, whether they be in Calgary or anywhere else. However you choose to get around, happy commuting.