By Mark Hopkins
Prince’s Island Park isn’t air conditioned.
Sure, I knew that, but reality didn’t sink in until a sweltering July afternoon. That morning, I had decided to forgo the car for my trip downtown and embark on a pedestrian adventure.
It was lovely. I nodded cheerfully at morning joggers, relished the sun’s gentle caress and wondered why I didn’t do this more often. On my noontime return, though, the sun wasn’t so gentle. I plodded back across the Prince’s Island pathway, sodden jeans clinging to my sweaty legs as I glared enviously at a pack of bare-chested hula-hoopers.
Approaching my building, I caught sight of my 1997 Honda Accord sitting placidly in its parking spot. Seeing it without me in the driver’s seat was like an out-of-body experience.
I’ve long considered myself a huge proponent of alternative transport—walking, biking, transit, anything but pollution-spewing cash-traps. But, somehow, my car has become an appendage for outings—my transport, my jukebox, my personal climate control.
I don’t like cars. I don’t like to be shut in a cramped metal box emitting a noxious haze from its exhaust pipe, or the rat-race need for constant forward motion. Insurance, gas, maintenance and parking strike a nasty blow to my bank account every month.
On a subsequent air-conditioned trip through the city, I decided that my need to drive wasn’t entirely my fault. Everywhere I turned, there were road expansions and improvements. New communities crop up so far away that they hardly seem part of the same city. How am I supposed to make green transport choices when my city endorses a car culture?
But then I did some research.
In 1995, the City of Calgary developed a Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP) whose priorities included a decreased reliance on cars, more transit, walking and cycling, and an increased inner city population density.
We’re already seeing some results. In 2001, Calgary’s C-Train became the first in the world to be completely wind-powered. Line extensions are underway in the northwest (Crowfoot) and northeast (McKnight to Westwinds), with plans for a southwest line (along 17th Ave. to 69th St.) and a second southeast line (to Douglasdale) by 2023. From 1995 to 2005, transit ridership increased 46 percent. No new downtown arterial roads were added, protecting the integrity of inner-city neighbourhoods.
The city seems to be making all the right moves, but there’s a hitch. A 2005 CTP review noted that while Calgary’s population increased by 24 percent, the city’s developed area increased by 33 percent. Suddenly, an increased population density target flies out the window—but why?
The Canada West Foundation recently produced Looking West, a series of reports based on an early 2007 survey of Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. It showed that a whopping 74 percent of Calgarians, the largest percentage of any city polled, report concern about urban sprawl— but 76 percent of us also prioritize building up the road system. A huge majority prioritize improvements to transit and reducing traffic congestion, but when the solutions involve user fees or higher taxes, approval ratings plummet.
The problem, it seems, isn’t with the city; it’s with us. Calgarians are worried about transportation, but we don’t want to do a damn thing about it. Why ride bikes when we can drive SUVs? Why settle for a cramped downtown condo when we could have a three-storey house with a backyard and a lake view?
I work from home. I don’t have kids to drive to medical appointments. I live a 10-minute walk to everything. If anyone in Calgary is primed for alternative transportation, I am. Plans are in place to slow Calgary’s alarming rate of sprawl and encourage greener transportation. But until Calgarians get behind those plans, they’re not going to happen.
So will I sell my car? I don’t know. I like the freedom it gives me. I can pick people up from the airport, rescue drunk and stranded friends, haul equipment to theatre venues or help a friend move. I can decide, on a moment’s notice, to head out to Banff for the afternoon.
Even if I keep my car, though, I can reduce my dependence upon it. Airport pick-ups and moves are rare, so why not leave my Accord in its parking spot until I absolutely need it and in the meantime discover Calgary’s pathways?
If I’m surrounded in a car culture, it’s mostly of my own making. It’s time for me—and my fellow Calgarians—to shift out of the fast lane and spend some quality time on the sidewalk.
Mark Hopkins, BA’05, is a regular contributor to Unleashed Opinion. See Mark’s top five albums to listen to while walking around Calgary in U Extra at www.ucalgary.ca/uextra.