The High Cost of Calgary’s Low-Cost Transit

Media Appearances, Transportation, Frontier Centre


Calgary C-Train riders preparing to celebrate the light rail transit system’s upcoming 30th birthday got an unpleasant shock early Thursday morning. Transit workers noticed a man had fallen from a boarding platform. He had been dragged by a train, had his leg severed, and was rushed to hospital in critical condition. For several hours up through the morning rush, trains through the city’s core were shut down.
The episode, aside from the awfulness of the accident, highlighted one of the costs of a city grown dependent on commuter rail. When serious disruptions occur, the repercussions can be enormous: tens of thousands of people can be made late for work or appointments when a train crashes into an automobile, as happens occasionally, or when a pedestrian is seriously injured or killed on the track, which, sadly, seems to happen nearly as often. It makes it all the more urgent to consider a report put out this week by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy providing a critical analysis of the costs of Calgary’s widely celebrated C-Train system and recommending that its expansion be halted in favour of more flexible, responsive and affordable alternatives. It’s something other cities, most of which these days seem to be fixated on LRT build-outs, should seriously consider, too.
As the report’s author Steve Lafleur reminds us, Calgary’s train system is held up internationally as a model of how efficient and popular a publicly run LRT system can be. Boosters often tout a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that calculated Calgary’s light rail system cost per passenger, per weekday, to be astonishingly cheap, at least relative to other towns: $2,400 per weekday rider, compared to Edmonton’s at $8,900. Buffalo, New York’s was measured at an astronomical $32,000. It’s why “Transportation planners from the City routinely appear at conferences where they inspire planners of other mid-sized North American cities to emulate their transit system,” Lafleur writes.
The trouble, he explains, is that those figures conveniently ignore some pretty substantial light rail costs. For one thing, they count only capital costs from the first nine years of C-Train development, when the city spent $18 million per kilometer to build the initial phases. Those were the cheapest phases, of course, because they focused on the highest density routes, heavily centred around downtown—“the low hanging fruit.” As planners have moved to increase ridership, and new neighbourhoods have sprawled out, the cost has risen substantially: the newest, the West LRT line, which broke ground last year, is projected to cost $1 billion for just under 8 kms. That works out to $130 million per kilometer; “this makes it quite possibly the most expensive LRT line ever built,” Lafleur notes.
Also ignored in these calculations are the free parking transit provides in its Park and Ride lots, forced fees from university students, who are required to buy annual transit passes even if an estimated 40% don’t use them, and the subsidies poured into the system by the federal Transit Tax Credit. Commonly used calculations also double-count paying riders who transfer from buses to C-Trains and erroneously counts the thousands of riders who travel in the fare-free downtown zone as paying riders. All told, while Calgary Transit calculates its direct operating cost per rider at $0.27, the more likely cost, Lafleur figures, is actually $2.88 per rider—more expensive than the $2.75 adult fare, and a lot more expensive than heavily discounted fares for students and kids.
None of this accounts for the myriad external costs the C-Train imposes on the city, with its huge impact on commuters and traffic patterns. In a city with the highest concentration of downtown workers in the country (in part, a result of the city’s transit planning strategy itself), Calgary’s municipal council has aggressively discouraged downtown parking, for instance, resulting in the lowest number of spots per worker by far than in any other Canadian city (one-fourth of Vancouver’s) and the highest parking rates in any North American city outside Manhattan. It’s also hurt, not helped, congestion. Subsidized trains to the suburbs have, naturally, helped provide incentives for people to locate to the suburbs, knowing that their children or housekeepers can have access to trains, even if they themselves plan to drive to work. And, as former Calgary Transit director John Hubbell pointed out a few years ago, the suburban development patterns have created “strong cross-city travel patterns” for blue-collar workers who live in the low-density suburbs on Calgary’s west side, and must commute to low-density, eastside industrial areas “which are difficult to serve efficiently with public transit service.” With a limited number of major east-west traffic routes, “cross-city traffic congestion is a problem,” Hubbell acknowledged.
Furthermore, despite the dreams of transit planners, the system hasn’t actually gotten people to give up their cars: more people still drive downtown in Calgary than in any other Canadian city. And most transit riders, as everyone who lives here knows, simply drive to and park for free at the LRT stations and then ride the train downtown, rather than pay the $22 median “early bird” daily parking rates in the central business district. The LRT certainly hasn’t saved Calgary the pain of road building costs: the city spends the most in Canada per capita laying asphalt, 25% more than its closest rival, Edmonton, the study reveals.
And then there’s the incalculable economic cost to city industry that comes when the trains have to stop because of an accident, a crime scene investigation, or technical problems, and tens of thousands of commuters are disrupted. Lafleur doesn’t think putting all those Calgarians into cars is the solution and it’s surely too late for that, since the city’s downtown will never recover from a parking shortage this severe. But he does offer an eminently practicable alternative: Bus Rapid Transit.
Bus Rapid Transit is essentially industry jargon for express buses, but has fallen out of favour with municipal politicians. The reasons, Lafleur believes, is because higher levels of government often pick up the bill for train infrastructure, letting municipal politicians “trade off higher capital costs for lower operating costs, even if the total cost is higher” and because cities often overlook, as Calgary has, the hidden costs of light rail. I think it’s just because mayors like choo-choo trains — or at least, as Lafleur points out, so many are intoxicated by visions of urban-hip “transit oriented development” built around LRT stations. These trendy communities result in higher property values, which work out nicely for city tax departments and high-income workers (the ones lucky enough to have parking spots provided for them downtown), but not so well for low-income workers, who are the ones most likely to benefit directly from transit.
Bus Rapid Transit doesn’t just work out from a cost-saving perspective: $0.89 per rider, compared to the recalculated $2.88 for every LRT rider. In every city that uses it (except Los Angeles) BRT moves faster than LRTs, too. But even better, it’s flexible. Buses can be added, or removed, from routes as population and employment patterns shift over time, unlike fixed LRT tracks and stations. BRTs can be quickly set up directly into neighbourhoods that need them, rather than having to extend an expensive LRT line, or requiring people to drive to the nearest station. And, when accidents happen, buses, unlike fixed-rail trains, can reroute. After all, when the C-Trains went down this week in Calgary, the transit managers knew exactly how to respond: they sent fleets of shuttle buses into downtown to replace the trains. It was an elegant, simple and cheap solution and one that Calgary, and other cities, should look to not just as a temporary fix, but a permanent one.