The Urban Environment and Vehicle Travel in Calgary

Written by Kwangyul Choi

Calgary is one of the most automobile-centric cities in Canada. A heavy reliance on automobile travel generates a number of negative impacts in Calgary, such as traffic congestion, air pollution, physical inactivity, and social isolation. According to the travel behaviour report by the City of Calgary, in 2011 79 % of weekday trips in Calgary were made by automobiles with substantial variations by the location of the city. While more than half of trips from the city centre were either walk or bike trips (only 23% of trips were made by automobiles), more than three quarters of trips from outside of the city centre were made by automobiles (70%, 80%, and 82% of weekday trips from the inner city, established outer city, and greenfield areas were made by private vehicles, respectively).

One of the reasons that Calgary’s city centre shows a lower level of auto trips is the fact that a number of destinations are close to homes,so that the residents can more easily travel by other modes of transportation. Hence, promoting compact and mixed-use development and providing transportation alternatives (e.g., public transit) are examples of city planning strategies that can contribute to reducing automobile trips.

My article examines how land use and transportation policies can influence households’ driving behavior in Calgary with a focus of the household’s daily number of vehicle kilometers travelled (VKT). In this article, several city policies including densification, job creation, road network design, public transit service, and decentralization were tested to see if there would be additional benefit of each policy to reduce household daily VKT.

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Generally speaking, Calgarians tend to travel more as they live further from the city centre. The unique spatial character with a strong urban core can explain this trend. The Calgary’s urban core is a place where most work or life related activity opportunities and amenities are clustered. This spatial pattern of the city requires long-distance travel for those who do not live in the city centre or nearby communities. My article suggests that decentralizing the economic, social, cultural role of the city centre could reduce city-wide automobile use.

Statistical models by location of the city, however, show that one policy does not fit all parts of the city. In the city centre, none of the policies I tested had any additional benefit to reducing household VKT because this area is entirely built-up and already highly dense. However, these outcomes do not negate the other benefits of compact and mixed-use development in the urban core. In Calgary’s inner city, promoting density may be the best planning strategy to reduce household VKT. In the developing areas more policies seem to reduce household VKT, which indicates more potential for these policies to have an impact on VKT in areas outside the city centre. Densification and job creation in these areas will be expected to reduce household daily VKT significantly. Providing more public transit services, particularly in Calgary’s newer communities outside the city core, seems to be the most influential policy to reduce household VKT.

Kwangyul Choi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Calgary. His research is part of the Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change. His article, “The influence of the built environment on household vehicle travel by the urban typology in Calgary, Canada” was published in Cities earlier in 2018.

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