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The proposed rendering of a busy street in central Calgary turned into a pedestrian/bike zone.Handout

Calgary is proposing to shut down a busy stretch of roadway on the edges of its downtown and build an underpass beneath a railway crossing to create an area for pedestrians and cyclists.

The transformation of a level railway crossing that links the downtown core with the Beltline neighbourhood to the south would be a significant departure in a city that has a reputation for prioritizing cars. It is also part of a trend away from vehicle-dominant urban planning in Canada.

The project to bypass the Canadian Pacific railway at 11 St. SW entered the final stage of consideration in June as city planners proposed a reduced-traffic and a car-free option to residents. The planners said they favoured the car-free proposal.

“This project is really looking at the future of this connection in the west end of Calgary,” said Shane LeBouthillier, a project manager and senior engineer with the city’s transportation department.

Mr. LeBouthillier said the 11 St SW. project is important because it is the last crossing in the city where the railroad tracks are at ground level instead of elevated or buried.

At such crossings, cars and pedestrians can’t get to the other side while a train is passing, said Mr. LeBouthillier, adding that this causes congestion because the city is heavily dependent on private forms of transportation.

Public consultation on the options for the underpass – a road with less room for traffic than before, or an outdoor walkway with greenery and dedicated bike paths – closed on June 29, with the final phase of negotiations to begin after the long weekend.

Duelling opinions over how cities should accommodate cars, cyclists and pedestrians have shaped municipal politics across North America over the past decade, but the debate has become more common in the COVID-19 pandemic as the explosion of outdoor patios and the expansion of active transportation networks eat into existing roadways.

Peter Oliver, president of the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association – an organization of local homeowners that has advocated for a driverless version of the crossing – said that despite some initial resistance, people are generally warming up to the idea of reimagining Calgary’s urban spaces to be more pedestrian-friendly.

“I think it’s been acknowledged that there needs to be more consideration for how people can use transit to get around within the greater downtown as opposed to just these sort of routes that are sort of more hub and spoke just taking everyone from one corner of the city to the downtown,” Mr. Oliver said.

Although undecided on which of the two options he prefers, Beltline councillor Terry Wong said he supports making Calgary’s downtown more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists.

Mr. Wong, who recently spent time in Toronto, said “there are some things to be learned” by examining the walkability and freedom of movement that pedestrians have in other Canadian cities that could be applied to Calgary’s downtown.

“At the end of the day, I think, you know, people enjoy the vibrancy of what Toronto brings,” he said. “Being able to go to retail stores, restaurants, pubs, and walk through the streets without having to worry about a lot of cars on the road.”

Toronto has in recent years adopted pedestrian-friendly initiatives. The King Street Transit Priority Corridor essentially bans most cars from driving on the busiest stretch of the street during peak hours, making way for pedestrians, cyclists and streetcars. Its ActiveTO program, introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, converts major high-speed traffic arteries into bike and pedestrian-only zones on weekends.

According to Bev Sandalack, a professor specializing in urban design at the University of Calgary, cities such as Toronto have the advantage of being designed to contend with features like hills and slopes. Many of the problems in Calgary, which is built on flat plains, lie in its grid-like design that favours fast-moving traffic over walkable streets, along with its construction around a railway that has been at the city’s heart for more than 100 years.

Rather than simply reimagining how to cross the rail line, Prof. Sandalack believes the rail line itself needs to be dealt with, citing the potential for a major accident like a derailment involving hazardous or explosive cargo in the city’s centre.

“I think it may take something like an accident, a derailment, an oil spill, something really, really catastrophic, to get people to think that it is really not a good idea to have heavy rail going through the downtown,” Prof. Sandalack said, noting that trains pass through several times a day.

Based on her experiences visiting Oslo, Norway, where local governments buried a downtown railway, Prof. Sandalack said she wishes Calgary would put the line underground – an idea proposed in 2016.

“It’s just a matter of how you prioritize things,” she said.

Criticisms aside, Prof. Sandalack is optimistic that the general trend in Canada is toward an increased focus on things such as cycling infrastructure and accessible experiences for pedestrians, which she says is key to making livable urban spaces that will last.

“I think people generally know what’s best, from an urban design point of view,” she said.

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