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Commuters walk in The Plus 15Skyway network in Calgary, Alberta, February 24, 2020. It is one of the world's most extensive pedestrian skywalk systems, with a total length of 18 kilometres and 62 bridges.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Calgary wants to expand the system of elevated walkways that links many of its downtown buildings and make it easier to navigate the much-loved network, despite a continuing economic downturn that has stalled most new construction in the city.

For much of the year Calgary’s downtown pedestrian traffic largely disappears from the city’s sidewalks, shunted into the Plus-15s, a network of 86 sky bridges that crisscross the city core and link buildings on their second floors. It’s impossible to navigate downtown Calgary without running into the 16-kilometre network and its symbol, a cowboy wearing a white hat.

Calgary’s officials are nearing the end of a study that is looking at making the system larger, with a proposal to broaden it north toward the Bow River and an expected station on a new light-rail line being planned. Officials are also looking at changing the rules for the Plus-15s for the first time in 36 years, with a focus on improving navigation and increasing the hours the network is open to pedestrians.

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The city’s economy has nosedived in recent years, with unemployment increasing sharply and nearly a quarter of office space now empty. There have been estimates that up to 80,000 jobs might have been lost downtown during a recession that started in 2015 after a fall in oil prices. Most of those jobs have yet to return.

Despite the economic headwinds, building owners still want new connections to the Plus-15s, according to Charmaine Buhler, who runs the network for the city. “Building owners value the Plus-15 network. We’re seeing some applications coming in where building owners are looking at adding new bridges,” she said in an interview.

“The value isn’t just moving people, but connecting all of downtown. What we’ve heard from owners is that they don’t need all the amenities in their building when they are part of the system, they can leverage a neighbouring building’s amenities,” Ms. Buhler added.

The Plus-15s, named for the height in feet that the pathways are above the ground, are a marriage of public and private. The pathways bridging Calgary’s wide avenues and streets are owned by the city, but built and maintained by the private owners of the buildings they connect. All buildings downtown pay into a fund meant to pay for upkeep and expansion of the network.

While Calgary isn’t alone in having a downtown pedestrian network – Montreal is home to the Underground City and Toronto’s PATH system serves a similar purpose – the Plus-15s are different in one way that leads to their popularity: The glass-enclosed system lets in the bright Prairie sun most days. Along with the throngs of the business crowd, it’s not unusual to see walking groups or a sky bridge being taken over by a tai chi class, said Ms. Buhler.

The Plus-15s were also a central element in the film waydowntown, where a group of Calgarians wager to see who can stay in the system the longest.

According to city data, the busiest bridge on the system carried 35,000 pedestrians in a single day in 2018. By comparison, downtown’s busiest pedestrian-only thoroughfare of Stephen Avenue saw 27,000 people on its busiest day that same year during the Stampede.

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“You get natural light here. There were times in Toronto where I lived and worked in the PATH and I could go the day without seeing light. You just stay in the catacombs. You know, as a daily user of the plus-15s, everything seems to make sense,” said Greg Kwong, Alberta regional managing director for commercial realtor CBRE.

One thing that could use improving, according to Mr. Kwong, is navigation. He said there are certain jogs in the system where visitors seem to get lost, and because the sky bridges don’t cross over every road, it can be hard for people to find their way to a specific building downtown.

According to the city, the top three suggestions to improve the system are to expand it, apply standard hours across the network and make it easier to navigate. Along with more signage, better maps and an app to help people get to where they want to go, early findings from the city’s study suggest that the logo of the cowboy with a white hat might need to go. “Visitors to Calgary don’t always understand the logo and what the +15 represents,” according to a city report.

Lupita Dragt is a daily sight for thousands of Calgarians as she operates one of the shoeshine stands in the Plus-15s. Despite the downturn, she says she’s seen steady business.

“There are fewer people, so many empty offices,” she said recently during a break. Her small stand is in one of the sky bridges between two large office buildings. “Some of them have come back. I see them and say, ‘I haven’t seen you in a long time.’ They tell me they’ve changed jobs or changed companies. Some people also come back to me before a job interview.”

Some nearby buildings have tried to entice her to move to their part of the Plus-15, but she says she won’t move. "This is my spot, people know to find me here,” she said with a smile.

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