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As Calgary city faces a downtown vacancy problem, traffic congestion and steep parking costs, the future of the downtown core is unknown.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

When COVID-19 hit, Calgary was one of many cities that created pop-up bike lanes, quiet streets and curb-lane patios. As the pandemic recedes, building on that sort of adaptivity around how people move about and use public spaces will be crucial as the city tries to reinvent its downtown, evolving past a model where the primary goal has been funnelling people in and out of the core.

It’s a tall order. The decline in the number of workers that has pushed office vacancy in the downtown to 30 per cent – a problem that largely predates the onset of COVID-19 and the rise of remote work – has already raised questions about the city’s transit expansion plans. Some parts of the new vision, such as electric scooters, can seem more like gimmicks than meaningful modes of transportation.

Drivers who are personally leery about getting on public transit may resist giving up space on the roads. And the prospect of switching one-way roads to two-way is controversial almost everywhere.

However, such a shift would not only reflect the new situation in the downtown, it would help spur the future the city hopes to build there.

“It’s [about] that resiliency and providing that flexibility for people to explore different ways to commute to work in the downtown or to experience the downtown,” said Doug Morgan, general manager of the city’s transportation department and a former head of Calgary Transit.

“It’s really about treating the downtown like a neighbourhood … and really moving away from the big tenants to those small, nimble tech companies that want to come in and really have a place where their employees can live, work and play at the same time.”

Calgary’s transit ridership saw a nosedive during the pandemic, as did that of most cities. And in Calgary’s case, the drop came on the heels of another decline.

A years-long economic downturn in the oil sector prompted layoffs and bankruptcies that have hollowed out the downtown core. Tens of thousands of jobs vanished in the span of a few years. There were far fewer workers to commute into town each day.

The city is pushing ahead, though, with a third light-rail transit line into the downtown. The first phase of the Green Line, a $5.5-billion, 46-kilometre LRT project that will eventually bisect the city to the far north and south, was recently approved after years of delays and debate about its design – and whether the city can afford it.

Proceeding with the transit expansion may not be as illogical as it seems. Although the postpandemic future of downtowns remains to be written, analyses from early 2020 that predicted the end of cities have proven wildly pessimistic. Cities are coming back, and every serious municipality needs transit to function effectively.

In the case of Calgary, transit is even more important than for some cities its size. By deciding a generation ago not to add road capacity into the core, the city coded a substantial role for transit into its transportation DNA. And LRT lines designed to feed the city centre will assume a growing secondary role as the downtown population swells.

City-centre residents who need to access amenities outside the core can use light rail as a reverse-direction option. Two-way ridership means the Red, Blue and eventual Green lines need not serve commuters exclusively, making the routes more economically robust.

The missing link, according to Francisco Alaniz Uribe, an assistant professor and co-director of the Urban Lab at the University of Calgary, is connecting neighbourhoods in the first ring around the core with each other and the LRT lines. He noted that the budding bus rapid-transit network is a start in this direction but isn’t expansive enough.

Better links in these areas would have the indirect effect of making the downtown more attractive to business, Prof. Alaniz Uribe explained: Reducing the need to drive for residents just outside the downtown makes these areas more desirable places to live for the employees of the sort of businesses Calgary wants to attract to its core.

“A lot of new companies tend to be knowledge-based, creative industries,” he said.

“Startups and entrepreneurial new companies, new businesses [whose] workers are looking for cities that provide that richness, that vibrancy in that they don’t have to be driving everywhere, they have this accessibility of transit and walking communities and communities that can offer them a lot close by. And I think that is something that we are still missing.”

Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rates have prompted the city to draft a plan for reinventing the core to make it a vibrant place to live and work. And how the streets and public spaces are used is central to the vision, which includes investment in walking and cycling, a look at expanding the free-transit zone downtown, more street trees and even possible vehicle restrictions on some streets to draw people to the area.

“Calgary has no shortage of great destinations, but the spaces we use to move between them needs to be improved,” the Greater Downtown Plan states. “By making spaces more comfortable and livable along important corridors, streets become more than just places of transition. Public realm improvements are critical to foster social interaction and economic well-being for residents.”

The city has a ways to go to achieve such a vision, acknowledges long-time councillor Druh Farrell, who did not run again in the recent municipal election. Before leaving office, she sat in on two decades of meetings of the city’s transportation committee.

“We have treated our downtown like a central business district, where the transportation system is built for a quick exit, and it shows,” Ms. Farrell said.

“Downtown must look different if it’s going to thrive in the future. And so, it’s the act of letting go of old ideas.”

She pointed to city efforts to provide safer cycling during the pandemic as the sort of new thinking that is needed. She also wondered if rush-hour parking restrictions are still needed. But the hottest button she touched was whether the city should convert some one-way streets.

One-way streets are typically beloved by motorists for their efficiency at moving traffic. But they are bemoaned by others, who point to the risks these streets pose to pedestrians and cyclists and their negative economic impact on local retail. They are a type of infrastructure that requires politicians to weigh competing goals.

One new councillor stands ready to champion such a shift.

Courtney Walcott, who was elected in Ward 8, wants to test making 11th and 12th avenues two-way roads, the way they were decades ago. “It’s time we seriously consider how such a move could help our local economy, improve the vibrancy of our downtown and make Calgary a magnet city,” he said in his campaign materials.

Mr. Morgan, the head of the city’s transportation department, was cautiously open to the idea when asked about converting one-ways.

“The downtown discussion, and developing our downtown, is the perfect venue to do that, to talk about what are we trying to do, what quality of life are we looking for, and is that a tool or a pathway to get there,” he said.

“So it’s certainly on our radar, we’re certainly talking about it. And, if with other modes like transit and scooter and bike-share, if that can take the need for roadway capacity away and gives us the option to open that up, I think that’s a great outcome. So certainly it’s got to be in our toolkit of how we create great places for Calgarians. We just have to be thoughtful about how we get there.”

Vacant Calgary: This is part of a series on the future of Calgary’s downtown, hit by years of economic decline that has left its office towers nearly a third vacant, and the solutions that could drive a recovery.

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