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Rendering of Calgary's proposed Green Line LRT, showing how a ground-level station may look.

City of Calgary

Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and a former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine.

The consequences of COVID-19 continue to ripple outward, with businesses and households across the country scrambling to adjust and adapt. But there may be no space more disrupted than our cities, where an ever-expanding majority of the country lives and works. That’s because the pandemic has thrown many defining aspects of urban living into doubt, from our comfort with density to our willingness to use shared infrastructure such as public transit.

For proponents of Calgary’s Green Line LRT, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

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That project, which has been the subject of serious discussion by local officials for almost a decade now, promises to eventually serve 60,000 riders a day with its 46 kilometres of track and 28 new stations once both stages are built. Calgary has secured an agreement with both the federal and provincial governments that will see them each match the city’s $1.5-billion investment, and the project is expected to create 20,000 new jobs – no small matter at a time of such massive economic dislocation. And yet the final vote on its fate, scheduled for June 15, is very much in question.

That’s partially a function of a well-funded campaign, headlined by local business heavyweights such as Jim Gray and Brian Felesky, to downscale the project and downsize its ambitions. The hypocrisy inherent in a group of people fighting these costs while endorsing the $275-million that Calgary taxpayers will be sending to the owners of the Calgary Flames should be obvious. But the concerns around the Green Line are also a reflection of the growing sense that public transit may not be an essential feature in a post-pandemic world – especially if people aren’t willing to use it.

Ian Brodie, a former chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper and one of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s remaining staffers, gave voice to this concern on Twitter. “I do wonder if the Calgary Green line still makes sense in the virus pandemic world,” he wrote. “It still seems to me that rapid transit as an industry will be hard hit in the new normal.” He also put the city’s recent emphasis on replacing suburban sprawl with urban densification under the microscope. “Given how much space we have in southern Alberta, maybe really low-density suburban development will become our new competitive advantage.”

This is obvious heresy for urbanists, who understand that suburban sprawl tends to serve the interests of home builders and developers far more than the taxpayers who end up footing the bill for new sewers, roads and other infrastructure.

But pandemics are times of fear, not facts, and in the absence of an effective vaccine, those fears may begin to take root. That’s certainly one of the worries that the University of British Columbia’s Patrick Condon, one of Canada’s leading thinkers on urban design and sustainability, has about the current moment. “I think this will be another blow to urban transit,” he said, “which is ironic because transit will be needed to solve the climate crisis.”

Richard Florida, another noted urbanist, thinks we could easily see a flight to the perceived safety of the suburbs. “Fear of density, and of subways and trains in particular, plus a desire for safer, more private surroundings, may pull some toward the suburbs and rural areas,” he told Foreign Policy. “Families with children and the vulnerable, in particular, may trade their city apartments for a house with a backyard.” Mr. Florida doesn’t think it will last, mind you, noting that “predictions of the death of cities always follow shocks like this one.”

But while places like Toronto and New York may actually benefit from lower rents, less demand and an opportunity to bring back the artists, entrepreneurs and other creative citizens who had been getting squeezed out by high costs, Calgary is in a much different position. Its downtown has already been hollowed out by collapsing oil prices and the structural changes in the oil and gas industry that followed them, and its tax base has eroded accordingly. If Calgarians want to see the glittering towers that define its skyline filled with people again, they’ll have to do more than hope for a return to the past.

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That’s where the Green Line comes in. It’s an investment in a future that looks a lot different than the past – one in which urbanism has prevailed over sprawl; lower greenhouse-gas emissions are a higher priority; and people and communities come together instead of continually spreading apart. If that ends up being a casualty of COVID-19, it will cost future generations of Calgarians far more than just money.

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