This article was adapted from a larger feature article on sustainable transportation, A Better Way, originally published in Canadian Geographic’s June 2012 Environment Issue.
Calgary’s light-rail transit (LRT) system is one of the continent’s busiest, carrying more than 270,000 passengers every weekday. But the CTrain is known for an even more impressive fact: it’s the first and only LRT in North America to run on 100 percent renewable energy.
Powered by 60 turbines from TransAlta’s Castle River wind farm near Pincher Creek, in southern Alberta, the CTrain’s aptly named “Ride the Wind” initiative has eliminated more than 325,000 tonnes of CO² emissions since the program began in 2001. “That’s like decreasing the number of private vehicle trips on Calgary’s streets by more than eight million every year,” says Theresa Schroder, Calgary Transit’s communications strategist.
LRTs are best suited for busy urban thoroughfares that are too densely populated for city buses but perhaps not quite busy enough for the huge expense of a subway system. Calgary fits the bill perfectly. Even though the city is spread out and was originally built for the car, explains Schroder, roughly half the downtown workers now take transit to work. If they all decided to drive, she says, it would be traffic chaos — an extra 74,000 vehicles in the downtown core every day. Trains alleviate these bottlenecks effectively because they can carry a large number of passengers — the CTrain carries 600 people per trip — and unlike buses and city streetcars, they are separated from other traffic and not slowed down by it.
LRTs are not just about sustainability and convenient transit options. They also satisfy the bottom line. As part of its consideration for an LRT in Hamilton, Metrolinx reviewed the experiences of several cities around the world. The agency’s 2010 study found that property values can be as much as six percent higher for vacant residential land close to LRT stations and 14 percent higher for vacant commercial properties. Reliable and fast transit encourages businesses to expand in the downtown core, and the LRT stations act as hubs for future growth and development.
With Calgary setting an example, other Canadian cities are looking to build LRT systems to unclog busy arteries the sustainable way. In June 2011, Waterloo Regional Council approved a light-rail link between Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, three closely linked cities southwest of Toronto that are connected by a very congested main road. Urban planners hope that a light-rail line, scheduled to be completed by 2017, will transform the Waterloo region by controlling urban sprawl and supporting downtown revitalization.
For Ottawa City Council, which recently approved plans for an LRT along the existing Transitway, including a tunnel through the city’s downtown, the benefits will not be confined just to easing congestion. By limiting car usage, an LRT will reclaim densely packed downtown spaces for pedestrians and cyclists and promote healthier lifestyles. To take advantage of that scenario, Ottawa is planning to invest in artwork gleaned from nearby communities for permanent display in transit stations. It’s just part of a larger effort by the capital, described as “arguably the largest and most important public project in its history,” to ensure that the city’s downtown transforms alongside its transit system.