Sunday, November 2, 2014

Mount Royal University, The Car Campus

After surveying University of Calgary's relative isolation, I was keen to have a look at the campus at Mount Royal University to determine how walkable the campus is there. With a longer history than University of Calgary, but a relatively brief period as a degree-granting university there might be some differences between the two universities. As with U of C there is a great deal of construction occurring at the Mount Royal campus and even more in the surrounding areas as well as the Currie Barracks area continues with its ongoing development.

The first indications at Mount Royal indicate that the campus is as much a commuter campus as U of C, without the benefits of having direct C-Train service to deliver much of the campus population there on a daily basis.  There is pretty substantial bus service to the campus but there is plenty of car traffic there as well. The first evidence of this is at the university gate which is some distance between the perimeter of campus and the main buildings of the university.  The first stops available are parking lots, sports fields and a parking structure which is commemorated with a plaque marking its opening in January, 2011.  This is not exactly the type of ribbon cutting moment that would be saved for time immemorial in the school's annals.

Apart from that plaque on the campus parking structure there are other signs that the school is not particularly walkable or oriented to pedestrians.  The flashing stop signs that greet the first on-campus intersection are a sign that drivers take a bit more liberty than they ought and that there is a need to tame drivers as well. The next indication is the speed trap flashing drivers' current speeds as they drive the thoroughfare between the Mah building and the Main building of the university. The street is a wide one that does not encourage drivers to slow down and gives them wide enough a berth to make a convenient U-turn to get off campus as quickly as possible.

There seems to be little about the campus to invite people there to meander around. The architecture is consistent in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish the purpose of one building from others and there is little indication of where the main administration is.

All of the retail, which would provide a diversion from the repetition of the long arrays of windows, is indoors and the nearby neighbourhoods are a good distance away and further distanced from the university by the parking lots and athletic fields.

It is unfortunately that once again, a university campus is as isolated as it is from the rest of the city and in the case of Mount Royal, there would have to be questions about what would prompt students, faculty and staff to head outside for a walk, however, brief to contemplate their surroundings or whatever thoughts they might be having. At a time when research is indicating the intellectual benefits that can be gained by walking, it would be beneficial if the campus were altered in ways that made it more walkable, even within its own boundaries, and encouraged the benefits of walking on student life, thought and achievement.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Our Isolated University

One never risks stumbling onto the campus of University of Calgary, or the other post-secondaries in Calgary for that matter, the way one might stumble upon university campus in cities like Halifax, Montreal, or Seattle (just to name a few.)  In Calgary each of the institutions, and I refer to Mount Royal and SAIT to an extent as well, is clearly set off from their surroundings by significant thoroughfares or other barriers that somehow make them less accessible as well.

While Mount Royal has had a downtown presence and SAIT has had its location in the northwest throughout its history, University of Calgary has seemed indefinitely cordoned off by Crowchild Trail, 24th Avenue NW and Shaganappi Trail.  That fluke of geography is often reflected in people's assessment of U of C's place in the community.  Most of the people I talk to about the school say that the school does not feel as much a part of the community despite the energy put into outreach and the establishment of its downtown campus in recent years.

Some may cite the relative youth of the university as one aspect that has kept U of C from more fully integrating into the community.  There is an old anecdote about a Texas billionaire, eager to start or endow a university, asking deans and chancellors of more established school what it takes to start a great university and being told, "100 years."  Perhaps the university is gradually establishing that toehold in the city and that it is just a matter of time.  SAIT and Mount Royal each have much longer histories than U of C and they seem to have closer connections to the rest of the community as well or happen to be nimbler in responding to the needs of the community.

However, the location of the university has created a degree of physical isolation that is exacerbated by the parking lots that add another layer of distance between the school and the city.  The LRT has helped connect the university tot he city more efficiently, but a barrier still remains. Further to that, U of C struggles with the issues of being a commuter campus, which limits the extent to which the students form a campus community. There may be more incentive among the students to get in, finish classes and get out, especially if there are jobs to get to. There is a pragmatism about the school's layout and its space (inside and out) that does not invite or encourage the students or faculty to look beyond the work in front of them. There may be a few offices and classrooms that afford a view of the city surroundings, whether it is north to Nose Hill or south toward downtown, but few spaces provide such vantages.

The architecture on campus has not helped forge stronger ties whether within the university population or with the community beyond.  The oldest buildings on campus tend toward the boxiness of the 1960s and may have been put up quickly to provide the required facilities for the school rather than indulge in a longer planning process or ambitious landmark for the first building on campus. The architecture has improved during a period of exceptionally rapid growth, but there are still brutalist touches and interior darkness to even the more modern buildings, such as the ICT, that impart an inhospitable vibe.  The new digital library is an airy, well-lit space that gives people a view of things happening on campus and creates a sense of connection for those looking through the windows, but it was built at the expense of one of the better treed corners of the campus.

Things are improving, but there is still reason to ponder how much the physical space at the university has influenced the way people have worked and studied there.  To what extent has the space encouraged people to take more pragmatic approaches to their teaching, their studies and their research rather than to lift their eyes beyond their desks and the work in front of them to the take into account the community that they are in?  I do not wish to suggest that there is an attitude within the university that is averse to looking at the community involved, but that the environment at the university inhibits that outward orientation just enough to keep the university and its community contained.

The isolation reduces the chance or synchronicity that would spark and nurture ideas and people together in ways that cultivate innovation and new thinking.  The isolation also reduces the chance of people accidentally finding themselves in the university community and exposed to its potential, something that I have enjoyed encountering in Seattle and Halifax when I have been in those cities. If you go to U of C you have to make a point of going there.

The downtown campus has helped.  It is not a place where people are going to end up by accident, but it is an improved presence for the university and a place where university staff and faculty can communicate with the downtown community and interact with them more regularly.  With plans for the development of the university's West Campus looming there will be a need to ensure that the space is developed in a way the ensures that faculties are integrated more closely together and that the opportunities are created to increase linkages between the city and the university.  There are risks in not making the fullest use of this opportunity, but hopefully the development of this part of the campus will be more passionate and less pragmatic.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brentwood's Transit Oriented Development

For a long time, the area around Brentwood Station has been dominated by strip malls and fast food outlets.  There has been some gradual evolution away from that with the University City development starting to take shape.   Two of its towers are completed and the buildings are taking residential and commercial tenants.

The location is of course transit oriented and it would be quite easy for people to take advantage of the nearby LRT station, which not only features the C-Train but also buses serving Foothills Hospital, the Alberta Children's Hospital, and University of Calgary, just to name the biggest employers in the area. The nearby strip malls, though altered slightly to make space for the development, still have two supermarkets, and other retail and restaurants within walking distance of the towers as well.

While the amenities and location will entice some people to move to the development, there still may not be the infrastructure to make a community out of what has been built there.  The abundant parking the serves the strip malls in the area will keep walking a bit more challenging than it ought to be and there will not be much through those parking lots to entice walkers to meander any.  Apart from the parking lots, the traffic on Crowchild and on the parallel roads that serve the Brentwood LRT station on either side would not entice a lot of pedestrian traffic either.

The development is still a work in progress and there is plenty of opportunity yet for the people living there to have their impact on the neighbourhood, but the longer standing businesses still make their presence known.  The ground level units in the development provide people with views of the parking lot at the Wendy's and the service area for the Jameson's pub.  The smell, sight and clatter of dumpster pick up and restaurant staff stealing out back for a smoke may not give people the sense that they are at home as much as they happen to be living in a neighbouring business's recently compromised parking.

There is further development to unfold in the area but despite the fixtures, benches and other touches to enhance the walkability and the curb appeal of the University City development there is still a chance that things do not live up to their promise.  If, as is a common problem with many condominiums, the development finds itself home to more renters than owners the area may not achieve the critical mass to help spark the momentum toward a sense of community there.  If it is left to happenstance and it becomes a matter of residents knitting together a neighbourhood out of chance encounters in elevators and hallways in the building and then in the nearby grocery aisles, cafes and pubs the development will have a chance at fostering a community.  As it stands though, it looks like it will take some effort and commitment among the people who move there to achieve this.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Parking Oriented Transit: Walkability Around 39th Street Station

Images for this blog post are located on my Flickr page with notes accompanying the images for further description and clarification.

Ideally, transit and walkability would reinforce one another but there are a number of LRT stations in Calgary that are clearly oriented toward park and ride usage.  The stations in the Northwest beyond Lion's Park Station are the clearest examples of the park and ride orientation and those stations successfully funnel riders from neighbouring communities from bus routes onto the LRT.  As the LRT turns south to serve the stations south of Stampede Park there might be some question about how the continued orientation to park and rides when there is so much more retail, commercial and light industrial business in those areas.  At Chinook Station the shuttle from there to Chinook Centre for retail customers underscores the large numbers of pedestrians that use that station and perhaps suggest that the station could have better served the area west rather than east of MacLeod Trail.

In this post, however, I'd like to turn my attention to 39th Street Station for the lack of infrastructure to support or encourage pedestrian use of the station.  There is some residential use on the opposite side of MacLeod Trail, but pedestrians might find the distance a bit prohibitive.  In the immediate vicinity of the station, there are a few car lots, a hotel, a building supplies store and municipal impound yard. Despite the large amounts of parking in the area and other aspects that favour car use, there is a reasonable amount of pedestrian traffic.  I don't have a scientific measure of the amount of pedestrian traffic, but there are places where pedestrian short cuts have beaten clear paths through grass.

The sidewalks that are in the vicinity of the station and are among the most uninviting in the city.  On MacLeod Trail, there is sufficient cement around, but the vehicular traffic on MacLeod and the lack of inviting destinations in the area undermines the walkability of the area.  (Ironically enough, crews were paving the interior of a median on MacLeod Trail on the day I took the images for this post.)  East of MacLeod the walking infrastructure is abysmal.  There are parts of sidewalks that have been unattended despite significant deterioration.  In some spots there are little to no curbs to separate the sidewalks from the road or driving areas and truncations for various driveways and railway tracks.  On 42nd Avenue between MacLeod Trail and Blackfoot Trail, the sidewalk on the south side of the street is unmaintained throughout the autumn and winter, despite it being the more suitable walking surface.  The only rationale that I can think of for this is that pedestrians using 39th Street Station would have to cross the street to get to that more user-friendly path.  On the north side of 42nd Avenue, the sidewalk has curb cuts that directs pedestrians into the oncoming traffic when it has any and there is a large stretch of the sidewalk that consists of disintegrating patio stone slabs that are being encroached upon by near by grass.  Despite the signage that the south side of the street is not maintained during the winter, (something that may suggest that the north side would be maintained) the snow removal on the north side is minimal to non-existent.

Despite the difficult sidewalks in the area, it is still used by some pedestrians.  It may not be a number that meets a threshold to require better maintenance but there is some.  Improvements to the walking in the area would not have to start with a complete overhaul of the paths on the north side of 42nd Avenue, which disappears entirely over the last 50-75 metres heading east to Blackfoot Trail.  One solution would be to put in a pedestrian crossing signal directly south of 39th Street Station to allow pedestrians to cross safely to the wider sidewalk on the south side of the street.  This would also require that the sidewalk be maintained year-round with snow removal.  The intersection of 42nd Avenue and Blackfoot may also need to be assessed to ensure that pedestrians have enough time to cross that intersection safely if their destination happens to be on the north side of 42nd Avenue.

I may be understating matters when talking about walkability.  Given some of the conditions, it may be necessary to call into question pedestrian safety in the areas where they would have to get into the traffic on 42nd Avenue because of the absence of any sidewalks whatsoever.  Hopefully the decision is not to leave pedestrians to use 42nd Avenue at their own risk until there is enough pedestrian traffic to justify giving more attention to the sidewalks in this area.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Employee Parking

I lived in Japan from 1995 to 2003 and was spoiled for transit.  For the majority of my stay, in Kyoto, I had the option of three train lines to go to work, one of which so close to my apartment that I could slip on my shoes as the signal at the nearby level crossing sounded, take the two flights of stairs to the street and board the train at my station as it pulled up.  The other two lines were run by Hankyu, a large conglomerate that directed its traffic to its flagship department store and real estate developments in downtown Osaka and Japan Rail, the national railroad that links the entire country together and is responsible for developing and operating the shinkansen (bullet train).

The experience there comes to mind not so much because of the convenience of rail in the neighbourhood where I lived but for one contract negotiation I had with an employer there.  It is common practice for employers to pay for their staff's rail pass to commute to work.  I had even seen salarymen who had passes that allowed them to take pretty substantial daily trips via the shinkansen from home well outside the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto metropolitan area.  Clearly this is a pretty expensive commitment on the part of employers and of course it helps subsidize rail service as well.  At the risk of digressing before getting to the account of my negotiation there was one Japanese colleague I had worked with who was looking to sell his car after owning if for about 10 years and disclosed that it only had 40,000 km on it.

For the negotiation in question I was offered a rather disappointing raise despite my length of service and the strong evaluations I had received.  I decided to make the case that I was cheaper than a new teacher because of the low cost the school paid for my commuting, which was 310 Yen one-way compared to the 980 Yen they would pay for a fresh-off-the-plane, prone-to-taking-the-train-west- instead-of-east, completely inexperienced teacher with a dodgy command of the fundamentals of English grammar.  Given my job performance and the difference in transportation costs, I tried to make the case that it would be more cost effective to keep me with the salary I was requesting than it would cost to replace me.  If they could pay me the savings they were making on transportation then I would stay.  They chose not to and saw that fresh-faced replacement last about 3 weeks.

The interesting thing that transfers to the Canadian context is that employees rarely have as transparent and accounting of what their employers are paying for their "free" parking (if and when it is provided). There are few organizations that provide incentives for employees to use transit or to walk for the sake of sparing the organization the cost of providing a parking lot.  Whether it is an expanded footprint to provide surface parking on site or the cost of building, maintaining and enforcing underground parking on site the costs are rarely integrated into the consideration of the compensation packages unless they are motivated by a shortage of parking and want to entice employees to use transit to forego any tensions over on-site parking for an organization that is starting to grow beyond the space that it has for its staff.

In Calgary, a monthly transit pass is $90 a month and there are few if any places in downtown Calgary where a "free" parking place that an employer provides its staff could be built, maintained and operated for that monthly rate.  It may be worthwhile for more employers to open up this aspect of its compensation to staff and look at strategies to make more feasible use of that space.  While there are annual weeks that are dedicated to improving use of transit or bicycles or other forms of commuting to work, it may be worthwhile to look at ways to incentivize transit use or walking to work (if there is a formula to value that).  Perhaps the simple benefit of paying for a transit pass would be sufficient.  That would impact overhead that an employer takes on for providing parking and perhaps even create an alternative revenue stream by renting the surplus parking out rather than retaining it at a loss and skewing the cost of parking and the compensation that is provided to your employees by not fully accounting for those costs.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Walking Habit

I must confess that it has been an inordinately long time since I've added anything here.  There was a period when I thought other people were covering this topic better than I was from post-to-post and that the walkability of Calgary neighbourhoods was something that I may have been a repetitive voice on.

At the risk of being a repetitive voice I'm going to resume in earnest because there are so many thing that connect to the topic of walking rather than just the appeal or walkability of our city and its neighbourhoods.

At this point I'm going to reflect on why I'm the walker that I am because it is something that puzzles me as much as anyone else, unless it is simply a matter of being that stingy.  I have purchased a car since I last posted anything here, a red hybrid that was purchased for the purpose of ferrying our newborn around and something I occasionally refer to as my mid-life crisis car, it being red and all.

Despite the purchase I will still insist on using transit or foot to go to or from some of the destinations I go with my son.  On Saturdays I often walk the sleeping lad home some 8 kilometres after a constitutional pizza lunch with friends.  It exposes me regularly to some of the drearier and more poorly equipped stretches of the city but I also get a chance to stroll through Mission, downtown and Kensington as I return to home as well and let my son take in some of the sights as we roll through the city.

The long walks go back to my teens, however.  I grew up in the greater Halifax area and from ages 10-15, I lived in a suburb or subdivision outside of Dartmouth and every once in a while I would head to the nearest library, if the bus wasn't on schedule, I would never bother to wait for it and just head off on foot.  It was about a 5K walk one way and the uphill return trip was somewhat daunting but it never phased me.  The only year I had to take the bus to school during that time was in Grade 6 and the walks to school (what a novel concept) were never particularly long either.

The walk was a chance to leverage some adolescent independence and have a bit time to my introverted self.  The impulse to get on the bus and go further, to a mall for one, never appealed to me as often.  At a time that predated the walkman there was nothing to entertain me along the way other than my thoughts or the movement of traffic around me.  I still don't know what it was that compelled me to walk as much as I did other than that small dollop of independence.

To this day it remains.  Other than the walks with my son that fill many of my Saturdays, it is remarkable to say that walked to and from work for near 6 of the last 9 years and when pushed I've resorted to transit rather than commuting in my own car.

Going back to those walks alongside a 4-lane highway to get to the library, there has been little that has deterred me from heading somewhere on foot.  Walking along MacLeod Trail has never been appealing or discouraging for that matter, but I have done it - often to the surprise of the drivers who seem to find a pedestrian out of place.  With my walks to work on 14 Avenue SW there is probably a similar emphasis on the vehicle over the pedestrian but there are more kindred spirits walking on that route.

The benefits are numerous, from the simple movement of my feet and chance to burn calories (or in my case eat that many more without ballooning) to the state of mind that a good walk instills at the start of the day.  For me it probably staves off a restlessness that would not be slaked by sitting in a car for a commute to work.

More thoughts to follow.  Promise.