Things Calgary can learn from Copenhagen

I recently got back from four months in Copenhagen and living abroad teaches you about what you love and hate about where you are from. I am proud that I come from a place that I think it worth visiting — although that goes down considerably during Stampede — even if it’s just because the mountains are gorgeous. Calgary has ample sunlight and nature abounds. The mountains hover at the eastern edge of the city and are a mecca of natural wonders. Then there are the eternal downsides, which are what Copenhagen has to offer. Calgary is a farce of urban planning. Single family homes and cars rule the day. Building an additional six C-Train stops was an impeccable feat that is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Copenhagen on the other hand is a city designed to live in — both intentionally and unintentionally. That is partially what drew me to the city. Monocle published published an article raving about all that the city had to offer. I agree it is so very liveable. You do not need a car. Buildings are all about 6–9 stories high. Calgary has the opposite cars are almost mandatory and buildings are either a single family home or a skyscraper. Calgary wins on the sunlight factor. Copenhagen is known for grey days, which only got worse as we got deeper into winter.

  1. Metro: Copenhagen has a magical public transit network. You can get almost anywhere you want in the city fairly quickly by public transit. For me this mostly meant the metro, and on occasion the s-tog (s-trains) which are slower and serve areas just outside Copenhagen as well. Between the metro and the s-tog most parts of the city have access to quick and easy trains.
    The c-train is great, if you live or work close to it but two lines for a city with a population of 1.2 million is a joke. Buses are painful to take during rush hour and get stuck in traffic. The west LRT is one thing but was long over due and only begins to scratch the surface of what is needed.
    If Calgary was willing to see LRT infrastructure as an investment and good planning then perhaps we would be a better planned, more liveable city and fewer people would have to drive to work.
  2. Night transit: In Calgary the bars always thin out around last train/bus. This is a sad sad situation. It would not be very hard to run trains every 30 minutes after 1 a.m. and it would leave Calgarians with far more options. In Copenhagen trains run around every ten minutes during the night. This seems like a very long time by Copenhagen standards — yes in Copenhagen trains run often enough that when you miss one you know another is coming very soon and ten minutes is a long time to wait.
  3. Quantity over quality in grocery stores: I was lucky to live within a two minute walk of three groceries stores. There was one in the building next to mine where it took longer to ride the elevator down than to walk to the store. There are small groceries stores very frequently meaning that almost everybody is within walking distance of a grocery store. Not everyone has as many choices as I did but they can hop out for some milk and don’t have to grab the car keys.
    In Calgary I am a thirty minute walk each way from my nearest grocery store. I have little choice but to drive there. There used to be a Safeway a five minute walk from my house but it got closed down because it was too small and not competitive enough. The same thing took our library. We don’t need huge groceries stores, we need stores that stock enough to make dinner or lunch. I prefer going to the store quickly everyday or popping out for that one essential ingredient because it will take five minutes. I don’t want to buy a weeks worth of groceries just because my city is so poorly planned that I don’t live near a 7/11 let alone a grocery store.
  4. Cycling: Everyone has heard about Copenhagen’s legendary bicycle lanes and cycling culture. It is said that there are more bikes than people in Copenhagen and I don’t find this hard to believe. Getting a bike after arriving was absolutely essential and was a huge part of my exchange. The first upside was that my bike was far cheaper than taking transit (a single fare costs about $4 CDN, which at a $1 more than Calgary at least you get what you pay for).
    Copenhagen has worked hard to have the cycling infrastructure that it has. Bike lanes are present in almost all places, and where you don’t have them you don’t really need them. As much as everyone loves Copenhagen’s bike lanes, which don’t get me wrong are great, I do have one major problem with their godlike status: their elevated nature (they are between sidewalks and the road in elevation). I was always terrified of passing someone and going too far towards the edge and falling or trying to get onto one and missing the ramp and falling hard on my face and arm. I’ve heard horror stories of falls like this and though I never feared traffic I did fear that edge. I don’t mind Calgary’s bike lanes that are even with traffic. They could be wider with room for two bikes like Copenhagen’s are, but they leave you with the ability to leave your lane and enter the road easily if need be. Rumble strips could be a good way of creating a boundary without physically creating a boundary.
    But more than their bike lanes is the attitude of Danes. Cyclists are king of the world, pedestrians yield to them and more importantly so do cars. The consequences of hitting a cyclist are enormous legally and generally there is an attitude of respect for cyclists. As a cyclist you don’t stop for pedestrians or cars because you are first priority. You are doing something sustainable and healthy, and also it is harder for you to stop. Everything is put in place to favour and encourage cyclists. It is impossible not to feel safe. Though riding downtown during rush hour can be a harrowing experience. It was like the Tour de France peloton but with much less effective breaks.
    The biggest thing that makes cycling safe is that everyone is looking out for and respects cyclists. Drivers are so aware of cyclists that they would never hit you while turning and yield to cyclists without hesitation. Calgarians have a long way to go on this front. How many Calgary drivers shoulder check for cyclists before turning right? Probably about one or two per cent. How many drive in bike lanes to dodge traffic? Far too many — seriously they’re called bike lanes for a reason. We can put in all the bike lanes we want, and yes we should put in lots more, but if drivers don’t do simple things to protect cyclists then it will always be dangerous.
    The other big difference is that in Copenhagen buses don’t pull into bike lanes (probably because they can’t) eliminating one of the biggest problems with Calgary’s bike lanes. If buses don’t pull into bike lanes then cyclists don’t have to worry about getting caught in a blind spot. Only bikes should go in bike lanes.
    Calgary is starting to get more and more bike lanes and that is great. We should be putting them in in a lot more places. We aren’t going to become Copenhagen but we can at least start moving in the right direction.
    There is also the upside of the Copenhagen fit. When you ride your bike everywhere you are generally in very good shape. You don’t have to think about going to the gym because you know that by just living your everyday life you are getting in more than enough cardio. You don’t have to worry about eating that brownie for desert because you will surely burn off the calories on the way home.
  5. Regional trains: It is not exactly revolutionary to say that Calgary would be better off if there was regional train service or it had a Via Rail terminal but this hasn’t happened yet. I have no idea why this is.
    Copenhagen is well connected to its surrounding area and like any good European city (or any sensible city) has a vast and efficient train network. You can hop on a train and get just about anywhere in Zealand, Denmark or Europe for that matter. The s-tog also serves the Copenhagen region and not just the city proper, so people living in suburbs and neighbouring communities can take the train to work instead of driving. Imagine if residents of Airdrie could hop on the c-train to get to work instead of the Deerfoot. Crazy right? Imagine if everyone in Fort Mac could hop a high speed train, or you and your friends could take the train down to Edmonton for a shopping spree at West Ed. How liberating that would be for high school and university students.