Increased Density Doesn't Always Mean More Traffic

It seems inevitable that every time a new infill condo development gets announced the neighbours immediately cry “It will generate too much traffic!”   However, according to the team at Bunt & Associated Engineering Ltd. who has completed many “Transportation Impact Assessments (TIAs)” for new condo projects in Calgary this may be more myth than fact.   

Here are three of the major myths many Calgarians have about new condos and traffic:

Myth #1: Density always brings more traffic. 

Within many inner city neighbourhoods, traffic volumes have actually been stagnant or in some cases, decline over the past 20 years. For example, traffic volumes in Mission (on 2 St SW, 4 St SW and 5 St SW) are lower now than they were in 1987, despite the fact that numerous condos have been added to the community. The same trend is being experienced on Kensington Road where the traffic volumes have remained constant in spite the West Hillhurst population growing by 11% over the past five years.

The trend to static or in some cases reduced traffic volumes is driven by increased transit, walking, and cycling usage in established communities near downtown. Increasing residential density in established communities actually results in overall lower vehicle usage for a number of reasons including:

  • Higher density improves the viability of local business and therefore removes the need for community residents to always drive to a restaurant, store or fitness studio. 
  • Higher density supports more frequent transit, which in turn attracts more transit users from the community as a whole.
  • Higher density in close relation to employment cores (i.e. Downtown) makes cycling more viable, which in turn increases the demand for cycling infrastructure which results on more cycling from the community as a whole.

4th Street in the Mission District is lined with shops and restaurants that locals can walk or cycle to. 

Myth #2: 1 parking stall means 1 commuter trip/day

Having 200 parking stalls does not mean 200 vehicles leave and arrive everyday at rush hour. While there is a correlation between parking stalls and traffic, there are many other factors at play. One is that not everyone leaves home between 7 and 8 am. People have different schedules and destinations, as such some residents leave home before 7am or after 8am, while other residents don’t leave home at all during the morning peak period or return home at the rush hour (working from home, part-time or retired).

In addition, just because a condo owner has a vehicle doesn’t necessarily mean it is used to get to work. Data from Beltline TIAs found many residents who had vehicles left them at home during weekdays and used them only on evenings and weekends.

It is not as simple as saying 200 parking stalls results in 200 trips during rush hour. Data actually shows about one third of residential condo vehicles might leave during the peak weekday commuter period from 7 to 9 am.

4th Street traffic on a Sunday afternoon in the summer, not exactly grid-locked. 

Kensington Road in West Hillhurst on a winter Saturday afternoon. 

Another corner on 4th Street that is devoid of traffic in the middle of the summer. 

Myth #3: Adding a 100-unit condo building isn’t the same as adding 100 houses

Multi-family and single-family dwellings do not have the same trip-making characteristics. Multi-family dwellings are more likely to have a higher proportion of residents under 30 or over 65 years of age. As a whole, these age groups have smaller family sizes (often no family), lower vehicular ownership rates and in some cases, less disposable income, all of which correlate into lower vehicle usage.

Generally, in terms of vehicle trip generation, two single-family dwellings are equal to approximately three three multi-family dwellings in suburban communities. In established communities one new infill single-family home often is the same as three condo units when it comes to traffic generation.

New condo development in Mission. 

Last Word

It is critical that as Calgarians (i.e. City Council, planners, architects, developers, engineers of all disciplines and residents in established communities) work together to make our communities better for everyone.  It is essential to separate fact from fiction when it comes to urban living in the 21st century.

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Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

The acronym NIMBYism is often use by media and others to describe those who object to new developments (condos, office buildings, affordable housing) in their communities. What we seldom hear is the term YIMBYism (Yes in My BackYard) applied to supporters of the same development. There is something seemingly innate in humans that makes us protest louder when we don’t like or understand something.

A good case study of NIMBYism vs. YIMBYism is the proposed redevelopment of the Kensington Legion land (Kensington Road and 18th St. NW). Recently, I attended a meeting with 120 others, most of whom opposed the development. Afterwards, I posted a blog about why I liked the project and to my surprise got as many emails, tweets and comments in favour of the project as opposed. The first person to respond, who was also at the meeting said, “I was afraid to speak up in favour of the project.” What does that tell you?

Since posting the blog, I have communicated with 20 or so community people about the project and it is pretty much divided into those who live closest to the site (truly in their backyard) who don’t like it and those who live a few blocks away and think it is great.

I don’t envy City Planners and Council - who should they listen to?  Do they listen to the 100 or so people who live near the site and will be most affected by a development new? Or, do they listen to the greater community of say 5,000 people who are near the site but less impacted? Do they follow the City’s Master Plan which encourages more people to live in established communities (meaning more condos on under-utilized, well-located sites)?  More specifically, does the City follow through with its Main Street Initiative to create 24 pedestrian shopping streets in strategic locations across the City – one of which being Kensington Road from 14th St. NW to Crowchild Trail? 

If the City is looking for a poster child project for the Main Street initiative, they couldn’t pick a better site than the Kensington Legion. Located in the middle of the proposed Kensington Road Main Street, it would complement West Hillhurst’s historic main street on 19th St. and help connect the scattering of other retail, office and services along Kensington Road. It is also on a major bus route and it’s a very large site which can accommodate two large buildings.  With signature buildings and the right mix of uses, the site could be a wonderful addition to West Hillhurst, maybe even be the gateway to the community and a definite game changer.

Kensington Legion Site RevitalizationIn January 2015, the Kensington Legion (No. 264) entered into a partnership with Truman Development Corporation to redevelop their site. Since then, Truman has been working with architects and planners to develop a plan that will meet the needs of the neighbours, community and the City.

They are proposing a new four-storey office building on the western third of the site, which is a currently surface parking lot.  The Legion will own the building, use the street floor as its restaurant/lounge and the second floor as their office while leasing out the top two floors.

Once the Legion has moved out of its existing building, Truman would replace it with a contemporary condo building with retail at street level.  The original proposal for the second building would be 10-stories high along Kensington Road, then stepping down to 3-stories at the laneway on the north side.  The “step down” design will not only create an interesting shape, but will achieve the City’s density requirements while minimizing shadowing of neighbours’ backyards. The main floor will have 15,000 square feet of prime retail space.

Throughout the summer, Truman hosted open houses at the Legion every Wednesday and Saturday to get community input. The two major concerns were: size and height of the building and increase in traffic along 18th St NW (entrance to parkade will be via the back lane off 18th St NW) which is the access road for children walking to Queen Elizabeth (elementary, junior high and high) Schools.

Is Taller Better?

For many established community residents, the ideal maximum height for new condos is four storeys. However, the downside is there is only so much you can do with a 4-storey building design – they all tend to look the same. Once you go beyond 4-storeys, however, the condo usually becomes a concrete building which allows the more flexibility in the design and materials.

Many cities across North America have determined mid-rise buildings (5 to 12 storeys) are the most appropriate to revitalize established communities (especially for signature sites) as they create sufficient density to attract retailers and restaurants while still being pedestrian scale.  Kensington Road has the potential to become a vibrant pedestrian street with the addition of strategically located mixed-use projects like Legion No. 264.

North side of condo building with garden facing to homes. 

Is Traffic a Real Concern?

As with all major infill developments, the City of Calgary requires an independent
“Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA)” be conducted. Bunt & Associates Engineering Ltd. has submitted its TIA of this office/condo project based on parameters developed jointly with City administration. It will first be reviewed and technically scrutinized by the City administration and then circulated to the community to determine what, if any, changes are needed to minimize the traffic impact of the development on the community.

Bunt & Associates’ preliminary findings:

  • All intersections will continue to meet the City requirements. 
  • Sidewalk improvements are required.
  • Current crosswalks meet City standards.
  • Calgary Transit confirms it can accommodate site users.
  • Parking requirements will be met on-site.

Having completed many similar TIAs for various Calgary inner-city condo developments over the past few years, Bunt and Associates have observed, “density doesn’t always bring more traffic.”  For example, traffic volumes in Mission (on 2 St SW, 4 St SW, and 5 St SW) are lower now than they were in 1987, despite the addition of many new condos.  The same trend is already being experienced on Kensington Road where traffic volumes have remained constant despite West Hillhurst’s population growing 11% over the past five years.

The City and Bunt believe increasing residential density is contributing to lower vehicle usage in part due to:

  • Attracts new local business reducing the need for residents to drive to a restaurant, store or fitness studio. 
  • Supports more frequent transit which attracts more transit users from the entire community.
  • Located near employment centres (downtown, post-secondary institutions, hospitals) makes cycling more viable and increases need for cycling infrastructure, leading to increased cycling by the entire community.

Aerial view of project looking west. 

Back alley parking design. 

Truman has listened

Before submitting their proposal to the City, Truman took all the comments received and published a “What We Heard” report.  This 97-page report is a comprehensive document of the community engagement comments and how the Truman will respond to them, with excellent visuals. With respect to the above concerns, they have made the following changes – reduced the condo building height to 8-storeys, developed a proposal for traffic-calming measures for 18th St NW (which Truman will fund), exceed on-site parking requirements and will ensure residential permit parking only for surrounding blocks. 

Shadowing effect of tiered building design

Street between office and condo building.

Last Word

Truman’s team has created two attractive buildings that fulfill the City’s goal for mixed-use, modest density development of key sites in established neighbourhoods near major employment centres.  The proposal meets the expectations of YIMBYs living west of 14th Street, east of Crowchild Trail and north of the Bow River to the escarpment in creating a more walkable community. However, it will never meet all the demands of NIMBYs living in the immediate area.   

No development is perfect, but the Legion No. 264 proposal checks off all of the boxes on any City’s list of good infill urban projects principles. Indeed the project could be the poster child for the City’s Main Street Initiative and the catalyst for West Hillhurst becoming one of Canada’s best urban communities.

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