I have a new appreciation for both transit-oriented living and Google Maps after spending a month in Berlin where everywhere we wanted to go was EASILY accessible by transit. I was amazed how easily we could get to hundreds of museums, tourist attractions, parks, shopping and even IKEA by transit in a totally unfamiliar city.
Google Maps Is Great!
I simply typed in where I wanted to go in Google Maps and it told me the route and how long it would take to drive, cycle, walk or take transit. In almost every case, transit was the best option. The station (or bus stop) was always less than a pleasant five-minute walk and when we arrived, transit was there in minutes.
Though, Google Maps tells you when the next bus, train or tram will arrive at a particular stop, I just ignored that information, as transit was so frequent, it didn’t matter. It also didn’t seem to matter if we needed to take couple of trains or a train and bus, as connections were seamless.
Berlin transit offers a number of different payment options – single fare, daily fare, weekly and monthly passes (with even a non-prime time option for those travelling after 10 am weekly or monthly passes). How good is that!
Another great thing about Berlin’s transit system is that the trains seem to drop you off in the middle of the action, not at the edge as they do in Calgary – take Stampede, University, Chinook, Anderson and even Bridgeland stations for example.
A great transit system benefits drivers too. I was shocked when, taking the bus at rush hour, it never had to wait for more than one traffic light. More people using transit means more road capacity for those who have to drive, which in turn means less rush hour traffic jams.
In Berlin, transit is decentralized, to best serve the mini-downtowns scattered throughout the city. In contrast, Calgary’s transit is downtown-centric i.e. almost all transit is oriented to get people downtown. However, only 25% of the people work in the greater downtown area and 5% live there.
The City of Calgary’s Go-Plan back in the mid-90s, actually did call for the development of mini-downtowns at the edge of our city next to new LRT Stations. Somehow they instead became big box power centres. I often wonder how different urban living would be in Calgary if late 20th and early 21st century suburban power centres were designed as walkable mini downtowns, each with a mix of multi-storey retail, restaurants, residential and recreational buildings, rather than so car-oriented retail centres.
Imagine…Crowfoot Crossing and Shawnessy power centers could each have been a mini-downtown with grid-patterned tree-lined streets, residential and office development above big box retail and a regional transit hub station. I expect with time they will evolve more into mini downtowns but we missed the opportunity to do so from the“get go.”
It is ironic that today, Currie Barracks and University District are both being developed as mini-downtowns yet neither has or will have a LRT Station.
Transit-Oriented Living (TOL) Gurus
While Calgary is in its infancy when it comes to creating mixed-use communities next to LRT Stations, Berlin is arguably the guru of TOL. Instead of surrounding transit stations with massive residential highrises that block the sun, create wind tunnels and dwarf pedestrians, Berlin’s transit stations are usually in the middle of a platz (plaza) that allows for various programming – usually a farmers’ market and/or flea market – but most of the time just a gathering/meeting place for locals and tourists.
I loved that each platz in Berlin has its own character and charm, its own sense of place.
A good example is the Alexander Platz. While the history of the area around this platz dates back to the 13th century, most of the existing buildings are relatively new as the area was destroyed during WWII. The revitalization of the Alexander Platz began in 1969 with the construction of the Berliner Fernsehturm TV tower. Topping out at 368m tall, it has a viewing platform at 203m and revolving restaurant at 207m, which is very similar to the Calgary Tower.
Today, it is a vibrant pedestrian zone, surrounded by a major subway train station, as well as several, “at grade” LRT lines. It is also home to major department stores Galleria Kaufhof and Primark, the ALEXA shopping centre and several smaller shops all facing onto the huge plaza.
It is a shopping/tourist mecca 7 days a week.
Calgary’s Platz Attempt
Ironically, Calgary’s downtown urban renewal project also started in the late ‘60s with a tower – Husky Tower, now the Calgary Tower. It also included Palliser Square (retail, cinemas, offices and parkade), as well as the Calgary Convention Centre, Four Seasons Hotel (now the Marriott) and Glenbow Museum complex.
Then 8th Avenue SW became the Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall; 7th Avenue became the downtown transit corridor, which was followed by the opening of the Performing Arts Centre and finally Olympic Plaza, our equivalent of a platz.
Unfortunately, Calgary’s late 20th century urban renewal didn’t include the residential part of the transit oriented living equation that is critical to evening and weekend urban vitality. As well, Olympic Plaza has never really captured the imagination of Calgarians except when hosting a major festival or event. It is not a place where Calgarians meet and linger. It is not a place we take visitors to showcase Calgary’s unique sense of place.
It is not a mecca!
Berlin’s platze seem to be busy all the time and without any special programming. Berlin’s planners, developers and politicians seem to understand how to integrate transit, residential, commercial and public space to create lively and liveable urban places.
Instead of focusing on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Calgary and other North American cities should be focused on Transit Oriented Living (TOL) i.e. what makes living next to a train station or transit hub a great place to live? Too often the current focus in on creating high-rise and mid-rise condos next to the station, but TOL is more about “diversity of uses” than density. Density without diversity is sterility.
If you have a chance, visit Berlin and experience transit-oriented living for yourself.
Note: This blog was originally published in the New Condos section of the Calgary Herald on Saturday July 16, 2017.