The controversial Peace Bridge is now one of the most-used walking and cycling routes in Calgary. The councillor behind it reveals the project’s stormy process
The level of hatred directed towards that piece of infrastructure was out of proportion with the cost,” says Druh Farrell as she recalls the stormy process leading to the construction of Santiago Calatrava’s pedestrian and cycling Peace Bridge in Calgary. “It was an incredibly painful process. It became so intense.”
The celebrated Spanish architect was brought in to address a complicated brief. The crossing – connecting downtown to the northern river pathway and the community of Sunnyside – had to completely span the Bow River, while being flat enough to avoid obstructing a nearby helicopter-landing area.
Bringing in a big name didn’t change people’s opinions, however. For the opening of the bridge, councillor Farrell was escorted by four bodyguards. Even Farrell’s brother had to endure the ire directed at the Peace Bridge when a dinner guest discovered their relation and said to him: “You tell your sister that if we wanted beauty, we’d travel to Paris. In Calgary we just need it to work.”
“It was the first piece of significant infrastructure predominantly for active mobility,” Farrell explains. “If it had been for vehicles, we would not have had any debate, and it would not have been controversial.”
Since its ribbon-cutting in March 2012, though, the Peace Bridge has become one of the most-travelled walking and cycling routes in the city, with more than 5.5 million crossings, an average of 28,000 per week – not bad for a region that enjoys a meagre 1.75% modal share for cycling.
Most Canadians know Alberta as “Oil Country” due to its economic dependence on the Tar Sands. Calgary, Canada’s fourth largest city, is home to a number of oil and gas headquarters. Covering a 848 sq kilometre area – eight times the size of San Francisco – and sprawling endlessly into the prairies, it’s easy to see why driving has become the default mode of transportation for the vast majority of Calgarians.
In recent years however, things have started to shift, and residents have begun demanding options. Farrell sits at the heart of that transition. In 2007 Calgary’s Centre City Plan http://www.calgary.ca/PDA/pd/Pages/Centre-City/Centre-City.aspx was passed by a vote of the council under the then-manager of planning and design, Brent Toderian. The plan established that they would not consider any new river crossings for motor vehicles entering the downtown core. Situated where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet, Calgary’s downtown is only accessible from the north and east by means of a river crossing, resulting in several car-dedicated bridges that are largely unwelcoming to cyclists and pedestrians.
The Centre City Plan identified three locations where potential bridges could be built, dictating two simple criteria: they had to be dedicated pedestrian and bicycle crossings only, and they had to be beautiful. But as Farrell soon found out, building something of beauty in “Cowtown” would not be as easy as it seemed.
The total budget for the bridge was C$24.5m (£14.2m), half the cost of a planned highway interchange in nearby Cochrane, 11 miles west of Calgary, that would serve one-50th of the population of Calgary.
“Now I think most Calgarians would recognise it was worth it,” she asserts emphatically. “I certainly believe it was worth it because the bridge is so well used.”
In spite of the initial negativity, the bridge stands out for Farrell as a memorable pivot point for Calgary. “The Peace Bridge really was a first for a lot of reasons,” she says. “It got people talking about architecture, and it identified a bottled-up need and desire for more walking and cycling connections to our downtown core.”
In the years to follow, the city constructed the George C King and Elbow River Traverse bridges – a pair of pedestrian and cycling connections to the east of downtown, with a fourth crossing planned to the west when demand grows to sufficient levels.
The iconic structure has become more than just a gateway to the city. “What we ended up doing unintentionally with the Peace Bridge is building a public space over the river,” recalls Farrell. “It’s far more than a transportation hub or connection – it’s a meeting place, a sense of place, on top of our beautiful river.
“It’s the most photographed structure in the city. It’s used for the promotion of Calgary in everything from real estate to hotels, and included in international bridge-design showcase books. It reinforces that we did the right thing.”
The Peace Bridge also laid the groundwork for Calgary’s next big cycling infrastructure project: a downtown cycle-track network.
Within a year of the bridge opening, the latent demand for cycling infrastructure became clear. As more people were using the trails and bridges to enter the city, they needed a comfortable place to travel once they burst onto the downtown streets.
Farrell stood at the forefront again, providing the initial push for the 7th Street Cycle Track that would connect directly to the Peace Bridge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, talk of reallocating road space spurred anger.
After the construction in 2013, the 750m bidirectional, curb-protected lane quadrupled cycling numbers along that corridor overnight. Initially the project was to be completed in increments, but the discussion shifted to the idea of building the whole scheme at once as an 18-month pilot project. It seemed to be smooth sailing until a change of council later that year made the politics more challenging.
As with the Peace Bridge, Farrell says hostility towards the project from businesses and politicians was disproportionate to the cost of C$5.75m. But the temporary nature of the pilot cycle lanes allowed them to pass by an 8–7 vote in April 2014. A little over a year later, Calgary’s downtown cycle-track network was delivered two months early and $2m under budget – reallocating just 2% of downtown street space to induce 1.2 million bicycle trips over 18 months, with little to no driver disruption.
“Pilots are so important. For one thing, we were constantly adjusting,” explains Farrell, referring to the 100 tweaks that staff made in response to data collected at 80 different points. These changes were facilitated by the provisional nature of the scheme, including flexible delineators, planter boxes, temporary concrete curbs and floating traffic signals.
“The transportation department was extremely nimble in identifying problems and mitigating them. By the end of the pilot, the system worked. So they weren’t just waiting until the end of the project to make adjustments – they were doing it all along and measuring the data. We had such a compelling case. We had more people cycling: different people, young people, women, and families were all using the network. It was hard to say ‘no’.”
In December 2016, the council voted 10–4 in favour of making the network permanent, meaning that the pilot had accomplished exactly what was intended: demonstrating to a skeptical public that with safe separated space for cycling, even the sprawling, frigid cities of the Canadian Prairies will get on their bikes.
Councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart, who had initially voted against the pilot, changed her vote, telling reporters: “I was a person that didn’t support this in the beginning. I thought this was madness. But, to see how it’s evolved, and how it’s working and to see how people are starting to get the fact that this is shared public space …”
Now Calgary’s cycle network is cited as a reason companies and employees are relocating to the city. As Farrell said: “If we want to attract new industries to Calgary, we need to first build a city that’s worth moving to.”