Transit Oriented Living: Berlin vs Calgary

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.

One key to transit oriented living is a transit system that offers 5 minute or less service.  It can be buses, subways, trams or LRT as long as it is frequent. 

One key to transit oriented living is a transit system that offers 5 minute or less service.  It can be buses, subways, trams or LRT as long as it is frequent. 

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. 

Note the differences in time between driving, cycling and transit. When you add in time to get to your car and find a place to park driving becomes even less attractive. 

Note the differences in time between driving, cycling and transit. When you add in time to get to your car and find a place to park driving becomes even less attractive. 

Lessons Learned

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.

Good transit systems have good connections and attractive places to wait. 

Good transit systems have good connections and attractive places to wait. 

Too Downtown-Centric

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.

This map of the Berlin's Transit system illustrates not only how extensive the system is, but also how decentralized it is.  

This map of the Berlin's Transit system illustrates not only how extensive the system is, but also how decentralized it is.  

To be fair, Calgary has plans to develop its LRT and BRT service with more crosstown routes in the future. Today only the Blue and Red lines exist. 

To be fair, Calgary has plans to develop its LRT and BRT service with more crosstown routes in the future. Today only the Blue and Red lines exist. 

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.
Five minute service even at 10 am. 

Five minute service even at 10 am. 

Alexander Platz

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.
Alexander Platz is full of people at 10 am on a weekday even when there are no special events. 

Alexander Platz is full of people at 10 am on a weekday even when there are no special events. 

Alexander Platz is surrounded not only by several transit stops and a major station, but it has a diversity of things to see and do including cinemas, shopping and tourist attractions, not just condos and apartments.  

Alexander Platz is surrounded not only by several transit stops and a major station, but it has a diversity of things to see and do including cinemas, shopping and tourist attractions, not just condos and apartments.  

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!
Olympic Plaza is pretty to look at but it doesn't attract people outside of special events and weekday noon hours when office workers enjoy an outdoor lunch. 

Olympic Plaza is pretty to look at but it doesn't attract people outside of special events and weekday noon hours when office workers enjoy an outdoor lunch. 

Olympic Plaza on a nice Saturday in spring is devoid of any urban vitality as most of the buildings surrounding it are closed or have limited activity. While there is a large apartment building, museum and hotels nearby, it doesn't have the everyday appeal that a public plaza should have.

Olympic Plaza on a nice Saturday in spring is devoid of any urban vitality as most of the buildings surrounding it are closed or have limited activity. While there is a large apartment building, museum and hotels nearby, it doesn't have the everyday appeal that a public plaza should have.

Last Word

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.

Transit Oriented Living allows you extra time to relax and read.  I was amazed at how many people I saw reading books on the trains in Berlin.  

Transit Oriented Living allows you extra time to relax and read.  I was amazed at how many people I saw reading books on the trains in Berlin.