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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

An American in Calgary

Full disclosure: I’m an American, born in Seattle – dad a US naval officer, mom the daughter of a Canadian banker. I have a fatherland in the USA and a motherland in Canada; two passports and a Nexus card; and relatives all over North America. I’ve lived in Seattle and Spokane WA, but mostly in Canada: Hamilton and Ottawa ON, North Vancouver BC, Toronto CC (Centre of the Cosmos), and for the last eighteen months Calgary AB.

Some scholars characterize modern urbanites as ‘being from nowhere’; I admit the charge, in that I can’t see my ancestors’ graves out my living-room window. Moreover, my kids and grandkids are totally colour-blind and have no interest at all in the ethnic origin of the people they relate to. Home is where the hat is; and if that makes me one of the global élite, I admit that too.

That being said, I am a newcomer to Alberta. I’ve visited to research archives and give academic papers; but since I’ve moved here I’ve had a revelation. I’ve long been a contrarian and a vulgarian; now I’m a Calgarian – for good and ill.

And there’s so much good. That bleached-denim sky, wide as the world and stretching to the stars. The rivers, blue-green and surging from glaciers through prairies to the sea. The wonderful people, helpful and understanding (try striking up a conversation at a Toronto bus stop). The camaraderie at Spruce Meadows; the party vibe at Stampede; summer days that stretch from four AM to eleven PM; a mayor who’s experienced, savvy, kind, tough, and personable – a situation that’s pretty darn rare.

But there’s also the ill. Not Calgary’s winter, strangely enough: I was prepared for that – though last February when it was minus 42 I shifted from scanning a paperpaper to an online one (thank you, Globe and Mail). No problem there: when I was marathon training in Ottawa forty years ago, one of my eyes froze shut. Such things define us – one is a Canadian, or not. No: by ill I mean the things that Calgarians live with yet collectively cannot see, and so let persist. Construction teams that dig holes in major thoroughfares, plunk down pylons, and vanish forever. Speed limits so arbitrary and unannounced, and varying with such dizzying frequency, that a senior Calgary police officer has admitted to me that he can neither explain nor understand them. And one of my particular favourites, the school zones.

School zones in Calgary have a 30 km/h limit in effect 24/7; three AM on a Sunday still counts. In theory this is not a bad idea: it certainly duns into one’s head that these areas must be crawled through, with no exceptions, forever. In my admittedly brief experience, however, there is not always a warning of a school zone. There is however an invariable notice of the end of a school zone, which my English-Calgarian Dictionary translates as YOUR TICKET IS IN THE MAIL. And then, in a heartwarming tribute to 1984 surveillance technology, lo! that selfsame ticket arrives, its blurred and dusky photo no doubt taken by Sheriff Roscoe from The Dukes of Hazzard as he popped out of a manhole. Calgary’s ideal driver seems out of an 1880s municipal ordinance: Motorists must proceed no faster than a walking horse, with a flagman in front, sounding their klaxon at 10-second intervals. At times I’m tempted to creep around Calgary at 5 km/h using emergency flashers; I might be rear-ended, but I’d be morally pure. Though I’d probably get a ticket for unauthorized use of flashers in an unannounced school zone.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to unmotorized transportation; in fact I’m a fitness freak. I’ve done a century, cycling 100 miles nonstop in 1978. In 1982 I ran thirty miles in four hours. But Calgary, here’s some advice from a fresh eye: you have absolutely bollixed your downtown fitness trails. Almost all of them are mixed-use, or at the very least insufficiently labelled. The trick, folks, is to separate the traffic. In particular: cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists must be kept apart. Copenhagen has done this brilliantly, which is why it has one of the world’s highest rates of year-round cycle use. Vancouver is getting there. But here Calgary, like Toronto, ranks between the Middle Ages and the Late Paleolithic. Near my Toronto house I recently saw a bridge refurbishment. As a kind of vehicular virtue signaling, bicycle lanes were painted on the new pavement both sides of the bridge. But these lanes have no bike lanes feeding into or out of them; one must use the sidewalk fore and aft, or else risk instant death on the adjacent high-speed roadway. To complete the joke, the bike lanes are interrupted many times by bus stops; and Toronto buses have the right of way. Good luck arguing with that, cyclists.

Calgary is worse. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if in 1889 the federal government decreed that across our entire nation, the recently completed transcontinental railroad should henceforth be the sole means of physical communication. No separate streets for cars, lanes for carriages, or walkways for people: everything must go by the rails. Day, night, and twilight, kids would walk to school along the CPR mainline, frequently making a shoulder check.

Impossible, hm? That situation exists in Calgary right now. A lovely, landscaped, multimillion-dollar set of pathways along the Bow River crunches cyclists and pedestrians together with no barrier to isolate the two. High-speed cyclists blast through what is in effect a playground; pedestrians are forced to play in traffic. I have been brutally punched in the head by a cyclist moving at vélodrome speeds along a path full of grannies, toddlers, and me – a septuagenarian asthmatic with a double hernia. As a cyclist, I have had to slam on my brakes to avoid a young woman with two leashed Dobermans: stylish and graceful, she took up both path lanes and wore earbuds, oblivious to my warning bell. As the ancients said, while youth can be outgrown and drunkenness slept off, stupid is forever. Not that I blame the lady: No signage or police presence told her she was doing anything wrong; no physical barrier kept her off the bike path. That forever-stupid came from shitty civic planning.

In addition there has just arrived that newest technological scourge of cities, the electric scooter. This can be rented without a license, operated without a helmet, and driven by enthusiastic incompetents on roads, sidewalks, pedestrian trails, and cycle paths, often two to a vehicle.

So hey, Cowtown (and Hogtown): if you can’t summon the smarts or political will to make distinct paths separating bikes and pedestrians, as you have already done for cars and trains, might I suggest you initiate a lot more signs and police patrols? Otherwise you’re looking at a zillion-dollar negligence lawsuit any day now. Part of which, as a citizen, I’ll have to pay. In the meantime, I shall venture out with trepidation.

Bill Atkinson lives in Calgary and ventures out with trepidation.

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