Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

The joys and frustrations of Calgary Transit

How to navigate like a pro.

On weekends, The Sprawl sends out an email newsletter called Saturday Morning Sprawl. Subscribe here so you don't miss a dispatch! Here is this week's edition.

Springtime brings new beginnings. The start of baseball season. Crocuses on Nose Hill. Brighter, longer days. And, for me, it also means pulling the bicycle out of storage, a change that has me feeling ambivalent this time around.

It's not that I don't enjoy going to and fro on a bike. I do! It's just that this past winter, I rediscovered the joys—and frustrations—of commuting by Calgary Transit.

Let me explain.

After I moved to Calgary in 2002, I relied entirely on transit. I lived in the north-central neighbourhood of Greenview and went to journalism school at Mount Royal in the southwest. I didn't own a car, which meant riding the bus for about an hour each way, transferring from the No. 4 bus to the No. 13 downtown.

I quickly developed a love/hate relationship with Calgary Transit. I hated waiting around when the bus was late, which happened often, and cursed a transit system that was clearly deprioritized in favour of the car. But I loved the communal nature of taking the bus. I also loved how taking the bus gave contemplative space to my days—space for reading and thinking and just staring out the window.

But over time, I gave up on the bus. I got a bike, which freed me from waiting around. Then I got a car. I had kids. My family lives in a part of the inner city where bus service is infrequent; to walk downtown or take the bus from my house in Renfrew often takes roughly the same amount of time.

Living by a CTrain station or main bus line is one thing. But I decided transit had become more or less useless to me.

Calgary’s transit ridership has rebounded in a big way since it collapsed in 2020 due to the pandemic.

But when I moved The Sprawl into a print shop in West Hillhurst last fall, I had to figure out a way to get to and from there once the snow flew. And since we’re a one-car family, and the walk was over an hour long, and I wasn't keen on winter cycling, this meant giving Calgary Transit another go. I could take the No. 1 from work to downtown, and then transfer to the No. 17 for the rest of the ride home.

In this, I was doing what many Calgarians have been doing of late: re-embracing transit.

Calgary’s transit ridership has rebounded in a big way since it collapsed in 2020 due to the pandemic. In fact, Calgary is among the top North American cities in terms of ridership recovery. CTrain ridership in particular has more than bounced back. CTrain ridership is at 113% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the city, while bus ridership is at 87% of pre-pandemic levels.

But I soon learned that getting back on transit takes some getting used to.

At first, I’d check bus times on Google Maps and would exit my office just in time to see the No. 1 driving away—and there I'd stand and sputter, hopping mad at having missed the bus like a fool. I repeated that a few times, clearly having not learned anything.

In the old days you needed a sheaf of paper schedules to effectively navigate the bus system. Nowadays you need a sheaf of apps—a mix of official and unofficial services. I soon figured out which was most useful for what. At the risk of getting too detailed, I will share with you what learned over the winter:

  • Transit. This is the official Calgary Transit-endorsed route-planning app, which is software that comes out of Montreal and is used by 300+ cities. It shows you, usually in real time, which buses are coming when. (Swipe the bus route to show the bus going in the other direction—it took me a bit to figure that out!) You can also log into your Communauto (car sharing) account, if you have one, and see and reserve nearby cars. On top of that, the Transit app also lets you find and reserve shared e-scooters or e-bikes or Uber, if you want to do that. Finally, you can buy bus tickets in this app, but it’s a little convoluted.

  • My Fare. As the name suggests, this app has a single purpose: to let you buy your transit ticket or pass. It’s quick and easy. You can do the same thing in the Transit app, but I find it’s handy to be able to just quickly buy a ticket with this app without having to dig around in menus. No fuss, no muss.

  • Transit55. This is Calgary’s best kept secret when it comes to navigating the city's bus system. It’s not an app per se but an unofficial website that shows you, in real time, where buses are on any given Calgary Transit route, within a minute or two. It’s an absolute gamechanger. This is what I use to see when my bus is actually coming. Better still: once you select a route and view it on the map, you can save that page to your phone’s home screen for quick access. Like this:

Once you've got Transit55, you can nerd out by seeing the specific vehicle model of any bus. And if you want to really nerd out, you can pull up Sam Hester’s Ride of the Day comics for fun facts about your ride.

Equipped with the right tools, I could now pop out of my office at just the right time, wait maybe two or three minutes at most for my bus, and be on my way.

And the No. 1 bus! It carries Calgarians from all walks of life. You have tradespeople, professionals, people packing on bags of bottles—you name it. In a segregated city, you have a sense of there being an actual mix of people on board.

Then, downtown, I’d step off the No. 1 and into another world entirely. The Suncor Energy Centre, where I could wait inside for the No. 17, is a world of polished surfaces and important-looking people doing important-looking things. It also has a food court, where I could people-watch, or read, or pull out my laptop and get a bit of work done.

Waiting for the bus at the Suncor Energy Centre. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

But my best discovery yet came in recent weeks. Rather than waiting downtown for the No. 17, which comes infrequently, I could take the (more frequent) No. 3 up Centre Street to my local brewery, Two Pillars, which has a bus stop right out front. There, I could enjoy a beer and chat with the proprietor, Boaz, while waiting for the No. 17. And if I happened to miss my bus in the course of that conversation—no big deal! Sure, Boaz, I’ll have one more.

In just a few months, I’d gone from flailing transit newbie to confident expert. The only problem: with my oh-so-clever layovers at Two Pillars, my $3.70 bus trip home was now costing considerably more. It dawned on me that my “commute” home was not sustainable in this form, not for long.

There is such a thing as figuring out the bus system a little too well.

Maybe switching back to the bike is for the best after all.

Speaking of transit... do you know where CTrain cars go when they're broken or need sprucing up? Make sure to check out Sam Hester's new Curious Calgary comic to find out!

Also, on Sunday, May 19, The Sprawl will be at the Shelf Life Books/CommunityWise Zine Party, with our zines and tabletop printing press in tow—and we'd love to see you there.

Thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend!

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!