When is a ring road a bad idea?

When is a Ring Road a Bad Idea?

November 2010

By Duncan Kent

When is a ring road a bad idea? When it isn’t a ring road and when it won’t fix the problem!

A “ring road” is a highway that encircles an urban area so traffic does not have to pass through the centre to get to the other side. Planning a ring road for Calgary began over 40 years ago but the Province of Alberta has yet to select a route for the southwest portion of this road. A 37th Street alignment is currently under study but that would be through the heart of the city – not around it! So let’s not call this a “ring road”. A 37th Street route would dump thousands of additional commuter vehicles onto Crowchild and Bow Trail and, without massive upgrades to corridors into downtown such as 9th Avenue SW, would just move the bottleneck.

We must fix gridlock in Calgary but let’s not spend billions on a plan that won’t resolve the problem!

The proposed SW ring road link would be very similar to Deerfoot Trail as it exists today – 6 to 8 lanes wide and with a speed limit of 100 kph. Such a road has a right of way width of about 300 meters (3 football fields!) and the interchanges have a massive foot print. It would also generate significant amounts of noise and air pollutants. There are some sections along 37th Street with fewer than 40 meters between Tsuu T’ina Nation lands and the front door of homes. This is not a question of a minor road widening! This is massive destruction of established communities in Lakeview, Oakridge, Cedarbrae, Woodbine, and Evergreen. The size of the roadway and interchanges would require the demolition of apartment buildings, town homes, and hundreds of single family homes; Lakeview residents did not buy their homes with the knowledge it could be expropriated for the SW Ring road.

Financial Costs

The expropriations to acquire sufficient right of way would run $500 million dollars or more; the tax revenue from demolished properties would be lost forever. The cost of construction of the roadway, interchanges, and bridge across the Glenmore Reservoir has been estimated at around a billion dollars. The price tag continues to climb when upgrades to linking commuter roads are considered. These costs (which could easily approach another half billion dollars) would be a City of Calgary expense not covered by the province. So the total cost – our tax dollars – will clearly be over $2 billion and may be much more! That bill is over $2,000 for every man, woman and child in Calgary!

Environmental Costs

A 37th Street alignment requires a bridge over the Glenmore Reservoir which could be as long as 1.2 kilometres. The Glenmore Reservoir supplies about half of Calgary’s or about one sixth of Alberta’s entire drinking water. Studies have indicated water quality in the Elbow River has deteriorated significantly in recent decades due mainly to contaminants coming from sources close to the river. The potential to further degrade Calgary’s drinking water by building an expressway over Glenmore Reservoir is an unacceptable risk.

Social Costs

The impacts to Glenmore Park and the Weaselhead Natural Area are sure to be significant. Thousands of people from all over Calgary use these areas and recognize the importance of open spaces and parkland to the quality of life in our city.

One thing is certain about expressways: building them encourages urban sprawl and construction of more distant suburbs that, in turn, create more commuter traffic to clog the new roads. Inner city communities are often chopped up by expressways and become progressively less viable as places to live. The urban core decays and people are driven out to the suburbs for a safe place to live. It is a cycle that large cities all over the world are trying to break by building functional transit systems.


None of us should have to waste hours every day in our cars just to get where we need to go! It doesn’t matter how we got into this mess, but how we solve our current transportation problems will be a defining issue for Calgary.

By all measures, the costs of completing the Southwest portion of the ring road are high and the real transportation benefits are doubtful. A 37th Street alignment would not help traffic flow around the city nor would it make a good commuter route. It could take many years – perhaps a decade – before it is built.

So, what can we do now? An effective transportation plan is achievable but we must stop thinking that the only possible solution is the 40 year old ring road idea. There are many alternatives worthy of serious consideration. The City of Calgary’s Transportation Department has indicated that just 3% fewer cars on the road would eliminate gridlock. What if transit was convenient, inexpensive and comfortable? What if 5% of Calgarians tele-commuted once a week? A collection of small changes added together could have a big impact and could be done quickly: staggered work hours, bike paths, bus rapid transit (BRT), snow removal, LRT grade separations, and easy roadway improvements such as the new interchange at Glenmore and 37th.

The economic, environmental, and social costs of building the South West link along 37th Street are unacceptably high. There are lower cost alternatives that will work much better and can be implemented much more quickly to fix our urgent transportation problems. Should we wait for a 40 year old idea that won’t work or should we start fixing the problem now?

Duncan Kent is President of the Lakeview Community Association.