The Ring Road System – Integrated Planning (1974-1976)

While the City of Calgary, and later the Province of Alberta, had addressed the concept of a ring road network around Calgary before, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the idea was formalised into a singular road plan. (Much more on the early history of the road in part one of this four part series)

1974 CALGARY PARKWAY RING (Province of Alberta)

1974 saw the completion of the first comprehensive report on the Calgary Ring Road, known at this time as the Calgary Parkway Ring, which was produced by the firm of Deleuw Cather Consulting Engineers and Planners, on behalf of the Provincial government. This report not only laid out the route and general design of the road, but it also explored the need for the road itself, and the concept of the road as part of a larger system, integrated with other amenities such as public transportation and parks.

Despite being comissioned in March of 1973, and in the hands of the government in 1974, (when it was leaked to the Calgary Herald), the report would go unpublished for several more years due to a number of sensitivities about the project. The official reason for witholding the report from the public was that the government did not want speculators to know what land would be required for the road; to prevent people from buying up the land and pushing up the cost for the Province to acquire the right-of-way.

The Road

The ring road, shown above, was described as follows:

  • Phase 1 was to be a 2-lane highway, expanding to the final 4-lane design when demand required it.
  • 58.2 miles total length (93.6km)
  • 350 foot Right-of-Way (ROW) for the road component, which increases to a 600 foot ROW if other amenities are to be included.
  • Total cost of building the final 4-lane road and acquiring the land was pegged at $170-$190 million. ($792-$885 million in today’s dollars) which included interchanges and river crossings.

While the road appears at first glance to be the same alignment as the previous plans for the road, most recently in the 1967 Calgary Transportation Study, the road had in fact been altered. The northwest and southwest legs of the road remained unchanged from 1967; at this time the southwest leg followed Sarcee Trail north from Highway 22x, across the Weaselhead and Elbow River to the Trans Canada Highway (requiring no land from the Tsuu T’ina at this time). The northwest section ran along what is now Country Hills Blvd. Highway 22x was moved slightly north at the east end to accomodate a connection to Highway 901, while in the northeast, the road was shifted north to accomodate an expansion at the airport. Finally, in the east, the road was shifted further east, as the original 1967 alignment was felt to be too close to the proposed Deerfoot Trail.

Although the report was written on the premise of a road that ringed the city, the authors were clear that only certain parts were needed at the time the report was issued. The southwest and northwest portions of the proposed road were closest to developed areas of Calgary, and were seen to be the most likely to be utilised early on. While particular emphasis was placed on the southwest portion as the most likely to be fully utilised, the northwest leg had been identified as early as the 1950s as a potential northwest bypass route and was thought to be of use to the City. According to the report, the south and east sections of the road system was planned far enough from the built-up portions of Calgary to not be needed immediately. Instead, existing rural and city roads would suffice until such a time as the city expanded, and demand increased for improved roads in these locations. The report stated that the land needed for all sections, even the then-unneeded east and south sections, should be protected now so that it would be available when needed.

The benefits and uses of a ring road

Despite being planned as a ring road, the road’s use as a bypass of the city was noted to be strictly limited. The report notes that “the function of the ring road for bypass trips will not be significant” and the distance from 16th avenue means it “cannot be considered as a bypass route for Trans Canada traffic”. Instead, the primary function of the road was to service intra-urban trips; journeys that both start and end within the city. This is because, according to the report, “nearly all of the Metropolitain Region population lies within the proposed corridor as well as major industrial and commercial development. Representative intra-urban trips would be by people living within the City and working and/or shopping within the city.” To that end, the road would be successful if it could integrate into the overall transportation system of the city, and encourage traffic away from the inner city arterial roads.

However, despite stating that “The primary function of a Ring Road is to reduce the concentration of vehicle trips on arterial streets and improve the convenience of access to the different areas inside and outside the City.” The report is not always convinced that this will be achieved with a road alone, and states explicitly “…it is unlikely that any ring road system can be justified on grounds of highway considerations alone.”

Perhaps the most important conclusion drawn in the report is the following:

If a Ring Road is to meet the needs of an automobile-oriented society, it must be carefully integrated into a transportation system which has its main objective the improved flow of traffic within urban centres. The most pressing problem is peak-hour traffic into the inner city.

And it is clear that a Ring Road cannot make a substantial contribution to the relief of peak load work-trip traffic – unless it de-emphasises the flow of automobile traffic to the downtown business district and acts as a collector of automobile traffic for other forms of penetration of the inner city. Thus, a Ring Road will make a significant contribution to urban traffic flows only to the extend that it feeds people into other forms of transportation to the city centre – the most obvious examples being light rapid transit and high-speed bus systems.

The Multi-Use Corridor concept

One of the other long-lasting legacies of this report was the introduction of the multi-use Transportation Utility Corridor. Beyond just a road, the report goes to great lengths to identify and promote other uses for the corridor. In addition to the ring road, the corridor would be most successful if it also hosted city utilities and rapid transit, as well as a large emphasis on parks and recreational pathways created within the corridor. The recreation components of the corridor was envisaged to not only to link other recreational facilities together, but also to act as a recreational facility in its own right.

Rather than being secondary to the ring road concept, the multiple-uses of the corridor were seen as instrumental in the success of the plan. “The multiple-use of the corridor should be seriously considered… The potential success which can be derived depends largely on the degree and means of implementation of the multiple-use considerations and the integration of this corridor with adjacent land uses.”

The report was clear that there could be many benefits to the city, provided the road and potential associated transportation, utility and recreation uses were fully realised.

Criticisms and Warnings

At the time of the release of the Calgary Parkway Ring report there were several warnings and criticisms of its findings, including some contained within the report itself. The impacts of the road, its utility and the costs of building such a road network were all issues raised by detractors and proponents alike. The building of the road was by no means a foregone conclusion in the early stages of planning.

In several sections of the report, the authors point out the potential impacts of the road on certain areas of Calgary, particularly on Bowness and the Glenmore Park/Weaselhead Areas. The road would “have a serious impact on the natural area” of the Glenmore area, “…could significantly damage the vegetation and environment of the (Weaselhead), even with careful design and construction of the facility” and that “(The Weaselhead) is a significant public asset”. The road also “would bisect the proposed (Bowness) park and, therefore, could have a serious impact if consideration is not given to the adjacent land use durring design and construction”.

To mitigate some of the public concerns of this project, the report endorsed public consultations and participation, stating: “In the areas of the Glenmore Valley and Bowness full scale public participation should definetly be introduced”

Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed was concerned enough about the impacts of the road that he pledged to ‘do what he can to prevent implementation’ of this ring road plan (as reported by the Calgary Herald), and that his administration would not build a ring road around Calgary unless it can be placed outside of already settled parts of the city. Lougheed stated “If there’s to be a ring road, it should be outside the built-up areas of the city.” At the same time, the Premier was also fighting to keep another major road out of the city’s natural areas. In speaking about re-routing the planned Deerfoot Trail away from Fish Creek Park he said “I know it’s going to be very expensive but if we are going to have an urban park in Calgary it’s very important that we preserve it as such”. (More on the relocation of Deerfoot Trail around Fish Creek Park here)

In addition to the lack of support from the Premier, it was widely reported that Highway Minister Clarence Copithorne had not convinced other members of cabinet on the merits of a ring road.

Summary of the 1974 Calgary Parkway Ring.

The summary of the report does not provide a definitive endorsement or rejection of the ring road concept. Rather, the authors indicate scenarios where a road would fulfill its role and provide a benefit, rather than a hinderance, to the city. It is therefore left up to the Province to decide how best to proceed, and the success of the road would be dependant on the way it was to be implemented. The following is the final conclusion of the report:

” In summary, we conclude that a Ring Road cannot be judged, in and of itself , to be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, worth the investment or not worth the investment.

To the extent that such a facility is developed in the context of a host of desirable related policies, it could and should prove to be a contributor to the well-being of the City’s citizens. However, to the extent that such a facility is developed as good in its own right – it is as likely to be a disaster as it is a success.

The potential benefits and costs, social, economic and environmental, discussed in this report, must be analysed in light of these two approaches before they will serve to illuminate the critical policy issues at stake.”

1976 RESTRICTED DEVELOPMENT AREA (Province of Alberta)

The effort to begin the implementation of a ring road started in 1976, with the establishment of the Restricted Development Area (RDA) around Calgary. In August of that year, the government of Alberta enacted controversial legislation that put in place a 5-mile-wide, 220,000-acre greenbelt around Calgary, to be controlled by the Province.

The legislation ensured that no one, either private land owners or civic government, could build on land within the RDA zone without permission from the Province, in part to protect a Transportation Utility Corridor that a ring road would occupy. In effect, the RDA kept the corridor free of development so that more expensive expropriation (and residential or business relocation) could be avoided once the land was needed for the road. This RDA also had the effect of controlling the outward expansion of Calgary, as the city could no longer continue to grow without express permission from the Province. The establishment of an RDA went directly against the earlier findings of the Alberta Land Use Forum, which rejected outright the use of an RDA approach to controlling urban growth.

The map above shows the Calgary city limits, the RDA encircling the city, and the proposed Ring Road corridor (shaded). The corridor was shown entirely outside of the city limits, and did not include any roads inside the city, even where those roads were previously identified as being part of a ring road, such as Sarcee Trail. This resulted in the northwest portion of the road again being pushed outwards; no longer following what would eventually become Country Hills Blvd, the corridor was now aligned to the modern road location. The NW section has remained largely unchanged since 1976, and the NE, SE and South portions of the road have not been changed since being planned planned in 1974. Only the West portion and the SW portion had yet to be finalised.

What this map also shows is that in 1976 the corridor was incomplete, as it still is today. The City had grown as far as it could go in the southwest, butting directly against the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee) reservation, and there was no open land outside of the city to protect for a road along that edge. As the reserve is Federal land held in trust for the Nation it could not be subjected to the Provincially enacted RDA. (Though it should be noted that the ring road plans to this point did not require Tsuu T’ina land.)

By the close of 1976, even with the Restricted Development Area in place, the Calgary Parkway Ring report had still not been made public, despite being nearly three years after the report was completed.

1977 SARCEE TRAIL EXTENSION (City of Calgary)

The 1977 Sarcee Trail Extensions study focused on the southwest portion of the ring road system, specifically the portion of Sarcee Trail that would cross the Elbow River and connect Glenmore Trail to Highway 22x. It was the first functional study for this southwest connector, and its conclusions would not only mark a shift towards greater recognition of natural areas along the ring road corridor, it would also form the basis for all future road plans for the area. Its importance in the ring road story means that I have covered it separately here.


Land acquisition begun in the 1970s continued in the 1980s, and despite plans to start portions of the road in the early 1980s, it wouldn’t be until the mid-1990s that the long-held plans for the ring road would finally begin to be implemented. The construction of the road would then continue for decades to come.

Look out for part three: The Ring Road System – Implementation, for the story of the building of Stoney Trail.


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