Calgary Commuter Challenge

The Calgary Commuter Challenge is an annual, weeklong event designed to encourage commuters to use cleaner and healthier forms of transportation. Participating organizations compete with each other for the highest rates of employee participation. The city of Calgary also competes against other Canadian cities in the nation-wide Commuter Challenge.


Note: To minimize site maintenance costs, all case studies on this site are written in the past tense, even if they are ongoing as is the case with this particular program.

The city of Calgary, Alberta, home to around 900,000 people, was known for its fast-paced lifestyle and strong economy, which was heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry. The strong business culture and deeply ingrained consumer consciousness in Calgary contributed to its status as one of the most consumptive cities on the planet.

Calgary boasted a sophisticated public transportation system. Unusual for a city of its size, Calgary had both an extensive bus network and a fleet of aboveground electric trains, which were said to be very user-friendly. In addition, it had a well-developed network of on- and off-road pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. However, Calgary was designed along a largely suburban model and had a very low population density, which strongly encouraged transportation by single-occupancy vehicle. Most residents of Calgary depended heavily on their cars. In 2001, a transit strike, combined with the booming local economy, drove car ownership to new highs. As James Van Leeuwen of Sustainable Alberta said, Commuting is going to get worse as cities continue to expand, unless we focus on alternatives to single occupancy vehicles.

The Calgary Commuter Challenge began in 1991 to encourage commuters to explore alternative transportation options during National Environment Week, held in the first week of June every year. The Challenge originated in Alberta's Energy and Utilities Board as an interdepartmental competition, and expanded in 1992 to include three other organizations. By 1995, it had mushroomed in success and popularity to include twenty-five organizations, primarily oil and gas companies. By the year 2000, up to forty organizations from both the private and public sectors were participating. A nonprofit organization called Sustainable Alberta was formed in 1999 to coordinate the event, in order to gain access to a wider spectrum of funding resources. In 1997, Calgary began to compete with other Canadian cities in the nationwide Commuter Challenge.

In addition to raising awareness about environmental issues and alternative transportation options, the project sought to publicize the relationship between commuting and workers health, quality of life, financial savings, and on-the-job productivity. This message was an important one for selling the program to corporations, and was used throughout their promotional materials. The event organizers sought to develop an ongoing relationship with local corporations, to open up a dialogue on these issues.

The ultimate goal of the Calgary Commuter Challenge was to attract people to commuting alternatives. Event coordinators felt that the best way to open peoples eyes to these alternatives was to persuade them to try the alternatives for a period of one week. The main objective was to get as many employers to participate as possible In addition, the project sought to reward individuals who already used public transit regularly and provide their efforts with greater visibility. Event coordinators learned that most users of public transport in Calgary did so because they could not afford a car. They felt it was important to demonstrate appreciation for these people's consistent efforts.

Setting Objectives


Getting Informed


Delivering the Program

Sustainable Alberta had a modest staff, consisting of two coordinators working full-time for six months, and a crew of five to ten volunteers, each of who contributed a total of twenty to forty hours over a period of a few months.

The Calgary Commuter Challenge achieved a cross-disciplinary coalition, involving the non-profit sector, corporations, government, and small business. The corporations of Calgary formed the bedrock of the project (Work Programs that Influence the Home). The event was geared toward soliciting their participation, and utilized their infrastructure for the dissemination of its message. The competitive aspect of the event served to motivate each organization to drum up a respectable showing of employees.

The first challenge was to get one reputable, well-known organization involved from each of the various local industries and sectors. Initially, Sustainable Alberta selected corporations who had already established outstanding records on issues of employee health and environmental consciousness. Subsequently, other organizations readily followed suit. Sustainable Alberta found that corporations were very eager to participate, since the event gave them an opportunity to show a progressive, caring attitude to the public. They encountered little resistance or skepticism about the event from the businesses and other organizations they approached.

Each organization was contacted by telephone to determine an appropriate internal contact person. Many of the larger corporations had a staff member who specialized in employee health and wellness, who would coordinate the event for his or her workplace. Once a contact was established, Sustainable Alberta introduced the event and provided the contact with promotional materials.

Sustainable Alberta, in partnership with the Hard Rock Caf of Calgary, also hosted an Earth Day breakfast event for potentially participating companies. Contacts from each organization were invited to attend the breakfast, which featured notable guest speakers from the environmental movement, as well as a promotional presentation about the Commuter Challenge itself. The Hard Rock Caf also helped sponsor a wrap-up bash on the last evening of the event, which was open to all participants and organizers. For both of these events, the Hard Rock Caf provided the facility and free snacks.

Participating organizations motivated employees and made it easy for them to participate, and also helped provide and distribute printed materials. This internal promotion largely involved email reminders and posters placed in conspicuous locations around the workplace.

Sustainable Alberta provided almost all of the printed promotional materials, with services contributed by a local graphic design studio. These materials encouraged people to use any method of transportation that did not involve driving alone in a car, including cycling, rollerblading, walking, jogging, using public transit, or carpooling. They also encouraged telecommuting. Motivators ranged from lowering emissions and improving air quality to improving physical health and quality of life, saving money, and improving on-the-job productivity.

Sustainable Alberta had a clever advertising campaign for the Challenge involving parodies of road signs, with images of pedestrians engaged in fanciful versions of alternative forms of commuting. One poster showed a silhouette of a figure with a halo suspended over waves, with a caption reading Why Not? He Did. It also pictured a girl and a dog in a cartoon tornado, with a caption reading, Warning: Attempt this method of commuting only if youre a girl with a small dog. After several similar examples, the poster read, If you need a little help thinking of a way to get to work, join the Canadian Commuter Challenge. Their most recognizable logo was a silhouetted image of a walker, a cyclist, and a person waiting at a bus stop, superimposed over a traffic light. Sustainable Alberta also maintained a website containing up-to-date information on the event. The site was advertised in all their promotional materials.

The media was a key partner in the project, second only to the participating organizations. The competitive aspect of the Commuter Challenge lent itself very well to media publicity. A Channel, a local television station catering to a young audience, publicized the event heavily. Lite 96, a local radio station, also sponsored the event, providing free on-air promotional spots. The Calgary Herald, the city's main daily newspaper, printed the results for every day of the event, and on the last day they ran a free full-page ad for the Challenge (Mass Media).

Participating organizations were divided into three categories according to company size: under 100 employees, 100-1000 employees, and over 1000 employees. A trophy was given to the organization in each category with the highest percentage of participants out of its total number of employees.

Additional prizes of merchandise donated by local retailers, including bicycles, bicycle accessories, transit passes, inline skates, and bike servicing, were distributed randomly to participating employees. Names were entered in a raffle, and anyone could win. This was an effort to distribute prizes directly to participants, and to provide those who used alternative transport year round with a chance to get some recognition for doing so. In addition to helping distribute these prizes, some corporations even initiated their own internal prize initiatives, as a way to further boost participation. The municipal transit authority donated free transit passes to every participating individual for one day of the event (Financial Incentives and Disincentives).

In 1998, the group staged a campaign geared toward all Calgarians rather than focusing on employers. However, with the budget available, this resulted in too much work for Sustainable Alberta's small staff. They subsequently reverted to the original approach of working through employers.

Organizers said they would like to have targeted schools as well as employers, and met with the board of education about doing so. However, it was decided that if any schools could participate, all schools would have to, and the organizers did not have the resources to handle this increase in participation.

Financing the Program

The project's ongoing annual budget was CAD $50,000. Over half of this money came from registration fees of $1 per employee (paid by the participating organizations). Calgary was the only city involved in the nation-wide Commuter Challenge that charged such a fee. The remaining funding came from grants from foundations and corporations. The budget covered promotion, and the salaries of the two paid organizers.

Mr. Van Leeuwen said, don't be afraid to ask people and businesses to pay for services being rendered, including event or program participation. Companies paid for involvement in the Commuter Challenge (many are coming to us now, chequebooks in hand), and I don't see why things should be any different elsewhere. Most of us have the "no-free-lunch" belief firmly entrenched in our grey matter, so we are suspicious/skeptical/indifferent when something is being offered "for free". Fees help to cover program costs while reducing dependency on government and other non-profits, who could be using their money for other good stuff.

Measuring Achievements

Participating organizations were responsible for tracking their own employee participation. Typically, the corporate coordinator placed a tally sheet on an easel in a prominent location in the office, such as the foyer or elevator lobby. As people arrived at work, they checked a box that best described how they had traveled to work that day. The company coordinator totaled the numbers according to transportation category, and called them in to the main office of Sustainable Alberta, where totals were kept for the whole week.

In 1998, a participating software company developed email-based software for collecting data for the Challenge. Participants were greeted with an email message in the morning, asking them to click on a button describing how they got to work. Numbers were compiled, tallied, and recorded automatically.


Sustainable Alberta provided feedback to participants through its website, the local daily newspaper, radio and TV stations, and prizes awarded directly to participants. Participating individuals also received feedback through their employers, in the form of additional prizes. Media interest in general was high, and directed a lot of attention toward participants. The party hosted by Sustainable Alberta and the Hard Rock Caf at the close of the event also allowed individuals to celebrate their participation in the event.


In ten years of operation, the Calgary Commuter Challenge reached a total of over 20,000 employees with their message. There was a core group of about 24 organizations that always participated in the event. 1998 was the largest year for the program, with over 6000 individual participants. In 2000, about 4900 people registered their commuting data during the event, and all engaged in some form of alternative transportation for at least part of the week-long event.

The highest participation level for a single company was 85%. The Energy and Utilities Board was an unusually dedicated group; they typically attained a participation rate of around 70%, which is quite impressive for an organization with over five hundred employees. In 1998, one organization in the over one-thousand category achieved a 49% participation rate, the highest ever for that category.

As a result of the event, some participating organizations made changes in their policies and infrastructure to be friendlier to alternative commuting styles. For example, some employers installed showers and bicycle lockers.


Kathryn Winkler
Sustainable Alberta
(403) 294-0904

For more information on Canada's nationwide Commuter Challenge, go to:


Sustainable Alberta found that by effectively utilizing the existing infrastructure of the participating corporations, they required remarkably little funding and work from their own organization. Communities larger or smaller can tailor the event to fit their needs with relatively little modification.

Interest on the part of corporations often appeared to be largely image-motivated, although there were many organizations whose interest was sincere and enthusiastic. While the issue of corporate image was useful in motivating employers to take part in the project, there was a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the general population; as Mr. Van Leeuwen said, people are very attached to their cars. Organizers felt that they had to work hard to keep themselves motivated, since it sometimes seemed like there was insufficient public interest to justify the amount of work they were doing. They also felt that the event provided them with too little feedback about their work. Since participating employers handled so much of the organizing and promotion internally, the coordinators felt somewhat removed from the participants experience.

In the early 1990s, when the event began, organizers felt that public concern for environmental matters was very high. The event itself began as a manifestation of the peak of this widespread concern. As times changed and public attention shifted to other things, Sustainable Alberta found they had to find other ways to keep people interested. Indeed, Sustainable Alberta found that there was a lack of interest and some negativity in the publics attitude toward the environmental angle. Currently, issues of personal health are at the forefront of public discussion, and event organizers have found it very helpful to incorporate this set of issues into their promotional tactics. They said they would advise anyone initiating a similar project to de-emphasize environmental issues in their publicity efforts, focussing instead on the health benefits, quality of life improvements, and financial savings associated with alternative transport. Such benefits seemed much more convincing to many people than abstract ideas about reducing emissions. As Mr. Van Leeuwen said, Its much easier to leverage what interest is out there, than it is to actually create interest in something that people arent focussed on.

Mr. Van Leeuwen said that any infrastructure that encourages alternative forms of transport would be helpful to a community seeking to initiate a similar project. One example of a low-cost and effective tool is a ridematching web site, which helps potential carpoolers to contact one another.


This case study was written by Jay Kassirer in 2000.

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