Archives for category: Urban planning and design

Being forced to push your baby out into traffic… feeling like the sidewalk has taken over control of your stroller and is determined to introduce your baby to the fast moving travel lane… having the impression I’m crossing a road when in fact its a lane way.

My wife and I have experienced all this and more in the past year or so as we adapt to life with a baby. We live in downtown Vancouver and use the car only rarely. Thus the stroller gets a LOT of use. Here are my top three annoyances that I’ve observed as we ‘stroll’ around town (although the last one is not stroller specific).

1. The lack of drop curbs where they need to be. This is downtown Vancouver in the 21st century, but even here there are significant minority of intersections (especially in the older West End) that have inadequate drop curbs. The usual problem is that there may be one drop curb on a corner, but it faces the wrong way. So with a stroller, you have to push out into the lane in which vehicles are now travelling. At a four way or two way stop it is unclear which way you’re actually crossing. This can be confusing for vehicle drivers as well as dangerous for pedestrians and their (precious) cargo. ACTION FOR THE CITY: Review and amend drop curbs where necessary.

2. Sloping curb let downs. Sometimes I wonder who truly has priority in this city when I see a curb letdown for a driveway that seems to have totally forgotten that pedestrians might actually use the sidewalk and don’t want to walk at a 45 degree angle to do so. An annoyance without a stroller – dangerous with one. Sometimes with a stroller you’re kind of struggling to keep the thing from veering into the road. The letdown should be within the boulevard zone if possible. Pedestrians are supposed to have priority but this doesn’t seem to be the case. A steeper transition for vehicles over a shorter distance would also act as a traffic calming device to slow their speed as they turn into a site, across a sidewalk. The Institute of Transportation Engineers and The Congress for The New Urbanism agree. Their book, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares (2010) highlights this and recommends that pedestrians always be given a clear, level (apart from the 2% cross grade) path around the letdown – see diagram below, taken from the book, as well as a photo, from Alberni Street.

ACTION FOR THE CITY: Adopt a standard similar to the above to ensure pedestrians always have a flat path around any letdown.

3. Who has right of way when a lane way and sidewalk meet? The answer is obviously that pedestrians have priority. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the other way round. These ‘intersections’ should be designed so that the sidewalk continues uninterrupted with the boulevard again used to transition to street level. This would emphasize the fact that lane ways are not roads and that they’re for access, not through traffic. In slowing drivers down as they enter/ exit a lane way, it might also reduce instances of ‘rat running’ through them. ACTION FOR THE CITY: Alter your design standards to physically give pedestrians right of way, and reinforce the fact that laneways are not roads.

It goes without saying that wheelchair users face the same issues (perhaps even more so) than parents with strollers. However, my experience is with strollers, so  I write from that perspective.

So, that’s my observations and opinion. Do you agree? Am I making a fuss out of nothing? What have I missed? I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

Back in October, Ellen Dunham Jones came to Vancouver and presented a lecture on New Urbanism and also what she felt were the short comings of landscape or ecological urbanism, which was starting to become a competitor in the theory of place making. Jason King, on his Landscape and Urbanism blog linked back to my review of the Ellen Dunham Jones lecture. His post, entitled, ‘More on Ecological Urbanism‘ provides a view from the other side, a counter balance if you will and is actually quite refreshing for those of us who may have only ever heard ecological urbanism described by those who distrust it (e.g The Congress for New Urbanism). I’m still not convinced, due in part to the lack of actual examples they can point to, but I do appreciate that in the main, new urbanists and ecological/ landscape urbanists are after most of the main things, but they vary in their methodology for how to get there. Discuss…

I attended one of the SFU  City Program’s free lectures last night. The topic was ‘What’s Up With the Viaducts?’ in reference to the fact that the City is now considering what the future of these structures, and more importantly what the future of this area of the City, should be.

There seem to be two main aspects. Firstly, what happens to all the traffic that currently uses the viaducts? Does everything come to a grinding halt if they are removed? The consensus was – no. And to be fair, all the evidence now supports this, including the little experiment the City did in February last year when a small sporting event shut down the viaducts and a few other streets! There is now a fair body of evidence from all over the world which supports the notion of  ‘disappearing traffic’. One of the most notable examples is from Seoul and Gordon Price’s blog has a lot of info on it here. Basically, in this case, they removed 6km of a huge freeway through the city and replace d it with a park. And traffic in surrounding areas did not go up. It has even got the folks in New Westminster grappling with a planned expanded Front Street wandering whether its the right thing to do. Traffic is like a gas, it expands and contracts to fill the space available. Hence also, ‘induced traffic’ where new road capacity is used up quicker than expected. As an aside, the exception to this is if its tolled. I have heard of two examples recently of Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects where new bridges or tunnels have been constructed and tolls and financial models calculated based on a certain number of vehicles using the route (and paying the toll). And the traffic hasn’t come. One of the examples is the Golden Ears Bridge here in Metro Vancouver. I’m sure this wouldn’t have happend a few years ago. Times, they are a changing…

The other part of the debate was what should replace the space that the viaducts currently take. The skytrain weaves up and down around the viaducts at the moment so that’s one challenge, although I personally like the roller coaster feel to this part of the route and think its a feature in its own right. There was an interesting history lesson given as to what was there before the viaducts which acted as a reminder about how much we can loose in the name of ‘progress’. Hogan’s Alley was a thriving black community (Vancouver’s only one) which was wiped out. Someone suggested naming this project Hogan’s Alley Planning Initiative (HAPI) which got a cheer of approval.

This is only the beginning of the debate. So, what do YOU think? As Bing Thom said last night, the City Councillors want to hear from the people, otherwise they don’t really know what to do. So make your voice heard on this blog or elsewhere.

Here is an interesting, short article from CityWire regarding the reasons for declining strips malls. It summarises the points well, linking many different factors such as transportation, technology and the recession.

We were back in the UK over Christmas and I was casting my planning and transport eye over what I saw, looking for the differences between the UK and North America. For the purposes of this blog, today I will highlight just one of them.

One of the obvious differences between towns in the UK and North America (or the Metro Vancouver area anyway) is how the roads and blocks are laid out. In Metro Vancouver blocks and roads were laid out in advance of development with straight roads running north – south and east – west to produce roughly square or rectangular blocks. In the UK the road network is much more historical with the straightest roads ironically sometimes being some of the oldest (ancient ‘roman road’ alignments). Block sizes and shapes are far more random and in many areas are the result of incremental development over hundreds of years. Below are two maps, taken from Google, showing the road layout near where I live in Vancouver, BC and in Dover, UK, where my wife’s family live. They are both the same scale.

Vancouver, BC

Dover, UK

Although the density is obviously very different, I use these two examples as I live in one of them and recently visited the other. Dover’s topography is far more evident in the way the road system has developed.

The roads themselves also vary wildly. In the UK the historical nature of the road means typically narrower cross sections than you would plan for if constructing a new road today. In addition, most of the houses do not have off street parking and laneways are not typical. Therefore, these narrow roads also have to accommodate on-street parking. Finally, some of these narrow roads also serve a collector road function and therefore carry moderate volumes of traffic.

Below are two images taken from Google’s Streetview (sorry – for a blog that professes to be at least partially about photography I should really have taken the photos myself). They show street views from the two maps above. One is of Alberni Street in Vancouver and one is from Elms Vale Road, Dover. Although I don’t have the numbers to back this up, I would guess these roads carry similar volumes of traffic on a daily basis.

Dover, UK

Alberni Street, Vancouver BC

The differences are obvious! To North American’s the Dover street might appear a little scary. How do you navigate such a narrow road, especially when the bus approaches?! Well, narrow roads have advantages. People tend to drive slowly – the speed limit is self enforcing. Drivers often have to give way to oncoming traffic and have to ‘pull in’ between parked cars to let this happen. North America is still very standards driven but I am not saying that these narrower widths should be adopted or that they are better. (In fact, the resulting narrow sidewalks/ footpaths caused several problems for us and our stroller/ pushchair, while we were there.) What I am trying to say is that when you don’t have all the space you might like to have, people adapt and things keep moving. If a little slower – which is probably a good thing.

Finally, I would say that a lot of other things have had to fit in with this generally narrower street geometry. You will not usually find the huge trucks and full size SUVs traveling about on these roads. Plus, ALL vehicles in the UK are able to push their side mirrors/ wing mirrors in. I remember being shocked when I realized most side mirrors did NOT push in over here.

So, in conclusion, you make best use of what you have and it usually finds some way of working itself out, even if there are a few compromises along the way.

Ellen Dunham-Jones spoke on Next Generation Urbanism on Tuesday evening as part of the SFU City Program, here in Vancouver. She is a new urbanist and member of the Congress For New Urbanism. She co-authored Retrofitting Suburbia. She spoke on many things and I thought it was a thought provoking presentation that was nicely balanced between being theoretical and conceptual, as well as practical and realist. Her main topic was critiquing a new upstart which is challenging new urbanism. This new movement is called Ecological Urbanism. According to Dunham-Jones, while new urbanists like to plan through good design, ecological urbanists don’t. They prefer to set something in motion and see what happens. Kind of more ecology in the city, but it also seems to be more lower density suburbia where, although surrounded by hills and other natural landscapes, most people would still have to drive everywhere. Being a new urbanist, unsurprisingly, she is fairly critical of ecological urbanism, although she did acknowledge that new urbanists can learn something from the less planned, more spontaneous places that seem to be so popular. I asked a question at the end, suggesting Vancouver’s own Granville Island was a good example of this. She hadn’t heard of Granville Island, but I hope she has time to check it out during her stay. Now I don’t know for sure whether Granville Island was unplanned or whether it just appears that way. But Dunham-Jones didn’t seem to think that mattered. The fact that it feels different and looks different, in a good way, is enough.

She also mentioned that post recession, we will have to find cheaper ways of doing things. People may become less consumer focused out of necessity. Will there be a new emphasis on seeking happiness? I thought it interesting that she thinks that as a result we’ll have to find alternatives to retail to enliven our public spaces.

As part of this, she mentioned some small scale examples of temporary things people have done to enliven public spaces. Examples included Parking Day, Build a Better Block, Pop Up City and, one I especially liked the sound of, Pie Day.

And I won a book. ‘Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley‘ by Derek Hayes. It has a lot of old maps in it – I like it already. Thanks to Gordon Price and the City Program for that. All I did was stand up when asked who had a blog!

I’m not sure, but this article in the Vancouver Sun by columnist Daphne Bramham makes the case for greater thought to be given to pedestrians by City Council. She highlights infrastructure issues such narrow sidewalks and inadequate pedestrian crossings  as well as statistical data such as pedestrian accident statistics and the fact that we’re an aging population. ‘In the future there will be more walkers with walkers’.

A couple of things recently have brought my attention to the fact that pedestrians are perhaps becoming overlooked in the development of our cities. I know this sounds crazy, but bear with me. They are being overlooked, often, in favour of cyclists. At a recent Gaining Ground workshop that I attended there seemed to be a consensus that while bicycle advocacy was well advanced in some areas (and rightly so) and has achieved some notable victories (Vancouver’s downtown bike lanes for example) there is no one flying the flag for pedestrians.

The City of Vancouver has a Bicycle Advisory Committee which is consulted on major development proposals and capital projects to ensure that cyclists needs have been taken into account. In addition, there is the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition who are the leading cycling advocates in the area and then there is, of course, Critical Mass. All of these bodies do great work (although I sometimes have doubts about critical mass). The point is not that bicycle advocacy has gone too far, but that pedestrian advocacy has, erh… well, not really started yet. The best example in Vancouver of this imbalance  is pedestrian’s losing the eastern sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge to cyclists. Road space should have been taken away from cars, not pedestrians!

I am not the only one to think that pedestrians need a flag waver, and not just in Vancouver. I recently read  Dom Nozzi’s latest blog entry which is on this very subject and he’s located all the way down in Florida. In Vancouver specifically, an SFU professor agrees that a pedestrian advocate is needed. The best Vancouver has at the moment is probably the Vancouver Public Space Network. They do some great work. However, their interest is far larger than just pedestrians. Other cities that Vancouver likes to compare itself against, such as Portland OR have a Pedestrian Advisory Committee. And it was formed in 2000! In case you’re wondering what a body such as this would do, Portland’s Mission Statement reads:

The mission of the City of Portland Pedestrian Advisory Committee is to act as advocates for pedestrians by:

  • Reviewing new projects that effect pedestrians to ensure they meet City of Portland Pedestrian Design Guide standards;
  • Advocating for safe access for pedestrians;
  • Supporting education, outreach, and advocacy of pedestrian issues; and
  • Developing policy and plans to better meet the needs of pedestrians.

So, why isn’t there one in Vancouver? Perhaps it’s because we’re all pedestrians, so we all assume someone else is doing something about it. Or perhaps it’s because everyone assumes pedestrians are doing just fine – give them a sidewalk or a cross walk and that should do it! The example of the Burrard Bridge road space reallocation shows that it doesn’t just happen by itself.  It’s time Vancouver had its own Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

This article in the Globe and Mail got me thinking about how Translink should be funded in Metro Vancouver. Basically, Translink needs more money if it is to continue to expand services to meet the growing demands of more and more residents. Currently, Translink has four ways to raise money; property tax, gas tax, fares and a possible flat vehicle levy. One area I believe should be explored is allowing Translink to receive some of the Development Cost Charges that municipalities charge developers when they construct new buildings. These charges go towards paying for new infrastructure costs such as water, electricity, sewerage and roads. That’s right. Just roads. Or bicycle paths, or greenways. But not transit. Municipalities are taking this money to cover the costs of new roads, so they are provided, but Translink gets nothing to pay for new bus service. So it often doesn’t happen. Now you could say that over time, increased property taxes from these new developments will allow Translink to introduce services. But we all know that these services should be provided from day one, like the roads, so that sustainable travel habits can be established from the beginning. Enabling Translink to directly receive a portion of the Development Cost Charge would allow them to provide new services up front for the areas that require them most. The current system leads to an inherent bias towards roadway provision.

Here is an interesting idea from the City of Mission in Kansas, USA. The City wants to charge fees based on how much traffic a development generates. Developments that generate more traffic and thus more wear and tear on the roads will be charged more. The article, from the Kansas City Star states that:

Larger businesses that generate lots of traffic, such as Mission Bank, could pay $5,659 a year. A drive-thru fast food restaurant could pay $12,200 a year. Target could pay as much as $64,750 annually.

From the article it sounds like this is a set fee, based on looking up an ITE trip generation table (or similar) to tell you how much traffic a certain development type will generate per unit area (usually per 1,000 sq ft). This in itself is an outdated approach of course, as surrounding land use and density have a vital role to play in influencing the trip generation of a certain development type. However, it is a good idea in theory. I would suggest a couple of improvements to this approach, that would further promote smart growth principles. Firstly, it should include a factor which acknowledges that building a McDonalds (for example) in a higher density, pedestrian friendly area will generate less traffic than building one out in suburbia on a strip mall. This would financially encourage developers to locate in built up, walkable neighbourhoods, as it will cost them less in ‘traffic tax’. Even better, for larger developments, this should be done dynamically. With a permanent traffic counter (or temporary one used at regular intervals) on a site driveway, the number of trips the development generates can be regularly monitored. The more car trips, the more tax they pay. Therefore reducing these trips has a direct financial advantage for the owner. This would make developers think about the location that they build in, but also strive for continual improvements in the travel mode of their employees and visitors. A potential drawback of this approach is that municipalities receive less tax revenue if developments successfully implement vehicle reduction strategies.

Of course, the traffic counter approach only works if each development provides its own parking supply. In urban centres, it is good practice to have a pooled parking supply of on-street parking and municipal owned public parkades. In conclusion therefore, making developments that generate more traffic pay more for the upkeep of the roads makes sense, but the system needs to reward location and potentially other measures such as TDM strategies that an individual development may wish to implement.