View Corridors

I am dismayed by hearing the latest salvo against the City of Vancouver’s view corridors. Yes, view corridors provide an artificial obstacle to development and design of towers downtown. However, they provide design focus to work with often forcing the architect to use animated designs of twisting and cantilevered conceptions. Stifle the creative process? No, the restriction resides with the creativity of the design team. And, we should ask for no less. Why should we settle for the Vancouver version of the same tower in NYC or Toronto? What really does the super-tall add to Vancouver other than each subsequent tower reaching higher. Vancouver has a unique Goldilocks massing of “not-to-tall”, “not-to-small” on podiums that have formed the streetscape fabric of the downtown core.  We have wonderful developments that owe their form to the view corridors. I question the timing of the criticism to the lack of easy sites left in the downtown core.


Local Road Diets or Local Attitude Diets

Vancouver is a built out city with a policy to not expand road capacity. Downtown this policy in conjunction with the high cost of parking and the increased provision of good alternative such as transit and cycling has caused dramatic changes overtime. Together these policies have helped reduce commuter traffic to downtown to traffic levels comparable to the 1960s.

The City is looking to build on this success. By the end of this year, the City will decide on future of the viaducts, monuments to the failed freeway program. Despite the success in reducing car traffic, the gnashing of teeth and outcry of a “war on cars” continues.

Is this really “a war on cars”? Or, is this a growing realization that we can do many things with our public space. Maybe not as much of it needs to be dedicated to car traffic and parking.

The car is an expensive luxury that has been ingrained into our culture and cities as integral. As this assumption is increasingly challenged, those beholden to their cars and by extension, their way of life, feel threatened. The outrage over a small road closure for the Point Grey Bicycle route is very revealing.The new bicycle route is successful and the traffic snarl has not appeared. Will the outrage continue? Of course. People are invested in their outrage. When the City announces changes to the viaducts, outrage will ensue.

The fact remains we need better infrastructure for cycling and walking and that will come at the cost of some car infrastructure. So why isn’t the change broadly accepted? It is difficult to convince people to remove or restrict a lane of traffic when they perceive a city full of cars that need as much space as possible to get anywhere. However, part of the problem with car infrastructure is what economist call “a tragedy of the commons”. Because there is no cost tied to the use of the streets, people who have purchased a car will not only try and maximize their investment, but also are incentivized to use the streets for driving.

The popularity of free use of streets creates a political focus. With the expectation of access to the streets, and the provision of ubiquitous driving infrastructure, a political imperative around car infrastructure exists where pot-holes and parking are often more contentious than poverty or housing. Despite property taxes funding the maintenance of streets, the cost of providing these services is not adequately gauged. So how much do we need?

Everyone would agree to maintain enough of the road network to maintain commerce and emergency vehicles, but after that it is not clear. With the City’s policy to limit road expansion, reduction is the only option. There is clarity around reducing capacity in tandem with improvements to other modes. It is important to note, even without the other improvements, these road diets cause traffic to slow to safe speeds, people to change their routes, and some traffic evaporates. Traffic disappearing is well documented and should not be a surprise as there is one cost to using untolled roads: time.

Large changes can be disruptive initially causing long delays for drivers. However, drivers adjust their habits in estimating when to take trips, what route to take, and most importantly, do they need to drive to make the trip. The disruption for the City’s sewer-storm water separation project is an excellent opportunity to gauge large road disruption to traffic as comparable to road diets although temporary.

The project is currently digging up Hemlock Street, a four lane street with two-lanes in the evening with parking. Many locals expected terrible morning traffic, when the street was closed or reduced to one lane. They weren’t wrong initially. The first morning traffic was reduced to one lane, traffic barely moved. The next day the traffic was slow, but moving at near or just below the speed limit. The third day, the entire road was closed, and traffic on the nearby Granville Street was horrible. Then on the fourth day (and everyday the project continued), traffic on both Granville and Hemlock have been moving steadily. Meanwhile, the foot traffic on Hemlock has increased. People have put chairs out on the sunny days after the workers have gone home.

Even with parking, there is surplus road space. Why do we need to create a fast moving feeder lane through a neighbourhood when that space could be used for many other uses? It is a pity the City will return the street to four lanes for rush hour and 2 lanes for evening. This is a wonderful opportunity to create a linear park to the bridge that facilitates walking and cycling downtown and in the neighbourhood. But, it won’t happen. Why? Because the City has already budgeted resurfacing and the traffic engineers have designated the road as important.

Important for what? The question remains is our priority to move cars or people? And, should reducing congestion be such a high priority?

Note: It was interesting to observe that when the 12th and Hemlock  intersection was closed, traffic diverted with no issue. More surplus?

Do it right or not at all

There is a common misconception regarding the design of public space that doing a compromised design is better than no design: “At least it’s better than nothing”. The problem with this approach is that with a less than optimal designs you create cues that incentivize the use of a space that provides a negative experience feedback to the users and isn’t any safer while sometimes less safe.


Sidewalk on SeymourLaurel and W10th

The left photo about shows a wide sidewalk with trees and a set-back including parking lane between the pedestrians and the moving lane of traffic. The design provides a smooth wide surface that guides pedestrians down the street within a treed hallway. A very pleasant walking experience.

The right photo shows a crosswalk on one crossing that leads to a wider crossing with no crosswalk. The vehicles are given a disproportionate amount of unnecessary space with pedestrians pushed to the edges. The crosswalk is jarring to the overall uncontrolled intersection use. “walk here. it is safe.” However, the parking, turning, and trough cars dominate the space creating an uneasy experience.

Another important aspect of designing pedestrian public space is the diversity of users. How would a person with a walker, a stroller, a wheelchair, or slow walker use the space?


paint bike lane

separated bike lane off Cambie Bridge

The worst design ever is sharrows. Sharrows are put on streets where no improvements have been made such as added space or separation from traffic for cyclists, but cyclists are guided to these spaces. The idea is if people know cyclists are using the space by the paint on the ground cars will be aware. The statistics show that is very unsafe for cyclists.

The left-picture shows another design issue where the curb space between the drive lane and the parked cars is made a bike lane. Cars easily block, cross, drift across, or open doors into the bike lane. Best practice is to put the parked cars between the bike lane and the drive lane removing the need for cars to cross the lane. It also provides an opportunity to separate the bike lane completely.

The right picture is a good multi-directional separated bike land that ends poorly. The lane does not continue despite cyclists needing to continue and when they do they are just riding in traffic. Turing right is also confusing as oncoming cyclists from the right are coming from the middle of the street while it is unclear where the right-turning cyclsits are supposed to go to the middle or stay right. This is known as a gap in the bike network where there is no or a poor connection from one route to another. Gaps are problematic as they dump cyclists into spaces that are unsafe despite the rest of their route being well-design. Gaps are a deterrent to cycling.

Bike and pedestrian:

20141007_171604 20141007_171624

Bike infrastructure designed correctly improves the pedestrian realm. A separated bike lane often provides a greater buffer between moving cars and the sidewalk, improved planters, and even wider sidewalks. However, shared spaces must balance the how each mode uses space.

The pictures above show how cyclists cross a sidewalk with limited vision at an angle. The issue here is the speed of cyclists is fast enough that there is not enough time to stop. Pedestrians also can walk into oncoming pedestrians. The argument that cyclists should slow down is a red-herring as the design appears to show the path ahead when there is another path out of sight. The cycle track should be realigned to its original design. Cyclists would make the turn away from pedestrians merging and join the trail with time to adjust speed and position. This would improve both the pedestrian and cycling space. The space before the new cycle track was safer at this corner. As such nothing would have been safer.

Sidewalks Too Green?

Big trim needed!

Hedge blocking sidewalk

Hedges growing across sidewalks is a huge pet-peeve of mine. Sure, you can walk around, but when it is raining the grass gets muddy from being trampled, and  can you imagine the irritation for those in wheelchairs. So what do you do? You call the city of course.

When you call the city, they will order the owner of the adjoining property to trim the hedge or they will order it done at the owners expense. (I don’t have any numbers on often this happens). This is not a proper fix as the owner will cut back the hedge often not all the way. The hedge is alive so it grows back to block the sidewalk.

As a gardener, I know that many of these hedges were planted too close to the sidewalk. If they were cut back properly, you would be left with mostly the “old wood” and not much greenery so the bylaw is not a very effective ensuring a  long-term solution.

I don’t want the city to turn into the “garden police”; however, there is too much deference to the property owners by the current system. The enforcement should be balanced. Information should be provided to the owners on the first offence that indicates the proper maintenance of their hedges. On subsequent offences, the city should fine the owners and clear the “obstruction” or “encroachment” of city property. If the hedges blocked the traffic or parking the city would just cut them and cite safety. How is this different?

Unfriendly crossings

Why don’t they just go to the light a block away?

Ever wonder why a cyclist or a pedestrian tries to cross at an uncontrolled intersection? Maybe you slow to let them cross. Maybe you honk when they try and move forward forcing you to stop. I am talking about busier streets in the city. Why do people cross these where it is unsafe? Are they crazy?  No. Human nature is to take a direct route. Maybe they live across the street. Maybe they are going much farther. No matter the reason, it is dangerous.

Often one car stops in the curb lane but the car coming up in the middle lane doesn’t stop. Sometimes one lane stops, but the other lane doesn’t. Sometimes a left-turning car is focused on finding a break in traffic,  and not the bike, person, or other car trying to cross. Add poor lighting, wide curb radii, and line of sight obstructions, and accidents are inevitable. So what can we do? Or more importantly, who is responsible?

Wide crossing with large corner curb radii.

Wide crossing with large corner curb radii.

I blame bad design based on incorrect priorities Take W12th from MacDonald Street in the west to Boundary Street in the east. This route is consistently used to bypass the busier West Broadway by cars. The Broadway corridor is a destination for all the residents along both routes. The high demand for crossing from south of W12th to the destinations in the north along this corridor is a recipe for accidents and a disincentive for walking and biking.

MacDonald to Arbutus is low rise residential with a a school. There only two pedestrian controlled crossings. Moving along, after the high school is a large park with one uncontrolled crossing. This park zone speeds are consistently ignored, with the wide open unobstructed street. After the park, there is another controlled light and the Arbutus intersection. If a car has a green on both of these intersections, it will be averaging above 50km/hr. This is exacerbated by racing around left-turning vehicles in the centre lane to beat the light change.

This issue repeats for the rest of the strip. Cars continuously maintain speeds over 50km/hr except where lights and congestion prevent the possibility of doing so.

So where is the design flaw?

Parking, Curbs and crossings.

When parking is allowed on W12th, the traffic speeds are lower on the entire route. The observed speeds are near the speed limit. The parked cars reduce the route to one lane in each direction. It is not only the proximity to the parked cars, but also the reduced decision-making that slows the traffic. When there are two lanes, drivers continuously are trying to choose the faster lane. This is essentially a race car mindset. If you are always passing or trying to keep ahead, you are always speeding. With only one lane, driving decisions become simplified to intersections: turn or stay.

Curbs and crossing also play a role in bad design. When the curbs have generous turning radii, pedestrians and cyclists have to move into the curb lane to see and to be seen. There is also the issue with a cyclists arriving behind a right-turning car at these large radii curbs. The car is already positioned to the right so the cyclist is forced to go into the middle of the side street. This is dangerous for several of reasons. The car turning miscalculates and reverses as the cyclist moves behind it; the cyclist is blocked by the car from the view of on-coming traffic from the right; and, the cyclist is in the way of a left-turning car that turns into the side street.

Good curb and crossing design is about visibility and positioning. Bringing curbs out so that crossing pedestrians are visible to traffic, narrows the space needed to cross and increases their visibility. Reducing the curb radii is better for cyclists both for visibility and for positioning them relative to traffic on the side street with the added bonus of having the curb to lean a foot against. Reducing the curb radii slows the speed cars can turn the corner, but it also forces longer vehicles to move into the other lane of the side street to make the corner. When crossings are better designed, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have a more reliable expectation of how and where crossing take place increasing the safety.

My recommendation:

The City should have controlled crosswalks for every block on W12th. This would correspond to West Broadway and help connect to the off-Broadway bike route. W12th is designed for speeding and creates an unsafe environment for all modes. Overall, the City needs to consider upgrading the curbs and crossings when they perform the sewer/storm drain separation. Is this expensive? Yes. But, if we want to get more people to walk and bike more, we need to create safer streets. The City has outlined its mode priorities, but has failed on this street to implement them. Simply put: if these safety improvements lead to traffic moving at the speed limit, and increase walking and cycling, why aren’t they being made?