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.

Pedestrian:

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?

Cyclists:

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.

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?

Dude, where’s my bike parking?

Bike Parking on Commercial Drive

Bike Parking on Commercial Drive (Sept 2014)

I love cycling to The Drive. Apparently so do a lot of other people, which is great until you need to find a place to lock your bike. I dread looking for a place to lock my bike where car doors won’t hit your bike, other bikes aren’t rammed into yours, or I don’t have to hike a block or two away. I am tall fellow with a flip-style oval lock so finding something thin, but strong to lock my bike to, is a chore. I have been told to buy a cable or just lock my front wheel (bad idea – front wheels come off in seconds). There other options. I read in the fall Momentum magazine about pinhead accessories that lock all the necessary components, and I have considered many of the different security accessories. However, given the best way to secure your bike is to make it more secure than other bikes, there has to be a better way.  Sitting on a patio next to my bike or being able to see my bike from inside a business is ideal. I just lock my bike and glance at it every so often. Assuming I have a proper lock situation, I still need to find a place to lock my bike, and in my line of sight is not often an option.

The racks provided by the city are always full as are the trees, poles, and parking meters near popular corridors. Five years ago, 74% of all bikes counted on The Dirve were locked to objects other than racks. These are the “desire lines” of bike parking. But, they are bad solutions. Car doors smack bikes locked to parking meters. Young trees can be damaged and old ones are too thick. Poles are often only secure by one bolt at the bottom.

Now the city does have program for installing bike racks, but you either get the coat hangers, which leads to mashed cables and handlebars, or the single upside down U-shape, which is good for all bikes, but bad due to the limited capacity of two. If the City doesn’t take the initiative businesses can by apply for a permit. However,

The permit is free, but you are responsible for buying the bike rack, getting it installed, and maintaining it. Purchase costs will average roughly $300 to $500. (source)

I find this ridiculous given that the parking for cars is free, bikes, have a negligible impact on maintenance costs, and cyclists spend more money locally, i.e. more tax revenue.

The other program is bike corrals where surface car parking is removed for a large amount a bike parking. The Drive has a few of these and they are often full too! (Sorry, didn’t have a recent Vancouver photo)

Bike Corrals in Portland Oregon -2014

Bike Corrals in Portland Oregon -2014

 

The City is given a lot of credit/criticism about their support for cycling and the great strides they are taking. But, are we doing enough? What if the City put a bike corral on each block on The Drive, one on each side of the street, and expanded the popular ones? What if the city made it safer to bike down The Drive and not just near it? What if the City expanded the sidewalks for larger patios, street furniture, and planters? What if car parking was moved off The Drive?

Gil said it best:

Streets are the biggest public spaces. Should they be for car storage or for great public spaces? It’s a matter of priorities. ~ Gil Penalosa

 

UPDATE: Well that was quick.