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.

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?

Joy-walking

What are the best walking space in the city at all hours for all seasons ? Are the ones you are thinking of take you away from the roar of traffic, the bustle of the city, the general humdrum of our daily tasks. Now, how many are not in parks?

I can think of only one.

Hemlock and W7th Ave looking NW

Hemlock and W7th Ave looking NW

The walkway through the Portico Bosa developments of Modena, Carrara, Siena, and Verona.

West 6th crossing looking South.

West 6th crossing looking South.

This walk cuts through the properties along the desire line from Broadway and Hemlock to the West 4th crossing (to Granville Island) at the bottom north end. The materials are red brick, grey pavers, and concrete with generous amounts of trees and shrubbery. The path is decorated with benches and bike racks near the buildings. It is well lit at night, shovelled and salted in the winter, and well-maintained year round. The crossings are well-marked at the mid-block of 6th and 5th as the path traverses over a cross-walk where the road is narrowed to slow traffic and increase visibility of pedestrians.

Crosswalk at West 6th

Crosswalk at West 6th

Why is this so exceptional? Why is this well-designed public space not more common?

I have asked at open houses and other opportunities. I have been told it was a unique situation with one developer, helped connect the upper buildings more directly to the park at the bottom, and most bizarrely, it works because of the elevation changes.

I am not disagreeing with any of these reasons for this development to create the easement for well-designed public space. (Although elevation change is hardly unique.) I question why the city can’t coordinate through planning areas where this public space would also work.

I will give you an example with comparable factors where this public space would work very well. Go west of Granville Street to Fir Street. There is a lovely new park at Fir and 6th across from cafe with Frnech pastries. (Now there is a desire line!) There are plans to develop the corner building (and a few other sites in the surronding blocks) Is there any plan to coordinate a comparable mid-block public space connecting Burrard and Broadway to West 4th?

No.

I asked the developer about leaving a space on the edge of the property for a future easement. I was told the adjoining property would be a better site. (not really) I asked what happens if the adjoining property disagrees? I was told that that was a city matter. That is a fair point. I see this as one of the base reasons for planning: coordination of multiple interests to achieve a goal over time. So I asked the city planners. They told me that a mid-block crossing was too close to either end of the street. (I checked and the streets on the Bosa development are shorter.)  I then asked the most obvious question. Were they concerned about people cutting across the street mid-block to access the new park and on to West 4th? (There is no way people will walk all the way to the corner, thrice the distance, than just jay-walk) I was told that that was beyond the scope of the project. When I pointed out that this answer could be used for every development in the area, I was told it was not the time nor the place for such input. (They never did say where or when it would be) I left after I was also told that I should suggest this to the parks planners as part of the public consultation for the park that was under construction.

We don’t have more of these Joy-walks because they aren’t a planning priority, the pedestrian realm is restricted by default traffic standards, and the planning process is still too siloed.