All posts by admin

Vancouver’s Robson Square, and why it was always supposed to be Walkable


Vancouver Sun’s Dan Fumano talks about an interesting perception with the work of the current Vancouver City Council.  Dan was referring to  the council report on the “court house block” of  800 block of Robson Street and the potential decision to approve over five million dollars to create a permanent plaza at this location. You can read the report to Council on this here.

This has been a long talked about initiative and even the architect for the Robson Square court house Arthur Erickson had discussed the closure of this portion of street in the 1970’s. It is not a new idea and it is not something that the previous Vision party  dominated city council dreamed up.  But somehow in the last decade there is a sea change in the way that Vancouverites perceive that work initiated by the City is the “vision” of the ruling party, and not the result of careful reasoned work undertaken over the years by  city staff, who also embark upon extensive public processes to review and comment upon potential plans and projects.

The last Vision party dominated Council contributed to the perception of council as project mavericks by having Council members talk about projects instead of having experienced City staff explain elements of the projects they would have painstaking detail and knowledge of.

While this may have been a well-meaning strategy to give Councillors more media time, it also contributed to a growing distance between policy and the staff people who were actually working on and charged with implementing the policy. The street closure of the court-house block is a prime example of something that was done to connect the street for pedestrians and cyclists, and was a policy direction, not a political council initiative.

As Dan Fumano observes, the pedestrianization of the Granville Bridge and the extension of the subway along Broadway are not creations of the previous Vision council, but were outstanding work objectives from city staff acting upon previously approved city policy.

Back to the closure of the Robson Square block of 800 Robson Street. You can see a  video of broadcaster Jack Webster touring through the Robson Square  park in 1978 when the court house’s public spaces were first opened to the public. Mr. Webster mentions that the old court house was sold to the City “for a dollar” and  still needed renovation to become a gallery. But in the images you can also see how the street functions as a mall connecting space between the old and the new court houses, and how it lends itself to be rethought as a public space for people not  for vehicles. The architect’s intent was that the entire three block area including the 800 block  Robson Street portion be closed to traffic. That was architect Arthur Erickson’s vision four decades ago, and a direction that has been explored by city staff over the years.


People walking to Commercial Areas spend 40% More!


Of course it makes intuitive sense that active transportation users and bus commuters would frequent retail businesses more often than those constrained by  vehicles. But it is always better to have the hard facts on this data, and researchers in the City of London England have done just that.

Transport for London (TfL)  in Great Britain has released a new study  with some staggering statistics about what happens when street improvements are made to facilitate walking and cycling. Time spent on retail streets increased by 216% between shopping, patronizing local cafes and sitting on street benches. Retail space vacancies declined by 17%.  London’s Business Improvement Districts are 90% in favour of more street improvements to facilitate pedestrians, and 85% in favour of better facilities for cyclists.

But the best news, and this is also in line with research conducted in Toronto and in New York City “people walking, cycling and using public transport spend the most in their local shops, spending 40% more each month than car drivers”.

The study for TfL was conducted by a researcher at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning. Footfall and retail sales in unimproved areas were compared to shopping areas that had implemented improvements such as wider sidewalks, increased outdoor seating, public parks and pedestrian crossings.  Findings showed that retail rents  increased by 7% in improved areas, and office space rents increased by 4%, suggesting that the street improvements translated into much more desirable spaces. You can download the entire report, which also has some great business case references for retail areas  here.

Local business improvement districts in London are also understanding the benefits of increased pedestrian and cycling clientele, with 90% seeing the advantages of pedestrian improvements and 85% wanting more cycling facilities in their area.

Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, said: ‘With businesses across London really struggling to survive, we have to do everything we can to support them.‘The evidence is clear – adapting our streets to enable more people to walk and cycle makes them cleaner, healthier and more welcoming, which encourages more people to shop locally.‘The benefits of designing streets around pedestrians and cyclists and reducing car use can be enjoyed by everyone and will help ensure the future of our high streets.’

And of course, more pedestrians and more cyclists on separated facilities, improved street design and slower speeds make roads safer and encourage travel to retail businesses by active transport, and make retailers more money.  This BBC video below has been just released talking about Vision Zero and how to make the streets of London safer for everyone.

Perfecting the Pedestrian Glare


As only The Onion can report, they have narrowed down how pedestrians can stay safe crossing roads. While it is a spoof, it is telling.

Pedestrian  Adam Hartsell in Chicago “reportedly made sure to look up at the driver of an approaching vehicle Thursday to ensure they would feel extra guilty in the event they failed to stop and ran him over. “

The 26-year-old pedestrian has two approaches walking across intersections~ he “emphasized the importance of not only locking eyes with each and every oncoming driver, but also delivering a hard stare that conveys a stern moral appraisal of any who would not brake their vehicle in time. “

“In this way, I will be able to haunt their dreams long after they’ve struck and killed me. If I have enough time, I also make sure to look any passengers dead in the eyes, so that they, too, will be hounded for years by debilitating remorse. It’s important to take these small precautions.”

Like “Bird Droppings” Scooters Impede Walkability


When talking about pedestrian environments I am referring to walkable, inviting places that include the most vulnerable in our communities~the very young, the disenfranchised, those with mobility challenges, and the elderly. This is accessible mobility for everyone in the pedestrian environment.

Why is it so challenging to maintain good walking environments with smooth, continuous sidewalk, curb cuts correctly formed in the right locations at intersections, lots of visual interest and places to go to and through? Why do these pedestrian environments, which are proven to be great for enhancing retail’s bottom line seen as an add on in Council reports, instead of having their own distinct plan?  Enhancing accessible walkability keeps communities fit, connected, social, and wards off a host of mental and physical disease, and are sustainable. Research done by  the esteemed Dr. Larry Frank at the University of British Columbia shows that even people in suburban communities want to live close to schools, shops and services, and will accept a smaller house size to live in those kind of communities.

That is why it is so important to stay ahead of trends such as  dockless scooter rentals which are relatively cheap to rent, and can be abandoned when able-bodied riders can get to their destination. says it best:  “These next-gen “Bird droppings” litter America’s sidewalks and frequently block wheelchair users’ independence and freedom of movement.”

For sidewalk users who do not have the ability to go around  these items or are thwarted in moving them, scooters are a huge problem. Children, seniors and people with vision impairment will have these items as a trip hazard.

“Now is the time for local governments to regulate the conditions of their use and placement. Stiff penalties for blocking sidewalks should be instituted and riders prohibited from operating scooters on sidewalks. Safety is as much a concern as accessibility”.

Go and take a look at what has happened in San Francisco. I have written about  how scooters now litter public places and how important it is for the City of Vancouver to get ahead of the curve and ensure that regulation is in place to limit scooters from littering the sidewalks.

Those regulations need to be strong~in Austin Texas the scooter company has four hours to move a scooter blocking the public sidewalk right of way. That is too long. I was in Zurich last summer where strict regulation means no scooters can be parked on any public sidewalk or pedestrian place anytime.

This also comes back to the importance of recognizing the public sidewalk system, with its complexity of users of differing abilities as worthy of having its own standing committee of Council, reviewing each and every report that impacts the walkable public realm. It is time to recognize and embrace accessible walkability as the foundation to community making, and recognize that accordingly in our municipal committees.


Paint and Bollards and Presto~Traffic Calming!

We’re seeing more and more examples of cities and neighbourhood groups just getting it done on streets with cans of good latex paint.

There is absolutely no doubt that paint is the most inexpensive way to change the nature of the street, expand pedestrian refuge areas, and make crosswalks more visible for pedestrians and vehicles alike.

In her groundbreaking book Streetfight, Janette Sadik-Khan points out that making infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists makes good economic sense, contributing to the street life in the city. She also argues that everything New York City needed in order to create 60 pedestrian plazas, 180 acres of new public space and 400 miles of bike lanes was all in the city yards — paint, bollards, and cement planters.

That’s why it’s wonderful to see NYC’s examples of paint-and-planters replicated elsewhere.

In Bukchon-Ro in Seoul, a traffic circle was painted in the middle of the street, separating this historic area from a commercial district. Simply painting this image caused vehicles to proceed more slowly and enabled the many pedestrians — visiting local galleries, tea houses and cafes — to cross more safely. Paint established “pedestrian priority streets”, and has helped make the streets more walkable and lively.


The town of Mandan, North Dakota, with a population of 22,000 and located just across the Missouri river from the state capitol of Bismarck, is doing the same thing. City planner John van Dyke got it right by installing three temporary painted traffic circles at intersections, calling it a “demonstration project”, and inviting public response to the changes.

Mandan also added temporary curb extensions using bollards to make a shorter crosswalk distance for pedestrians. You can see the reporting of the local news station on the temporary traffic circles here.

images-sandy james &

Giving Pedestrians the “Green Man” Priority in London


As part of Mayor Kahn’s plan to increase daily walking trips in London from 6 million to 7 million by 2041,  the City of London is looking at how to make walking safer, comfortable and more convenient for walkers.  While adjusting signals to give pedestrian more “green man” time at signalized intersections,  staff will also be using “SCOOT”.

SCOOT stands  for “Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique” which will be installed at ten intersections to give pedestrians priority. The city of London is on a mission to make walking as convenient as possible, using smarter traffic signals that reduce wait times for pedestrians. These smart signals ” can detect the number of pedestrians waiting at an intersection and automatically adjust timing to minimize their wait and ensure they have enough time to cross” according to Streetsblog.

And here’s the cool part~the “Green Man” initiative allows for a continuous pedestrian green signal until vehicular traffic is near, when pedestrians are then given the red signal. The technology has been tested by Transport for London on two streets with only bus traffic prior to this wider rollout, and was very well received by pedestrians. This is all part of the London Walking Action plan which can be viewed here.


The Safest Country? It has Universal Speed Enforcement!




Walk Metro Vancouver has just returned from a week in Switzerland driving across the country. There is a major difference in driving in Switzerland~speed cameras are everywhere~on local streets, at the entrances to small towns, and on every major highway. The fines for speeding are steep~drive 6 to 10 km/h over the speed limit and you are looking at a fine of 100 Swiss Francs, roughly equivalent to $135 Canadian dollars. Increase that to driving 16 to 20 km/h over the posted speed limit and you are looking at a whopping 250 Swiss Francs, in the $330 Canadian dollar range. You can take a look at the speeding fine structure and how easy it is to lose your licence by speeding here.

Between 2001 and 2006 Switzerland enforced speed limits resulted in a fatality decrease of 15%  per year, bringing road deaths down from 71 to 31. Enforced slower speeds (the maximum travel speed is 120 km/h and that is rigidly enforced) has made Swiss motorways the safest according to the European Transport Safety Council. The roads are also easier to drive on, with consistent motorist behaviour and plenty of reaction time due to the speed conformity on the motorways.

A  poll conducted by Mario Canseco shows that 70% of  people in British Columbia are now supportive of the use of a camera system similar to the Swiss to enforce road speed limits in this province.

In the online survey of a representative sample of British Columbians, seven-in-ten residents (70%) approve of the use of speed-on-green cameras, or red light cameras that also capture vehicles that are speeding through intersections. Automated speed enforcement works by using cameras or sensors to pick up a vehicle speeding. A ticket is then issued to the owner of the vehicle. Driver’s license points are not issued as the driver of the vehicle cannot be identified.

The provincial government announced last fall that red light cameras located at 140 intersections would record 24 hours a day. In the fall, the provincial government is expected to announce the number and locations of cameras that would be used to identify speeding vehicles.

The use of fixed speed cameras, mobile speed cameras (that could be moved from place to place) and “point to point” speed enforcement were also favoured by the majority of survey respondents.

“There is high support for all four types of automated speed enforcement across the province,” says Mario Canseco, President of Research Co. “Point-to-point enforcement is the most contentious of all four, with more than a third of residents disapproving of its use.”

Studies clearly show that enforcing speed saves lives. It is time to think of driving  to a destination based upon travelling at uniform and consistent speeds and emphasizing the safety of the journey  over the speed by which the journey is made. The Canseco survey illustrates that the majority of British Columbians agree with this premise, which only makes sense with a provincially run vehicle  insurance program and with universal health care covering the huge costs of road injuries.  You can view Research Co’s data findings here.


Where are the Public Washrooms in the City?


Walk Metro Vacouver has been pondering why this city does not have public washrooms associated with public transit, biking and walking routes.  There is a need for washrooms that are universally accessible, and some writers have described this need as a basic human right.

Even the Downtown Vancouver Business Association published a map of public toilets saying  “There’s no doubt that access to clean and safe washrooms is necessary, and especially so in an area frequented by tourists and locals.  While the City of Vancouver requires all city buildings to have accessible washrooms, there is no similar rule for public toilets on streets and in or near new plazas. Visiting a bathroom in a coffee shop or other business isn’t an option for many people on limited incomes, when many businesses restrict their washrooms to customers who have made a purchase.”

An article by Ken MacQueen in the Vancouver Sun 18 years ago noted that in 1896 Vancouver began installing public toilets, but at the start most of these facilities were for men~they were urinals. By the  1920’s women also had the use of underground toilets that were installed at busy intersections including the south side of the Granville Bridge, Kingsway and Broadway, and the only underground facilities still remaining, outside Carnegie Community centre at Hastings and Main.

These used to be pristine, run rather like clockwork by a couple who took pride in making sure the facilities were clean and safe and useable. But something is amiss at the last underground public washrooms~School Board Trustee and former Park Commissioner Christopher Richardson posted publicly on Facebook that “The Downtown Eastside~to some home,  to some ‘their neighbourhood’, to some ‘the Heart of the City’  has had a change in the maintenance of the underground washrooms. Where before Christopher would refer tourists and family there, he has lately found the washrooms unkempt, and in one visit saw that  several of the toilets were out of service.

But what has happened? Judy Graves a well-respected former City of Vancouver staff person observed that these washrooms used to be pristine and were very well-managed by City of Vancouver Engineering Department. The City does have policy encouraging the use of public toilets in the downtown eastside, and was addressing the need for safe, clean washrooms at night.

Other locals have worked vociferously to advocate for public washrooms accessible to all residents. What can be done to ensure that everyone has access to these existing washroom facilities? And what can be done to ensure that existing facilities are well maintained and safe for all members of the public?

Here is a Youtube Video published by the Vancouver Sun on some of the issues with  public washrooms in Vancouver and other cities.

How Did the North American Back Yard Start? Hint~It’s Not as Old as You Think

There is an exhibition currently touring from the Smithsonian titled “Patios, Pools and the Invention of the Backyard”.  Jak King has been circulating  a write-up by the Smithsonian insider which not only describes how North American culture turned from a front porch to  a “back yard” life, but also points out that this love of lawn and yard is a recent post-war development.  Noted Vancouver  artist and author Michael Klucknerobserves that this exhibition adds another dimension on how conformity and consumerism were sold to a postwar society that had been under tremendous stress in the previous generation.

There were several  post-war factors that contributed to back yard culture: instead of army life, there was a growth in white-collar jobs that were limited to 40 hours a week. There was an increase in disposable income, allowing people to personalize these innovative back yards as part of post-war suburban housing tracts. Materials that would have been used in wartime were also available, allowing home owners to personalize their backyards with swing sets and pools.


The Smithsonian exhibit describes the repurposing of aluminum, concrete and fabrics from war production to new post war uses. In David Suzuki’s Book “The Sacred Balance” he also describes how consumerism and home making became the new focus of war-time industries that needed to reboot for peaceful times. And the suburbs were perfect for in ground and above ground pools, using materials that would have been prohibitively expensive and scarce during the war.

Even suburban houses spoke to the birth of the back yard. Where previously a front porch or stoop graced the facade, new architecture stripped the facade of that adornment, meaning that socialization now happened by invitation in the private back yard, which formerly would have just had a vegetable garden and a garbage tip.


Images: Smithsonian

Industries quickly responded to the commercialization of house and yard, creating lawn grasses which of course needed to be nurtured with pesticides and herbicides, and demanded to be individually maintained with lawn mowers and garden tools. A whole new way of life morphed wartime businesses into servicing the new subdivisions and the invention of grassed back yards. Who you were was reflected in your yard maintenance~“A pristine lawn and patio showed that you had both free time and extra money to make that open space behind your house a private oasis.”

From YouTube, here’s a 1950’s barbecue in one of those prized back yards, “where the family circle invites a few special friends for a barbecue, that holds a charm like few others in the world”.

Pedestrian Priority and Australia, Where the Car is Still King

IMG_5764Image Sandy James

If you think the car is king in Metro Vancouver and in Canada generally, you need to have a visit to Australia where both the law and the pedestrian crossing times solidly put the pedestrian as a second class citizen to vehicular traffic.

The Guardian disclosed that “Pedestrians across Australia are pressing the button at traffic lights for no reason, most days of the week..In Sydney, pedestrian crossings in the CBD have been automated since 1994, leaving millions of commuters to futilely press placebo buttons for nearly 25 years…”

And if you are standing at an intersection in downtown Sydney, you feel like you are standing there for an inordinate amount of time waiting for a light to change.

There are a lot of walkers~there are 1.27  million trips a day in the downtown, with 1.06 million by foot.  The State Department in charge of the wait times have thankfully shortened  the automated wait times from 110 seconds to 90 seconds, but here is what is strange~an official from the State said “when traffic volume is lower the pedestrian wait time is less than 90 seconds. There are also many locations in the CBD where traffic signals operate with a double cycle, meaning pedestrians only wait 45 seconds to cross the road.”

But no one is talking about the fact that Sydney’s CBD is full of walkers and quite congested at the intersections at peak times. Shouldn’t pedestrians have more green time when foot traffic volume is higher? And shouldn’t pedestrians’ time be counted as valuable if not more so than vehicular traffic?

Darren Davis with Auckland’s Transport Council has crunched the numbers of the economic viability of walking. His work shows that eight billion dollars of New Zealand’s  gross domestic product is generated within a few city blocks, and it is “walkability  of a city centre directly impacts its economic viability and economic prosperity.”

That is part of what London is doing in the Mayor’s new Transport Strategy as reported in Price Tags. Aiming for an 80 per cent modal split for walking,cycling and public transport by 2041,  London is becoming more conducive for walking by making wait times at intersections as low as 40 seconds.

Cities with walkable downtowns are attractive for businesses to locate, and pedestrians are the economic driver to make those areas thrive. It is time to cost the pedestrian experience for comfort, convenience and safety in the downtown as paramount to that of the vehicle, signalling a shift in accountability and livability of the downtown core. The chart below illustrates the pedestrian wait times in cities in Australia and elsewhere.


Embedded video