Pedestrians crossing the Street~There’s an App for that!

An august group of planners in Sydney Australia, London England, Paris and Vancouver are looking at “intersection signal intervals” -how long it takes for the walk signal to activate after a pedestrian pushes the cross walk button. This group feels that the livability of a city and the quality of the walking environment can be measured on the length of time that pedestrians are given to walk across the street. It’s been fascinating to see how varied those interval times are in cities around the world.
As always, the Dutch are early adapters to  the changes in technology necessary to make walkability safer for all ages.  The Dutch city of Tilburg has been testing a smartphone application that allows seniors and those with restricted mobility more crossing time at intersections. The app has four time settings which are adjusted dependent on the user’s mobility to minimise traffic delay. While a sensor in the traffic lights scan the sidewalk adjacent to the intersection, it looks for a signal from the app to adjust crossing time.
As reported in The Guardian “Dynniq, the Dutch company that develops intelligent traffic systems and is helping the city council with the trial, explains the app works in combination with GPS and the software that operates the traffic lights, so there is no need to install extra devices. The company is also developing a spin-off for cyclists, the CrossCycle, which will sense when bikes are approaching a junction and change the lights sooner. Another version detects visually impaired pedestrians and activates the ticking sounds that tell them whether the light is red or green.”
While the app  can respond to individual users, the app can also adjust for a group of school children, so that the app will keep the crossing green for the children until a teacher confirms that they are safely across. While this initial pilot has only ten users, it is part of a pilot to enhance safety and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists. “We want to do more with smart mobility and use technology rather than just putting down more asphalt,” says Mark Clijsen, urban planning specialist at the city council.”

Speed Bumps Versus Humps~Why are they not Everywhere?

Anyone working in municipal government  knows all about the tussle over speed humps or “bumps”, those wonderful “silent policemen”  installed by the City that slow vehicular traffic.  A speed hump is an area of raised pavement across a roadway, usually circular in shape, and is a gentler version of a speed bump, which has acute angles designed to insist vehicles slow right down. Speed bumps are designed to provide driver discomfort, and drop vehicular speeds to  approximately ten kilometers per hour.
Every neighbourhood wants these wonderful things that by their nature and design intentionally slow traffic. The City of Vancouver has a speed hump request form where residents can ask to have their street evaluated for speed humps. You can’t buy speed humps-there is a magical formula in the “warrant” system that looks at speed and volume of vehicles and  ICBC reporting of vehicular crashes and fatalities. But if your street is an emergency response route, is in an industrial area, or a near a firehall, Vancouver says you are out of luck.
Years ago I installed speed bumps in a laneway south of Oakridge Mall. The lane was being used for  vehicular rat running, but also served as the access lane and play space  for residents. Since the City could not install speed bumps outside the warrant system and at that time did not promote lane way speed bumps, the local residents cost shared the cost, and the installation was implemented. There were no complaints-except from Engineering who balked (and quite rightly) at the creation of 20 km/h signage for the lane, as that type of laneway signage had not been approved at Council-yet.

Metro Vancouver in partnership with the  Corporation of Delta is showcasing an elegant solution for slowing down traffic with the use of temporary speed humps during a water main replacement. This wondrous temporary speed hump costs about $700  for each installation and generally takes a crew about 30 minutes to install. The temporary speed hump is secured using four anchor bolts.


If Metro Vancouver can come up with such a simple and innovative, quick way to traffic calm on residential streets when traffic is being circumvented for water main repair, why can’t Metro Vancouver municipalities trial these low-cost speed humps to provide slower traffic speeds and enhance  livability in the neighbourhoods? Why does it take a huge traffic count analysis and warrant system  to look at ways to make the street more equal for all users? How do we get these low cost speed humps as “demonstrations” of what slower streets can look like and can function as? Why can’t this come to a neighbourhood street near all of us to make walking and cycling comfortable, accessible and more convenient?


Metro Vancouver, We are Jealous of Winnipeg’s Woonerf!

There is a little more Dutch in Winnipeg these days as that city welcomes its first “Woonerf”. As reported in the Metro News this is a street innovation  for pedestrians before vehicles, and achieves “calming the street down through design”.

A typical Dutch woonerf

The location of the woonerf  at John Hirsch Place used to contain an old rail line. Now there is a curbless lane that  allows for slower vehicular traffic and no delineation between bikes, cars and pedestrians.
There are bollards  near the edge of the lane to keep people from driving on the landscaping (and I have seen bollards in Amsterdam that retract to allow for emergency vehicle entrance). There is seating for walkers which as soon as it was placed became a place to be with the locals.
Besides providing a pedestrian link between Waterfront Drive and a park and further trails,  the woonerf has become a new public space. Similar to the “DeepRoot” cell system installed in Vancouver’s Olympic Village for the ongoing sustenance of the street trees, Winnipeg has installed a similar system for increased street tree soil volume and rain water capture.
While this is only a demonstration project, we all toast Winnipeg for their first woonerf-and suspect with citizen use and demand, it won’t be their last. Meanwhile in Metro Vancouver~when will we get our first woonerf?


Walking in Central Park, the High Line and Brooklyn Park with Mitchell Silver and Julie Crimson

I spent a week in New York City where I spent time wallking  with Mitchell Silver the Park Commissioner for New York City, and Julie Grimson, City Conversations Manager for the City of Sydney Australia. Mitchell is a renown city planner who was the planning director for the City of Raleigh  and was formerly the head of the American Planning Association. He has a wonderful office in the historic Arsenal in Central Park. Robert Moses’ old office adjacent to Mitchell’s is now the board room for staff meetings.
Famed City Master Builder Robert Moses in his office in the Arsenal, Central Park, 1940’s
Mitchell Silver and Julie Grimson in what was Robert Moses’ “closet” in the Arsenal
One of the prime drivers of public space in New York City in Central Park and on the High Line has been the creation of conservancies or public “trusts” that bring in massive donations and bequests to fund the maintenance and improvement of public space. As Christopher Nolan who is the Chief Landscape Architect for Central Park notes, the challenge was incentivizing public space as something that people would leave money to, and to have people see it as important as endowing a building. Today 75 per cent  of the funding  for Central Parks’s 65 million dollar annual budget comes directly from the conservancy. The conservancy also undertakes all the basic care in the 845 acre park.
Chris Nolan, Chief Landscape Architect, Central Park Conservancy
The same approach in forming a conservancy has been taken by the “Friends of  the High Line” originally formed by Joshua David and Robert Hammond. This group raised over 150 million dollars in private and public funds. The High Line was an old abandoned elevated train track that connected several warehouse buildings in the old meatpacking district. Today with an annual operating budget of $11.5 million, the Friends of the High Line maintain and run the daily operations at a cost of $5 million dollars a year.

The High Line is a surprise-it is an elevated wonderland of plants in a pastiche carefully designed and placed by master plantsman Piet Oudolf. The plants themselves are in soil that is only 16 inches deep. There are elevators that go up to the High Line for disabled access, and many volunteers gardening and counting plants along its 2.33 kilometer length. There is an amphitheatre, a water feature for children to play in, lots of public art discoveries, and plenty of people enjoying it. It is already one of the top attractions of things to do in New York City, with over seven million annual visits. Locals  plan their own visits to the High Line around “peak times” on this elevated greenway. As Mitchell Silver notes, the amount of pedestrian traffic suggests that the walkway should have been wider. Cyclists and skateboarders are banned, and there are refreshment locations, benches, and lots of good people watching.
Mitchell Silver describes the High Line as the incubator for the rejuvenation and revitalization of the meatpacking district. The Google Corporation purchased the former Port Authority Building, a massive  fifteen story building in this area in 2010 for  their headquarters.  The Google  building has 2.9 million square feet (the size of two Tsawwassen Mills Malls) in its interior. There is now a hotel and the new Whitney Museum of American Art abutting the High Line. There is no doubt that the renewal of this elevated space has instigated  new interest in the area.


 Public Art installation on High Line by British Columbia Artist Sascha Braunig

NYC Park Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Julie Grimson, City of Sydney Australia, and Robert Hammond, Founder of the High Line. Robert is also one of the producers of “Citizen Jane”, the acclaimed documentary on Jane Jacobs.
Alex Washburn who was the Chief Urban Designer for New York City used to say candidly that if projects could be implemented in New York City with the tangle and complexity of public interests and municipal by-laws, that those projects could be considered in any other North American place too. And maybe with the experience of the New York City High Line and  the new High Line like project in Seoul Korea called “Seoullo 7017” (which is reusing an old 1970’s elevated highway as a greenway to make the city more pedestrian friendly)  we should be  rethinking  the potential use of the  Vancouver Georgia Viaducts.
Perhaps reusing and readapting these urban engineering artifacts is a way to  creatively rebirth new people places.  New York has proven that their conservancy model works, not only in traditional landscaped parks, but in elevated engineering remnants of another urban age.

Drivers Pay Attention to the Pedestrian Zebras in the Streets of La Paz

Trying to get drivers to stop their vehicles for pedestrians crossing the road can be a trying experience.    The Atlantic Monthly describes the innovative attempts of the City of La Paz Bolivia in  changing driver behaviour in the streets, slowing traffic, and helping pedestrians survive. The “cebritas” program is a hybrid to that first introduced in the 1990’s in Bogota where mimes were sent out on the street to tease and admonish drivers breaking the rules.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, and decided to do things a bit differently. They have 265 local volunteers dressed in full-body zebra costumes who nudge “people toward good behavior. “On a lot of busy corners you will have police directing traffic, but their method of doing it is whistling at you, yelling at you, pulling you over, giving you a ticket,” says Derren Patterson, an American who owns a walking-tour agency in La Paz. “Whereas the way the zebras do it, if a car stops in the crosswalk, they will lay across his hood.”  The volunteer zebras are popular at schools and hospitals, are interviewed on media, and participate in parades. Many are students.

The program is so well accepted that there is a “day program” that allows tourists to dress up as zebras and join the La Paz zebras in the streets. As an early program organizer noted ” They may be dressed up as zebras, but they defend what is human about the city.” Last December the Zebras won the  “Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, which recognizes cities and regions with innovative approaches to improving public life. The award’s organizers commended La Paz for its response to a “very serious challenge” confronting cities worldwide—the subordination of pedestrians to cars—with “great humor and understanding,” and said they hoped the project might inspire “more civilized streets” around the world.”

Walking, Transit and the Trash~The New York City Demonstration Project

For anyone that walks around major cities, garbage is a problem. There never seems to be a garbage bin in the right place at the right time. And that was the case in this New York City story.

Global news describes the end of a demonstration project in New York City   that installed garbage bins at subway stations. Commenced in 2011, the program expanded to have garbage containers at track level in 39 stations. The problem? The program was too successful. While the whole point was to reduce littering in subway stations, the city found that having the containers contributed to more litter, and to rats.
Of course reducing rubbish bins sounds wrong. “Thenotion that you’re going to be more efficient by taking away the trash cans, so therefore you won’t generate so many bags of trash to haul away — like the trash was going to magically disappear — I think that probably wasn’t the smartest judgment,”  quoted State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.”  Indeed New York City found that the containers led to a higher incidence in trash fires, and depositing of trash on the tracks. And to get rid of trash on tracks? New York City has a “vacuum train”.

The anticipated solution is that everyone will carry their trash out of the station and properly deposit it on the street. With the majority of commuters in New York City used to disposable conveniences, they are used to carrying everything in their hands or buying on the go. On city streets there are lots of trash cans, just not below the ground.

 To give you an idea of the size of the  subway system, it has 469 stations and moves about 1.76 billion people annually.


The Best Pedestrian Rest Areas are “Docking” in Parking Spaces

Little parklets are those exciting hacks of previous parking spaces morphing into things that well, ordinary people walking around can use. And one of the finest hacks as reported in City Lab is this absolutely brilliant reuse of a 24 foot sailboat now docked in a  Ballard neighbourhood street outside a Seattle donut shop.

You are looking at the Endurance, which now “ only ‘floats’ on the road,” says Megan Helmer, a public-arts enthusiast whose husband founded the donut shop. “The keel has been removed, and the base of the hull cut and placed on cedar decking.”

Seattle actually has a City Department of Neighbourhoods that provides grants for such endeavours. With additional crowd sourced funding, Mighty-O Donuts and community volunteers began constructing the parklet.” 

“The Mighty-O parklet is a great example of what SDOT’s parklet programis all about,” says Brian Henry at the transportation department’s Public Space Management Program. “They brought the community together to talk about what kind of public space should be created, and designed something that reflects Ballard’s maritime character and history. It shows how a neighborhood business can lead the way in enhancing the public realm, and creating more space for people.”

Seattle now has nine parklets that have developed in the last four years.  This parket came after  “onethat encouraged leisurely reading with nearby “little free libraries” and another where people could paint stuff on a board with water and watch it evaporateto “witness the sobering truth that nothing in life lasts forever.”

 Each one of these ideas is so wonderfully perfect.


Why Are we Not Naming A Special Public Space after Legendary Architect Bing Thom?

Ralph Segal was the senior architect and development planner for the Planning Department of the City of Vancouver. He is a well-respected professional that cares deeply about the city, and who was involved in most of the major planning and design decisions in the City in the three decades prior to his retirement.
Ralph has suggested in the Vancouver Sun letters that a special public place be named after the late Vancouver architect Bing Thom, who was cited by Stephen Hume in his series on 150 Noteworthy Canadians in the Vancouver Sun as a “Visionary artist, calm philosopher who meditated every day — even while juggling complex obligations that involved hundreds of millions of dollars — business wizard, respected by all as a kind, decent man, his stunning architecture marked the world.”
Quoting Ralph Segal  “Thank you to Stephen Hume and The Vancouver Sun for the profile of Bing Thom, in which are cited his many prestigious national and international awards and medals for architectural excellence. As impressive as this list is, it does not even begin to touch on the equally important contributions he has made to mentoring and encouraging innumerable individuals and groups that he has inspired with his visionary advocacy and pragmatic approach to problem-solving.”
A fitting commemoration to all these accomplishments would be the naming of a special public place, preferably in northeast False Creek, a downtown precinct now being designed, envisioned as connecting adjacent future and existing neighbourhoods such as Chinatown, Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside with False Creek. A prominent public meeting space named in his honour would celebrate the depth of his insights into how the art of city-building can be the vehicle that brings together people of all backgrounds and interests, furthering his philosophy of inclusiveness.”
You can read a bit of the extraordinary contributions Bing Thom has made to Vancouver and public life on this link from Price Tags. Here’s hoping that Bing’s legacy can be honoured in a place name.


Peter Wohlwend, Walkability and Windsor Way

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I have found that it is not city administration, policy and budgets that create great communities, but the concepts and ideas of the communities themselves. When planners talk about a three-legged stool of place making and the importance of policy, plan and then  community engagement, I have always seen it a bit differently. I think it is important to profoundly listen to what the neighb0urhood is saying, synthesize those concepts, work together, and co-create innovative work that CAN be the foundation for policy. In every instance where I have followed those principles, enhanced walkability and extraordinary examples of placemaking resulted, and city policy has been  modified to embrace these demonstration projects as innovative models.

I first met Peter Wohlwend and his wife Midori Oba about 15 years ago, on Windsor Street in Vancouver’s east side. Windsor Street for its 40 blocks in Kensington Cedar-Cottage was a street used for prostitution and traffic short-cutting, and had its share of on-street car racing. Despite the fact the street connected  three schools and  four parks, people did not walk on the street, leaving it anonymous for the drug and prostitution trade.


Peter and Midori’s house was in the middle of the drug trade opposite Dickens Elementary School. Peter had done a bold thing-he placed a bench outside of his house next to the public sidewalk. What he found extraordinary was that it was not the drug dealers and prostitutes using the bench.  The users included the  elderly couples that now walked to the grocery store and rested on the bench on their way home, or the parents waiting for the children to come out of the school across the street. The bench was the catalyst for local neighbours to stay on the street, and view the street as a place of respite.

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Peter had another idea. In front of every house along Windsor Street was a large city boulevard that Peter felt was perfect for garden planting. Such planting would provide a buffer between the curb and the sidewalk, and could be a conversational catalyst to focus the community on improving the street. By calling this initiative a “demonstration project” and mounding up  composted recycled green waste  soil above the level of the current soil, new plantings did not interfere with city services below the ground.

Neighbours along Windsor Street had massive “dig in-dig out” parties where dump trucks of composted recycled  green waste soil  moved to newly prepared boulevard gardens. Windsor Street was closed in sections for these dig in parties, where barbeques were wrangled chuckwagon style in the middle of the street for the celebratory hot dogs. Despite the fact that many of the people on Windsor Street did not speak a common language, Peter always said that “Everyone spoke the language of plants”.


Peter was right. In a short space of time over forty boulevard gardens were built on Windsor Street, and people started to walk on the street. The drug use and prostitution moved off the street as it became a place that was too public for those trades. The Windsor Street community successfully bid for a public art grant, and artist Karen Kazmer installed 20 unique aluminum banners on Windsor Street hydro poles, depicting the hands and activities of Windsor Street residents.


Peter and Midori received the Greater Vancouver  Good Neighbour Award from the Greater Vancouver Neighbourhood House Association for their temerity and vision in steering  this massive piece of work.  Peter and Midori also started up the multicultural festival that was held every spring on the Kingsway Triangle. For many of the local merchants, it was the first time they met the locals in a celebratory way. Of course this also further deepened relationships between the commercial areas and the surrounding residents.

Windsor Street has been named in the best gardened block awards from the Vancouver Garden Club. And the success of blooming boulevards in tying together Windsor Street as a contiguous, walkable street facilitated the street becoming a bikeway with further traffic calming measures.  The Blooming Boulevard guidelines are now on the City of Vancouver’s website, and gardening the city boulevard is permissible in any single family area in Vancouver.

Peter Wohlwend passed away on May 29 of this year. His funerary card contains the famous Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Peter’s coaching and advice made me a better planner and a better citizen, and I talk about his work in my TEDx talk on the Transformative Power of Walking. He will be greatly missed by many.


The Crossing That Can Kill You


The Globe and Mail has weighed in  with an article titled “Fatal Crossings” analyzing five years of data to ascertain why and how 163 pedestrians have died in the City of Toronto in the last five years. By the author Victor Biro’s calculations, that means that in Toronto on average  one pedestrian is hit on the street by a vehicle every four hours. It also means that a pedestrian on average  dies from a vehicular crash every ten days.

Just as Price Tags reported in the article entitled The Big Toll Paid by Vulnerable Road Users published on May 31st, the way people  are killed on the roads is a major public health issue. That is why the Chief Medical Officer of British Columbia, Dr. Perry Kendall has written a report Where the Rubber Meets The Road: Reducing the Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes on Health and Well-being in British Columbia, addressing the deaths of 280 people a year and the maiming of 79,000 others on roads in this Province.

As Dr. Kendall states, this is a health emergency. His report and his advice, which included lowering speed limits were dismissed by authorities like the Canadian Automobile Association, which were interviewed  for their reaction. However evidence clearly proves that the survivability for a pedestrian or cyclist hit at 30 kilometers per hour is 80 per cent, while the survivability for a pedestrian or cyclist hit at 50 kilometers per hour is 10 per cent.  Somehow the intransigence of the car lobby is more important than that of the vulnerable road user who is also sustainably participating in active transportation.

The Kendall report cites the human factors contributing to fatal crashes as speed, distraction and impairment.  Toronto, which is preparing a road-safety plan realizes “that protecting pedestrians will require a fundamental shift in mindset, one that challenges the car culture and the unspoken attitude that traffic fatalities are an unavoidable reality of urban living”.

And there you have it. The Globe and Mail noted that a significant proportion of pedestrians killed were over 65. They were hit by a larger vehicle. They were typically crossing an arterial road. And not surprisingly in the suburbs and at a location without a traffic signal or cross walk. At either 30 kilometers an hour or 50 kilometers an hour, seniors are three to four times more likely to die than a younger person.

Reporter Victor Biro admonishes Toronto for “focusing its efforts at spots that have proved dangerous, a reactive approach that effectively means that pedestrians have to die or be seriously injured before drivers will be made to slow down”.  The warrant system  used in the City of Vancouver is similar. Provincial funding  for intersections is made available based upon the accident and mortality rates garnered  from the provincial Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) statistics.  As in the case where a family of four were hit by a vehicle in an intersection in Surrey earlier this year, an intersection is not deemed suitable for  a safety upgrade until the human toll has been paid.


With an aging population, many of whom  will be walking instead of driving, moving more slowly and with impaired hearing and sight, road safety is paramount. In Toronto 24 per cent of the population will be senior by 2041. There is an argument that enhancing walkability means universal accessibility for all, and enhances active transportation. In the same manner as creating separated bike lanes for those eight to eighty years, we should be enhancing safe, comfortable walking facilities for those six to 106. Their lives depend upon that.


Creating Walkable Accessible Places for Everyone