As part of the City of Vancouver’s process to consult with the public about the possibility of converting Commercial Drive into a Complete Street, the city hired a consultant to conduct an intercept survey of visitors to Commercial Drive. This survey asked visitors questions concerning how they arrived, how often then visit, where they came from, where they park if they drive and how they found the experience. The results were recently released and can be found here. I have attached one of the open house boards below.
The information from the Commercial Drive intercept survey is significant for a number of reasons. Most importantly is that it shows that 80% of the respondents arrived at Commercial Drive by walking, cycling or using transit. Secondly it also demonstrates that people walking, cycling and using transit visit more often than people who drive. Back in 2015 Slow Streets carried out an observation study of Commercial Drive to get a sense of how people are arriving and behaving. The results are similar. Our observations found that the majority of people at the observation sites were not arriving by car.
The conclusion to draw from this is that observations are great for contextualizing people’s behaviours in response to a street design. Our findings show primarily that regardless how people got around they spend most of their time experiencing the street while walking. However we at Slow Streets would never recommend solely relying on observations for transportation modal data. Intercept surveys are a great way to fill in the gaps for observations and flush out the data as was the case with the Slow Streets Burnaby Heights report. The Burnaby Heights intercept survey found that the majority of people were not arriving by car and that 69% of respondents said they walked, cycled or used transit to visit that day. What makes this even more significant is that the Burnaby Heights is a suburban community with a lower density and a high speed highway running through it, yet only 31% of the visitors drive.
This is hearsay if you were to talk to any small business owner. Most businesses will tell you that people that drive are critical for the success of their business, and will demand that you keep on street parking at all costs. This is clearly not the case on Commercial Drive, only 17% of respondents said they drove. In fact this scenario is often the case with older streets that were built with many small businesses along former street car corridors.
This is good news for businesses because cars are actually quite inefficient with space and you can actually move more people walking, cycling and using transit with the same space. The vehicle travel lanes on Commercial Drive are primarily only used for vehicles because they are designed for moving cars through quickly and are unsafe for cycling or walking. This means that if you were to reallocate two travel lanes for cycling lanes or wider sidewalks this opens up the street for more potential customers.
Similarly on-street parking is usually such a small portion of the overall parking in the area. Slow Streets research found that Commercial Drive’s on street parking only made up 13% of the total area’s parking. This means that businesses would be better off trading those parking stalls to create better places for people to sit and stay to enjoy their spoils. The more people you have on your street, the more interesting, exciting and vibrant it is for other people passing by. This will further attract more people to the street and higher revenue potential for the businesses. Still not convinced? This article put together a complete and comprehensive source of studies from around the world demonstrating that removing on-street parking for more cycling lanes has little negative economic impact for businesses.
Transportation demand management is an critical element of any multi-modal transportation plan that prioritizes people and mobility options over only simply moving automobiles quickly. There are many great examples such as investing in high quality mobility options as alternatives to driving, parking sharing, demand based pricing controls such as congestion charges, behavioural prompts, demand based market priced parking or employee transit pass subsidies combined with removing free parking incentives. However the best transportation demand policy may be to build complete communities with dense, mixed use neighbourhoods with fine grain retail especially when combined with neighbourhood wide traffic calming. The dominant transportation modes are often a direct result of the built form. There is a direct relationship between the composition of our land uses and how people get around.
An example of a three storey mixed use mid rise apartment building in Edmonton.
A multi-family unit in Vancouver that has been built to look like two separate single family houses.
To be clear, for the purposes of this article dense land uses includes primarily row houses, town houses and small to mid rise apartments that are 5-7 stories tall(Row House: 0.9-1.2 Floor Space Ratio (FSR), 7 Storey Building: 1.45 FSR). Jan Gehl recommends 5 stories as the optimal height where you can still have building to ground interactions between people. Buildings up to five floors tall also offer the best sustainability benefits in terms of heating and energy efficiency. Shorter buildings also allow cities to spread the density to cover more of the property and fill the space better creating a complete street wall and a more interesting urban environment. Places like Vancouver demonstrate that you could have taller buildings than this, however it is recommended that you have a step back for any floors above the fifth floor to maintain a great human scale feel.
Often the majority of trips in cities with higher densities and mixed land uses are under 5 km. In Vancouver 54% of all trips are under 5 km. A recent report from Ryerson University estimates that 33% of the 4.35 million trips within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are between 1 to 5 km. According to the European Commission the average length of walking trips in seven European countries varies from just under 1 km (Great Britain) to 2.8 km (Finland). These distances are best for walking and cycling. Trips that are 3-5 km are optimal for cycling. Building mixed use neighbourhoods where the essential services and amenities (groceries, tools, dentists, doctors, day cares, restaurants, bars, schools, parks, public spaces, community centres, etc.) are within 400 meters will help generate more trips that are 5 km or under. Having higher density residential uses will introduce more people to the neighbourhood which has a double effect of increasing the number of people on the streets and providing more potential customers for businesses. According to the book Principles of Urban Retail planning and development a small corner store requires 800-1000 houses within 160 acres to be financially sustainable.
Mixed Use Buildings – London and New York
What does a dense mixed use neighbourhood look like? Generally there are two models: mixed use buildings throughout the neighbourhood or neighbourhoods that were built around streets cars with separated land uses but every day needs are still within a 5 – 10 minute walk. London and New York serve as examples of the mixed use building model.
The streets in London’s Shoreditch neighbourhood are taken over by people. This is only possible by the fine grain retail and higher density that makes driving through quickly difficult.
London’s Brick Lane Road.
Night or day, London’s Soho neighbourhood is very comfortable and inviting to walk around. The higher density row houses and fine grain retail invites people out onto the streets.
You could pick any neighbourhood in London as a good example of a complete community with dense mixed commercial and residential land uses. In most neighbourhoods in London you could walk for hours in any direction comfortably. The dense mixed use creates an interesting and inviting environment that attracts more people to the streets and many different activities including aimlessly walking around.
New York City
Fine grain retail creates an inviting and interesting atmosphere in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a dense walkable community with midrise apartment buildings.
Fine grain retail and dense midrise apartment buildings create a vibrant walker’s paradise in New York City’s Alphabet City.
While New York City has many complete communities including but not limited to Greenwich Village or the Alphabet City. The Alphabet City as a complete community has a park and mixed use buildings with many a community park, restaurants, bars, businesses and grocery stores. You would rarely need to leave your block in the Alphabet City.
Bumper to bumper vehicle congestion in London’s Soho neighbourhood. People walking and cycling are not being rewarded for their space effectiveness.
Bumper to bumper vehicle congestion in London’s Soho neighbourhood which makes it uncomfortable for people walking and cycling.
While both London and New York City do a great job at creating complete communities which makes it easier to walk, bike and use transit. They both fall short from preventing vehicles from entering every street. Allowing vehicles to co-opt every space degrades the quality of the street public space experience for walking and living as it introduces noise and emission pollution. While London does benefit from a congestion charge that has been very effective at reducing the number of vehicles on the road, space hogging cars are still permitted in almost every nook and cranny while people walking and cycling fight for over the left over space.
Street Car Developments with Separated but Walkable Land Uses
Vancouver – West End
A typical Vancouver West End residential road. Little to no cars driving through resulting in an comfortable and inviting walking environment.
Unlike New York or London, Vancouver concentrates the retail businesses on 3 roads in the West End. The result is a vibrant, interesting, convenient and inviting walking environment.
The West End neighbourhood in Vancouver offers a different model than London or New York City for incorporating commercial uses with higher density residential land uses. The West End was developed around a street car network that operates on Davie, Denman and Robson Streets. These streets were also developed with fine grain commercial uses, meanwhile the majority of land surrounding these retail streets is primarily residential land uses that were developed to support the fine grain retail businesses and increase ridership on the street car. You do find some businesses within the neighbourhoods that have been grandfathered in, increasing the convenience for residents of the West End. All of this serves to put most residents in the West End within 400m (5 minutes) walking distance of fine grain retail and services and a high frequency bus transit service (arriving every 6 minutes for most times of the day). In fact it is because of the higher residential density of the West End that allows the very high transit frequency which helps with the longer regional trips in Vancouver.
A bodega on Denman Street in Vancouver.
A neighbourhood bodega in Vancouver’s West End.
The higher residential density also supports a high density of retail businesses. Just to put this into perspective, in the West End you have eighteen grocery stores and bodegas within a 15 minute walk for most people, seven of which are large scale Safeways, Whole Foods and No Frills. In most North American cities you would be lucky to have one large scale grocery store within a 10 minute walk. It is the smaller bodega’s or produce markets that bring the convenience closer to the residents by reducing walking distances. This doesn’t include the West End’s hundreds of restaurant, bars, businesses and amenities. Density is convenience. Having more people makes having more businesses possible, the higher volumes of customers can also serve to drive down prices for local businesses due to economies of scales. This combination creates an interesting and comfortable urban environment that encourages people to walk or cycle to their destination. The numbers speak for themselves 67% of people walk (40%), bike or use transit to work.
One major difference between Vancouver’s West End and New York City’s Alphabet City are the noise levels. Despite the high density of the West End, while you will often find many parked cars you will seldom see large volumes of vehicles travelling through. This means the West End is often very quiet. This is contradictory to what most people will assume about density. Often when you hear of new residential apartment buildings going up, you will also hear of the protests that more people will bring higher traffic volumes, noise and congestion. Traffic models will also often demonstrate that neighbourhoods will be suffering from chronic congestion. When done correctly higher densities combined with mixed uses encourage more walking, cycling and transit usage as is the case with all of the examples presented in this article. The missing ingredient is often neighbourhood wide traffic calming.
Two elements are critical for this success. The first is the high frequency transit service which provides an alternative to automobile for long distance trips in Vancouver. The second is the neighbourhood traffic calming and diversions. Traffic diversions are necessary to prioritize local traffic for local residents and keep out people making regional trips trying to travel through. High quality and frequent transit is necessary to provide an attractive alternative to the car for long distance trips. The both of these combined tends to keep traffic volumes down and primarily on the retail streets. This is the case in Vancouver’s West End as traffic tends to stay on Denman, Robson and Davies Streets and out of the neighbourhood. Even then the majority of traffic on streets like Denman Street are primarily coming from other parts of the city and are passing through on their way across the Lions Gate bridge north.
Barcelona offers another version of this traffic calming through the creation of superblocks that prioritize walking and cycling over driving.”A superblock will consist of nine existing blocks of the grid. Car, scooter, lorry and bus traffic will then be restricted to just the roads in the superblock perimeters, and they will only be allowed in the streets in between if they are residents or providing local businesses, and at a greatly reduced speed of 10km/h.” These superblocks would put everyone within 400m (5 minute walk) of transit while improving the quality of life for the residents with reduced noise, pollution and congestion.
Edmonton – Oliver
Oliver is one of Edmonton’s most attractive neighbourhoods which has higher density residential land uses and is surrounded by old street car corridors. However often when walking through the neighbourhood, it will be empty. How is it that one of Edmonton’s most attractive neighbourhoods with the highest density is often empty? Oliver lacks the finer grain commercial uses and most critically the small scale grocery stores on 2 of 3 of its nearby retail streets, Jasper Avenue and 104 Avenue. Groceries are a basic necessity, when you don’t make them readily available like Vancouver’s bodegas this forces people to have to travel farther to get their groceries. When the grocery store and other necessary services and stores are within a 5 to 10 minutes walk this means that people can take more trips spontaneously more often. When the grocery store is farther away this means people are more likely to take fewer trips by driving and buy more products at once. A study in Portland showed that people walking and cycling actually spend more overall than people driving because of this phenomenon. Making our communities more walkable has significant positive economic impacts, therefore creating complete communities that also decrease driving rates is also better for the local economy.
Edmonton’s historic street car corridor on Jasper Avenue has many gaps in the street wall next to a high capacity, high volume stroad. This detracts from its ability to keep you feeling safe, interested and comfortable.
The North side of Oliver is flanked by another Stroad with big box store developments like this, which makes walking unpleasant.
A dispersed big box store environment along a Stroad that prioritizes moving vehicles through quickly over high quality access for the local residents creates an unpleasant and uninviting walking environment.
Part of the issue in Edmonton are the restrictive covenants, a legacy left by Safeway that prevents future grocery stores from opening in old Safeway locations or anywhere nearby. This only serves to create an artificially competitive market for big chain grocery stores within a 5 minute driving radius, while residents lose out on improved convenience and access. The maps above put this in perspective, Oliver only has four grocery stores within a 15 minute walking distance of most residents, meanwhile Vancouver has eighteen. The second issue are the gaps and reduced commercial business densities imposed on the retail streets by unnecessary and costly minimum parking requirements. Minimum parking requirements required existing businesses to buy the neighbouring property to only demolish it for parking, doubling their costs while halving the number of businesses attracting people.
Intensifying Commercial Land Uses
A food truck pod in downtown Portland on what would be another boring and inefficient use of valuable land as a parking lot.
Portland also demonstrates that a food truck pod also works in the suburbs.
The great news is that Edmonton has already relaxed the minimum parking requirements. Cities with these retail street gaps should also contemplate encouraging land owners of parking lots to consider temporarily filling them with food truck pods similar to those in the City of Portland which can be found both downtown and also in lower density residential neighbourhoods. The result is that you can provide more low cost entry opportunities for home grown businesses, therefore increasing city revenues, jobs, residential convenience and making the community more interesting. Increased business density also supports existing small businesses on retail streets as it invites more people to the street which can result in unintentional spill over shopping. Edmonton’s Corner Store Pilot program, while still in its infancy may also offer an opportunity for intensifying lands uses. The program invests in improved landscaping, infrastructure and placemaking in addition to providing customized operations advice for struggling fine grain retail community centres.
What about the big chain stores? Often they are the biggest culprits for willingly building massive parking lots for their stores. A Costco at the base of a residential tower? A mixed use mid rise development with a Home Depot, Winners, Save-On-Food, Canadian Tire, Best Buy and Homesense, including a dozen small businesses on the ground floor and residential units on the top floors? Vancouver offers a model that works. Cities often underestimate the negotiating power they have to foster and shape better urban design that increases the convenience for people without destroying the urban fabric that invites more walking with parking lots.
To deter high volumes of vehicle trips that degrade the quality of the urban environment with their noise, pollution and costly collisions, the best thing you can do is build dense mixed use neighbourhoods that are naturally convenient, exciting and inviting for walking and cycling. While this will convince most local residents to ditch the car, the differences between Vancouver’s West End and neighbourhoods in New York City or London demonstrate that neighbourhood wide traffic calming is usually also necessary. Neighbourhood wide traffic calming will mitigate traffic that is simply trying to move through contributing little to the community and prioritizes the driving trips for the local residents. It is also important to have high quality and frequent transit service within a 5-10 minute walk to further discourage the need of a car for longer vehicle trips.
You have probably seen a sign similar to the one above. Signs like these are often used in areas where people seldom tend to stick around for long. These are usually areas that are aesthetically uninteresting with single land uses such as along blank walls, in parks only serving as open space. The lack of oversight or “eyes on the street” as Jane Jacob coined, can often bring unwanted behaviours like vandalism and public use of drugs, hence signs like these are used as a way to try and prevent these activities. This sign approach assumes that the threat of police or bylaw officers with the authority to remove more people from the space will solve the problem. The lack of people in the space providing a natural oversight and check of unwanted behaviour was the problem in the first place.
We must refrain from assuming police are actually what prevent crime. Police are best for addressing situations that already happened. The best thing to do for creating crime-free cities is to have people out on our streets as much as possible, this provides witnesses. Potential offenders are uncomfortable with witnesses.
As an example in Noord (North) Amsterdam was Noorderpark a park that had issues with people using hard drugs. In North America our reaction would be to send police in to kick them out or put up signs saying “The consumption of drugs and alcohol is prohibited.”
Amsterdam not only didn’t do that, but counter intuitively they built a bar that serves alcohol (Noorderparkbar) along with playgrounds for children, wading pools, washrooms and indoor and outdoor cultural programming space (Noorderparkkamer). The city followed the Project for Public Spaces place making principles of creating at least ten activities to get as many people, for as many different reasons to be in the space.
The result? Noorderpark now is now a safe, enjoyable place to take your family. The quicker we accept that having mixed uses and many activities (yes including drinking establishments), the further we will benefit with more vibrant places that improve our safety and happiness.
Through my travels I have been able to visit, experience and observe numerous markets. A few basic elements for successful markets can be distilled despite observing markets in a wide range of cultures including Asian, Eastern European, Western European, North American and Latin American cities, affluent or impoverished neighbourhoods and warm or cold climates.
Design: Scale and Context
A smaller market with less space will always seem fuller with fewer people, hence more attractive. For most people there is nothing more unappealing than an empty space. The goal should be quality over quantity, wait for the demand to build and then you can expand the market. The city of Edmonton market started on only 104 St., it has now expanded to take up a second street on 102 Ave. every Saturday.
Street Market in Chiang Mai Thailand
Edmonton’s 104 Market on a Human Scaled Street
Madrid’s Rastro Market takes over the street
Buenos Aires’ San Telmo market occupies a narrow human scale street
Rich or Poor markets operate by the same basic rules.
The best markets are located right within the the urban fabric, sandwiched between human scaled buildings (2-5 storeys tall). This serves to frame the market creating an environment that is rich in details and comfortable. This also helps reinforce keeping a sense of smaller scale. The immediate walls of the surrounding buildings frame the market and make it feel smaller. Markets can be linear along a street or inhabit a space such as a plaza.
The following are a list of great street markets lined with fine grain retail that I have had the opportunity to visit: Edmonton’s 104 Street Market, Amsterdam’s Ten KateMarkt, Berlin’s Turkish Market (Türkischer Markt), London’s Columbia Road Flower Market, Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market, Street Market in Villazon, Bolivia, Bangkok’s Chinese Market, Madrid’s Rastro Flea Market, Buenos Aires Feria de San Pedro Telmo Sunday Market, Delft Saturday Flea Market
Seating and Music at the center of the cross roads in Edmonton’s 104 St Farmers Market
The square of the adjacent Abbey offers a reprieve from the crowds of the Borough Market in London
Green space provides a reprieve at the Recoleta Market in Buenos Aires
The market should also be designed to give people the choice how much they want to be involved in the actual market. Some people may choose to sit back on the sidelines and people watch, others will want to be moving through the market perusing the offerings. Therefore it is important to provide the opportunity and space to step away from the market to sit, relax and enjoy their spoils but still be near the fun. This also means providing seating (both unofficial or official) nearby in the form of ledges, stairs, patios, movable chairs and benches.
Activities: Retail and Food
Since a market is a form of public space it should follow the same guidelines for creating successful public space as outlined by the Project for Public Spaces, including the principle of encouraging at least 10 activities. Therefore when designing a market, surround it with many small businesses such as retail stores, restaurants and bars to make it even more successful. This adds a layer of detail to engage and give people more things to do. Since most markets often run only 1 day a week, anchoring the market with permanent brick and mortar businesses will also help create an identity for the place when the market is not there. Not only will the market create spill over revenue for these businesses but they will create more activities and an even more interesting place.
While not always necessary, but the market should offer products that cater to local residents. It is the continued use by local people that build up demand and identity. You will never forget some of the burliest English men shouting “Clematis for a fiver” at the top of their lungs.
While the market can focus on selling art, crafts or plants, for best results food vendors should be allowed either in the market or in nearby restaurants or grocery stores. Food is an essential experience of the human existence, we depend on it. Having it around will attract locals and visitors alike and improve the positive experience of the market.
It is also possible to have interior markets, while this will add to the infrastructure costs it provides protection from the elements. Alternatively you could also utilize the left over space to provide space away from the elements such as London’s Borough Market under the train tracks.
Torvehallerne interior market in Copenhagen
Torvehallerne interior markets in Copenhagen attached to great public space.
Chiang Mai Interior Market
With interior markets it helps to line the exterior walls with windows and retail businesses but ensure that the windows are permeable to allow people to see all of the fun going inside and draw them in. The worst thing you could do is line the windows with shelving for storage. The following are some of the great interior markets I have visited: Florence’s Central Market, Budapest’s Great Market Hall, Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne and numerous enclosed markets in Seville.
It may have happened to you, one day you may have passed by a public space with distinguished, clean and polished design and landscaping but it is empty except for a handful of people. On other days it may be full of energy and people but only when there is programming like a festival or concert. While programming is a great way to give back to your citizens, cities should focus on making plazas great destinations at all times.
When a place is designed correctly you will know, there will be people in it. Project for Public Spaces offers a great rule of thumb for inviting people into a space, the Power of 10. Design public spaces to offer at least 10 activities for people to attract different to the space for different reasons at different times of the day. This can include things like water features for people to interact with. People are also a natural invitation for other people, most people like to be around other people even if it is to just sit quietly and people watch. When you design public spaces around accommodating large events like the new Art Gallery in Vancouver and Churchill Square in Edmonton, when there is no programming to invite people the space feels out of scale, empty and uninviting. With public spaces, scale plays a big role in their success, smaller spaces feel more vibrant and full with less people.
Cities do a great job activating public spaces with water features and meandering paths.
Most cities do a good job at introducing the water features, seating, greenery, nice views and paths. However the most critical element that will tie them all together often remains elusive. Commerce. Commerce in the form of food and beverages is often best since everyone needs to eat and drink which invites them to stay in the space while they consume it, especially if there is a patio or movable chairs. Patios, where people can eat and drink, naturally attract people, which will in turn attract more people. However other commerce such as retail will also do the trick, but not as well.
This was first identified by Jane Jacobs in The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ astute observations led her to conclude that parks should be immediately surrounded by buildings of fine grain retail shops that open up towards the park. While Jacobs at the time may not have had the hard data to back this up, but this has since recently been confirmed. A City Observatory study found that surrounding a park or plaza with fine grain retail businesses will indeed increase the number of people using the space. “As we showed with our recent Storefront Index (which measures the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses in cities), the difference between an under-utilized park and an activated one is substantially explained by the presence and density of adjacent storefronts.”
Since stores tend to attract people, the benefits of storefronts include improving safety, having people around adds eyes on the street which deters crime and makes other feel a space is inviting and safe. Commerce around and in parks also create jobs and support the local economy. Having a cafe on public land is also a new revenue source for governments on what would have otherwise been a sunken cost.
Think about your favourite cafe. Do you use it as a meeting point, have you ever gotten the inspiration for a great idea, have you laughed or met new people. Our private establishments can bring a wealth of social benefits and done well they can extend this to our public spaces.
The following are examples of great public spaces around the world that have integrated commerce effectively to produce vibrancy.
Copenhagen’s Numerous Public Spaces
Copenhagen is renowned internationally as one of the leaders in creating great public spaces, and sure enough in every space you will find either a cafe or a perimeter of ground floor retail. For more information on Copenhagen’s place making continue to this article.
Copenhagen’s Isreals Plad is well activated besides the numerous different types of seating, children’s playgrounds, sports courts and of course two enclosed markets off in the distance.
Copenhagen’s Sankt Hans Torv plaza is wrapped by ground floor commerce including a restaurant and patio which invites people and activates the space well.
This cafe patio achor’s and activates Copenhagen’s Super Kilen.
Copenhagen’s Stoget is a walking only street, but it is well activated by the numerous shops and restaurants flanking the street.
Director’s Park – Portland
Portland’s Director’s Park is one of the best examples of a well designed public space. The space is activated with many activities that include a wonderful splash park, movable chairs, games but most critically the space is surrounded by buildings with ground floor retail. In addition to the ground floor retail surrounding the plaza, there is also a cafe that anchors and spills out into the space.
Portland’s Director’s Park is one of the best examples of a well designed public space. In addition to the many activities that include a wonderful splash park, movable chairs, the space is surrounded by buildings with ground floor retail.
In addition to the ground floor retail surrounding the plaza, there is also a cafe that anchors and spills out into the space.
Portland Pioneer square
Portland’s Pioneer Square utilizes a cafe (seen off in the distance) to help anchor this vibrant space.
Madison Square Park – New York City
The Shake Shack in New York city compliments Madison Square Park in New York City nicely. The activities from the Shake Shack spread out into the park as people enjoy their spoils.
The Shake Shack activates the Madison Square Park in New York City
The activity from the Shake Shack spreads out into Madison Square Park as people enjoy their spoils.
Memorial Park – Calgary
Calgary’s memorial park is another great example of a public space done well. It does a good job creating ten activities with a splash park, movable tables and chairs. However it is the Boxwood Cafe that anchors one corner of the space which serves to really tie it together and draw people into the space.
Calgary’s memorial park is another great example of a public space done well. The Boxwood Cafe anchors one corner of the space which serves to draw people into the space.
Calgary’s Memorial Park does a good job achieving the 10 activities, with a splash park, movable tables and chairs.
Plaza Del Teatro Vs Plaza Santa Domingo – Quito
One of my favourite examples are these almost identical plazas from Quito (the capital of Ecuador). On the one hand you have a space that was consistently empty. In another nearby plaza musicians were commonly playing which resulted in people gathering around to listen. However when you look at the rest of the plaza it is wrapped by fine grain retail and restaurants.
Quito’s Plaza Del Teatro is often very full, exciting and engaging. Aside from seating, there are little activities except for the fine grain commerce that wrap the plaza.
Quito’s Plaza Del Teatro is often very full, exciting and engaging. Aside from seating, there are little activities except for the fine grain commerce that wrap the plaza.
Quito’s Plaza Del Teatro is often very full, exciting and engaging. Aside from seating, there are little activities except for the fine grain commerce that wrap the plaza.
Streets are public spaces that naturally do this well, their problem is often the reverse they have the people attracting commerce but often also the loud noises and little space that cities mistakenly sacrificed for the sake of moving cars through quickly which contributes little to the local economy.
While it may take considerable effort, planning and capital to install a permanent cafe, quicker, faster and cost effective solutions already exist. Changing the bylaws and permitting food carts and trucks can add the commerce element for little expense on the city’s behalf, yet the results will be immensely rewarding.
As cities across North America move towards implementing networks of protected cycling lanes, they are often hamstrung by limited budgets. Therefore for those cities trying to kick off the process of deciding where to install the first protected bike lanes can be like taking a shot in the dark. A good phrase that comes to mind is that it is difficult to judge the need for the people by amount of people swimming across the river. In this sense it is difficult to determine which bike lane locations will generate the highest usage when there are limited people cycling on the roads because of conditions that are not safe nor comfortable enough to invite people to cycle in the first place.
So how do you start deciding where to place bike lanes? The best strategy is to build bike lanes where people are already cycling. Usually there will be people cycling in your city along certain corridors regardless of the lackluster state of cycling infrastructure. This may include streets like 102 Avenue in Edmonton or 10th Avenue in Vancouver. These are often called desire lines, which represent a disconnect between how we design our cities and how people actually want to use them. The best way to understand a desire line is to go to your local park and look for the diagonal dirt lines cutting through a grassy area. People will always opt to take the shortest route regardless of how you want them to behave. Besides the small sampling of corridors that people may be using, how else can we find these desire lines?
Luckily insurance companies and police often keep detailed records of the vehicle collisions with people walking and cycling. Take for example the City of Edmonton’s 1,070 vehicle collisions (2009-2014) with people cycling that is now available thanks due to the hard work of the Paths for People advocacy group (unfortunately the city uses an arcane in-house geocoding format for the collision locations and fortunately we have went through and manually entered each of the collisions into a map so that no one ever has to do this again. The geocoded data can be downloaded here).
Typically collision data is used for safety improvement projects. However mapping this data can serve as a proxy for cycling volumes to reveal patterns about where people are cycling. These patterns often materialize themselves along corridors demonstrating latent demand for safe, convenient and comfortable protected cycling lanes. For example with Edmonton it is very clear that people want to be cycling on 76 Avenue, 82 Avenue, 100 Avenue, 103 Avenue, 104 Avenue, 107 Avenue, 109 Street and so on. Of course you have to take the road dimensions into account when considering bike lanes on these streets, and the political willingness to tackle the public’s perceptions.
Often these desire lines form on the main streets that were the original street car corridors from long ago that still foster the exciting fine grain retail environment that people still love today. This can also been seen from a recent cycling safety report from the city of Vancouver. This makes sense since people want to be where the action is. They want to see and be seen. These routes are usually also the most direct and offer the most convenience in terms of being able to see the businesses and stop spontaneously. The only caveat is to ensure that these collisions are not the result from trying to cross these corridors.
Collision data can also give you an indication of when people are cycling the most. From the chart above it is clear that people start to pick up cycling again in March, until it peaks in July and declines through the winter months.
Of course you can also do more sophisticated analysis as the example above using the ArcGIS Hot Spot tool. Based on this map the city would get the highest return on investment with the highest reduction in collisions per dollar spent in the downtown and Old Strathcona areas. Incidentally this will also increase the rate of cycling and therefore improving cycling safety even further in a virtuous cycle.
For those cities and advocacy groups on a tight budget, collision data is a low hanging fruit that is often already being collected. Some data cleaning and geocoding may be necessary to transform into a usable format. Once ready it can be a inexpensive way to determine the desire lines for cycling.
Now that protected cycling lanes are full steam ahead in many cities, many are turning their attention to intersections. Based on the cycling safety report from the City of Vancouver, between 48-74% of vehicle collisions with people cycling (based on the type of street and cycling infrastructure) occur at the intersection (as opposed to mid-block). However the debate around protected intersections is mixed. Many in the cycling industry are focused on building complete dutch-style protected intersection, no exceptions. We must not let perfection become the enemy of great.
While many engineers would like to implement fully protected intersection, their hands are often tied by the requirement to accommodate the large turning radii of emergency vehicles and semi-trailer trucks that deliver many of our daily goods and needs.
Protected Intersection at Burrard and Cornwall St in Vancouver (Image Source: City of Vancouver)
Salt Lake City Protected Intersection at 300 South & 200 West (Image Source: City of Salt Lake City)
Most fully protected intersections, while successful are also quite large. Take the Burrard – Cornwall intersection in Vancouver or the Salt Lake City protected intersection. With a 27-31 meter width, most intersections in older inner city neighbourhoods do not have this space. Moreover, this isn’t particularly friendly for walking since this forces long crossing distances.
One alternative solution would be to ban larger vehicles, which would have an impact on deliveries and important emergency services. The city of Calgary council started a very important conversation around risk mitigation. In Canada there is a 13 times more likely chance that you will die from an automobile collision than are a fire. Are we focusing our efforts in the right area by making our roads wider to accommodate the large turning radii of fire trucks which also induces speeding?
Delivery Cargobike in Vancouver
The difference in space requirements for a delivery cargo bike opposed to a large delivery truck.
Ideally in the future, cities would enact policies that require transport vehicles to use regional distribution hubs on the edge of cities to transfer shipments to smaller vehicles or cargo bikes for the last mile. The cost savings of such a policy would be significant. This would reduce the damage large vehicles do to our streets, reduce delivery restrictions and improve on demand delivery performance due to the smaller vehicle size. Removing large trucks off of our roads would also significantly improve safety for walking and cycling, as it estimated that 19% of cycling collisions occur with large trucks.
Unfortunately we have to get creative until we can sort out how to restrict the use of large delivery trucks and emergency services vehicles on our streets through different procurement practices, safety requirements and policies. Fortunately we already have the solution, we just have to look to Vancouver. Vancouver has been taking a more pragmatic approach to protected intersections. Due to space limitations, it may not be possible to protect the entire intersection at the time. However it may be possible to provide protection for the dominant directions of walking and cycling travel.
Vancouver has many examples of this including the intersection at Dunsmuir and Hornby Street, the intersection at Denman and Comox Street, the intersection at Main and Union Street. In all of these cases, the city strategically used a mixture of concrete barriers and phased traffic signals. As a side benefit any improvements for cycling also assist people walking by reducing the crossing distance they must mix with traffic.
This intersection has a concrete island to protect the dominant direction of cycling travel from vehicle turning movements.
As a side effect, protected intersections also help protect people walking as the crossing distance mixing with traffic is also reduced.
Partially protected intersection Main St and Union St in Vancouver uses concrete islands and phased traffic signals to protect people cycling in the dominant direction of travel.
Fully protected intersections are definitely the gold standard, however if we give ourselves some leeway in how we define a protected intersection we can achieve results now rather than later. Instead of waiting for costly, complicated large scale redesigns, incremental changes can be installed now providing protection for the dominant cycling movements. As cycling volumes increase or large vehicle restrictions are eventually introduced the intersection’s protection can eventually be improved.