Slow Streets Public Life Observations and Design Consulting
Slow Streets offers public life behavioural observation research and street design consulting. Working with Slow Streets is a great investment because not only would you benefit from the expertise from an experienced city planning engineer but you would receive high quality and results-driven customer oriented service. Working with Slow Streets is critical for vibrant, economically sustainable cities because you will see an increase in the return on your investment such as increased rates of cycling, walking and transit, improved retail business success and improved public spaces.
Exciting news today, Slow Streets has officially been incorporated! We look forward to proudly serving cities to develop communities, transportation networks and street designs that are focused on people and their everyday experience. For more information please do not hesitate to contact Slow Streets at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing about your dreams.
Darren Proulx P.Eng M.Urb – Managing Principal and Founder
Now that the Edmonton Election is underway, a critical conversation that should be discussed is how to make the city financially sustainable. Currently the city is approving large swathes of low density single family housing developments past the Anthony Henday. Is this a financially sustainable strategy for the city to be pursuing?
According to Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn, approving and building new green field developments is a ponzi scheme. Why? Often cities approve new greenfield developments to generate new revenue through property taxes and development levies. The revenue generated from these developments do not actually go towards funding the services needed for the developments being approved. These revenues often go towards funding necessary services in already developed or aging neighbourhoods elsewhere in the city. Eventually when the infrastructure serving these new neighbourhoods starts to deteriorate at the end of their lifecycle new greenfield neighbourhoods will have to be approved to fund the necessary maintenance and upkeep.
Is there a way to determine what is financially productive and sustainable for the city coffers? According to Joe Minicozzi cities need to change their city making math. Often cities look at the revenue potential for developments from a lump sum perspective. With this approach a Walmart big-box store style development often becomes more attractive for city councils. This approach completely neglects how efficiently these developments are using land, which is a city’s most valuable resource. When you look at the potential tax revenue generated from developments based on the land area being used the math changes.
Calculating the property tax generated per land area (tax density) demonstrates that those big box stores among single dwelling developments are producing some of the lower taxes densities for developments in Edmonton. When single dwelling households and the big box stores are producing some of the lowest tax returns on developments, should the City of Edmonton continue to approve them? Edmonton can ultimately change the tax burden on all Edmontonians by correcting the city building math and building the type of developments that produce the highest return on investment using the smallest foot print.
So what is producing the highest tax density? Zooming in on the tax density map reveals that the majority of properties generating the highest tax densities are in the city centre. To be more specific the highest tax density generating properties tend to follow the streets that follow Edmonton’s historic street car lines. These include streets like 124 Street, Whyte Avenue, Jasper Avenue, 107 Avenue, 97 Street and 118 Avenue.
What do these developments look like? Often they are 2-4 storey properties with a short frontage. These are also the buildings where you find most locally owned businesses operating from, due to the smaller square footage and therefore more affordable leases.
What about housing? What is producing the highest tax density for the city? On the lower end one unit dwellings like single dwelling housing are producing on average $4.3 per square meter. Meanwhile 4 story multi-unit walkups like in the photo above produce over double the property tax per square foot ($10.5/sqm). Almost any development type that has more than one unit per property would generate more taxes per square meter.
Why does this matter? When cities are looking balancing budgets to pay for necessary services, amenities and create vibrant neighbourhoods, any business owner would look to accomplish this in the most efficient way as possible. Building more units per development site translates into the city generating more property taxes per square meter. The more property taxes the city generates from the same area translates into reducing the amount of property taxes everyone collectively has to pay. In addition to this it means that the city can service more people with the same infrastructure which lowers the cost for everyone. If the city of Edmonton builds more strategic and denser developments, the tax burden is reduced for everyone.
Often there are protests about the appearance of the developments being built as people feel that they do not fit in with the existing neighbourhood characteristics. The westmount development in the photo above has 3 units however it maintains the appearance of the surrounding neighbourhood. It looks like a larger house, however it houses three separate units.
The difficulty of meeting friendly people in a city is a subject that often surfaces in news headlines. Why is this such an important topic? Depression and loneliness are becoming more prevalent issues each year. What can be done to counteract this? One of the key factors attributed to your happiness is the quantity and quality of social interactions you experience. So we know one of the ways to improve your happiness is to have more social connections. What, then is preventing us from forming more social connections, especially in cities with higher rates of loneliness and depression?
While there are numerous factors, car oriented developments are certainly one factor. One study by Donald Appleyard evaluating different streets in San Francisco with varying levels of vehicle volumes found that people were more connected with their neighbours when the vehicle volumes were lower. Why would this be? Vehicles generally bring with them noise and pollution, which makes it uninviting to be outside. In these sort of environments you simply want to travel along the sidewalk and get into your home as quickly as possible. Furthermore when the only the affordable housing option being built are houses where it is easy to drive into your garage without ever needing to interact with your neighbours, it is easy to see why it is hard to make social connections in these cities. On the other hand inner city neighbourhoods that offer the most potential for meeting more people are more expensive and overrun with cars due to wayward transportation engineering since the 1950’s. Bringing down the cost of housing requires building more housing supply and policy changes, both of which are crucial but longer term courses of action.
Is there a way to balance out the higher cost of inner city living while increasing the opportunities of social interactions quicker? Cycling should be part of the answer. Cycling is an efficient and quick way for travelling around the city when it is convenient, safe and comfortable. Most trips are under 5 kilometers, which is at most 20 minutes by bicycle. Bicycles emit no noise and no toxic fumes. With cycling cities can be built at a human speed and scale. With a city built around cycling people are offered a chance to mingle with their neighbours again since their street is comfortable enough to let them.
What exactly do social interactions look like in a city that is built around cycling and not the car? Places like Amsterdam and Utrecht paint a pretty good picture with 60% of trips in the city centre by bicycle.
Imagine the intimate moments you could have with your child with them sitting right in front you. Your child has a front seat to life instead of the back seat of a car. Imagine not having to buy a car seat and worry about your child’s safety. Imagine the excitement and giggles as your child gets to experience the wind, the smells, colours and people. You get to be right there for all of that.
Building a city at the human speed makes it easier to take your best friend for a ride.
Can you remember the last time you sat on a patio on a main street in your city. Do you remember how loud it was? Could you have a conversation with the person you were with? Without yelling? A city built around cycling can also help build a social city by reducing the noise levels produced by cars and letting you have a conversation with your friends on a patio without shouting.
Cycling also builds a more social city because it is easier to view, watch and interact with other people because you can actually see them. A city built around cycling means that people are not encased in a metal box. It is also easier to stop for spontaneous chats or shopping since you do not have to find parking for your car.
Creating a city prioritizing cycling, walking and transit allows our children to reclaim our city streets for play. This makes it easier for parents as they don’t have to drive them to the nearby park. Rather in a city that prioritizes cycling often a child’s imagination and their local street is enough to keep them entertained. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for cars but rather that you lower the speed and volume of cars to a humane experience.
Cars are also space hogs, it takes up alot of space to move and store them. In a city prioritizing cycling, the extra space freed up can be transformed into public spaces or patios which can provide more free opportunities to gather and meet your friends.
Imagine a city so safe for cycling that your child can get to their sports practice on their own steam. Imagine the time you would save not chauffeuring your children around everywhere. A city built around cycling makes it easier for children to see their friends without needing to wait for a ride from mom or dad. For parents, a cycling city means more free time for to relax or spend quality time with friends and family.
You shouldn’t have to put your life in danger the moment you take a foot off the sidewalk. Slowing a city down to a human cycling or walking speed allows us to bring out our sociability and happiness and create a more equitable and dignified city for everyone regardless of how they get around.
Now the big question, does it take much to reorient and rebuild your city around cycling? While cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Utrecht have high rates of cycling, it also took them 40 years to make the transformation. However, cities like Calgary and Edmonton have shown that entire networks of protected cycling lanes can be implemented relatively inexpensively and extremely quickly. The turn around for Edmonton’s 6 km downtown bike lane grid (which I was involved with) took less than a year from September 2016 to July 2017. The return on investment is almost immediate. Cycling in Edmonton nearly doubled after the first month after the bike lane network was opened, meanwhile cycling grew by 39% in Calgary.
Slow Streets principal and co-founder Darren Proulx will be venturing across the ocean to the cycling capital of the world once again in 2017. Previously Darren visited Amsterdam in 2015, you can read a summary of his observations here. The itinerary this time includes:
Utrecht – April 1-3
Rotterdam – April 3-5
Amsterdam – April 5-10
Utrecht is quickly becoming know as a leader in implementing the latest best practice cycling designs, and given its smaller size this would provide a good case study for mid-size cities. Rotterdam was selected because of its similarities to a North American context with large road right-of-ways and modern buildings and a lower cycling rate (25% is lower relative to the rest of Netherlands) which would provide a good case study for North American design and how people cycling interact with cars. Finally Amsterdam will provide good insight into both good dense mid-rise built form, protected intersections and large city all ages and abilities cycling network design. This visit will be focusing on identifying protected cycling lane best practice and next generation designs including but not limited to:
protected intersections & protected intersections
cycling network design
cycling lanes on retail streets
economic performance of fine grain retail complete streets
If you are around in any of these cities please reach out as we would love to meet you!
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.
Businesses are often overestimating how many of their customers drive. Two separate studies from Auckland and Bristol found that businesses were over estimating how many of their customers were arriving by car. Why is this? Is it perhaps because people that drive are the most vocal about parking which is a critical part of their visit. People that walk, cycle and use transit often won’t feel like complaining about the quality of their commute since it rarely reflects on the businesses.
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.