Embrace Commerce to Unleash the Full Potential of Public Spaces

By Darren Proulx

Edmonton Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park Empty
An empty plaza near Edmonton’s popular Whyte Ave

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.

PPS Placemaking Chart
The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents a place’s key attributes, the middle ring its intangible qualities, and the outer ring its measurable data. (Source: http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/)


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.

Edmonton Legislature grounds public space water fountains

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.

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 Pioneer square

Portland’s Pioneer Square utilizes a cafe (seen off in the distance) to help anchor this vibrant space.

Portland’s Pioneer Square utilizes a cafe (seen off in the distance) to help anchor the 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.

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.


Plaza Del Teatro Vs Plaza Santa Domingo – Quito

Quito’s Plaza Santo Domingo consistently fails to fill its over sized plaza. The buildings that wrap the plaza offer little to interact with other than to look at.

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.

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.

London street that attracts people

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.

power of temporary retail food truck olympic village vancouver
The power of temporary. Despite the cold and rainy day and an empty plaza at the plaza in Olympic Village, this food truck was enough of invitation for this handful of people to brave the cold and wet.

Using Collision Mapping to Indicate Cycling Desire Lines

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.

An example of a desire line. The city built the path way at hard right angles on the left. On the right is the dirt path showing how people actually want to move through the space. THe shortest way! (Photo Credit: http://girodilento.com/category/advocacy-2/)

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).

Top: Each dot represents a vehicular collision with someone cycling. Bottom: This demonstrates how you begin to see some of the desire lines along corridors. (Source: City of Edmonton 2009-2014)

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.

Vancouver 2015 Cycling Study corridors desire lines
City of Vancouver Cycling Collisions Heat Map Demonstrates People are still cycling on retail Streets like Denman St, Main St, Burrard St despite the lack of safe infrastructure. (http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/cycling-safety-study-final-report.pdf)

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.

Cycling collisions analyzed by the time of the year can serve as a proxy for when people are cycling.

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.

A heat map created using ArcGIS Hot Spot which determines the areas that are statistically significant related to higher volumes of vehicle and cycling collisions. Based on this map the city would get the highest return on investment of the highest reduction in collisions per dollar spent in the Downtown and Old Strathcona areas.

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.

An Incremental Approach to Protected Intersections for Cycling

By Darren Proulx

Protected cycling infrastructure is catching on across North America as cities become aware of the economic, health, social and spatial benefits of cycling. In 2015, Calgary opened a network of protected intersections all at once. In 2016, Vancouver is in the process of opening five new protected cycling lanes in the downtown.

Vancouver Carrall unprotected intersection cycling
The Carrall Street protected bike lane in Vancouver is not protected at the intersection where it is needed the most .

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.

Cycling Stats - Vancouver Cycling Safety Study 2015
A study by the City of Vancouver demonstrates that the majority of cycling collisions occur at the intersection.

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.

Chicago turning radii image
Chicago street design guide showing the wide turning requirements for large vehicles. (City of Chicago)

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.

Canada risk chart
Risk of fatalities in Canada

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?

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.

Denman and comox Vancouver protected cycling intersection
This partially protected intersection at Denman and Comox in Vancouver uses concrete islands and phased traffic light signalling to restrict vehicle movement in the dominant direction of 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.

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.

Basic Anatomy of a Protected Cycling Lane Network

By Darren Proulx

A crowd on the 5th Street protected bike lane

Calgary’s pilot network of protected bike lanes is an excellent example of bicycle infrastructure done along the quicker, lighter and cost effective frame of mind. Taking a results-oriented approach with a minimal implementation to create a safe and comfortable cycling environment for all ages and abilities. While lighter, quicker and cost effective cycle lanes like this have already been implemented in places like Chicago, Washington D.C. and Seattle, what is unique to Calgary’s network is that it was implemented all at once. No piecemeal approach, rolling out each bike lane one at a time over years.

135,000 people have cycled on the 5th Street bike lane so far this year

While the story of how the city managed to implement this in a car dominated city is no small feat. That being said the network is a runaway success, after one year the bicycle network has seen over 770,000 trips. The busiest section (5th Street) is seeing 2,400 people cycling per day. For a city with only a 1.3% (2011) cycle to work rate, this is impressive. To put this into perspective Vancouver is currently seeing 6,000 people per day on the Seawall (Vancouver potentially has a 10% bike to work rate now). In addition to this the network is attracting more women and children, which is an indicator that people feel that it isn’t just for the confident, strong and brave. The volume of women cycling has went up 25%, from accounting for 1 in 5, to 1 in 4 of every person cycling.

Why a Network?


While a single protected bike lane does make an improvement, it only connects destinations along that corridor and only in that direction. A network maximizes the usefulness of cycling. Connecting more potential origins and destinations all at once, makes it more likely that it will suit someone’s particular shopping or commuting trip by cycling.

Key Elements

A true litmus of people’s perception of safety, their willingness to wait behind the barrier in the middle of the street instead of at the sidewalk
New York 1st Avenue Protected bike lane with minimal intersection concrete median and parking to protect the bike lane (FHWA)

This 7 km success story was created through a combination of paint, plastic bollards, concrete barriers, curbs, planters, parking and cycling signal lights. Based on seeing the Calgary cycle tracks in action, it is similar to the bike lanes in New York City on 1st Avenue.

The vast majority of vehicle collisions with people cycling occur at the intersection. The Calgary cycle track is effective with its resources since it brings protection right up to intersection cross walk with hard surfaces that driver’s are afraid to hit (usually concrete gravity barriers, or planters). In the event that a car does hit the hard surface at the intersection, the heft will stop the car and protect anyone cycling.

The mid-block sections were usually protected with either small modular curbs, plastic bollards and parking. This is sufficient to keep cars out of the bike lane. The fear of mixing with traffic while cycling is one of the main deterrents for the approximately 40% that are interested but concerned about starting cycling. Since many of Calgary’s downtown streets are one way, introducing phased signal lights to control vehicle turning movements additionally improve cycling safety.

There are different types of bike lanes too, bidirectional, unidirectional and even a shared street. On 5th Street and 12th Avenue the lanes are bidirectional with extra room for the door zone and unloading for parked cars.

The design isn’t perfect, and needs some improvements at the mixing zones and intersections. However, for a meager $5 Million this is a heavy lifting people mover (accommodating 770,000 trips over one year). The intent of such a design is to implement it quickly so that it is safe, convenient and comfortable to use rather than waiting for the perfect funding, plan or resources. These bike lanes are ready to use now, and when the resources become available they can be improved with high quality permanent materials.

Using Placemaking to Generate Resiliency in Our Transit Systems

Berlin Hackescher Markt (Source: Flickr Sally Anderson)

Using Placemaking to Generate Resiliency in Our Transit Systems
By Slow Streets

Great transit systems serve as the backbones and engines of many great cities around the world. Places like Tokyo, New York or London grind to a halt if their public transit system shuts down, imposing significant economic costs on the local economy.

Transit systems not only provide a cost effective way to move many people quickly but they also create value. They generate social, economic and environmental outcomes that extend far beyond the simple ideas that transit is only a service to move people from point A to B.

Many North American cities like Vancouver and Edmonton were built around the trams to first ensure the necessary demand for their services and to make a profit for the private companies building them. They practically functioned as neighbourhood developers with Canada Pacific Rail developing many neighbourhoods in Vancouver.  From the very beginning fine grain retail and transit have always been complementary.  Walkable, compact neighbourhoods with fine grain retail were necessary to create demand for the new tram lines, while on the other hand the tram lines also expanded  access to new businesses, partnerships or resources for inhabitants across the city. This development model was highly successful at facilitating and developing resilient neighbourhoods. From this historic anecdote, we can see that transit was a tool for generating real estate development and for opening up access to new businesses. As a public asset, transit is often looked at in utilitarian terms, regarded as a tool for moving people from Point A to Point B.

Today, transit systems are still value generators, with the land value around transit stations often being the highest per square foot due to the ubiquitous access to the city they provide and the ability to ditch many high cost burdens such as owning a car. In Vancouver, for example, land values near walkable, transit oriented corridors with fine grain retail are skyrocketing, implying that there is latent demand for walkable, transit oriented retail communities. As public investments, transit agencies should be maximizing the return on investment and generate more value for our cities. According to a recent study conducted by Smart Growth America in Metro Boston, value generation is “materializing on less than six percent of the  metropolitan area’s land —the same six percent that houses 37 percent of the region’s real estate square footage,  40 percent of its population, and 42 percent of employment.” “In many of these places, proximity to transit is a major requirement for households and employers.” Public transit, especially rail transit, activates walkable urbanism’s potential for adding real estate value, and as this report demonstrates, that potential is ample.” Often, this potential is overlooked because of simplistic ideas about what transit should do for our cities.

bridgeport richmond
Bridgeport Station in Richmond, BC, Canada. Untapped revenue potential. A skytrain rapid transit station which features almost no adjacent uses.

Transit agencies are often landowners but often do little to maximize the value generated. Transit agencies often approach the land they own from a very utilitarian, transport engineering perspective. In many cases this may be mandated by law where public organizations cannot recover more revenue than the cost of the services they provide. When transit agencies are struggling with limited budgets should they be given new tools for generating more income? Should the role of our transit agencies be expanded? Should they be mandated to maximize the return on investments from public lands? Many municipalities (Surrey) have established arm’s-reach development corporations tasked with developing city owned land. It makes sense that this could also be done for transit agencies.

In North America, cities often have to play catch up to build new rail or bus rapid transit systems in built out cities resulting in a situation where the transit agency or government has sunk costs to expropriate expensive land with limited tools for recovering the costs. Most often this is achieved through either transit fares or more public funding. The tools available to ensure the success of our transit systems that take millions or billions of dollars to build are extremely limited or ineffective.

Transit agencies should be given the tools to do what any good landowner already does – maximize the value generated and consequently the return on public investments and assets. Transit agencies need the tools to make the land they own more productive and in turn introduce new revenue tools and reduce the need to rely on more tax dollars. Since the land values around transit stations are often some of the highest in our cities, transit agencies need stronger tools to lease land to developers with the task of creating great places. This can be done with fine grain retail spots that can be leased at market rates to private businesses. More mixed use fine grain retail at transit stations can also consequently result in increased demand for the transit system it is serving.

It also helps dignify the experience of taking transit. Many transit stops are uninteresting and uninviting places that make transit riders feel like second class citizens. There are little or no opportunities for engaging with your surroundings and these places are completely absent of any social function. Moreover, what is most problematic is that many of these places are just plain and simply uncomfortable places to spend time.

edmonton bus stop
A bus stop in Edmonton (Source: Google Maps)

This is one of the keys to building resilient transit systems that integrate more comprehensively with their surrounding communities. We can leverage our investments in transit by providing retail, amenities and through the cultivation of better public spaces. This will spur off greater benefits and create more value for everyone.

Waterfront Station Vancouver: A Local Example

waterfront station
Waterfront Station in Vancouver, BC, Canada

While technically owned by the CPR, the Waterfront station in downtown Vancouver is a good example of this. Waterfront station goes beyond simply moving people through on their way to and from the Seabus, three SkyTrain lines and the West Coast Express. The station itself includes leasable spaces for many small retail businesses, offices, restaurants, cafes, and even a bar.

While there is room for improvement, the result is a great place on government land where people can do more than move through quickly. As a result, Waterfront Station is an animated and vibrant place. It is busy nearly all hours of the day and serves as one of Vancouver’s central locus for people.

Since there are many activities and attractions for people at Waterfront Station, there is no apprehension for people to wait or linger. It is a natural meeting place that invites people to linger. The restaurant and retail tenants also generate extra revenue for a public entity, when there would otherwise be none. The building is also well integrated into the surrounding urban fabric and doesn’t create a transit infrastructure ghetto.

waterfront station retail 2
Waterfront Station is a great place to wait for people.

As always with a great place, high quality design is important for attracting people to stay and serves as a great meeting place for all types of people. This not only creates value for all taxpayers, but also social value by providing a quality place for people to meet, even if they aren’t accessing the station strictly for transit purposes. As a transit hub, Waterfront Station is a multipurpose space that serves many functions beyond simply moving people. This builds resiliency into our transit system.

New Westminster Station

The New Westminster station is also a good example of a transit agency being more productive with public lands. The New Westminster station is a multi floor building that includes 34 businesses including a grocery store, pharmacy, offices, dentists, many retail stores, cafes, restaurants and bars. While the businesses and building facade could have been designed to be people friendly by facing outward, every square inch of this station is producing exponentially more value than the neighbouring two stations that simply focus on the utilitarian task of people moving.

The first thing you see out of a transit station should not be 250 meters of bus bays and parking lots. (Clareview Station, Edmonton)

The immediate surroundings at many transit stations are often an unpleasant experience for many people. In many cases, the surrounding areas are barren and empty with no consideration for placemaking or people friendly designs that act as good urban anchors. This can create a sense of insecurity for people since no one wants to spend time here, therefore, a person’s safety is reduced since there are ‘no eyes on the street’. If we want people to use transit, they must feel safe and secure.

Bus Bays and Bus Exchanges

Kootenay Bus Loop
Kootenay Bus Bay Loop in Vancouver, Canada.

Bus bays are designed for the arrival of multiple buses in pulse-timing based transit systems where the bus wait to coordinate with other routes for easy transfers. Often you have to navigate chain link fences and barren concrete landscapes for the last few meters of your transit trip. This design clearly indicates that the movement of buses is prioritized over the enjoyment of the customers using the bus.  Again, this is putting engineering ahead of the experience of the customers using them, which will serve to deter more people from using transit. The bus bay method is quite a space hog. A more strategic solution could feature a design layout that uses the readily available and often underutilized street networks. This would further integrate the transit station into the neighbourhood.


Transit agencies often have trouble with what is often perceived as loitering. While this can be the case (or people simply waiting for the bus), this can conjure up negative perceptions of transit and transit use. Often, the response is to ignore human psychology and to try to ban “loitering” with signs and policing. Crime and “loitering” are a symptom of the environment, often sprouting up in places where there is no one to watch what people are doing. Therefore a better approach would be to create a great place where people want to hang out. In this approach, crowds of people would add “eyes on the streets” and the place becomes self-policing simply by having people present. This is to say that by inviting more people to stay in the space for longer and for more reasons this adds eyes and ears that deter unwanted behaviours. Places where people naturally want to linger are self-regulating, behaviors are naturally kept in check by the many people using the spaces. Therefore, if transit agencies want to deter “loitering” they should in fact invite as many people as possible by creating great places that attract as many activities as possible including shopping and eating.

Maximize Returns on Investment and Build Resiliency

In an era where car-use is declining and cities are confronted with diminishing budgets, it is critical to provide our transit agencies with more tools for capturing the value created from what is ultimately a public investment. Too often debates about transit focus on transit as simple a tool for mobility between point A and B. While this is certainly true, transit is also an asset that can generate social, economic and environmental value. Transit has a spatial and land use component. Stations occupy a parcel of land in our cities and certainly station design and choices about the types of uses that the station provides has significant implications for ridership and system resiliency. Neglecting this spatial component is to overlook a significant opportunity to enhance the affordability and livability of our cities.

Focusing on the ‘sense of place’ surrounding our transit stations can help generate more significant returns on these investments and induce greater ridership. Not only can we design our transit stations to improve the safety of transit customers but we can also make them more enjoyable places for the people that use them and ultimately generate a greater return on transit investments. This helps build resiliency into our transit systems by simply acknowledging that transit systems are a public asset that contribute to the practice of city building and cultivating a sense of place in our cities.

A Better Business Case For Bike Lanes

A Better Business Case For Bike Lanes
By Slow Streets

Across North America there are a large number of announcements about plans to unveil newly minted cycling infrastructure. (San Francisco, CA).

Every month across North America there are a large number of announcements about plans to unveil newly minted cycling infrastructure. Cities like Vancouver have been building this protected bike infrastructure for many years, yet despite this, cycling still struggles to be normalized and considered as a viable way of travel. Businesses, in particular can sometimes be the most vocal opponents as there is a perception that you cannot live your everyday life on two wheels.

The petition circulated by the Commercial Drive BIA.

There is overwhelming evidence and data to confirm that bike lanes are good for your City and good for business. While the results might not be immediate, transportation is a behavioural science and people eventually adapt to change. Moreover, despite mountains of data confirming the benefits of bike infrastructure,  bikelash is still rampant when a city announces plans to build new infrastructure. The sky is falling and doomsday scenarios play out. Questions of infrastructure and space polarize into opposite camps – those for bike lanes and those who wish to preserve the status quo.  Most recently this is playing out on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive,  where the Business Improvement Association declared publicly that businesses and other property owners would be negatively affected by a proposed bike lane. Many of these claims are unsubstantiated and lack empirical evidence. Streets For Everyone, HUB and Price Tags have already challenged the veracity of these claims.

However, we would like to draw attention to two other positive impacts that are rarely highlighted in debates about bike infrastructure:

  • Enhancing access for all road users yields new customers and potential sources of revenue;
  • Don’t ignore the public space outside your business. Traffic calming is good for business.

1) Enhancing access for all road users yields new customers and potential sources of revenue.

Often businesses overestimate how many people arrive by driving. This notion plays out again and again in cities across North America. The reality for a mixed-use retail street is often that the majority of business patrons are people who arrive by walking, cycling and using transit. Moreover, research shows that people who walk and cycle often shop more often and spend more overall than people who drive, who often make large lump sum purchases. This means that by encouraging more people to walk and cycle, a business can also encourage a steadier stream of cash-flow. It is to the detriment of businesses to neglect the need for a safe, comfortable and inviting experience for the majority of people who shop by walking, cycling and using transit.

In this manner Commercial Drive is no exception. Commercial Drive and its surrounding neighbourhood of Grandview Woodlands is a community that favours active transport. Data from the 2006 census indicates that over 50% of people commute by bike, transit or walking. This data is a decade old and what’s not represented in this data is also the latent demand for new cycling infrastructure. In fact, Grandview Woodlands is considered one of the top cycling communities in Canada with nearly 15% of people commuting by bike. What is overlooked by the BIA is that there is significant potential for new sources of revenue. With so many people traveling by bike, enhancing bike access on Commercial Drive will allow for large numbers of people to visit Commercial Drive businesses safely and securely by bike. Many people choose to not cycle on Commercial Drive, seeking out an adjacent north-south connection (Lakewood and Woodland Dr.), simply because it’s too scary and uncomfortable to ride with traffic.

This is lost business for Commercial Drive businesses. It’s simply too scary to ride on Commercial Drive and riding on adjacent bike routes doesn’t permit window shopping and spontaneous purchases. If you wish to shop on Commercial Drive by bike, you are forced to know exactly where you’re going.
It’s more convenient to stop for a slice of pizza on your bike since you are traveling at much lower speeds than a car. As well you don’t have to spend 10 minutes looking for parking. This is more time that people spend shopping and enjoying the neighbourhood rather than looking for parking. Moreover, data indicates that people cycling do spend at equal levels or more with their driving counterparts. In short, the BIA should not downplay this potential to enhance the number of ways that people can access their businesses. Such high numbers of people cycling on Commercial Drive will provide a new source of customers.

2) Don’t ignore the public space outside your business. Traffic calming is good for business.

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Don’t ignore the public space outside of your business. It’s an asset that should be cultivated.

Don’t ignore the public space outside of your business. It’s an asset that should be cultivated and leveraged. This asset is often overlooked by the business community since it’s not directly indoors. Currently, the sidewalks of Commercial Drive do not offer a secure and pleasant place to stay or linger. Slow Streets found that Commercial Drive is a rather uncomfortable place for walking: sound volumes from traffic registered at 76DB, the equivalent of standing 15m from a highway. We also observed the activities of over 1,000 people and found that there was an apprehension to linger and socialize with only 14% of people observed doing so. We also noted that many people chose to sociCommercial Drive stayingalize on side streets where they are protected from traffic rather than on Commercial Drive. In our observations 72% of people simply walked through the sample site. We suspect this is due to the loud noise generated by high volumes of cars.

Implementing a cycle lane will create a buffer between the sidewalk and fast moving and loud vehicular traffic. Commercial Drive has the highest number of pedestrian volumes outside of the downtown peninsula. These numbers are significant and were confirmed by Slow Streets with sample sites on Commercial Drive averaging 665 people per hour. There is significant business potential and untapped revenue here. The relationship is quite simple: people attract people and by providing a more comfortable place to stay or linger, this will serve as a magnet for socializing, hanging out and ultimately more spin off revenue for the adjacent businesses. This can already be seen by the Parklets on Commercial Drive which are often occupied with people.

Commercial Drive Buffer

By inviting people to stay and linger on the sidewalks of Commercial Drive, businesses could see an increase in revenue. In short, traffic calming is good for business. The sidewalks and public space outside of your business are a critical asset that can serve as a magnet to attract people. A bike lane will encourage people to spend time on the sidewalks on Commercial Drive because the public space is more comfortable. Reductions in automobile speeds and volumes reduce the noise people experience at the sidewalk. The public space outside of a business should not be ignored or neglected. It is a significant asset that businesses should leverage to their full potential, especially in a fine grain retail environment like Commercial Drive.

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Encouraging people to hang out will inevitably attract other people.

The evidence from the abundance of bike lanes opening across North America continually confirms that bike lanes are great for the bottom line of businesses. We hope that these two positive impacts provide further evidence that bike lanes and public space are in line with the interests of local businesses. Small scale retail is what makes living in a city interesting. Focusing on ways to make the space outside of these business more comfortable for all road users can help local businesses flourish and grow.

Making Bikeshare Systems Work for Casual Users

By Darren Proulx and Samuel Baron

Bikeshares provide a great opportunity for casual users to try out urban biking without actually investing in a bike. Moreover, bikeshare systems increase cycling usage by raising the profile of cycling in the community. A properly articulated system conveys to residents that cycling is supported and endorsed by the local government. Most importantly it serves as a gateway from casual rider to full time rider.

After using or attempting to use Bikeshare systems throughout Europe and North America one thing becomes clear: these systems are not convenient enough for casual use by visitors and residents. Part of the challenge with encouraging active transportation is contending with the automobiles’ flexibility. Study after study shows that if you want to encourage different behaviours, you have make them as convenient and easy as possible (Source Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan). Transportation is a social science and people respond to external stimuli. Build a bike lane and surprise, people use it. Make bikeshare systems easily accessible and surprise! People use them.

Therefore, encouraging a simple, user friendly bikeshare system can help encourage greater ridership and raise awareness of the suitability of cycling as a credible, safe, reliable way to get around.

System Access

The Budapest Bikeshare (BuBi)
The Budapest Bikeshare (BuBi)

Using the recently minted Budapest BuBi Bikeshare system, the first impressions are not great. When trying to sign up for a 3 day casual pass, it turns out that every bikeshare station kiosk did not have the functionality to give you a membership. Once you found a station that could sell you a membership, you needed a working phone number or access to the Internet to activate your membership. Once you finally obtain your temporary membership, in order to retrieve a bike you have to enter in your phone number, then your pin code and then your bike number…at each station every time you want to take out a bike. Having to jump through all these hoops is hardly going to win over the mildly interested prospective user.

New York City Citibike
New York City Citibike

The story tends to be similar in different cities. In Washington D.C. and as a casual user it was required to insert your credit card at each station kiosk, and then enter a code, and then a bike number. New York’s Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy system have identical processes.

Other systems like the Netherland OV-fiets or the Barcelona Bicing do not even permit casual memberships.

Comparing this to Paris’ Velib, while it has its own flaws (mainly with many bikes in disrepair) it was the easiest system to use. Every station kiosk had the capability of providing a membership. When you wanted to retrieve a bike you simply entered your passcode and then the bike number.

There have been many occasions where curious passerby’s in New York City have come up to a station only to walk away due to a tedious but fixable procedure. This behaviour was also observed in Chicago.

Cities and bike-share systems are foregoing  an enormous opportunity by making their systems complicated and inaccessible to casual users. Bikeshare systems miss out on profits and cities miss out on latent ridership growth. An intercept survey of 340 people purchasing 1 day and 5 day Capital Bikeshare memberships conducted by Ralph Buehler and Darren Buck et al. found out that 71% of Washington D.C. Capital Bikeshare casual users were using the system for the first time, and 61% of users reported learning about the system by seeing it. The majority (90%) of people were using the system for tourism/site seeing (53%), social (22%) and recreation (15%) reasons. Other research by Darren Proulx on the Washington D.C. Capital Bikeshare system (which is outlined more indepth in these posts), found that 25% of all trips are made by casual users. These systems make the most revenue based off of the pricing structure with trips that are longer than the allotted 30 minutes of free time per trip. Casual users happen to make up the bulk of those trips that are longer than 30 minutes. Proulx’s research found that 37% of casual user trips were longer than 30 minutes (versus 2.8% of monthly or annual subscriber members). With the need to redistribute the bikes at the end of the day there may be concerns that this may be disruptive to the system operation. However Proulx’s research also showed that the stations with high volumes of casual users were tightly constrained within a small area in downtown Washington D.C. and the National Mall.

So what can be done?

Simplify System Access and Use

Designing a system that is accessible and user friendly isn’t rocket science. Make all stations predictable and the same. The system access procedure should be simple and enable a bike rental on the fly. A credit card should be enough insurance to protect the bikes from theft.

In Seville, the Bikeshare was only offered on a weekly basis. While the price was a steal for a week, it was prohibitively outrageous for 1 or 2 days. Ensuring that bike-share systems are priced for spontaneous short term use is key for increased usage.

Legibility of System and Bike Lane Networks

Citibike Station Kiosk 5-Minute Cycling Map Source: (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/4f/c5/e6/4fc5e687b59cea8cef6c954a94e2cf77.jpg)
Citibike Station Kiosk 5-Minute Cycling Map Source: (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/4f/c5/e6/4fc5e687b59cea8cef6c954a94e2cf77.jpg)

One can ride a bike everyday and still not quite remember which streets feature protected lanes. Expecting a beginner or casual rider to understand or to know the network is unreasonable.

Make sure station kiosks feature a comprehensive network map so that riders understand which routes are safest for them, and subsequently their ride goes as smoothly as possible. This map should also distinguish between routes that are separated from motorized traffic. Cycling in urban areas can be very intimidating, even for the most seasoned rider, as traffic regulations require that people cycling “run with the Bulls” mixing with large and lethally fast moving automobiles. Informing casual users where safe and accessible travel options will help assure a safe and comfortable first experience and potentially repeated use.

System maps should also show a ‘5 Minute Travel Circle’ for both walking and cycling (how far it’s possible to cycle or walk within 5 minutes). These maps should also feature transit stations and significant points of interest.

Avoid changes to the map that distort the interpretation of the map upon first viewing. For example, the London bike-share maps were rotated at every kiosk to change the orientation to face the local street. While this is great in theory, it ends up unnecessarily adding a layer of confusion if you don’t know this has been done since most people are used to reading maps with North at the top.

Integrate the Bikeshare System Network With the Overall Mobility Network

While Bikeshares are touted to help fill the ‘last mile of commuting’ gap, the research conducted by Darren Proulx shows that there is a statistical relationship between more bikeshare trips and dedicated right-of-way transit systems like subways.  Ensuring that users understand this opportunity exists is critical. In the smart phone era, users should be able to instantly access and plan trips using a mix of all of the multimodal components of the entire mobility network right from your palm. This supports multimodal transportation, producing the most time and cost effective trip. Bikeshares should not compete but rather compliment other modes of the mobility puzzle. There have been a number of key developments of apps that do this, such as Citymapper or RideScout.

Station Density

Over 1200 Paris Velib Bikeshare Stations
Over 1200 Paris Velib Bikeshare Stations

It would be ideal to have one station for every city block. This would maximize the car-equivalent spontaneity with the possibility to be able to make a trip from anywhere to anywhere. Also according to the research by Buehler and Buck more stations would expose more potential new users to the system. Having more stations maximizes the options and provides peace of mind knowing the next station is just around the corner. A recent study shows promising results can achieved  with little investment. Simply decreasing the distance to access stations by 10% may boost bike-share trips by about 7%, while a 10% improvement in bike availability can increase system usage about 12%.

The perfect thing about bikeshares is their modular flexibility, which provides great adaptability for the incremental improvements necessary for Bikeshare success.

At Slow Streets, we are hopeful that Vancouver will successfully launch its bikeshare network in 2016. With much precedent to draw upon (there are over 1400 globally according to this google map list) Vancouver should ensure that they implement a system with the elements that will maximize rider potential and a good return on investment.