Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Number 3 Road

with 5 comments

It’s the main drag through what Richmond calls its City Centre, and it is a mess. And it has been a mess for as long as I have lived here (over ten years now) and is currently getting worse.

One of my regular reader’s questions Richmond’s policy, and he has a point.

Everyone I know in Richmond avoids No 3 Road as much as possible. Especially the section between Granville and Bridgeport. What most people fail to grasp is that No 3 Road is supposed to be like this. It was planned that way!

It is horrible to walk along, and it is very rare to see any pedestrians at all – with the exception of the stretch from City HallCity Hall to Westminster Highway. That is the only section that is remotely “urban” in scale, although even though most of the western side is taken up by Richmond Centre, one of the biggest malls. It is the main area for transferring between buses, since most routes converge here. Only the intersection at Westminster has been rebuilt on three corners to a city scale – tall buildings with offices over retail, with parking behind and within structures. How long we have to wait for the fourth corner to go the same way is a subject of speculation but little activity – I think due to multiple ownership issues.

Everywhere north of Ackroyd has to be comply with height restrictions imposed by the glide path of the runways of YVR. As if this environment were not noisy enough from the traffic (diesel buses being one of the most strident components) there’s the frequent arrivals and departures of giant jets.

4531 No 3 Road

So nearly all the retail is single or two storey with parking lots fronting the street. These lots all have access onto the street, with very tight radius curves, which slows down the traffic crossing the sidewalk (good) and maximises the number of spaces available, though there are never enough. The planners say that is because the Asian malls allowed too much of their floorspace to be taken up by restaurants.

Ackroyd Paza entrance

Caterina on flickr titled this picture “Richmond, BC is a horrible place” and used No 3 Road to support her argument

“It’s one big parking lot, big box retail, the airport, and just cars cars cars. No one walks anywhere. Its only saving grace is that there is a lot of cool Asian stores and restaurants. Otherwise, wasteland. “


No one is allowed to park in one space and then walk to their various destinations – even if they are within walking distance. Since each mall has its own lot, and the amount of parking is inadequate for most, the towing and ticketing guys have a field day, watching for people walking out of the lots. They post spotters, because leaving a lot without your car can be very profitable for these companies. This practice even extends to areas outside the city centre. So most of the car traffic on No 3 Road is people going from one shop to another. A typical Saturday morning shop might require clarinet reeds from Noteworthy Music or Tom Lee, some groceries from Save On or Superstore, something for the car at Canadian Tire or the home at one of the many possibilities. But that is not two trips – one from home to centre and one back again. It is at least four or five – hopping from one lot to another and searching for a space at each one.

Through traffic is supposed to use the perimeter track formed by Granville and Garden City – formerly the route of the interurban tram. (Incidentally Granville and Garden City is one of the worst designed intersections in the City and worthy of its own rant.) River Road provides a westerly alternate – as least as far as Sexsmith – eventually the old CP Van Horne spur will be converted into a road and the river frontage will be reclaimed from its current commercial/industrial orientation.

One part of Richmond’s plan is to put many more people in the centre. So instead of offices over retail we are getting more condos. AquaLots more condos. And these residents, it is hoped will use the Canada Line, although at present they drive. So far, the increase in residents in the centre has produced more traffic on No 3 – especially since the twinning of the Middle Arm Bridge removed a bottleneck and allowed speedier access to the Arthur Laing and hence Vancouver’s Granville Street – always a faster way than Oak or Cambie to get to downtown, or the Broadway corridor. Or UBC via Marine Drive for that matter.

No 3 Road was controversially chosen for the Richmond Rapid Bus – subsequently the #98 B-Line. Prior to that transit planners tried to avoid the congestion by using the Garden City – Oak Street bridge route. This required considerable doubling back through Marpole – and the new route is shorter and, if the bus priority measures had actually been implemented as originally designed, faster. Two new centre lanes were inserted into No 3 Road exclusively for buses – and even buses on local routes were not allowed on it, to reduce the number of “stations”. It was expected to be converted to LRT eventually . But the change in provincial government from NDP to Liberal, changed priorities. Now the push was for a P3, in anticipation of financial support from both YVR and the feds. Up until then, transit did not feature largely in YVR’s thinking. Buses in the terminal area were a nuisance. They took up lots of valuable kerb space for their layovers, and carried less than 2% of the traffic. The early shift at the airport starts before transit gets going, so it is of little use to employees there.

Somehow rapid transit got linked to the cruise ship traffic and, heaven help us, the Olympics. Actually both are completely irrelevant, but too late for that now, since the line is now being built. The centre lanes are coming out and the elevated guideway will now be on the eastern side of No 3. The first supporting piers started going in this month, so the construction is adding to the traffic misery.

Canada Line Construction

Is this likely to change? Well I don’t see there is any understanding of how these various influences conflict with each. Richmond talks about a vibrant urban centre with more walking, bikes and transit, but the land use pattern, the organisation of retailing and most importantly parking, is not about to change any time soon. If you could choose a route to walk or bike on it 4351-no-3-road.jpgwould be the dyke. At the north end just a couple of hundred metres away, and calm and peaceful – as much as the runways allow anyway. If you get off a bus on No 3 you have to walk through parking lots to get to your destination. At the southern end of the street, these are also behind the shops, and give rise to one of the nastiest built environments I have ever come across. Massive sheets of tarmac, divided up with hydro lines and dumpsters and the detritus that gathers in the urban backwater that is the alley or “lane” as it is so charmingly misnamed here. The only people who linger here are the bottle pickers and dumpster divers, and those whose trades are less than legitimate.

Successful urban places encourage people to stop and take in the passing scene. People watching is universally the most popular human activity. Plazas, parades, boulevards for flaneurs, sidewalk cafes, parks, benches, Las Ramblas BarcelonaLas Ramblas, arcades, bazaars, all encourage the passing trade to slow down and gawp. Or sit a while over a drink and a newspaper, or a gossip. There is nowhere to do that in the ‘burbs unless you are inside a mall. And then unless you buy something you will be regarded with deep suspicion if you do not move on within 20 minutes. The seating is designed to be uncomfortable to encourage turnover. Kids hanging out in the mall are only trying to do what in civilised places everyone can and does do out in the open. Be sociable. Be social creatures. See and be seen. The number of eyes, as Jane Jacobs observed, brings its own security. Now we use CCTV and rent a cops. And we spend most of our time inside the security of our mobile metal wombs. Insulated from all outside influences, and most interaction.

City centres cannot work like this and are currently failing, except where car free areas have been introduced. Everywhere this has been tried, it has succeeded as long as there is somewhere nice for people to sit, and stare, and not feel under pressure to buy or move or do anything really. As long as that comfort is recognised (and it wasn’t on the Granville Mall for a very long time) it will become a place where people want to be. Most commercial activity requires a market place – a Rialto – where casual unplanned interactions can and do occur. Not the formal trading floors – though they can and should be near by – but the sort of place that you might run into someone who just happens to want what you have to offer, or has what you need to make your project a success.

And so far the virtual world has not reduced the appeal of central places. Indeed London is becoming ever more specialised as the financial centre of Europe. Vancouver used to be about shipping – the export of raw materials and the transit of manufactured goods. It still is, and the interesting thing is how other industries are fitting around this – tourism (the cruise ships) the film and video business, computer animation and video games. And this seems to be happening organically, since there is almost no economic planning. And the sort of initiatives that try to hold to some waterfront for shipping, or some land for industry, seem doomed before they begin.

Richmond’s centre is not central, but it does straddle a natural “neck”, caused by the bend in the Middle Arm of the Fraser. The bridges concentrate flows – and the plan has always been not build more of them to keep the traffic off the other streets. The opening of No 2 Road bridgeNo 2 Road Bridge removed a lot of north south through traffic and took it through the east side of Sea Island instead. Much to the ire of the Granville Street residents and merchants. So No 3 has seen its importance as a route increase as the population has grown. No one has ever considered shutting off some of Richmond from through traffic – and until they do No 3 road will continue to be a monument to what happens when you hand over urban planning to traffic engineers. Cities are about much more than accommodating single occupant cars. Successful cities have found that they are not even very important. But so far we, like most of North America (except New York City) have remained in thrall to the car. When we start putting people first, then we will see progress.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2007 at 8:57 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Sounds a nightmare… I wondered why people in the US drove a few feet between shops: I thought it was laziness, but it turns out they wanted to avoid being towed… As usual it’s easier to talk about a ‘Vibrant city’ than actually do something about it. It is sad though because looking at the terrain it would be fairly easy to encourage bikes and walking. In Germany it is becoming increasingly difficult for motorists going into the centres of our local cities, and the quality of life is improving as a result. In Stuttgart there are huge green areas and street performers every few metres. In fact one of the banks is built with an awning to encourage street performers. The relaxed clean centre of Stuttgart is one reason we came to live here. And Condos in the city centre? Either they are very expensive, or doesn’t bid-rent theory work in that environment?


    February 1, 2007 at 12:32 am

  2. Thank you for the comment supporting the case that Europe does city centers better than Canada.

    Condos are expensive – but not as much as houses. The return for a developer is higher and has little risk, unlike a commercial or office development that has to find tenants. In fact many condos are sold off the plan before construction starts, producing a positive cash flow. Buyers often “flip” their units and never occupy them: others are bought to be rented out, the mortgage being paid by the rental income but the capital gain making it well worth while, as prices have increased rapidly here in recent years.

    Office rents are low since “office parks” were allowed to sprout on what had been cheap agricultural land near the freeway entrances, so office towers in town centers are not appealing to investors. Bid rent is a theory that is demonstrated forcefully every day.

    Stephen Rees

    February 1, 2007 at 8:22 am

  3. Great article on #3 Road. I lived in Richmond between 1980 – 1992, and then moved back in 2004 and you are absolutely right, #3 road is a disaster. Over the last ten years, the population and traffic volumes have continued to increase, and our city centre has gotten harded and harder to navigate – I avoid #3 road at all costs (or try and go at non-peak hours). It definitely seems like not much planning has gone into our city center. It’s basically a strip mall on steroids. It would be great to see some mixed use development, as well as more walk ways to encourage pedestrian traffic. I have no idea how the Canada Line (light rapid transit) coming into Richmond will affect things, but i hope it helps rather than hurt the current situation.

    The other thing that i think is lacking in Richmond are more green spaces. It seems that all land has to be developed.

    Anyhow, keep up the great blog.


    Eric Bernal

    March 17, 2007 at 4:20 pm

  4. Sensible blog in the right direction. We are looking for Urbanity, almost non existing in the states (NY excepted of course). In Europe this is a quality that can be emulated.
    The failure of architects is that they do not use planning, being all for shapes and not contexts.
    By the way, Barcelona and Ramblas included has not segragated cars. It is not needed, as most peole prefer walking, and parking is limited in quantity.
    High density of mixed use and clarity is the quality needed.

    nahoum cohen

    June 22, 2008 at 6:03 am

  5. […] just imagine the traffic. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s driven No.3 Road will agree that it is a veritable circus when it comes to navigating the streets via […]

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