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

Michael Geller’s Planet

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Lessons for Vancouver from around the World

Michael Geller travelled to 31 countries on four continents in search of interesting places and good planning ideas. This talk featured some of the highlights, including master planned communities in India and Dubai, alternative forms of transportation, and ways in which we might beautify Vancouver.

Gordon Price introduced Michael as an architect who has worked in both public and private sector: he thought that this might be one of the reasons that Vancouver is not as polarised as other places, because practitioners can and do work on both sides of the street. Michael came to Vancouver with CMHC to work on Granville Island and then moved to the City to work on public housing and also housing co-ops. He went back to Toronto but returned to work in hios own practice and in 1999 started work on UniverCity for SFU.

I should point out that Michael’s talk was more of a slide show – he had lots of his own very good photographs which he spoke to.

I have found that Michael has his own blog with many of the images he used

Getting around

He started with walking in New Zealand at cross roads, all the lights turn red and pedestrians can cross in any direction including crossing on the diagonal. Apparently this used to be common here too, but was stopped in order to improve car traffic flow. That in itself suggest we should reconsider. Similarly nearly every city except Vancouver has pedestrian zones. He showed one in Curitiba, Brazil which had been created over a long weekend: people just moved in with barriers and planters. The advice of the Mayor Jaime Lerner is – start fast! Hanoi is not pedestrian friendly but Split in Croatia has a splendidwlakway, all polished concrete and no spots of discarded gum anywhere! Dubrovnik, which at night is car free and once again splendid in its restored medieval walled magnificence.

Cycling he showed examples of Amsterdam, Rio, and even Ljubljana – the lesson there is to be flexible and use colour – red tarmac in that case [also used in London for bus lanes]. Hanoi is dominated by scooters and that causes concern about noise and air quality but maybe electric scooters would work better here [they are already popular in Richmond, and can be used in BC as slow evs without licenses].

tindo-bus-2.jpgBus: In Aukland NZ there is a free hybrid bus which circles the downtown and bus stops have electronic directories: ne thought that Translink’s new cell phone text service was a pretty good substitute. In Turkey mini buses are ubiquitous: he thought small buses should be more widely used here to penetrate neighbourhoods and connect to major routes, and was saddened when a fatal van accident in New Brunswick lead to a call for banning 18 seat vans. [To be fair, the call related to one Ford product that has shown itself to be unstable. Most countries that use small sized buses have purpose designed vehicles not poorly adapted vans]. Singapore has attractive bus shelters, as the bus is not just for poor people and in Curitiba they are a fare paid zone. The shelter has a turnstile, so loading the bus is quick and easy. The buses are high floor with no steps and the shelters are on raised platforms so the bus is as effective as a train. These solutions were adopted because the system “wasn’t designed by experts.” He showed double decker trams in Hong Kong. As an English expat (like me) he likes double deckers – but seemed to be unaware that BC Transit uses them in Victoria (and the high capacity design used there was developed initially for Hong Kong). Istanbul also has trams, though they do not seem to have an exclusive right of way unlike Melbourne which has an excellent tram system. Hong Kong has a spectacular rapid transit system paid for by property development [which is probably unique due to the peculiar circumstances of that city]

Water is more commonly used in cities like Sydney which has both hydrofoils and a solar ferry. Brisbane has a ferry service to its University – might that work for UBC too? Michael was told that ferries are not good in terms of ghg per passenger km – I am far from sure that is supported by hard evidence but I could go look that up, later. He also liked water taxis.

Which segued nicely into a discussion on Taxis especially communal taxis: he thought we need for shared ride taxis here and he showed images of tuk tuks.

In New Zealand they now have a deregulated system: drivers hours are controlled but prices are set by market and there can be different levels for different types of service. He sees a need for change here, especially when a Vancouver taxi is obliged to take a passenger to Surrey but is forbidden to pick up a fare for the return trip. [This is an even bigger problem at the airport for suburban cabs that do not have the special YVR licence to allow them to pick up there after dropping off a fare]

Planned communities

le Corbusier designed Chandigar for “the poorest of the poor to lead a dignified life” something we could adopt on the downtown east side. There is an edict that buildings will have a human scale and there are seven categories of roads. This, he said contrasts with only two here: a highway and semi-rural. There are five “areas of architectural interest” and a city centre designed as a “pedestrian paradise”. Industry is only permitted to use electric power and there is a lake where no motorised boats are allowed. There are also no statues.

He was very taken with Dubai where nothing gets stolen and the whole place is spotless. It did look a lot like Vancouver on steroids. Under construction now is “Dubailand” which is a sort of Arabian Disneyland.

Brasilia – the city of the future is not pedestrian friendly. There are separate networks of roads, buses and pedestrain routes ogfetn at different levels and all very unfriendly. It has grown gar beyond its original design and the builders don’t respect the design guidelines.

Dubrovnic is an historic city where the colours and especially traditional tiled roofs give a harmonious feeling

Jaipur the town was painted pink to welcome George V, and has remained pink ever since

Jaisalmer is all built out of sandstone

Warsaw has a great variety of building materials but all buildings are on a “mid rise” scale. Similarly, Hanoi and Ljubljana stick to 4, 5 or 6 storeys but with all kinds of colours and finishes. A similar approach in Prague now includes an ultra modern building by Frank Gehry


In Sydney there is no limit on the size of balconies, which may help people cope with the loss of gardens when they move to higher densities. There is also more variety in the towers but only 50% of the units can be purchased by non residents. Melbourbe managed to afford an exclusive pedestrian and cycling bridge, which is probably a better solution for crossing False Creek than widening Burrard Bridge.

In New Zealand apartments are sold with a separate parking space at cost – around $65,000 each. We should reduce the parking space requirements here to make places more affordable: to simplify the process we should, retain the same figures but make them maximums rather than minimums. He showed floor plans and pictures of 2 bedroom 500 sf apartments designed for students.

He recommended we consider the use of modular housing, rather like they way we use portables to expand schools. He also thought that we need affordable walkup homes , and showed examples from Australia that could not be built here due to “out of date” fire codes. He said it was time for us to rethink these codes to take account of smoke alarms and sprinkler systems He also likes street rowhouses – where people can have freeholds of a terraced house with shared partition walls. Such houses are far more flexible in adapting to different uses than more recent designs.

Public Art, Places, Squares

In east Europe it is common to see bronze models of cities mounted in the squares, so people can see what the city used to be like and how it is changing. He showed examples of remarkable place like Angkor Wat and St Petersburg. He has a special fondness for fountains which in St Petersburg are all done without pumps, though this is impractical here because of the space requirements for reservoirs. [He did not mention that this city is built in a drained swamp.]

In Warsaw the buildings are art. And in many cities public spaces host opera and jazz concerts even if they need marquees. He also said that Vancouver needs more flowers and said that Richmond is way ahead of Vancouver with its municipal plantings of flowers on road medians. Vancouver should celebrate its birthdays – one city plants flowers with the number of years since its founding as the centrepiece.

Six Final Lessons

Albania is the poorest country in Europe but the Mayor of its capital decided to brighten the place up by giving the residents paint for their the buildings . We need this kind of visionary ledership for a community spring clean up, especially in our public housing.

Singapore has a competition for the cleanest building sense of pride in public housing –

Vietnam has a property tax based on frontage which produces interestingly thin buildings

Singapore has an urbanarium where developers must donate a model of each of their buildings but also is a place to talk about urban issues

Curitiba – Jaime Lerner established recycling with colour coded public bins but he also collected gum, which means there is now no gum on the streets. [A more human solution to the disgusting habit of merely spitting it onto the sidewalk than the outright ban used in Singapore which I would favour.]

There they also turned an old quarry into an opera house using an very cheap, rapid construction technique that looked like a conservatory.

New Zealand is his favourite country, for a wide variety of reasons but he illustrated with street furniture.

By this time my lap top’s battery was low, and we moved to a more general discussion. This included why bike lanes could not be on the inside of the line of parked cars, why there were no designated motorcycle parking spaces and other issues

I recommend, if you have not already done so that you visit Michael’s blog of his world tour that he kept up to date while he was on tour – I wish I had known about it at the time.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 20, 2008 at 10:03 pm

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