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

Archive for the ‘placemaking’ Category

Weekly Photo Challenge: Pedestrian

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Millenium Bridge

One of my favourite subjects Pedestrian is actually the theme of a group I started on flickr called Places Without Cars. It seemed to me that Vancouver had really not done nearly enough to reduce the impact of traffic on its city centre, whereas many other places had closed major streets and squares to cars, but in the process opened them up to become people places. In England they are called Pedestrian Precincts.  I can remember the transformation of the centre of Harrow in the mid 1980’s where I then lived, from a major traffic artery to a place where it was not only actually pleasant to walk and shop, but there were reasons to linger. Once upon a time “No Loitering” signs were common: that is no longer the case. We have come to realise that the favourite activity of human beings is people watching. That human interaction by chance is another of our favourite things – and most commerce is in fact based on such encounters.

The picture above is of the Millennium Bridge in London, which connects the Tate Modern on the South Bank to St Paul’s in the City.

Instead of putting lots more of my pictures of similar structures I urge you to go look at that flickr group linked above and see what other places have done to make pedestrian activity attractive.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 4, 2017 at 10:49 am

Dead malls

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Once again, essentially all I am doing is to point you at another blog. I have visited and lived in North America for long enough that I did indeed spend quite a lot of time in malls. In fact our own Oakridge Mall, with the incredibly frequent sales at The Bay and the free wifi at the Apple Store – and Four Hours Free Parking – still manages to carry on. Elsewhere, the unstoppable rise of  Amazon – and staying home to let the UPS man in – has spelled the death knell of the enclosed mall.

This region has seen two new major mall developments recently – at the airport and the ferry terminal – but they are not enclosed. They now try to mimic town centres or even villages: at one time they snubbed such places.  As a young urban planner I tried to understand how they worked and fit them in to the places that we were supposed to be protecting from change. I knew that the impact of heavy traffic had make most High Streets unlivable. The idea of the traffic free street was only just getting under way. The Mall was place where the traffic was kept to the outside parking lot. Within the shopping area there was air conditioning for summer, protection from the weather in the other seasons and a predictable, limited variety of activities. But mostly there was Shopping.

Cruise ships still have malls. Vegas has them to surround the casinos. Elsewhere they are a tribute to the inexorable fate of capitalism. Huge, wasteful, pointless investments in past technologies. With none of the romance of old railway stations which can be revamped as museums, or – ok – shopping malls.

My prediction would be that International Village and Lansdowne would be the next to go.  Aberdeen (illustrated above) seems to defy gravity.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 28, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Posted in placemaking, Urban Planning

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MoV Das Wiener Modell

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At the Museum of Vancouver  in association with Urbanarium, an exhibition about the extensive social housing provision in Vienna, which started with the collapse of the Hapsburg empire after WWI and continues to this day.

The Vienna Model exhibition, curated by Wolfgang Förster and William Menkins, explores housing in Vienna, Austria, through its portrait of the city’s pathbreaking approach to architecture, urban life, neighborhood revitalization, and the creation of new communities.

Vancouver is consistently ranked alongside the Vienna as one of the world’s most livable cities. Vienna has a stable housing market, with 60% of the population living in municipally built, owned, or managed housing. By comparison, Vancouver is undergoing a housing crisis. Vienna’s housing history and policies provides alternative approaches for British Columbia.

As Vancouver embarks upon a community engagement process revolving around housing, The Vienna Model expands discussion about urban planning options and encourages dialogue and debate on the future of the city.

In addition to its investigation of design that is focused on community, Vancouver- and Vienna-based artists and cultural researchers Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber have selected art projects and public works that reflect Vienna housing into a broader context. These are included in the exhibition and illustrated catalogue.

 

Comparisons

MoV  Das Wiener Modell

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Housing and Transportation

Most the exhibition is about housing and how to make it available to people who cannot afford to buy their own home. There did not seem to be a great deal of emphasis on transportation but I did find this

MoV Das Wiener Modell

“Built as part of Vienna’s efforts to encourage the use of bicycles, it reduced car parking to 50% of the usual requirement (one spot per apartment), replacing it with more attractive and transparent bike storage rooms on the ground floor, a bike repair centre, and large elevators for tenants who want to take their bicycles up to their apartments. Situated… next to a subway station and the city’s bike network.”

MoV Das Wiener Modell

The best transportation plan is a good land use plan and this one does well by putting places that people want to visit close at hand. This obviously reduces car use but apparently they still need underground parking.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This picture makes it clearer that the external wall is merely a facade enclosing more conventional buildings

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This is about Seestadt Aspern one of the newest developments – I think you can read the bit about public transportation without me copying the text. Let me know if this doesn’t work on your phone.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Looks a bit grim to me – sort of Cuban – but maybe it will be better once it’s finished and populated

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Apparently most people here (93%) favoured the Vienna approach until there was a debate which turned quite a few against it (video). But there was still a 81% favourable!

The most frequent mode of discussion in the main stream seems to focus around markets – supply and demand – amid much frustration that simply building more doesn’t affect demand when there is a seemingly limitless amount of money available to buy real estate as an investment (as opposed to somewhere to live). Lost in this is the history of Canada has something of a leader in housing provision – back when we still believed that government can sometimes do things right. Public housing provision does and can make sense. But I do think that having a split between planners who do housing and planners who do transportation will simply repeat the same errors once again – the dangerous “projects” (US), the soulless “council estates” (UK) . So mixed use – not poverty ghettos – and lots of amenities within easy reach – as well as jobs and homes next to each other. A bit like cities were before planning – but without the health hazards!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 6:43 pm

What if we took transit out of politics

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The article in the Globe and Mail (paywalled – sorry!) actually is entitled “What if we took transit out of the hands of politicians?” And looks at the sorry record of the Greater Toronto Area in the hands of Ontario politicians at both municipal and provincial level. It is hard to disagree that they have not covered themselves in glory and seem to be putting short term political advantage ahead of sensible planning. And actually the key event is not really “transit” as it is a proposal to build intercity high speed rail between Toronto and London, passing through Kitchener-Waterloo. Something already announced more than once.

I am not going to get into why this is indeed nonsense on stilts, but I am going to turn my attention to this bit down at the end of the article.

Public transit doesn’t have to be run by a private business. But it has to be run by an organization that operates like a business, responding to market demand – actual customers – not political demands.

And that is wrong on more than one ground too. It is only because the article is the usual right wing, business is best, mainstream media obsession that the quote starts as it does. Privatisation of public transport – urban transit and passenger bus and rail services – has been a dreadful failure in Britain. As has been pointed out here more than once, it actually now attracts much more subsidy than it did when publicly owned and operated. Complaints about service are legion, but the companies that run trains and buses for profits have generally made out like bandits. When those companies have failed, and the service taken back into public control, it has always improved

But in the case of urban transit in a rapidly growing region “responding to market demand” is also a recipe for certain failure. And that stems from the myopia that separates out building new transportation from planning urban growth. Land use and transportation are inextricably locked together – but Tony Keller doesn’t mention land use once. This lack of understanding is also why we should mistrust the federal Infrastructure Bank – if its ludicrously high interest rate costs were not enough reason already.

Transit expansion should not wait for market demand – it should lead it and shape it. Especially if the project requires large up front capital investments in buying new rights of way and building massive infrastructure. You have to build these things where people are thin on the ground, if you are to be allowed to start at all, because once they are opened you want to attract development. Building in already densely populated areas – like New York’s Second Avenue subway – is hideously expensive, and the cause of much complaint from the existing residents. The huge interstate freeway system was built between cities, on greenfields, first before tackling the much more contentious inner city areas. The result was, of course, urban sprawl and much disruption of established communities. Doing transit right in major cities requires expertise in “the art of insertion” as the Parisian tramway planners say.

If we had built the SkyTrain through the TriCities before they developed, the trains would have run empty for the first few years, but the style of  development would have been very different. Transit oriented development is actually not at all new and untried – it is what was built before car ownership was widespread. It is only because North American development defaults to the low density car-oriented urban pattern that transit struggles. Before Henry Ford, most streetcar and interurban service was privately owned – and its promoters were usually real estate developers.

Because everything about the suburbs depends on subsidies transit has to be subsidized, which is why some form of political control is essential. It also has to be recognised that most of the benefits of not being car oriented come from things that the private sector has a hard time monetising. Or the people suffer terribly when they succeed.  People who use transit, cycle or walk for most of their trips are both happier and healthier. People who feel forced to spend far too much of their day stuck in traffic in their cars are both unhealthier and frustrated. Drive until you qualify for a mortgage is actually a deal with the devil. The combined cost of living – travel plus accommodation – is actually higher for low density car oriented suburbs – but the lower house prices (and tax treatment of mortgages in places like the US and UK) seem to continue to attract buyers.

While we have done quite well in producing a greater variety of housing stock, we have not done nearly as well in providing the necessary mobility services. This is partly, once again, because we have relied on politicians. And sadly the supposedly “progressive” NDP wasn’t actually that much different to the evil BC Liberals. The Millennium Line for a long time wasn’t as useful as the whole T shaped arrangement we have now (due to the long overdue Evergreen extension)  but at least it was capable of expansion. Unlike the deliberately underbuilt Canada Line.

The next steps to be taken here – and in Greater Toronto – inevitably will involve politicians since huge amounts of money need to be spent. And they would be well advised to avoid the pitfalls of P3s and go with public sector investments, that are designed to support rather than confuse the necessary land use arrangements. In this region we once had such an integrated and use and transportation plan: it was deliberately scuttled by the BC Liberal Party as a way of paying off the people who provided them with the money to run successful elections. Obviously we need to get the big money out of provincial politics. Obviously we need a better way of electing politicians. We also need to have system of urban and regional planning that integrates development of land use and transportation systems. Their operation can indeed be left to the professionals BUT wherever public money is used there has to be accountability. That requires openness, honesty and a commitment to listening. Indirectly elected municipal politicians cannot be expected to do this well at a regional level.

UPDATE Toronto Star on a political boondoggle on GO Transit Sept 18, 2017

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dense

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Vancouver Aerial

This is a photograph of Vancouver’s downtown, which in recent years has become – in terms of urban development – one of the densest parts of the region. This was the result of a set of inter-related planning decisions, to allow for towers, closely spaced, and mainly for residential use. This was a departure from the way other places kept downtowns for other, non-residential uses. This has allowed for much greater choices in terms of how people get to and from work – and other activities. In most modern cities, built since World War II, the plan has been to allow for most use of cars, which has created large swathes of low density suburbs. Traditionally, prior to motorised transport, cities were designed to allow for most trips to be completed by walking. Railways and streetcars allowed things to be spaced out a bit more, but the greatest impact was the use of the personal automobile. Most North American cities are now turning away from this pattern of development and rediscovering the benefits of urbanity. (Most European cities made that choice much sooner – to retain the amenities and cultural significance of their central areas. ) Not just better energy efficiency, and cleaner air – though both are worthwhile improvements – but in greater interaction between people. More sociability, greater opportunities to meet other people – more culture, more entertainment, more choices of where to go and what to do.  Indeed the pursuit of higher densities remains a central plank of urban and regional planning – the subject matter of most of this blog – made possible by increasing the choices of transport open to residents. More trips that can be made without needing a car, by walking, cycling and public transport. That produces happier, healthier places. It doesn’t just protect the environment it increases economic activity.

Note too that one important lesson of developing a dense urban core is that green spaces – that’s Stanley Park in the foreground – can be successfully protected and made available for many more people to enjoy, rather than the large areas that get fenced off to keep people out in low density suburbs and exurbs.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2017 at 9:26 pm

Granville Island 2040: Phase 3

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I went to the “Open House” on the Granville Island 2040 plan this afternoon. This was not an open house format in any sense I would use. There were three longish identical presentations during the day with an opportunity to ask questions or make comments at the end of each. A few display boards were in the Revue Stage Lobby – so this one was the leftmost of the icons in the image above “Draft Directions”. Apart from these boards, there were no materials being distributed nor is there very much on the Granville Island web page. It may be that the presentation may be made available there later as there was a tv camera pointed at the presenters. I did not stay for the comments and questions.

The theatre was by no means full: I estimate around 70 people were present and I do not include staff or presenters in that number.

The presentation was made by Darryl Condon of the architecture company HMCA retained by CMHC. While there were several others at the two top tables, on the stage, facing the audience none of them gave formal presentations but were available to answer the comments and questions.

I am not going to simply report all of what the presentation covered as I expect that the draft plan will be available in due course. The vision of that plan will include the idea that GI is a “zone of public possibility” which will acknowledge both its history and the collective creative potential of its users. The principles governing the development include

  • public good has priority over market forces
  • an increase in diversity of users
  • social and environmental resilience
  • a place to learn and be challenged

There are others too.

Among the ten key goals are #6. Pop up culture (currently the Island’s offerings are very static) #7. Reduce the dominance of private cars

Strategies

As you might expect I was most interested in what is being termed CarLite. Access is a critical issue, and reducing car use depends on increasing the availability of alternatives. Currently 1/4 of the Island is roadway or parking. There are 980 parking spaces on east side and 300 on the west (Granville Bridge being the middle). There is a declining use of cars to get to GI (increases in walking, cycling and use of ferries were reported in an earlier post) The aim is to make the west side car free, while maintaining access for deliveries, people with disabilities and drop off and pick up of passengers. This is expected to produce more vitality and activity. Many places have already made significant progress in prioritizing pedestrians e.g. The Rocks, Sydney; DUMBO and Times Square, New York. It is also intended to increase the amount of nighttime activity following the examples of Amsterdam (which has a Night Mayor) and Brixton which has a Night Market.

I want to intervene here to point out that despite the commitment to increasing inclusiveness, there was no mention of the very successful Richmond Night Markets.

It was also noted that the present arrangements allow little access to the water, and a number of suggestions were offered as to how to increase this including sales from boats or places to “dip your toes in” False Creek. The Public Market will be expanded to be more than a building: it will become a precinct with open air stalls, food trucks and the like. There is also a commitment to make greater use of the many “in between spaces”. With the reduction of car park spaces, there will be a greater opportunity of large flexible spaces and mixed use.

The two most important pieces from my perspective were what is now being called Alder Bay Bridge

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The display map in the lobby was nothing like the present proposal, which is now designed as both a curve, landing further north west and not crossing at the narrowest point. This will allow for use by pedestrians and cyclists, protect the “sanctity of the green space” and link to an enhanced path along the northern edge of the island.  Examples of curved bridges as art pieces with sculptural quality were shown but not identified.

Frank Ducote photo

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Frank Ducote photo

Two alternatives were shown for an elevator connection to Granville Bridge. The bridge now carries 6 bus routes, with an effective average 2 minute wait time for a bus between GI and downtown, but getting to GI now is actually not that easy. So an elevator to midspan bus stops makes obvious sense. What makes much less sense is the City proposal of a median “greenway” on the bridge. Any pedestrian would, I think, prefer a view of the water and the scenery rather than of lots of traffic. (One idea I have seen that was not shown is a walking deck beneath the car deck.) An elevator to a median bus stop would require structural alterations to the bridge. So if there were two elevators, one for each direction of bus service, they could be built outboard of the structure. They might even be temporary initially as a proof of concept, but more elaborately could include a wider sidewalk and bumpout bus stops – again my thoughts not what was shown.
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This was also in the lobby but not mentioned in the presentation.

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This survey was for people who had attended the presentations, and will not be on line for long. But CMHC is encouraging further input

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Thanks to Frank Ducote for the pictures taken of the presentation

UPDATE May 24, 2016

The final report is now available as a pdf file. The elevator is in but only one and to the median of the bridge – assuming the City goes ahead with its middle of the road greenway. The new pedestrian/ bike bridge on the eastern with its seductive curve is also retained: a straight bridge would be a lot cheaper but would bring more through movement to an area current Island workers want kept quiet. Except for shows and concerts, outside of working hours.  The Olympic Line gets a nod but is left up to the City. There is quite a bit about the need to generate revenue and no expectation of more federal funds.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 3, 2016 at 6:08 pm

Granville Island 2040

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Granville Island

Photo by Alyson Hurt on Flickr 

I went this morning to a workshop called “Getting to and Moving Through Granville Island”. It is part of Granville Island 2040, “a planning initiative that will set out a comprehensive direction and dynamic vision for the island’s future” organised by CMHC and Granville Island. The session, facilitated by Bunt & Associates, collaboratively reviewed current infrastructure, mobility services and travel patterns as well as seeking ideas and opinions on critical transportation elements for the Island’s future. It was a group of about 20 “stakeholders” which included local residents’ associations, City of Vancouver staff, Translink, both of the ferry companies, the local business association, BEST, Modacity and Ocean concrete.

There had been a meeting the previous day dealing with land use, and there will be many more opportunities for people who are interested to get involved. You can even Instagram your idea with the hashtag #GI2040 – which I have already done. But there’s a lot more to this idea that I want to write about.

First of all I think it is very unfortunate that the process separates out transportation and land use, since I am convinced that these must be considered together: they are two sides of the same coin. Secondly the process centres around the vision for what people want to see by in 2040, and then there will be thought about how to achieve that. I think it is immediately apparent that CMHC has its own process for deciding how to replace Emily Carr University when it relocates to False Creek Flats. This long term vision has to assume that it sorted out, and that CMHC has achieved its own objective of seeing increased levels of activity on the Island.

The workshop started with a presentation by Bunt & Associates of some recent transportation data they have collected last month, compared to data collected on the same days in August 2005. I did not take notes, thinking that there might be a handout or perhaps material on the website. So I am forced to summarise the findings without any of the figures in front of me. There has been an increase in the number of people going to the Island, but a drop in the number of cars. The increases come from increased use of the ferries, pedestrians and cycling. They conducted cordon counts between noon and 6pm midweek and a Saturday and a very limited interview survey, to help identify where people came from, how many were in the group and how much they spent. Car occupancy has increased. The Island is now also on the itinerary of the Hop-on/Hop-off service which wasn’t the case ten years ago.

There were some very obvious weaknesses in the data. For instance, transit passengers were only counted at the cordon when they got off the #50 bus. It is my observation that many people walking into Granville Island have come from the bus stops at the southern end of Granville Bridge. While some of that “multi-mode” travel is apparent from the interview survey, it is not like a trip diary. There were also no counts in the evenings, when the use of Granville Island shifts considerably to the theatres and destination restaurants like Bridges and Sandbar.

There were the usual workshop activities of putting sticky notes on maps and talking in breakout groups, and some of the common ground was apparent early on. Reuse of the abandoned Historic Railway to connect to the mostly empty parking lots and Olympic Village station, for instance. By 2040 that may even extend to the tram envisioned for the Arbutus Corridor, and even if that can’t be achieved by then, the Greenway linkage to the Seawall was a favourite too. Currently while pedestrians and bikes have a few options, vehicles have only one, and I am relieved to report that no-one thought there should be more. In fact the traffic count shows that the current four lane access is excessive, and could be replaced by two lanes with the space better utilised by dedicated bike lanes, wider sidewalks and possibly a tram line.

The idea I want to examine in a bit more detail was popular with the transportation people, but might have some resistance from the “Islanders” i.e. the people who work there everyday. But I will get to that later.

Google Earth image

The need for a pedestrian bridge

There is a 50 meter channel between the east end of the island and the separated pedestrian and bike paths of the seawall. There is very little boat traffic into the pocket of False Creek: the main exception being people in kayaks and dragon boats using the docks south of the Community Centre.

My first thought was that the almost useless Canoe Bridge at the other end of False Creek could be relocated.

Canoe Bridge

But it is both too short (only 40 meters) and has that really ugly support in the middle. I also dislike the fact that the entrances onto the bridge are narrower than the middle, which seems to me to be utterly pointless. I also wonder about the flat underside, and whether an arched bridge might be better both operationally – for boats given rising sea levels – and aesthetically. My inspiration is from one of the newest bridges in Venice, Ponte Della Costituzione also known as Calatrava Bridge after its designer.

Ponte Della Costituzione

This is much too big for our location – 80 meter span and up to 17.7 meters wide in places. But you must admit it is very beautiful: in fact it well illustrates my dictum about a lot of architecture – it looks pretty but it doesn’t work very well. It has a lot of steps, some of them very steep, which makes it a barrier to people on bicycles (intentionally) and people with disabilities.

Actually bicycles aren’t permitted anywhere in Venice, but although this bridge might present a challenge, evidently not enough of a challenge, hence the presence of the local plod.

Ponte Della Costituzione

No, I don’t know how often they have to be there, but they did have quite a few folks to talk too while I was there.

The lack of accessibility meant that as an afterthought a suspended gondola was added

Ponte Della Costituzione

and, unsurprisingly, was out of order at the time of our visit. Wikipedia notes “The official budget for the project was €6.7 million, but actual costs have escalated significantly.”

However, I am pretty sure that someone can come up with a better design of a bridge for the 50m gap, and a way of ensuring that it is not a cycle freeway, but a gentle stroll for pedestrians. The reason is not that I am anti-cyclist, merely tired of the constant aggravation of the “shared space” on the seawall, which the City is now dealing with. It is also essential to the mandate of Granville Island 2040 that none of the Island becomes a through route to anywhere. One of the reasons that mixed use and shared space has worked so well here is that the Island is the destination. It is an exercise then in placemaking, not making through movement faster or more convenient. Indeed unlike so many places in Vancouver which now advertise “this site may have an antiloitering device in place” we must come up with lots of ideas to implement loitering devices – things to encourage people to linger. Or as Brent Toderian likes to call them “sticky places”.

There is one such place now at what would become the landing place of the new bridge. Ron Basford Park is one of the few quiet places on the Island, where people who work there seek peace: somewhere to have a picnic lunch or breastfeed their babies. It is the end of the Island and there is a footpath around its perimeter. I think it is quite possible to design the end of the proposed pedestrian bridge to ensure that this peace is preserved. If the bridge is used as way to get people on bicycles on and off the Island more quickly, there will be considerable conflicts at both ends. But Ron Basford park is also home to amphitheatres: there are concerts and all kinds of activities at other times.  So the Granville Island management is going to have to display some pretty nifty consultation expertise here.

Granville Island is a unique place. It seems to defy all reason and logic, but it undeniably is very successful as a destination, and whatever happens will need to preserve as much of the place’s eccentricity as possible. Or even enhance it.

As Dale Bracewell remarked at the end of the session, Granville Island actually needs several transportation plans for different times of day, days of the week and times of the year. In the summer, the Island attracts at least half of its users from the rest of Canada and other countries – people who probably only visit the Island once. In the winter, the Island – and its market in particular – is the place that most people in the vicinity rely on for groceries. As the residents’ association rep pointed out, they are the people who keep the market going in the winter. There will be further traffic counts later on in the year, to measure the different pattern that emerges when tourists are a less significant part of the mix. And, of course, there will need to be some reflection of what happens once the University leaves: there are around a thousand students now, plus staff and support workers.

There were some hints about how the land use will change. The buildings underneath the bridge, currently used as parkades, are likely to be repurposed. The area at the west end of the Island, currently where there is free parking for the Public Market, will likely see reuse that better utilises its location. But all of this depends on getting more viable choices for transit. So the other really important idea is the installation of elevators up to the bridge deck with new bus stops. Sadly, the City is still wedded to the notion of a centre median greenway – which is utterly daft. The reason people walk over the bridge is the view. No-one is going to want to walk a long way across the Island and the creek with no view other than four lanes of fast moving cars!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm