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On Broadway

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SFU City Programme “Designing Broadway” Monday, May 30, 7 – 9 pm, SFU at Harbour Centre

Broadway, extending across almost the entire city, is not only an important street for walking, living, shopping and work but is also one of Vancouver’s busiest transit corridors.  How can we make it better?

Allan Jacobs, former Director of City Planning for San Francisco and author of Great Streets, and Elizabeth Macdonald, Professor of Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley, will speak to best practices in street design and provide advice on the design of Broadway and how it could be a ‘Really Good’ Street, if not a ‘Great Street.’

In his introduction Gordon Price mentioned that the evening was sponsored by the City of Vancouver, in the same way that they had sponsored the recent presentation on the viaducts

I have quoted the SFU blurb above since the two introductory speakers were not on the programme. The value of these contributions is, I think, debatable but the effect was that they both took up time that would normally have been available for discussion. By 9pm I had to leave – and a lot of people decided to go before that.  So I did not get all the discussion points

City Engineer Peter Judd
Spoke about the City’s Transportation plan update. The original targets of the last plan were said to be optimistic but they were exceeded early on. Both jobs and population in the City are trending up, but both automobile use and miles driven are trending down. These trends are due to land use changes. Transportation planning has to be done in the context of land use, transit and economic  development. We live in a time of change. “Today’s kids” have a different set of values fort hem transportation is not all about owning a car. The City is now consulting about what the vision of the future should be –

Broadway is the second highest concentration of jobs in the region. There is a distinct change in the nature of the street at Arbutus divide. East of Arbutus traffic flows are heavier – 30,000 at Cambie  (Knight is 40,000)  six lanes wide – and Broadway is also the only continuous truck route north of 41st. There is heavy transit use 100,000 passengers per day which is similar to the Canada Line and double the Millennium Line. He also noted that the  expectations of Canada Line use were quickly exceeded. There is a significant amount of demand for transit that cannot currently be expressed due to capacity constraints of the system. Eats of Arbutus it is a long way to cross the street and there are only limited opportunities for amenities such as public art or street seating.

West of Arbutus, Broadway is very different. There are awnings over the sidewalk  and it is seen to be a place to have your business. There are the same number of transit trips but only  20 to 25,000 vehicle trips per day.

In recent years the number of cars entering the city declined 5% (downtown 20%). In the past 15 years of growth has been accommodated on walk, bike and cycle, and New York is similar. We have been able to support a rate of economic growth that could not otherwise have been accommodated by automobile.

Heading West On Broadway In Vancouver

Heading West On Broadway In Vancouver by Arlene Gee on flickr

On Central Broadway the mode split is more similar to the rest of the region. 21% of trips are on transit but improvements to transit are the most essential as there are currently more than 2,000 pass-ups at peak hour. If we had the same mode split on Broadway as downtown the automobile volumes would fall. It would then be entirely doable to have parking on street, with bus bulges, sidewalk widening and all the rest. Rapid Transit would make that possible – and make it a better street.

Lance Berelowitz – is currently working for the City as a consultant to update policies for the Central Broadway area. He read from the City’s Terms of Reference for his work and it mentions Great Street, a vibrant public realm, and community consultation later this year. the study has a 30 year horizon and a policy decision is expected in 2012.

Broadway is both extraordinary and very vexing. It is unique: it is the only continuous east west route across the City and into Burnaby (where it is called Lougheed Highway) and is wider at 99′ than most arterials (not the 66′ typical of Vancouver). It is the  pre-eminent east west corridor, with significant buildings along it and its intersections with all the north south routes are important nodes. The opportunity of rapid transit of some kind is that it will “take the heat off an over-subscribed piece of real estate”. What Broadway might look like with rapid transit is currently what Translink is studying. “If you get rapid transit underground, you no longer need the B Line.” Therefore it is possible to re-engineer the street to attract more people, and better buildings. Public realm is underwhelming. Its lack of attraction stems from the absence of street trees. The linden trees in Kitsilano west of MacDonald, saved by public protest shows that substantial trees can survive on Broadway . The built form is spotty at best. The buildings are  old and tired and many are only 1 or 2 stories high. This is simply not high enough relative to the great width of the street.

Allan Jacobs and Elizabeth McDonald – Cityworks

On Broadway – a possible future Great Street

We can take more lessons from you than you can learn from us – you are doing so well.  “They talk about Great Streets but they never give any damn dimensions.” We measure streets: for instance  – how far is it between doorways? On Queen Street in Toronto they are 16′ apart. We also count people as well as cars.

Broadway is many streets over its length – but it is not a great walking street. Ultimately we believe it will be the main street of the city.

Central Broadway  [I need to point out here that he mainly showed many pictures, and it will take me some time to research and find illustrations. He relied heavily on people seeing what he was talking about rather than explaining it.]

There are some common physical and designable characteristics of great streets. The first is that they are places where people to walk with some leisure –  a street in Rome, Queen St TO, Robson St, Davie St were all given as examples. On Strøget in Copenhagen they counted a pedestrian flow of 16 people per metre per minute. The greatest flow is found on Avenida Florida in Buenos Aires at  24 – which is probably the maximum. They noted also that people were strolling back and forth – they were not necessarily travelling through the street, but enjoying it.

“Be cautious about standards – I challenge them all the time”

The best streets are comfortable: he showed a picture of a street in San Francisco where the wind [vortex] created by tall buildings blew people over. We need physical comfort – shade when its hot, sun when its cool – and that is the role of [deciduous] trees.

Autumn On Broadway, 2005

Autumn On Broadway, 2005 by Kurrs on flickr

The best streets are defined by a sense of place, they have boundaries. The ancients understood this and had a rule that the building height had to be at least half the width of the street. He showed Brooklyn brownstones at 4 storeys which do that. “If the buildings don’t do it, trees can.”

Transparency – the ability to see and know by sight what it is behind is what gives definition to the street, and creates a feeling of safety. You don’t get it with the Nieman Marcus store in San Francisco [picture of blank wall] whereas Macy’s on Union Square invites you in. Glass doesn’t always do it – black glass creates Darth Vader buildings:[you think] “nothing good can be happening in there!” But he also showed a narrow alley in Venice with high walls on both sides where trees and branches were visible over the top of the walls – this also creates a sense of comfort, knowing that there is a garden there

Buildings that are complementary – not all the same. Princes St Edinburgh

Quality and maintenance – a control on fly bill posters, clean windows,

Qualities that engage the eyes – cornices “ins and outs” – which creates shadow lines that attract the eyes – the eyes have to move

Trees give you the greatest bang for the buck. Ideally at  15 -35 ft spacing – and come to the corners – do not be deterred by the claimed need for clear sight lines for car drivers at corners

  • many buildings rather than few
  • marked beginnings and endings
  • places along the way – he illustrated this with a small square that the people took over – “mini parks” often no more than one or two parking spots taken over
  • density
  • special design features – fountains in Nuremberg

Elizabeth MacDonald spoke about Balanced Streets

Balance is needed between

  • different types of movement
  • movement and in place
  • hardscape and greenscape

There are many competing interests: success is when no-one gets everything but everyone gets a lot,  and the public realm serves all interests.

We can get balance between modes at either the street level or at a city-wide level. Not all streets need be the same but no streets should be sacrificed to fast movement. Some streets should be for transit, bikes or walking

She illustrated this by showing the various Amsterdam transport networks.  One example was the IJBurg “linear tramway district”. They chose not to give vehicles priority.

Portland OR is well balanced downtown because all the streets have a narrow right of way with short blocks that limit streets. they have also introduced curbless shared streets – Teachers Park

She showed a Paris shopping street with mixed traffic where pedestrians outnumber cars. There are movable bollards that only residents and local businesses can open – and they drive at walking pace.

Textures are used in Copenhagen to define car, pedestrian and bike areas. “Everybody young and old rides bikes because they feel so safe”
The new cycle track on Hornby Street achieves the dame thing with hardscape. There are a few aesthetic issues but it is a great idea and safer than an on- street bike lane.

San Francisco is  reducing lane widths, and removing parking and turning pavement into parks. They have created street parks in former parking places. Because they were deemed temporary they were easy to do:  then they become permanent as people show they like them and use them.
In The Castro there are curved streetcar tracks through a park taken from the street – the curve limits the speed of the streetcars in any event.
They have made a number of commercial streets better with the use of narrow medians with planting

Portland green streets – stormwater runoff issue – vegetative swales

Comprehensive rebalancing – SF Better Streets plan – common framework –

Rebalancing big streets

International Blvd Oakland CA 100′ row – 72′ roadway – but is also the neighbourhood shopping street
Fruitvale BART station – moved surface parking to create transit village – traffic calming – new plaza – centre median – pedestrian refuge and slows down traffic but appropriate for neighborhood

Octavia Blvd SF – removal of freeway at Market Street – Hayes Valley –
133′ wide – rebuild frontage – in some places lots less than 15′ deep – could be student housing or other temporary things. Narrow side access roads with a mountable curb to meet the demands of the fire department. A pedestrian realm created in the median
Park at end of street – Patricia’s Green – named after a local activist on freeway removal

Pacific Blvd Vancouver – a key policy in the city Transportation plan was to keep current capacity: that meant that on Pacific the City engineers identified excess roadway. There were to be three different lengths: two outer parts with “one-sided multiway boulevards” and a central area where 122′ of asphalt was replaced by two 25′ roadways, a parking lane “flex zone” and central median with trees. There was also to be a bus lane and 16′ side access roads to keep speeds down. [I was there recently and simply did not recognize any of these features – so I have changed the tense of what I wrote.She must have been talking about what they proposed not what was built.]


busy broadway

Busy Broadway by Boris Mann on flickr

In its current state its is “snaggle tooth, haphazard, trees don’t add up to anything, too narrow sidewalks”. It is a bad pedestrian realm overall but some bus stops have been made better with wider sidewalks due to greater set backs of the buildings.

“It can’t be everything”


[Question inaudible] Tomorrow there will be a design charette with city staff

Pedestrian realm should incorporate porous surfaces to deal better with surface water issues

Q: Viable street trees

A: There are lots of ways – importance of not letting the budget be cut

Q: Broadway bike route is on 10th – transit is the key – if we don’t have direction on [the type of] Rapid Transit [surface or underground] we can’t do design

A: Agreed – we will look at both alternatives – going underground frees up the right of way for other uses – and it gets people excited about the possibilities

Q:  Why don’t we build cheap housing for students at UBC to reduce need for travel?

[Celia Brauer hit the nail on the head with that one. It is the land use at UBC that’s screwed up – lots of housing but only at market prices and hardly any for students. There was, of course, no response]

Q:  Bikes – helmet rule – Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t need them.

A – depends on speed of moving vehicles but at 25mph it becomes lethal – it depends on the degree of separation of bikes from cars

Q: very concerned about seniors in wheelchairs, scooters

A concerned about paving and curb cuts


There was further discussion after 9pm – hopefully some of those who stayed might fill that in as comments. Gordon Price was asking about trucks as I left.

My reaction was that while we looked at a lot of places that have either been well designed or managed to develop as civilised places (i.e. they kept the cars under control and allowed people to use the pubic realm) there was not much that emerged about what could or should happen on Broadway, simply because the rapid transit question remains unresolved.

While writing this I learned that the Evergreen Line has been put off once again. And, of course, that is the first priority for rapid transit in this region. Vancouver is quite right to point out how bad things are on Broadway. The problem that I see is that it is much worse everywhere else in the region, and we are currently busy pointing fingers between levels of government. Having totally hobbled municipal government, the province has the chutzpah to blame them for every delay. And all the talk about new sources of revenue seems to be just that. Talk, not action.

The last time I heard talk of Great Streets here, the context was No 3 Road. There, the overhead ALRT guideway seems to guarantee failure. Though the height limit on buildings doesn’t help. It is still a place I avoid as much as possible. Something I learned when I came to Richmond, and has yet to be disproved. You certainly do not see anyone walking at some leisure there!

Broadway, Vancouver

Broadway, Vancouver by Sarah@Liverpool on flickr

Written by Stephen Rees

May 31, 2011 at 11:14 am

B.C. drinking-driving deaths cut in half

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The CBC reports today:  “Deaths from impaired driving in B.C. have been cut in half since new drinking-driving regulations took effect last fall”
This is very good news indeed. The coverage of the new regulations at the time they were brought in, and subsequently, seem to be negative. There was a lot of uncertainty about how much you could drink safely – so most people, it was suggested, stopped going out and restaurants were hit hard. There was, it was conceded, the impact of the HST might also have had something to do with that. The campaigners at Mothers Against Drunk Driving have shown how effective a pressure group can be – and ought to be pleased with these results.

On the same day George Monbiot deals with the related UK story of photo-radar – or “speed cameras” as they are called there.

The experiment is over and the results are in. In April, Thames Valley police switched Oxfordshire’s speed cameras back on. They had been off for eight months, as a result of the government’s decision to cut the road safety grant. Then the police began assessing the damage. In the 31 days before the cameras were switched off (July 2010), the machines caught 2,286 speeding motorists. In the 30 days after they were switched back on, they caught 5,917.

In the eight months without cameras, there were 18 deaths on the roads in Oxfordshire, compared with 12 in the same period in the previous year. This was the first time in four years that the number of deaths on the county’s roads had risen. Serious injuries rose from 160 to 179.

When Gordon Campbell was first elected he cancelled the highly unpopular photo radar program here. That was a bit different to the UK system which uses fixed cameras: in BC there were vans parked at the side of the road, and while in theory they could go anywhere in practice they showed up at sites which – according to the critics – produced the most revenue. Those opposed to photo radar here and there have always concentrated on the “cash grab” argument. Which, as Monbiot points out, has been consistently disproved – but the facts that don’t suit the opponents

 journalists and others have promulgated a powerful and dangerous myth: that speed cameras are useless, and exist only to tax the public.

We now have a new premier who has promised change. I would like to suggest that rather than attacking ICBC (which has been providing good value car insurance, and profits, and has pioneered road safety features like modern roundabouts) she turn her attention to speeding and the toll that has on road users. For speed and collision severity are not just strongly correlated, we also understand the physics of collisions. The greater the speed, the greater the energy that has to be absorbed in a  collision, and the greater the damage to people who are not inside steel cages.

On drinking and  driving “… there are 23 people in British Columbia that are alive today because of the new policies and new penalties,” Penner said in Victoria late Thursday.” I wonder what the story would be if the same attention were paid to excess speed. I think that speeding is an offence that occurs far more often than drink driving – because nearly everybody seems to do it most of the time. And nearly all of it goes undetected, simply because we do not have anything like the resources to deal with it. I find the method of enforcement of our drink driving law oppressive: everyone passing a road check gets stopped and questioned. There is no presumption of innocence and now much less “due process” but we seem to have accepted that the saving of lives justifies this intrusion on our right to go about our business without interference until suspicion falls on us. Unlike speeding, there is no lobby that actually suggests that drink driving should be encouraged – though there are plenty of people who have – they say – taken an economic hit due to stricter laws and tighter enforcement. But most drivers believe that they are better than average, and that the design speed of roads (and, of course cars) is much higher than the posted speed. Indeed, on the Sea to Sky Highway – and the Patullo Bridge, come to that – it was not that the road was inherently dangerous, but that drivers refused to obey the posted speed limit no matter what the conditions.

My suspicion is that if we used the current red light cameras to photograph speeders as well – something they can easily do – we would see a significant change in behaviour. Most obvious the current belief that “green means go, yellow means go faster”. Fixed cameras at the highest collision sites would be the next step – and average speed cameras on sections of road that have no intersections – bridges would be my first choice. The Oak Street bridge has a posted speed of 60 km/hr. Most drivers treat it as part of the freeway (it isn’t) and excess speed across it is common. Indeed, once released from the line up prior to 70th and Oak, the green light southbound there seems to be seen as a starting gun. Average speed cameras do not use radar: we use similar equipment here all the time to measure flows through intersections by comparing license plates on vehicles entering and leaving an intersection. The same technology using two cameras at a known distance apart and synchronized to the same time produces incontrovertible evidence that the vehicle covered it at excessive speed. The only argument, of course, is who was driving it at the time.

The latest data from ICBC is 2007 “The number and rate of deaths in speed-related collisions has fluctuated over the RSV 2010 period with no clear trend in more recent years. However, the increasing trend observed from 1999 to 2002 has not continued.” I cannot help but feel that trend might have had something to do with the ending of photo radar.

My reading of that is that 160 people died in collisions “involving speed” . In that same year alcohol was the cause of 120 deaths. It seems to me that there is a greater case for effective speed enforcement on this statistic alone. Although maybe I should talk to Vicky Gabereau about why the statistics page at the ICBC website seems to be so far out of date.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Road safety

Tagged with ,

Bicycle Diaries: Episode Four

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I was going to use the title “Who is Arthur Laing, and why does he hate cyclists so much?” but that would not be fair.

I was out yesterday trying out my newly modified bike. I went over the Canada Line bridge because that gave me an incline to try. The ramp is quite steep and the granny gears ought to have been useful. Well they might have been if the shifter had been set up properly: the bike is back in the shop this morning. The new front suspension is also amazingly noisy.

As reported before, the north end of the new bike bridge is not well connected to the network. In fact, on the bike route map all three bridge heads have that red circle denoting “zone of caution” (see below). Heather is the on street bike route but Kent is also marked as “neighbourhood street”. Either way you eventually have to deal with South West Marine Drive a “major street with shared lane” to come back over the Arthur Laing bridge. That was much less scary than I thought it would be – the grade is gentler than the bike bridge!

On Marine Drive a truck tried to wipe me against the side of a parked truck – I know he saw me since I saw his face in his mirror – and I will not forget that expression. He had plenty of room to move left but decided to move right. I was able to stop in time. By curious coincidence the Guardian this morning has a piece entitled “What’s the best way to keep cyclists safe from the monsters of the road“?

The message needs repeating as often as possible, but there must be a better way to avert the danger posed by lorries

Actually my problem was not with me riding on the inside of an eighteen-wheeler, but being overtaken by a four-wheeler –  a full-sized truck not a panel van.

Unlike the “look out for each other” campaign (top), this ad has nothing to tell the men in the cabs.

But the mindset that says bikes should not be on the road – even roads which are wide and have marked “shared lanes” (even if the lane is blocked by a parked truck) – is what I see all the time as the problem. Many drivers move over to get cyclists space: indeed that is about all the marked (unprotected) bike lane is supposed to do. And as we have seen the City of Vancouver recognizes more protection is needed  in order to encourage more cycling, when the simple presence of a “critical mass” raises motorist awareness of cyclists, even if it cannot do very much to get through the attitude that cyclists “need to be given a scare”.

Women on bikes in cities are in the vanguard of improving transportation, and arguably the whole urban environment, just by being there.

And that thought is also seen today in the Daily Beast – that more women are cycling

Cyclistas on the Arthur Laing

The traffic is keeping well to the left – but there happens not to be a truck is sight. The tricky bit is using the ramp up from the east side of the bridge (as well as getting to the ramp from the curb lane of Marine Drive): there is a “gore” with a curb you can put your foot on while you wait for a gap in the flow. But gaps are few are far between since the last traffic light is way back at Granville and traffic has been merging in from the industrial area on the north bank of the Fraser (Milton Street) and from UBC on SW Marine. The grade over the bridge is notably gentler than that used for the ramps on each side of the Canada Line Bridge. But there is still a switchback.

On Sea Island there are off street paved paths but a considerable duplication of distance – and a further loop back under the new Canada Line Middle Arm bridge – then a bit of street which seems to have no other purpose which dead ends in a “banjo” with a little gap through the barrier for the path which comes out near the Delta Hotel  under the swing bridge. This all seems to fall under the authority of YVR, and probably satisfies the recreational cyclists who like to get to Iona Beach and the long flat stretches of Grauer and Ferguson roads. But is seems to me that it doesn’t really look like commuters – for instance the people who work at YVR or go to school at the new BCIT campus – or work in the offices along Cessna drive were really considered.

Cycle routes near the bridges

The purple line on the map seems to suggest that you might be able to somehow get underneath the offramp from the bridge and ride “wrong way” on the Middle Arm bridge ramp but that is not the case so far as I could see. Some of those black bridge markings seem to have been omitted from the map – for example look at those crossings of the Canada line. The map  is available as a pdf from Translink. And, so far as I can see there is still no off street paved route eastbound connecting Great Canadian Way to the “Canada Line SkyBridge”.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

All revved up with no place to go

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Andrew Clark calls himself “Road Sage” – meaning he is a motoring columnist at the Globe and Mail. He follows the tradition of Jeremy Clarkson: nothing matters to him except cars – preferably fast cars. His piece on Friday was inspired by the story of a 19 year old, given a BMW M5S who wrote ““What’s the point of buying an M5,” he wrote, “to drive as a daily driver and feeling like u are 70 years old?” Except he didn’t buy it, and he went on to admit to driving at 140 km/hr in a residential area – for which he was successfully prosecuted. Clark mentions three reasons why that might be a good thing (“put aside” safety) but then says “I have to admit that “Vlad Max” was onto something”.

No, he wasn’t. There is no compelling reason why anyone needs to drive at more than 110 km/hr. The fact that the Germans still have autobahns with only advisory limits simply reflects the political clout of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche – and the fact that German politicians and others enjoy these status symbols too. Not that it is a Good Idea. Unsurprisingly, Clark ignores the main reason why speed limits get imposed. Not safety – even though collision severities increase with speed. Fuel consumption – which also increases (geometrically at high speeds) is the main reason. The US introduced a nationwide 55mph limit in response to the 1970s oil crisis. The fact that also lead to a reduction in deaths and severe injuries was a bonus – but not nearly enough to keep the limit at 55, once the immediate crisis of gasoline supplies was passed. A lot of attention was paid to air quality – especially in California, which other places needed to follow so that folk could breathe – but not much to fuel efficiency. Wasting fuel was one of the main things that got tackled once emissions standards were raised, since more effective combustion reduces tail pipe emissions – but most of that gain was devoted to higher performance, and hauling around ever bigger, more luxurious personal vehicles – many of which were light trucks to try and get around Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

Clark simply ignores the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It is the most pressing need in the world: the current floods in Pakistan being an indication of what global warming means to human beings, given that we clearly do not give a stuff about charismatic megafauna like polar bears.

What North America needs is a system like Germany’s Autobahn.

No mention of course of how that would be paid for. Taxes – or tolls? Not a hint. Just bad puns. OK, I will accept that it is a silly season story. And I do recognize that cars as objects are both interesting and indeed desirable. A lot of design effort – and marketing savvy – has gone into making cars as objects cultural icons. Just last night I was watching Hilary Kay going all gooey about an Aston Martin DB5 – one that was used in the early Bond films. (The original James Bond – in the book – drove a red label Bentley.) I am determined to get to the Steamworks Concours d’Elegance this year  – not least for the delightful people who love to show off and talk about their beloved cars.

1928 Bugatti Type 44 Roadster Vancouver BC 2006_0902

There is a real car culture – and for many the point of owning a car that goes far beyond “a daily driver” – and I do not expect anyone aged 19 to fully comprehend that. Apparently males do not fully mature until they are 25.

The fact that someone who writes about cars can ignore greenhouse gases is not surprising either. He depends for his living on the automotive industry – and as that Carjacked piece goes on about at some length, most of that requires the public to be persuaded not just to buy personal transportation – but to spend far more than is sensible, far too often to keep the whole system going. We have not yet abandoned the idea of economic growth, though we OECD countries clearly passed the practical limits of that some years ago. And that requires planned obsolescence – something the automotive industry invented. We could have cars that lasted much longer, or that could be upgraded like many PCs by parts replacement. Except that even there we mostly don’t.

What North America actually needs is more railways – especially electric railways – and ones that allow passenger trains priority over freight. This well known, existing technology can be implemented effectively, and will be much quicker than any  other plausible route to reducing internal air travel and quite a lot of driving of IC vehicles. The current US program for High Speed Rail is a very small step in the right direction. Not that Canada is even thinking about anything similar. BC of course is only spending money on more and faster roads. And one reason advanced for that is the pressure from people who influence the BC Liberals that it was necessary for them to drive faster on the Sea to SkyHighway. NOT that the road was unsafe: it wasn’t. It was just that there was no effective enforcement of the speed limit. Of course photo radar was unpopular – but that does not mean that it was a bad idea. Quite the opposite in fact, even in the incompetent way it was implemented in BC.

But you can bet that many people will pick up the idea that we need more and faster roads. After all that fits into what they have been sold. And also fits into the currently dominant denial that we face imminent annihilation if we do not change direction now.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2010 at 10:12 am

Urban sprawl no fun for kids

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Laura Stone in the Vancouver Sun on two reports from the Vanier Institute of the Family.  The Sun of course does not provide a link to either of the reports or the institute so I have saved you the Google search.

Neither, it seems to me, says anything very new or surprising.

“We have built cities that actively discourage walking and biking among children, certainly when we compare the experiences of today’s children and those of their parents,” writes Juan Torres, an urban planner and professor at the University of Montreal, in his study titled Children & Cities: Planning to Grow Together.

It also actively discourages walking and biking in the population as whole. We have known for a long time that this has had serious health effects – but I understand that Larry Frank is doing even more research on that. Obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are all directly caused by lack of physical activity and are strongly correlated to suburbs. I took the picture below yesterday when I went for a walk to post a letter. This is not within one of the dendritic pattern subdivisions but on a main artery – No 4 Road.

No 4 Road sidewalk

No 4 Road sidewalk

There is a sidewalk on the other side of the road – but no crosswalk. You are expected to go back to Steveston Highway, cross at the lights and then retrace your steps. I, of course, jaywalk. Which is one reason why we worry about our children. Do as I say not as I do. Crossing the street is taking your life in your hands.

A second report, Caution! Kids at Play?, written by psychology student Belinda Boekhoven from Carleton University in Ottawa, finds that a decline in unstructured playtime and outdoor space in cities, also related to urbanization, can affect a child’s self-motivation and self-reliance.

The report is essentially a summary of lots of other studies. It does not, it seems to me, deal with why parents now feel they must supervise their children’s activities at every step – or have some responsible adult do it for  them. Partly it is the very realistic fear that children are at risk when walking and cycling of being struck by moving motor vehicles.

For the past 30 years unintentional injuries have been the leading cause of childhood mortality among children. The rate in Canada is among the highest in the developed world. …Motor vehicle injuries lead the list of injury deaths at all ages during childhood and adolescence.  source: A review of risk factors for child pedestrian injuries

What I heard at work when this issue was discussed was that while this factor is the statistically significant one, the one that is still high in parents’ minds is “stranger danger” or the “Michael Dunahee effect”. Child abductions by strangers are very rare events but they are also very prominent in media reports. It is a fear that is also successfully exploited by Hollywood. Taken together, the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the dispersed distribution of all facilities due to land use policies and the real and, possibly exaggerated,  fears of parents are the real threats to children.


A study published in the October 2009 ITE Journal reports on survey results in Hillsborough County, Florida among both parents and children on factors that prevent walking or biking to school. “Violence or crime” was reported as a factor by 42% of parents but only 5% of children.

The question is not so much what do we do about this – after all, as I said at the top, none of this is news and safe routes to school and walking school buses and all the rest have been around for years. The real question is what does it take for us to do something really effective about all of this and bring about real change. I can see why the seemingly remote possibilities of climate change disaster seem less pressing than the “need” to stimulate economic growth. But when it is our own children that are threatened, why is it that these problems continue and are not effectively addressed?


Thanks to regular reader and sometimes commenter Richard Campbell I am now aware of the blog of a mother who is trying to tackle this issue. Its called “Free Range Kids”. She was labelled “America’s worst Mom” because she allowed her 9 year old son to ride the subway on his own.

Incidentally if you want to know what a day in the life of a transportation planner doing pedestrian studies looks like, head on over to the Unemployment Roadshow.

October 2009 was “International Walk to School Month

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

“Use your head: Bike helmet laws don’t work”

with 26 comments

Useful reminder

Brad Killburn in the Richmond News presents some intriguing information about how helmet laws got through the legislature.

The article is full of useful data – but sadly none of it is properly cited or referenced, so I have not been able to identify his sources or check them for myself. It does indeed seem likely that cycle helmets do very little to reduce fatalities of cyclists involved in collisions with motor vehicles. The bike hemet is after all mostly a thin plastic shell on styrofoam.

He refers to a study that was cited when the legislation was being debated

what the honourable members did not know was that it was collisions with motor vehicles that caused virtually 100 per cent of the cycling deaths, and that the study used to show reduction of head injury did not include a single collision with a motor vehicle, or any involving cycling adults for that matter, but merely simple falls by children from their bicycles.

I think he should have identified the study sufficiently to help his readers follow up if they wished to. I have heard many people argue that helmets save lives – including former Vancouver Councillor Dr Fred Bass. I have equally heard a lot from advocates who say that helmets simply convey the message that cycling is dangerous, but do little to reduce its risks, and that cyclist fatalities will start to fall when more dedicated cycling facilities are provided. The ticketing of cyclists without helmets is an especially controversial practice, given the lack of evidence that it actually does any good at all.

I thought that I would at least raise it here in case any of you know of these studies and can provide URLs in your comments

Written by Stephen Rees

September 16, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling, Road safety

Tagged with

Cars vs Cyclists

with 9 comments

This post is prompted by two articles on the vexed issue of cars and cyclists trying to co-exist on the same roadway.

The first is in and makes the point – unhelpfully – by stating the obvious “When cars and cyclists clash, cars always win”. The car is bigger, heavier and its driver is much better protected than the cyclist. So in a collision the cyclist gets hurt worse. That doesn’t mean the car “wins” – nor does might make right. While there are some drivers who hate cyclists and think they should not be on the road, there are even more drivers who care about other people, and cyclists themselves – who would rather have a safer place to be than most of our roads as presently designed and used.

Some of the citycaucus piece describes first hand experience – in Toronto but that hardly matters since most places in North America are the same in this respect – but also refers to the Michael Bryant incident. And concludes

If any good is to come from the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard it’s that Toronto will get serious about cycling safety.

I think that is unlikely. That is because Bryant is now asserting his innocence, and as CBC tv last night pointed out, it is all about how the PR people handle the incident – not the incident itself. For if the cyclist can be seen as an aggressive attacker and Bryant merely trying to defend himself, then the incident takes on a whole different meaning. As that comment I linked to above by Kelly McParland says, bike lanes had nothing to do with it.

Which brings me to the second article from Seattle which reiterates a point I have made more than once here. Sharrows are a sham solution for bike lanes. They do not actually mean anything or change anything.

Perhaps the ultimate word on sharrows comes from the City of Seattle’s own website, which today answers the question “What do sharrows mean for motorists and bicyclists?” with this damning bit of faint praise: “Motorists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows… Bicyclists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows.”

Exactly the point — so why waste the paint?

The reason the paint is there is because it is cheap and easy to do – and gives the appearance of doing something. It enables the city to claim that it has increased cycling facilities when it reality it has done nothing of the sort. In fact it is like most paint on the roads – and the signs and other clutter that engineers have been adding steadily over the years. They are almost completely ineffective in achieving their stated objectives as, over time, everyone simply becomes less aware of them. Even the one line that people do pay attention to – the one that shows the middle of the road and what side you are supposed to be on – gets ignored as soon as there is an obstruction that people want to get around.  Indeed that is where the whole idea of “naked streets” comes from.

If we are going to continue to allow cars to dominate our lives – and our urban spaces – then separate bike routes are really an essential component simply because of the reality that road space that is not shared is not safe for cyclists – or pedestrians for that matter. But that also accepts the notion that cars now have the greatest share of the trips and therefore must be given the greatest share of the space. It is this shift from the descriptive to the normative that is the error. The situation that we now find ourselves is not only not one that should be continued it is also one that is not desirable either. It suited car makers – and other corporate concerns that make money out of car use – to convince us that having and using cars would make us happy, that it would produce a growing economy and improve general well being. But any objective assessment of what near universal car ownership has brought us throws a much different light on what still appears to be conventional  wisdom. Even if we only look at the casualty rates of collisions and ignore all the other social and environmental impacts.

Yes I want to see much safer streets for all users. But I also want to see the spaces in between the buildings used effectively for  a much wider range of activities – and not just for moving some people through as quickly as possible. We have accepted the argument that speed is good – and thus higher speeds better – uncritically for far too long.  Since cars are not going to vanish overnight, and there will be many people striving to come up with better cars that are safer and have lower environmental impacts, we need to come up with strategies that civilize car drivers – that is make them more aware of their impacts on the rest of us. And that does not mean painted symbols on roads, or bigger stop signs. It means drivers having to accept that in a crowded place they need to give way every so often to other road users.

For far too long we have tried to keep the roads free for fast moving traffic. That has not worked, and now we need to do something different. There is no one size fits all solution and we should be very wary of anyone who proposes seemingly simple solutions  to complex problems. Just like building freeways does not solve traffic congestion, building bikeways does not eliminate all conflicts between vulnerable and protected road users. We need a better understanding of how people interact – and the shared street experiments provide a lot of useful data – but also a more determined approach that sees streets as part of a complex urban ecology. Better design will be part of it, but so will better behaviour. And we will also need to wary of adapting the physical structure of places to take account of the exceptional circumstances when one or two individuals behave very badly indeed.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 3, 2009 at 10:14 am

Do distracted drivers bother you?

with 4 comments

I have lost count of the number of times recently I have had to take avoiding action because of the behaviour of other drivers. Some of it of course is simply because of aggressive driving – the sort of people who overtake on the wrong side, cut in front of the line at the last moment or simply ignore signals. But increasing is it noticeable that the offending driver is holding a cell phone – and often gesticulating with the other hand. People who talk on the phone behave as though the person on the other end of the call can see them. This is bizarre  behaviour even when not driving.

Kash Heed, the new Solicitor General, and former police officer seems ready to do something. There is a consultation process that started yesterday and runs until August 7.

The Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles (OSMV) recently conducted an extensive review of distracted driving research. The link to the full distracted driving discussion paper can be found below. The following is a summary of some of the research in this paper:

  • Evidence shows that driver distraction, of all types, is associated with approximately 25 per cent of crashes and results in a significant cost to society in terms of tragic loss of life, serious injuries and resulting monetary costs. Activities such as talking on a cell phone and manipulating electronic devices require significant amounts of attention being diverted away from driving tasks.
  • In both simulated and real driving environments, the use of electronic devices has been shown to result in crashes and near misses. Drivers fail to process approximately 50 per cent of the visual information in their driving environment when they are using electronic communication devices. Evidence also concludes that there is no difference between the level of driver distraction associated with hands-free and hand-held cell phone use.
  • Talking to a passenger in the vehicle versus talking to someone through electronic means does not cause the same level of distraction. Reasons for the difference include: the passenger is aware of the driving situation; the passenger can serve as an additional look-out for hazards; the passenger can adjust speech, tone and conversation to the driving environment; and cell phone conversations suppress brain activity necessary for attention to perceptual input.
  • There is no evidence that listening to the radio or a book on tape degrades driving performance.
  • If you want to you can download the whole discussion paper or you can respond to the following discussion questions

    1. Do you think government should pass additional laws restricting the use of electronic devices while driving, or should emphasis be placed on increased public education and awareness and the enforcement of existing laws governing driver distraction (e.g. “Driving Without Due Care and Attention”)?
    2. Which electronic devices should be considered under this framework?
    3. Should hands-free devices be treated the same or differently as hand-held devices?
    4. What would be the appropriate penalties for drivers disobeying such a law (e.g. failure to wear a seatbelt is a fine of $167)?
    5. Should any proposed laws apply to all drivers, or only specific categories of drivers (i.e., new drivers)?
    6. Should exemptions be provided to any class of drivers (i.e., emergency responders, professional drivers, etc.)

    You can submit your responses to the form on line, mail or fax.

    It seems to me that the current arrangement is not doing enough –  as 117 people die each year in B.C., and another 1,400 are hospitalized, from traffic crashes linked to distractions such as the use of cell phones or MP3 players while driving. But distractions are nothing new – and will continue even if new legislation is introduced. I interviewed OPP officers as part of a study I did back when cell phones were rare and the size of a house brick. They had a long list of things people did while driving just before collisions including eating and drinking (of course) smoking – it is the by product that’s the problem – spilling hot coffee in the lap and setting hair or a beard on fire being somewhat more distracting than struggling to open the plastic rap on a gas station sandwich. Applying make up and changing a pair of tights while driving at high speed on the 401 seemed to be pretty frequent in accident reports too.

    “Without due car and attention” it seemed to me at the time should have resulted in charges more often, but traffic cops are often reluctant to go to court. Especially when the offender had self incriminated themselves in their reports of what happened  after the officer arrived on the scene. It is that old problem of the officer not actually observing the behaviour.

    I also think that ICBC should take a stand on this kind of claim and take contributory negligence into account. Especially when the other driver does not even put the phone down when you are trying to get their insurance details from them!

    I hope that you will take the time to let  Kash know your thoughts – and I will stop trying to tell you how you should answer!

    Written by Stephen Rees

    July 1, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Posted in Road safety

    Tagged with ,

    Active Transportation in Portland

    with 7 comments

    Portland, Oregon Mayor Sam Adams 

    SFU City Program at UBC Robson Square April 24, 2009


    “We share a lot of aspirations with Vancouver” and  “we try to steal your best ideas”. He was sworn in on January 1 this year and has a 100 day agenda. There is also a Portland Plan for the next 25 years which is based on “20 minute neighborhoods” connected by green multimodal corridors. He is working hard to ensure that you won’t need a car if you visit. They have been given many awards not least for their urban growth boundary (UGB). The city has 6 watersheds and while it is one of most livable cities in the US, all 6 watersheds get a failing grade

    Portland has long had a robust definition of the common good – you cannot do as you like on your own land – and they have worked hard to protect farm and forest land. In the 1970s concern for those areas established UGB. The have the nations strongest land use laws and they have used them to  protect single family home neighborhoods.


    It begins with the premise that they do not try to make Americans feel guilty for driving a car. By creating a  livable neighborhood the idea is that you should be be able to get what you need and want within a 20 minute walk or bike ride from your home. Much of the city was built around the streetcar with plenty of corner grocery stores without parking. He feels that the  key to the 20 minute neighborhood is to make sure that the corner is rentable at reasonable rate so that prices are fair and commensurate with big box store across town. he feels that subsidizing such stores would be the best transportation investment that we might make. “Most of our trips are about procuring stuff.” Commuting is only about 30% of the trips made. Neighborhoods will be connected by light rail and streetcar. the City spent $125m for 8 miles of streetcar with no federal funding. It was paid fro from a combination of  on street parking and garage fees as well as “tax increment” money. “Best investment we have ever made.” Within 3 blocks of the streetcar tracks we had a big invetsment in property. Ridership increased 100% sinc 1989. “Development oriented transit.” The Tram (an aerial cableway) was very expensive  but necessary to promote development of an unused area.


    Portland Tram

    Portland Tram


    Portland has the highest percentage of trips by bike in US – about 5% city wide – 12% in core – exponential growth of use of bikeways – will spend $24m on 110 miles of bike boulevards (i.e. a quiet street parallel to the arterial). “We are Liberal and we are progressive” but  on a survey of street users  bikes were lowest as was freight on the public’s priority list. For most people the highest priority was to fix two bridges. A subsequent survey showed that people who drive cars are scared they might hit a cyclist and people who ride bikes want to avoid mixing with cars. Bikes are a high priority for the Mayor. 20,000 people come out every year for the annual “bridge pedal” a program which closes the major bridges to all but cyclists for one Sunday. It is a “shameless promo”. They also have a TravelSmart trip options program based on Australian experience [Perth WA] program, which he described as a “Concierge” service.

    “High Praise on a Low Standard”. They have not had a federal government that prioritized these programs. But they need to be humble as i word terms they ae not so far adavanced. They were the first US city to establish a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have not only reduced  – per capita emissions but also and reduced total emissions to below 1% below 1990 levels. By building complete neighborhoods and working hard to provide affordable housing they aim to to go for an 80% reduction by 2050.

    He put up a slide with 8 action areas – but it was not on the screen for long enough for me to copy it  

    In 2003 household expenditure on transportation took up 19.1% of the average  US family budget. In Portland it was just 15.1%.

    “I can save you money and make you more competitive ” is a more persuasive sales pitch to those who have yet to buy in to doing the right thing for ideological reasons. This regionwide reduction in what we spend – $800m less than avge city on cars – makes Portland’s economy more resilient since it is mostly spent locally. Car based cities see most of their expenditures go to other places which make cars or produce oil.

    The message to voters is that Portlanders can have a better life than they have right now. That’s what we work on – satisfaction – quality of life.


    Q & A

    US Federal “Green stimulus” funds – how does the city tap in to the new federal program?

    We will get about $2m on energy efficiency projects. We are not spending on City buildings. This is one time money. We using it as seed capital with the local utility companies. Consumers can pay off a loan as part of their utility bill – for homes over 20 years – and this loan is “inheritable” (i.e. it passes to the new owner on sale). the idea is to prove the concept with 500 homes. Residents can increase the energy efficiency of the home with credit up front. [Investment in  new windows or insulation] will produce savings for most homeowners. The program does not apply to high rise towers yet. They teed to show that they have a business model that works.


    Bike box

    Bike box

    Bike boxes

    So far they are not quite a year in but injuries and deaths from “right hook” collisions at stop lines have been greatly reduced. This was the  No 1 issue for bike safety and was based on designs developed in London. Basically a bright green box is painted at the intersection and cars have to stop behind it. The bike lane through the intersection is also green. So far they have seen very impressive resulkts – no deaths and much reduction in injuries. But he warned that you can’t put them everywhere and you need to pick high volume intersections.

    Volunteer projects

    “Portland is better together” is a web site and a call centre. It means there is just one number to make it easy for people to volunteer. The staff match up volunteers with projects: for example, when they close off streets they use volunteers to do the  monitoring> he added parenthetically that in future they will also give universities “real projects” to do. Apparently academics do not always chose research projects which have practical application.

    “What do you put in the water to power these initiatives?”

    “Larry Frank is a wonk. He likes data. We have a high percentage of wonks: they are self selecting. We get 85% voter turnout snce in Portland you can vote by mail over 3 weeks. Make numbers understandable to folks. People who don’t like bikes will spend more to get bikes out of the way. Meet people where they are at.” It is not enough to appeal to the enthusiasts you have got to get the other 40%. “Be responsive,  stick with it.” Portland has a progressive business community who not just concerned about the bottom line but the key needs of the community.

    Do you get push back from less forward thinking officials?

    We get lots of push back. In fact we seek it out, research it and test it. For instance the traffic enineers complained we spent too much on bikes but in fact it was only 1.5% of the budget. But bikes had a 5% mode share . It thus produces the best rate of return. “Nothing comes close. Get the facts. The cheapest fastest and best trip is by bike.” The big question now is  the trip not taken and how to count that? It is much harder to document trip reduction strategies.

    What do you need from regional plan and how does the City contribute to the region?

    Some people wanted to expand the RGB. We have been working with other communities to convince them that we have only a finite amount to spend and it gets spread thinner if the boundary is expanded. We want to get them to embrace density and complete communities. We provide technical assistance based in or own experience.

    [I was unable to hear the question]

    The success of downtown has been that it is possible to drive to one place, leave the car there and then get around the entire area. This has been a competitive advantage. The  “fareless square” now needs to be expanded as they want to build downtown on both sides of he river but there is a  harsh budget reality to set off the inequity of the present system.

    Bogota has street closures every Sunday. You close eight bridges 1 day a year. Have you thought of doing that?

    I will let you deal with the church goers. It’s a big cost once a year. We are now closing big swaths of streets in neighborhoods. We are also closing commercial streets one day a month. there is initial resistance but when sales go up resistance stalls. We are  now expanding but not to bridges – we will do it in the centers.

    You mention that the Tram was 4 times over budget. Were there any other initiatives that were worth re-examining?

    A streetcar line needs to consider cycles as well. We failed there in some locations and need to do future corridor plans up front. We need to get them [tram, bike, pedestrians, trucks] all in the room together.

    Programs for homeless

    We have a 10 year plan to end homelessness and we are now 3 years in. Around 500 formerly “chronically homeless” people  are now in permanent housing. Basically we told the community “you will pay one way or another”.  We dropped the “clean up your act” requirement: it is not necessary for the homeless to be clean and sober before they are housed. We are now building a resource access centre which an includes outreach component – go where people are sleeping – do not wait for them to come to you.

    In Vancouver we talk about a 5 minute walk from bus stop – not a 20 minute walk

    We do not see the real interest from private sector investors when we talk about buses. We do see development with LRT but only at the stations. You need streetcars to get investment between the stations. A  streetcar stops every 2 blocks.  20 minutes assumes every single family home will be within 20 mins of everything and the aim is to drive down the 2/3 of trips that are not for work. The  20 min walk and bike ride areas are different sizes which allows for variation depending on the local physical  geography – for examples hilly areas.

    Freight – elephant in the room

    Portland developed a freight master plan that delineates freight routes. Homeowners on those routes were none too pleased, but it had to be done. In is view the US needs “to get railways back up and running”.  It was uncomfortable on arterials but freight is an additional compliction but has to be considered in planning

    Freight needs

    Portland has now got High Speed Rail designation from the federal government but it is a source of frustration that they cannot get the railroads [to do more to take trucks off the roads] We have to spend [public funds] on private land to get access to rail for freight traffic. 

    Loss of parking 

    We get a very positive response when we take out parking spots for bike racks. Share the road attitude perceived as safer. We can’t build enough bike corrals

    Trip to school

    We have a “Safe routes to school” program and we hire people to work in schools. They work with the kids to get them excited about walking or cycling to school. They’re willing. At  elementary schools they fund bike riding programs and they are only limited by lack of resources.

    Closure of lane on bridge 1991-5 for cycles

    There was an assertive effort for bike lanes on the street. There was a lot of push back and the world did not end. The impact on neighborhood businesses on taking out parking has had mixed results.

    Our Mayor has promise to make vancouver the  “greenest city”.  Can you suggest priorities?

    You are the poster city for so much of N America

    (High opraise for low standrad)

    Guard against the specialist expertise. We need to look at what Portlanders want – consumer analysis. If you look at what each person in a household wants you can identify  options they will act on.

    We had a real success with the  rail streetcar.

    Your regional governance decision making model could be improved.  We have an independent, regionally elected government which holds us accountable. This is something you cannot achieve with mayors sitting around a table.

    How do you attract jobs?

    Streetcar works for us – we now build streetcars and sell them all over the place. You have the opportunity to market your green services – professional services – but too often forget to market within North America.


    Portland Streetcar

    Portland Street at the University stop

    Written by Stephen Rees

    April 24, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Intersection cameras to target bad drivers in B.C

    with one comment

    Vancouver Sun

    This week’s Friday afternoon announcement is not very significant. The old film cameras at red lights are going to be replaced by digital. There are currently only 30 cameras and 120 locations, but there will be 140 in future.

    Of course this is not going to happen quickly or before the election and will still concentrate on intersections. Not speeding. And while crashes at intersections are important, excessive speed is the thing that turns a fender bender into a major casualty. And as the cops on Highway 99 at Bridgeport Rpad this lunch time know it is pretty easy to pick up a bunch of speeders. Actually they had their radar gun on the wrong side of the road, but it is easy pickings as the freeway dimension road has a 60 limit for quite a distance south of the bridge. The other direction should have been the priority as that is a work zone – with narrow lanes and a zig-zag – so the grossly excessive speeds I noticed there were a real threat to other vehicles – and workers on the bus lane construction. A much nigher priority in my estimation. Not that the cops stayed long once the traffic radio stations noticed them.

    What are really needed in this province are average speed cameras. And the new intersection camera could indeed be set up to work like that as well, in the right places. Since the number plate is recorded and the distance between two cameras is known, and vehicle covering that distance in too short a time should be ticketed. And there should be none of the shenanigans that befuddled the courts over photo radar.

    But of course we actually do not really care about road safety or the lives that could be saved. Much better to hope no-one really notices so get the news out when they are looking elsewhere, because there is an election coming up.

    Written by Stephen Rees

    March 6, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Posted in Road safety