Is Vancouver ready for pedestrian priority streets?
[caption id="attachment_3530" align="alignleft" width="290" caption="New Road, Brighton. Photo by DeFacto (Wikipedia Commons) "]
By Ian MacPhee
Since the invention of the automobile, cities- particularly those in North America – have been designed primarily around the movement and storage of automobiles. Much has been written (Jane Jacobs, Donald Appleyard, Jan Gehl…) about the negative impacts auto-centric planning – and the resulting deterioration of public space – have had on the livability and community cohesion in our cities.
In response to the encroachment of automobiles on the city, Vancouver has done a good job of calming traffic in some neighbourhoods (particularly the West End). However, traditional traffic calming improves the quality of the streets (sidewalks are more pleasant when traffic is calmed) but does little to add to the quantity of public space (the obvious exceptions to this in Vancouver are the six West End “mini-parks” that close half of a block to vehicular traffic).
The modernist tendency to protect pedestrians by segregating them from vehicle traffic has come at the expense of both the quality and the quantity of the public realm. More recently, traffic planners and engineers have been experimenting with reintegrating pedestrians and vehicular traffic on some streets. I use the term “pedestrian priority streets” to refer to all streets that mix pedestrians with other forms of motorized and non-motorized traffic on a single shared surface with priority granted to pedestrians. The most famous examples of pedestrian priority streets are the woonerven
and more recently, some “shared space
” streets (only some “shared space” streets have a shared surface – many “shared space” streets maintain separated sidewalks for pedestrians and roadway for vehicles).
I recently completed my Master’s research in Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies program. As a component of my research project, I had the opportunity to observe two pedestrian priority streets – Strædet in Copenhagen, and New Road in Brighton. I used a combination of direct observations (to determine how people used the streets, how they negotiate right of way and the rough proportion of pedestrians, cars, delivery vehicles and cyclists) and interviews with local businesses and planning professionals to gain a better understanding of these pedestrian priority streets.
[caption id="attachment_3539" align="alignleft" width="174" caption="New Road's pubs and restaurants have made the most of the newly available public space. Trucks move carefully and respect more vulnerable road users. Photo by Ian MacPhee"]
New Road is a street in central Brighton that was redeveloped as a pedestrian priority street in 2007. The street was redeveloped to take advantage of its position between many of Brighton’s major tourist attractions and cultural institutions. A number of reasons made pedestrian priority (rather than pedestrian only) the appropriate solution – including the need for delivery access at all times of the day for the cultural institutions, maintaining accessibility for people with mobility challenges, emergency vehicle access, and the presence of a Unitarian Church that depends on on-street parking revenue for its survival.
The single shared surface of granite pavers invites pedestrians (including mothers with strollers and people in wheelchairs) into the centre of the street. The surface treatment and design of the street (rather than the few, very small signs) tell drivers to take care and gives them the feeling that they should behave on pedestrian terms. Over three days of observations, I witnessed only one incident of conflict between drivers and pedestrians. Since the redevelopment took place, New Road has seen a 93% decrease in vehicular traffic, a 22% increase in cyclists, a 162% increase in pedestrians and has become Brighton’s 4th most popular destination. The redevelopment included the installation of plentiful public seating that is well used when the weather is dry. Furthermore, sidewalk patios have taken over much of the road, inviting people to stay a while. Importantly, the redevelopment (and the process) is seen as a success by all of the local merchants that I spoke to.
[caption id="attachment_3540" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Straedet is a popular public space to walk along or to stop at one of the many patios (that all offer blankets for those who may be cold). Photo by Ian MacPhee"]
Strædet is a street in central Copenhagen that runs parallel to the more famous Strøget. It was redeveloped as a pedestrian priority street in stages between 1990 and 1992. Strædet (actually composed of 5 connected streets) was a rare and important east west vehicle route through the largely pedestrianzied city centre – particularly important for many bus routes. To preserve the unique architecture of the street, the City Engineers Office and the City Architects Office decided to calm traffic in the area by turning two streets along Strædet into pedestrian priority streets. Due to the importance of Strædet for delivery access (caused by the extensive pedestrianization in central Copenhagen), pedestrian priority was chosen over closing the street to traffic.
Like on New Road, the shared surface of concrete and granite pavers brought most pedestrians into the middle of the road. Only three incidents of conflict between pedestrian and drivers were seen in three days. The results of the redesign have been a success by most accounts. Traffic volumes have been reduced while cyclist volumes have increased. Pedestrian volumes using Strædet have risen between 37% and 194% depending on the day of the week and the time of the day. While public seating is very limited, the street’s patio café culture has flourished under the pedestrian priority scheme, making the street lively from morning until past midnight. The only downside to the redeveloped Strædet is that most of the second hand and antique shops that characterized the street prior to redevelopment are gone due to increased property values and rents.
In summary, both case study streets saw traffic calmed, and increases in both pedestrian and cycling activity. Both have seen improvements in safety with decreases in both the number and severity of collisions. Importantly, both streets have seen an increase in the number of people choosing to stop and stay a while in these improved public spaces. The pedestrian priority redevelopments of New Road and Strædet have increased the quality and quantity of public space in their respective cities without closing the streets to vehicular traffic.
Through this study, I wanted to determine the possibility of a pedestrian priority scheme for Hamilton and Mainland Streets in Yaletown. A number of possible benefits for Yaletown businesses, residents and visitors became apparent through my research. Deliveries seem to be easier on pedestrian priority streets as drivers can get as close as they need to make their deliveries – as long as they use common sense and don’t block the road (my observations in Brighton and Copenhagen found almost all delivery drivers using common sense). While some of the on-street parking would have to be removed to free up space for a pedestrian priority Yaletown, my research found no reason to believe that businesses would suffer due to reduced on-street parking – particularly with the Canada Line set to open up later this year.
Freeing up some of the on-street parking will free up more space along the cluttered eastern sidewalk making it easier to move along – particularly for those with mobility challenges. The process of redeveloping the streets of Yaletown would provide the opportunity to bring a uniform design to the street furniture in the neighbourhood. Assuming it is included in the redevelopment process, Bill Curtis Square can be made into more of a destination in its own right (with improved outlets for electricity and water, improved street furniture, wayfinding and food vendors). The adjacent part of Mainland St. could also be used for larger markets and events taking place in the square.
[caption id="attachment_3541" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Delivery trucks carefully make their way through the patios (and people) on Straedet. Photo by Ian MacPhee"]
Finally, a key lesson learned from my research is that the sceptics that think a pedestrian priority street won’t work in Vancouver should reconsider their thoughts. In neither Brighton nor Copenhagen have there been any serious injuries since the redevelopments. Fears based on worst-case scenarios (cars mowing down crowds of pedestrians) never materialized in Brighton or Copenhagen. It seems people will use common sense when given the benefit of the doubt.
Vancouver may be the ideal location for Canada’s first true pedestrian priority street. Compared to Montreal and Toronto, Vancouver drivers already show a great deal of respect to pedestrians. Furthermore, we already have quasi-pedestrian priority streets in Vancouver – most famous of which is Granville Island. Less famous is Menchion’s Mews, tucked in behind the Westin Bayshore (and parallel to the SeaWall) where cars are invited into the road but must yield to pedestrians.
Through my research, I found no reason to believe that a pedestrian priority street would be incompatible with Vancouver. It would be important for any pedestrian priority redesigns in Vancouver to have an inclusive, transparent and responsive process to ensure local residents and businesses approve of the new street and benefit from the changes. Furthermore, any pedestrian priority redesign in Vancouver should be treated as an experiment – at least until the correct “fit” for Vancouver is found. Of course, the local context must be taken into account. For example, current City of Vancouver “large sidewalk patio” bylaws require substantial barriers around patios serving alcohol. A New Road or Strædet model of pedestrian priority street may not work under existing laws. Either we must rethink the application of pedestrian priority streets for Vancouver or – dare I say it – rethink our own laws to make more lively public spaces.
Ian MacPhee has just recently completed the Master of Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. His main interests in the program were transportation, urban design and public spaces.