PART 5, the conclusion, of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street.
Conclusion: Conceptualizing and Understanding Transit
This isn’t just about Robson Street. It’s actually about how transit is understood, what its purpose is, and how it creates and interacts with vibrant, pedestrian‑oriented urban spaces.
One justification for choosing to close Robson to transit might be found in the Transportation Plan’s “hierarchy of modes.” According to this, Vancouver’s priorities for moving people are:
- Taxi / Commercial Transport / Shared Vehicles
- Private Automobiles
This is a strong policy statement, but there’s a danger of applying it too glibly. There’s a need to reflect on what transit is and how it relates to other modes. The placement of transit in the middle of the hierarchy is apt. When setting targets, transit is, along with walking and cycling, a desired way to move people. But, when it comes to planning pedestrian‑friendly spaces, transit is something to be pushed away, lumped in with private autos. The statement seems to be that as many people as possible should ride transit, but it should be kept out of sight.
First, this ignores the contribution transit makes to an active and vibrant pedestrian realm. Many urbanists are quick to praise Vancouver’s urban form—a “streetcar city” with walkable linear corridors throughout the city—but dismissive of Vancouver’s current transit network, and unaware of the geometry that sustains it.
The City’s summertime street‑closure program, Viva Vancouver, for instance, claims to be about “reducing cars on city streets,” but its highest profile “activations” take place on transit streets, particularly the Granville transit mall. The fact that our best pedestrian streets are also transit streets isn’t a coincidence, but at the moment it’s treated only as an inconvenience.
But, even more importantly, understanding modes as discrete choices ignores that a major purpose of transit is—as Jarrett Walker argues in Human Transit—to accelerate the pedestrian. Transit uniquely provides personal mobility that allows travel across the entire transit network as a pedestrian, giving rise to strong pedestrian spaces across the entire city. If we close Robson Square to transit, we’re prioritizing the pedestrian experience on one block over the experience of travelling across the city as an “accelerated pedestrian.”
Vancouver is on the leading edge of an issue that many cities are going to have to confront: in dense cities moving toward sustainable mobility, hard choices have to be made about how road space is allocated. A conversation about the purpose, role and structure of public transit needs to happen very early in the process; without that, we’re pretending that conflicts can be avoided and that “careful planning” will let us achieve everything we want.
If Vancouver can’t contemplate a public square with transit running through it, then it’s limiting the effectiveness and future ridership potential of transit service through some of its densest neighbourhoods. But, more broadly, if cities, urbanists, planners, architects and others don’t understand transit, then we’ll continue to be speaking different languages. The #5 Robson will be forever circling the square, and we’ll still be trying to square the circle of how to meet ambitious targets for increased transit ridership.
This misunderstanding isn’t deliberate or malevolent; rather, it’s structural. Vancouver is a wonderful and frustrating place for transit. We have an extraordinarily integrated transportation system, but it depends on complex relationships between numerous municipalities and regional and provincial governments. Everyone supports more and better transit, but a consensus on how to plan, deliver and pay for it remains elusive.
We have strong and ambitious goals for an expanded frequent transit network but few clear paths of how to get there. Robson Street is a small piece of this bigger picture. Building transit ridership in Vancouver depends on a fast, frequent and legible transit network, and building and maintaining that network is a challenge shared by all the players who have a stake in Vancouver’s transit system.
* Bold emphases mine.
Update from the Vancouver Public Space Network on today’s Council meeting – here.
ADD-ON: Over at Urban Studies – the blog of SFU students – Andrew Jones has collected some pics of how transit can be integrated into a pedestrian space, like this one in Nice: