Jeff Olson, a retired urban designer for the City of Vancouver, submitted this “idea on the pathway to housing affordability.”  We’re pleased to post this in its entirety (lightly edited), since Price Tags welcomes considered essays on topics relevant to our readership. 
The essential feature that distinguishes the following urban development concept from current urban-design practice is the elimination of the street as we currently understand it.  This act results in the elimination of the car and truck as a dominate feature of the urban environment, along with the disappearance of surface and underground parking.
The elimination of the street allows us to treat the ground plane as a public pedestrian space upon which we can toddle, shuffle, walk, jog, run and dance or otherwise move using our feet.  Or a variety of old inventions: the little red wagon, the baby buggy, the wheel chair, and the bicycle in all its various manifestations.  Then there are all the new inventions: the power unicycle, the hoover board, the skateboard, the inline skate, the Segway, the senior’s four-wheel power scooter, and the power wheelchair, etc.
All of these inventions have common characteristics: they are tiny by car standards, generally designed for the transport of one person, with the exception of the Dutch Bicycle and the very lovely bicycle built for two.  Additionally, they can be accommodated on public transit or stuffed into elevators – an important feature of their utility.
All of these machines appeal to our basic human nature: the joy to be found in motion, an experience we know from the time of conception, one that brought gleeful smiles and cheerful giggles as our fathers joyfully tossed us in the air and caught us as infants and toddlers. Surely there is something very basic and human in these instinctive acts. We fly downhill on skis and snowboards, we fly across water on surf boards, sometimes pulled by sails or parachutes. We ride the thermals on sail planes and hang gliders and, when we reach old age, we jump out of airplanes hanging by treads for happy birthday celebrations. This is the cycle of life celebration.
The neat thing about all these wheel contrivances is that they are so humanizing. These wheelie things place people in active space with other people where courtesy matters – greetings and smiles. The bicycle is the most common and ubiquitous of all these machines: a social facilitator, a wonderful motion experience and a machine to be celebrated. Welcome to Bicycle City.

The urban design of Bicycle City begins like all urban designs begin: with a site circulation concept. In this case, however, we are going to apply a common architectural element to establish the movement framework. We want to use this idea to enable the riding of bicycles.  Let’s give it a name: The Bicycle Galleria.
Let’s give it a dimension of, say, 60-feet wide, and a height of, say, 60 feet.  Let’s enclose it with a transparent weather-proof skin. Let’s connect the lobbies of residential buildings directly to the gallery.  Let’s introduce uses along its length, uses we would typically find on a shopping street: grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and tea shops, retail shops, travel agencies, flower shops, etc. Let’s add other uses: artisanal shops, business incubators, the artists’ quarter, medical and dental services, educational services.
Let’s try to fit these uses into a 30-foot depth behind the gallery walls. Let’s make sure that we have a structure, a framework, a public galleria open 24/7 that can be filled with people, the sights, sounds and aromas of everyday life.
So now we have a structure with a theoretical width 30+60+30 = 120 feet – or the typical depth of a downtown property from street to lane. It is, however, the length that defines the nature of a gallery, so let us make an assumption for now that the gallery is a minimum of one-thousand feet long with at least one gallery entrance with-in a block or two of a Skytrain station or a rail line running frequent transit service.
We can also assume, given this length, in the order of four to five residential building lobbies on each side of the gallery. If we set a target of roughly 200 units per lobby access, then given these assumptions we have a potential for 2,000 units occupied by roughly 3,600 residents. We should think of this collection of elements and uses as one very, very big building called Bicycle City.
We also need to plan for modal integration functions near a gallery entry including:

  1. bicycle sales, repairs, rentals, parking and storage
  2. parking for all things car share,
  3. taxi stand
  4. pick-up / drop-off zone
  5. fleet of YVR style passenger shuttle carts
  6. fleet of YVR style freight trains
  7. shipping and receiving zone
  8. a waste and recycling zone.

I now turn to the application of these ideas to a real-world site: a vacant brownfield site adjacent to the Cambie Bridge and bounded by First Avenue, the Hinge Park and the seaside walkway / bikeway along the edge of False Creek. This is an amenity-rich cit-owned property located within 1,200 feet of the Olympic Village Skytrain Station and within 3,000 feet of the Main Street Skytrain Station.
This city property has sufficient site area to develop a substantial number of family- occupied ground-oriented units in a park-like setting connected to the gallery by a pedestrian / bikeway network. Note also the potential use of space under Cambie Bridge for the modal integration functions discussed above.
We now come to the question of affordability.  No matter the mix (studio, studio loft, one bedroom + den, two bedrooms, three bedrooms, even four bedrooms) and final tally after considerations of building height and scale, all of these residential units could be rental units owned by the City of Vancouver. Let’s think of these units in terms of a non-profit project developed by the city for the sole purpose of providing affordable housing. We should also note that a separate revenue stream from commercial / office uses can be utilized to further reduce rents.
Let us consider building this project because it is an idea without complication that could help thousands of citizens now struggling under the burden of high housing and transportation costs. Let’s build the city of tomorrow, Bicycle City.

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