There is a shift in the conversation about the rights of pedestrians and cyclists to travel comfortably, conveniently and safely on Metro Vancouver streets. This discussion has been highlighted internationally in the media and you can take a look at almost any historic street photo from the early 20th century and see a surprising truth~in the early 1900’s pedestrians and bikes mingled and crossed streets, with vehicles either interspersed or travelling a slow enough speed to allow for such passage.
While in the early 20th century cities and streets were still being designed as if pedestrians and not cars shopped there, streets then morphed into emphasizing automobile movement and motordom efficiency. Getting places faster was always  from a vehicle driver’s perspective, not that of pedestrian.
The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume describes it this way: Streets have also become the forgotten element in our efforts to create a livable city. In Toronto, the focus is on parks, housing, towers and transit; streets are left to fend for themselves. At the same time, however, streets are under more pressure than ever as the historic dominance of the car is challenged by other groups, namely cyclists and pedestrians. The car has wreaked untold damage on our streets as well as our cities. Its needs are at odds with those of the urban environment. Cars are quick. Cities are slow. Cars want highways, fast roads that run as straight as possible with as few interruptions as possible. City roads, by contrast, must accommodate not just vehicular traffic but the activity that unfolds along its edges, the shops, restaurants, museums, malls, schools, cafes, courts . . .”
Hume also notes that there are no “Great Streets” in newer towns and cities. The art of street building has been lost in the bid to champion accessibility of the car.  Matthew Fleischer of the Los Angeles Times notes that in Los Angeles pedestrian collisions have doubled in two years with a 58 per cent increase of fatalities. Efforts to slow traffic down, change design and driver behaviour have resulted in “political backlash” to City Council whenever pedestrian safety is improved. As Fleischer observes “the rising body count seems to indicate that pedestrian safety falls somewhere between tree trimming and gum removal on their priorities list.”
Economic studies clearly show that designing streets for walkers and bikers increases the retail success of  businesses on commercial streets. Instead of looking at walking, biking and vehicular traffic as pieces that need to be protected from each other, more integrated approaches are needed to holistically design for all modes, to get back to the early 20th century concept of street. One of the most important urban design elements in the 21st century will be the design of streets that capture the sociability, health, and connectivity of streets from a pedestrian and cyclist perspective. Allan Jacobs started this conversation in his book Great Streets looking at the components that made these streets successful, welcoming, and sticky for pedestrians. Wresting control of our own great streets  from motordom will be this century’s challenge.


  1. I agree completely with this post. Our streets are engineered, not designed. The priority, even with a few years now of negative headlines regarding bike lanes and road lane closures, is still with cars.
    Here on Price Tags there is a great emphasis placed on bike infrastructure, and rightly so. But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that human mobility is first and foremost about walking, and sociability is about staying in one meaningful place for a while with others. In that regard, we are still horribly deficient as a city.

    1. For the vast majority, sociability is about GETTING to one meaningful place with others, regardless of mode. By your metric, the doorman at 7-11 has the highest quality of interaction.

  2. At the beginning of last century there were a lot fewer cars. To make great streets or even “complete streets” we need to get car volumes down to what they were a hundred years ago in urban areas – and then grow those urban areas. Great streets should be everywhere. They shouldn’t be an anomaly. They shouldn’t be a tourist attraction.
    If we really want great streets where humans dominate we need to get way more serious about getting MV traffic way way down, not just the modest improvements we’ve seen in Vancouver. We need more car-free streets for which Vancouver is a backwater. “Complete streets” should be for those roads where car free is just not practical, not the other way around – a nice little bon-bon tossed to us by motordom.
    Let’s get more progressive and aggressive. Let’s start with opening up Water Street (and its tributaries), Dunsmuir, Robson, Hornby to humans with only the most essential time-limited deliveries. Don’t accept that our new pedestrian paradise should be stuffed into back alleys while cars continue to dominate the main streets.
    I really wonder if the idea of “complete streets” and livening our decrepit alleys is a little scheme dreamed up by automakers who see a lethal threat if they don’t give humans something just a weeny bit better.

  3. There were posts about “stroads” a few years back (in a negative sense), and now the buzz word is “complete streets” (now in a positive sense).
    Both seem to try to morph streets into being all things to all people – i.e. trying to serve all users.
    Personally, I don’t think that works.
    There is a hierarchy of streets:
    Slow neighbourhood residential streets for local traffic. You don’t want big trucks rumbling down these streets – they belong on the long haul routes.
    Feeder streets and arterials. These ones try to serve all users in a limited capacity.
    Highways and freeways for long haul travel and goods movement. You don’t want kids playing on these streets – they should be on the neighbourhood streets.
    But things change over time.
    Look at Kingsway.
    It was originally the highway between Vancouver and New Westminster.
    Then gradually, over time, its role changed as the cities built up around it.
    As it became increasingly in efficient at long haul travel, an alternate route was built (Hwy 401 (now Hwy 1).
    The same could be said of many of the current arterials, such a King George Highway, parts of Lougheed Highway and Fraser Highway.
    They started out their lives as highways and have been “downgraded” following replacement with other facilities that serve the long haul traffic.
    But what happens to the major arterials when you don’t have a replacement facility?
    That’s probably the question that Vancouver is facing.
    The one saving grace is that there isn’t much through traffic through Vancouver and distances within the City are relatively compact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *