Architecture
July 10, 2020

Thin Streets: From Asphalt to Affordable Housing

By Christina DeMarco and Peter Ladner

Great ideas are as much about timing as content.

Remember the first attempt to block a car lane for bikes on the Burrard Bridge? If you weren’t around for that debacle, ask Gordon Price how it went. Years later, after more careful planning and community education, the lanes are in and thrive today.

Similarly, for decades, any attempt to expand the parts of the city where basement suites were legal was met with vicious opposition. Then one day in the early 2000s, city-wide legalization of suites was passed by council without a whisper of opposition.

Now, with the city more desperate than ever for new revenue and affordable housing, the monopoly of car use on so much city land being widely questioned, and gentle infill density on the rise, Thin Streets may finally have their breakthrough moment.

Is this a good use of valuable City land? The City of Vancouver has an abundance of road and lane space in their quiet residential areas.

Look at the street in the Streetview above. The equivalent of two city lots—worth, say, $1.5 million each—is being tied up to provide the luxury of a passing lane for two cars driving on that block at the same time. How often does that happen? Three, six, a dozen times a day? A two-way street isn’t even necessary. Many Vancouver streets work quite happily and safely with one lane of traffic: oncoming cars pause at the intersection until the lane is clear.

Looking at our future city through the “pandemic prism” has caused many of us to question the large amount of space unnecessarily dedicated to cars.

What if that “wasted” pavement could instead provide land at no cost for affordable housing, parks or other uses, simultaneously providing newfound revenues for a cash-strapped city, increasing pedestrian safety, and reducing traffic volumes, traffic speed, automobile collisions, asphalt maintenance costs, heat island effects, and rainwater runoff?

In Vancouver, dividing the typical little-used two-way 66 foot right-of-way in half produces two new 33-foot residential lots per block, and a narrower 33-foot right-of-way, with a 17-foot thin street, easily enough space for one-way travel, parking for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and boulevards for street trees.

The two new lots are now available for a variety of uses such as affordable housing, park space, community gardens, and daycare centres.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vancouver made duplexes a permissible use in all RS zoning districts (single-detached housing areas).  This change allows two dwelling units plus two secondary suites/ lock-off units on a conventional building lot. Narrowing the north-south street for just one block can now create twice as many housing units by creating two lots with a 33 foot frontage. The land could be sold on a long-term lease to individual owners or the City could develop the lots themselves.

Not only that, but converting wasted asphalt into leased land for housing would immediately create a new revenue stream that has the potential of raising millions of dollars a year, forever.

 

Thin Streets is an idea that has been around since the 1990s, been the subject of city council resolutions, and otherwise in the “great planning ideas” pipeline for decades. In 2012, Ted Sebastian and Christina DeMarco (right), former City of Vancouver planners, teamed up with Charles Dobson, Professor Emeritus of Emily Carr University and submitted the idea to  the City’s  “Re-think Housing” competition to help increase the amount of affordable housing. It was one of the winning ideas.

Unfortunately, at that time, as with every time this idea has been proposed for some kind of pilot project, it has failed. The killer issue is making peace with the adjacent property owners and neighbours. Without their buy-in, political pushback has been vicious. Understandably.

Equally important as making sure a proposed block is suitable – e.g. no sewer lines would be covered up — is figuring out how to make this attractive for the neighbours.

Some possibilities:

  • The City could start by coming up with some exciting design ideas for this form of ground-oriented housing.
  • The City could buy adjacent lots and then lease them and the reclaimed asphalt to a developer or individual owners to build out affordable housing.
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Shortly after the Notre-Dame de Paris fire in 2019, according to Architectural Digest, “Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition for fresh ideas for the cathedral, and designers rushed to create original renderings and post them to Instagram. They range from the tasteful and restrained, to the borderline inscrutable, to social experiments never intended to be built.”

But how can you tell the difference, especially when some unserious interventions are justified as intended to ‘start a conversation’?  (A justification used so much these days – as though the ‘conversation’ was the purpose, not the process.)

Here are four of the seven that AD found on Instagram, all from practicing architects:

After all the conversation, the decision, announced a few days ago, was this:

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We seem obsessed with bigger is better in vehicle purchases, with over 1.4 million sport utility vehicles (SUVs)  and crossovers sold in the first three months of 2018 in the United States. The SUV is a vehicle built on a truck platform, while a crossover is a unibody construction on a car platform, and is supposed to be more maneuverable and parkable. Both of these are large vehicles and are outselling sedans.

Trucks and SUVs comprise 60 percent of new vehicle purchases in the United States.  From 2009 to 2016 pedestrian deaths have risen 46 percent and are directly linked to the increase of these larger vehicles on the road.

Statistics show that SUVs with the high front end grille are twice as likely to kill pedestrians because of the high engine profile, but this information has not been well publicized. In the United States a federal initiative to include pedestrian crash survival rates into the vehicle ranking system was halted by opposing automakers.

When a SUV hits a pedestrian the vehicle hits a person’s internal organs; in a lower profile vehicle or sedan the vehicle is striking at the knees. SUVs also have more  powerful engines and SUV drivers exhibit riskier higher speed behaviours which researcher Kelcie Ralph says is an ongoing trend in North American culture.

We’ve seen cities like Berlin actively discuss banning SUVS after  a SUV driver in Berlin lost control of his vehicle and killed four people on a sidewalk, a grandmother and grandson and two twenty year old men.

Think about how radical even suggesting a municipal  ban on  SUVs  is~car manufacturers design vehicles for the safety of the occupants, not for the safety of a vulnerable road user  that might be crashed into  and killed by the vehicle. Talking about banning these killing machines is a  new way at looking at the problem and a 180 degree shift from what vehicle manufacturers have been saying for over 100 years.

The auto industry has historically maintained that vehicle drivers are not the problem, but  pedestrians are.

Look at the creation of the class laden word “jaywalker” first used in 1917 to describe  “an idiot, dull, rube, unsophisticated, poor, or simpleton”. A jaywalker described someone who was “stupid by crossing the street in an unsafe place or way, or some country person visiting the city who wasn’t used to the rules of the road”.

Today the jaywalker myth is perpetuated in “educational” campaigns that say  pedestrian distraction is a function in pedestrian deaths. Studies prove that it is not, although the focus on saying pedestrian distraction is a problem takes the onus off the real culprit~the automobile manufacturers and the vehicle drivers.

This compendium report by the New York City Department of Transportation shows that while pedestrians using a mobile device walk slower and increase their crossing time, they are still faster crossing than those walking in group or senior citizens. Instead New York City is targeting drivers’ unsafe speed or behaviours by expanding their speed camera program, undertaking street safety redesign, and installing leading pedestrian intervals.

And this research review just published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives shows that one-third of transportation planners erroneously think distracted walking is a problem and want to support pedestrian education campaigns instead of slowing speeds. The report authored by  Dr. Kelcie Ralph and  Dr. Ian Girardeau show that headphones do not impact walking and that distracted people are actually more likely to stay in the crosswalk.

Talking on the phone or texting while walking has the same impact as the perceptions of  a person over 65 crossing the street. In their review, Dr.  Ralph and Dr. Girardeau found that the people  most likely to be hit crossing the street were people that could not change their crossing speed.  There is no correlation between distracted use of the phone and deaths in studies in campus towns where cell phone use is rampant. As  Dr. Ralph states “Beware of publication bias and hype” that prefers to victim blame.

As the researchers  point out:  “Concern about distracted walking detracts attention from more deadly risk factors, more effective policy approaches, and, most importantly, is inconsistent with the ethos of making streets safe for all users,

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Gerry O’Neil is the well regarded horseman that has been offering horse drawn tours of Stanley Park for several decades. For $50.00 for an adult or $20.00 for a child you can take a one hour  tour around the park in a horse powered tram that can accommodate 26 people.

Of course Mr. O’Neil is also dealing with the current Covid Stanley Park provisions that have meant that only one lane of Park Drive is open for vehicular traffic, with the other lane dedicated for cyclists, separated by the traditional orange traffic cones.

While vehicular traffic in Stanley Park is supposed to go along Park Drive at  30 km/h per hour, it rarely is that slow as any park visitor can attest. And Mr. O’Neil’s carriage rides were for some reason dedicated to the vehicular lane as opposed to the  temporary cycling lane.  The average horse moves about 6 kilometers an hour at a walk, meaning that vehicular traffic stacked up behind Mr. O’Neil’s horse drawn trolley.

As Ben Miljure with CTV news reported Mr. ONeil is frustrated. ” As you can imagine, when you’ve got 30 0r 40 cars behind you waiting, there’s a level of stress that you’re hoping to get out of their way,”

While the one lane closure for cycling on Park Drive is temporary to alleviate overcrowding on the seawall during the pandemic, it is a surprise that the horse drawn trolleys were classified as vehicles as they have no motors. That is often the litmus test for whether a use belongs in the bike lane or not in many municipalities.

 

Take a look at Hyde Park in London where there is a generous walking lane beside a surprisingly wide bicycle lane. There the bike lane is shared with the Queen’s horses on their way to and from Buckingham Palace. Perhaps moving the horse drawn tram to the cycling lane  might be a temporary consideration during this unusual summer of short-term pandemic park modifications.

 

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Let’s just repeat these numbers from the Daily Hive:

According to Green Party commissioner Dave Demers, Park Board staff estimate visitation within Stanley Park is up by 50% since May 1, and they have counted 350,000 cyclists over the last 67-day period.  …over the same period in 2019, there were about 60,000 vehicles in Stanley Park, which is a figure that includes high-occupancy cars and tour buses.

We are now measuring cycling counts in the hundreds of thousands, rounding off to the nearest ten-thousandth.  That, for anyone who remembers the early days of cycling infrastructure, when success would be measured in the hundreds, is boggling.  And not just in Stanley Park.  Here’s Point Grey Road this weekend:

Foreshortened shots can be deceptive, but anyone who was there would have realized that the traffic counts this weekend would also be measured in the closest thousandth – more, I expect, than anyone who opposed the transformation of PGR would have imagined.  Here’s a video from the same location on July 5:  Point Grey Road on a Sunday.

And yet, this quite astonishing growth really hasn’t changed the narrative for most of the media: it’s still a bikes-versus-cars dynamic, with a presumption that cars are in the majority and have right-of-way – another repeat of the same ol,’ same ol’ since the 1990s.  Except now we have horses to throw into the mix.

Stanley Park Horse Drawn Tours owner Gerry O’Neil has been operating in the park for decades — offering tourists a way to see the sites while riding in an open carriage.

His horses and carriages, with a top speed of five km/h, must now share the one lane dedicated to vehicle traffic, and that is causing problems….

“Ideally, scrap the trial and get all the stakeholders involved so we can all have our say and take into consideration everything that’s in the park,” he said.

Let’s see: several hundred carriage passengers, several thousand drivers, tens of thousands cyclists.  Should be an easy choice.

The comfort of consultation is the notion that all needs can be met.  Sometimes that’s achievable, but more often priorities must be chosen.

If everyone and their needs are to be accommodated (this is where the ‘isms’ come in)  then Gerry is right: go back to the way Stanley Park was – two full lanes for vehicle priority.  Cars and buses can then pass his carriage safely.  Bikes can compete for the spaces in between.  Pedestrians and cyclists can crowd together again.

The pandemic forced our decision-makers to make choices.  Overnight.  With little to no consultation.  Because of the virus.

Bikes got priority.

If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t know now that the result would be cyclists measured in the hundreds of thousands.

 

 

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We have had the City of Vancouver and other municipalities develop streamlined approval processes for businesses that want to build “pandemic patios” either on adjacent rights of way or in parking spaces.

The City of North Vancouver is going one step further in paying $20,000 to convert an existing 40 foot container bought by the City for $20 into a covered respite, a mobile “parklet” intended for central Lonsdale.

As Jane Seyd in the North Shore News writes:
“The idea is to convert the container into an outside seating area with lighting and a roof that will fit into curbside parking zones. The “parklet” will provide a public place to sit for customers of businesses that can’t expand patios into the public realm, according to staff, who hope it will be in place this month.”

The concept is to provide a place for people to sit and to eat meals bought from Lonsdale businesses. The upscaled container can be transported to different parking spaces to serve different businesses, and the City may expand the project after evaluating the effectiveness of this first installation.

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The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee asks: If the Romans knew that public toilets were an essential part of urban civilization, why don’t we?

If you have ventured out of your house or apartment to take transit or go anywhere in downtown Vancouver, you’ve been thinking about where you can use a public washroom and of course if that public washroom is safe to use. Of course the issue of the availability and accessibility of public washrooms are not top of mind these days and I have been writing relentlessly that everyone needs to go.

I wrote  last month about a walk on the south shore of False Creek planned because there was a council report from 2016 saying that a $400,000 accessible washroom was going to be built in Charleson Park. Sadly, for me, it’s not there. Yet. Maybe in the future. Maybe in another four years.

Mr. Gee observes that “Public washrooms have been around since the clever Romans designed a version with holes in a bench over a channel of running water. They put them in busy public places such as markets and theatres. In Victorian England, public washrooms were palatial affairs with grand entrances, stained-glass windows and marble counters. Paris had its pissoirs, simple urinals surrounded by a barrier to provide a minimum of privacy. Montreal had camilliennes. They were named after its Depression-era mayor, Camillien Houde, who joked that building them would give the city’s jobless residents “two kinds of relief.”

The truth is that when public facilities such as libraries and community centres close down there is no substitute, and the lack of public washrooms really does impede the mobility of the population. If you need people to come back and shop in commercial areas and feel comfortable spending extended amounts of time there, you need public washrooms.

Lezlie Lowe  wrote her  book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs in 2018.  She argues for an international push to insist on clean accessible “environmentally responsible” public toilets. Somehow in the design of the North American city quick, clean access to public washrooms was seen as something to be provided by private corporations, with municipalities not taking on civic responsibilities.

Ms . Lowe is pretty blunt about it. “Planners and committee chairs sound off about the livable, walkable, healthy, age-friendly city. But, somehow, providing a comprehensive network of public bathrooms, in the way cities create spiderwebs of bus routes, parks, and playgrounds, isn’t part of that conversation.” 

There’s been an array of things tried in the public realm including the fancy Decaux  automated toilets which may be costly and challenging to maintain, and too tech forward for many users.

I have also written about Portland’s Loo which costs $90,000 USD to install and has been very popular, designed to be functional without being too comfortable.

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It was Allan Jacobs the former Director of Planning for San Francisco  who reviewed commercial streets around the world and wrote a book called “Great Streets” outlining his analysis on what made these streets extraordinary.  Allan reviewed street dimensions, the landscaping, the number of intersections, the facade articulation and many other factors. He beautifully illustrated this classic with his own scale drawings. And if you’ve ever worked with Allan Jacobs, some of the ways he measures the “kindliness” of a commercial street are just a bit unorthodox~Allan steps into traffic on a retail street and then measures how far he has to venture out from the curb before traffic stops.  He had to venture pretty far into the middle of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive before traffic stopped.

That would not be a test you would want to do on any stretch of Broadway in Vancouver which is less of a shopping street, but functions pretty well as a vehicular corridor, providing efficiency for vehicular traffic, even conveniently having parking lanes stripped at rush hour to enable even more capacity.

Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail bluntly calls Broadway, Vancouver’s main road to and from UBC and to the Broadway commercial areas “simply ugly”. 

Ms. Bula mentions that wonderful leafy area on Broadway near Trimble “that feels like the high street of a pleasant village – trees, a stretch of small local shops with canopies, a few sidewalk tables, interesting paving blocks at the intersections and drivers who suddenly slow to a meander.”

While Broadway east of Granville Street is characterized by rather monotonous building facades and minimal street treatment, that may be changing in the future as work and a city public process begins to reimagine the street now that the SkyTrain extension from Clark Drive to Arbutus will be built. Happily this work appears to still be scheduled despite the Covid Pandemic.  This also makes sense as the 99 B-Line along Broadway is classified as the busiest bus route in Canada and the United States, with a 2018 daily  ridership of nearly 56,000 passengers.

Last year the City embarked upon a Broadway Plan process for the section of street between Clark Drive and Vine Street with the intent to repurpose the street with new housing, amenities and jobs as part of the new Broadway subway.

With a new subway, there will be no reason for a wide street to accommodate bus lanes, and Broadway could morph into a well planted and landscaped streetscape of wide sidewalks, benches, leafy enclaves and public spaces. If there’s one thing a bio-medical emergency has taught us is the importance of  amply wide sidewalks, long benches, and places to sit or stand on streets that are comfortable and convenient.

Redesigning the streetscape for people living, working and shopping on Broadway can make up  for the shortage of parks  in the area and redefine the street as a place to hang out in, instead of driving through to get to somewhere else.

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Walking as a Practice: What Does It Mean to You?

There are many reasons to walk that are not related to transportation. The practice of walking can impact our health, spirituality, and culture.

In this America Walks  webinar, we will expand on how walking is ingrained in our being (whether on foot or on wheels), focus on examples of walking as a practice, and discuss how walking can break down barriers in our communities. This webinar is intended for those just starting out on the walking path as well as those interested in learning more about the topic.

Presenters:

Marionette Audifferen is a volunteer Organizer and Adventure Squad Leader with GirlTrek. GirlTrek is a groundbreaking, public health nonprofit for African American women and girls in the United States, and abroad. Nearly 800,000 have pledged to utilize walking as a “practical first step” toward living a healthier lifestyle. Marionette has led women and girls on local walks and hiking adventures.

Antonia Malchik writes about a variety of subjects but specializes in walking, public lands/environment, and science writing. Her essays and articles have been published by Aeon, The Atlantic, Orion, GOOD, High Country News, and a variety of other publications. She lives in northwest Montana, where she volunteers with local bike and pedestrian management committees and advocates for public lands, community engagement, and education. She also wrote A Walking Life, about the past and future of walking’s role in our shared humanity, published by Hachette.

Date and Time

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