Sullivan, a columnist with New York magazine (and an early blogger – one of the best before it became too great a burden), provides some helpful perspective for our time by comparing it to year of the London plague (one year before the Great Fire):

Historians now rank the 1665 plague as the worst of that century (though much less severe than the Black Death of 1348). By September, as it peaked, there were 7,000 deaths a week. In COVID-19, the fatality rate is around one percent. In London in 1665, in a matter of seven months, around a quarter of the population perished. The number is vague because so many records were destroyed by the Great Fire of London, which broke out a year later. But it’s still staggering. A rough equivalent today would be 4 million deaths in the New York City metro area this year alone — with no real medical care, and people dropping dead on the streets.

Now imagine that after the deaths of those 4 million, much of Manhattan were to be burned to the ground by a massive and uncontrollable fire. That’s what Londoners had to handle in just two years: a pandemic of far greater scope than ours, and a conflagration that amounted to 9/11 several times over. And it was not the end of the world.

In fact, in just a couple of years, the population of the city had rebounded. The massive fire had killed much of the rodent population that had been spreading the fleas behind the plague. London was rebuilt, stone replaced wood, and Christopher Wren was brought in to design and replace the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral and over a dozen other landmarks of the city to this day.

What must have felt like an apocalypse of plague and fire became, with astonishing speed, a new city, forged anew by communal trauma, and soon to be the most powerful capital in the world. And somehow, Pepys lived through all of it, face-to-face with death, and never stopped living, maintaining a stoic cheerfulness and humor throughout. And today, in the richest country on Earth, with medical technology beyond Pepys’s wildest imagination, and a plague killing a tiny fraction of the population, some are wielding weapons in public to protest being asked to stay at home for a few more weeks and keep a social distance. Please. Get a grip.

Full column here.

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On the weekend of the sixth week of the pandemic shutdown, the weather was warm, the caseloads were dropping, and Dr. Henry gave permission for us to sit around outside in small numbers.

Maybe the man with the voice and guitar is a professional musician, now gig-less, taking his talent and equipment to the grass in front of his building, where the neighbours and passers-by make up his concert.  That’s what it looks like.

At the end of the video, ornithological accompaniment.




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This is what we planted in the 1990s: a landscape design from the post-Expo era that has come to be known as ‘Vancouverism.”

Downtown South was in a post-rezoning boom, and Hong Kong investment, families and sensibilities were arriving – evident on the 800-block of Hamilton Street where the major tower, completed in 1995, is named ‘Jardine’s Lookout’ (a mountain and residential area on Hong Kong Island).

Now, a generation later, it is surrounded by a maturing urban forest.

The 1991 Downtown South rezoning was accompanied by a neighbourhood-specific streetscape manual in 1994, meant to provide a greener, quieter identity on what would otherwise be traffic-heavy arterials.  Influenced by Erickson and Oberlander’s landscaping of Robson Square, the sidewalks would all have a double row of trees, with increased setbacks and, in this case, a heritage garden (all paid for by the developers, from building to curb.)

Note how there are four levels of landscaping, from bushes and hedges at grade, to the rows of trees, to the gardens on decks and roofs.  Foliage surrounds the pedestrian on every side, and above, proving that high-density urban environments can be greener and more lush than any grass-dominant suburb.

Regrettably, the curb-adjacent planting strips (inspired by West-End boulevards) could not handle the foot traffic along the metered streets, and so the grass has been replaced over time with asphalt, brick, concrete and astroturf.  Having been the councillor who pushed for grass curbing in the original urban design, I regret my over-optimism on its survival, but do wish we had gone for something both permeable and able to withstand the wear-and-tear.

This is an urban forest in its adolescence.  And it’s not the only block.  Throughout Downtown South, from Robson to Pacific, Granville to Yaletown, the streets are becoming so lush and thick with foliage, we’ll already have to consider how we’re going to thin them out.


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PT: Originally published in April.  The video is one of the best so far, from the initial use of the Beach Flow Way (so-called since it allows cyclists to sort themselves out by speed and comfort) to the self-sorting that Vancouverites did on Sunset Beach, making it more than ever a Great Lawn. 

And more than ever it’s clear: Open Streets are a Thing – one of the lasting changes to come out of the pandemic.

Click here to download video: Beach reallocation

Whether cities like Oakland calls them ‘Flow Streets’ or ‘Slow Streets’, they’re part of a larger movement to reallocate street space for the priorities of a pandemic.

Initial reporting suggested Oakland was going to call these calmed avenues ‘Flow Streets’ – a nice name, but apparently not what was intended:

Oakland will slow down a whopping 74 miles of streets to vehicular traffic starting this weekend to give pedestrians, joggers, and cyclists more room for social distancing.

It’s part of an emergency measure called “Oakland Slow Streets,” an effort to give residents more space to walk, run, and cycle safely through neighborhoods as shelter-in-place orders remain in effect. …

Note: This won’t be a total closure to cars, according to East Bay Times, but instead a way to “publicize roads to be especially alert of cyclists and pedestrians.” Local traffic and emergency vehicles will still be allowed on the roads.

It really is important to emphasize that these streets are not ‘closed,’ and never were intended to stop all vehicle traffic.  But even in Vancouver, the Beach Avenue reallocation is being termed by some as ‘closed’ – as though any restriction on cars is all that matters.  It’s a bias we’ll see a lot more in the fight to defund and eliminate any City progress for bikeways, greenways, safe streets, traffic calming, road diets – call it what you will.  For opponents, It comes down to the same thing: streets are for cars, and the rest are dispensable frills.

In the meantime, the move to flow or slow streets is, ahem, picking up speed.  From the New York Times:

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Reopening Vancouver: People, Streets, Food & Cars

How do we maintain safe physical distancing practices when enjoying the city?

On a typical commercial street’s 3.5-metre-wide sidewalk, two pedestrians can safely pass each other with two metres between them. However, couples must go single file when passing to maintain a safe distance.

Some suggest that this space can be found beyond the curb, in the parking lane. Perhaps we could create more curbside parklets, now seen in front of a few restaurants and coffee houses. Parking spaces could become umbrella-sheltered restaurant patios – think of a trattoria in Italy.

One of the earliest examples of space reallocation and pedestrian use of a parking lane: the hundred-block Lonsdale in the City of North Vancouver

Perhaps we could create more curbside parklets, now seen in front of a few restaurants and coffee houses. Parking spaces could become umbrella-sheltered restaurant patios – think of a trattoria in Italy.

Cities from Oakland to Paris are turning hundreds of kilometres of these streets into “slow streets,” with signs limiting cars, letting pedestrians, cyclists and people who use mobility aids use the street to move and get physical activity safely. Could we do the same with Vancouver’s greenway network?


Presenters include


Wednesday, May 20

12:00 pm

Hosted online.  Registration required  (currently full),  

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As a consequence of flattening the covid curve:

… we’ll also have to flatten these curves:

The hand-drawn chart above reveals the obvious: the morning and evening rush-hour peaks coming in and out of the CBD. Even though the chart was done in the late-1970s, the TV helicopters tell us it’s still true twice a day.  At least they did until March 16.

Of course there has been one big change: there are less cars coming into the CBD than a half century ago:

Why is that green line below the blue one?  Transit mainly.  No SkyTrain or Frequent Transit Network back before Expo 86 – and since then, the region has largely accommodated growth in transportation demand by expanding transit supply.  That allowed the existing road network to serve a larger population, increased jobs and more demands without having to build a lot more road space.

Simply put: without transit, the road system doesn’t work.  Transit was our way of both serving population growth and taming motordom without having to build and expand the freeway and arterial network.  It didn’t reduce congestion very much (as any commuter will attest) since drivers took advantage of a free good – road space – and pretty much filled it to the maximum anyway.

So what happens post-covid? Here’s a simple thought experiment, based on nothing but speculation.  (That’s why PT asked for someone to model this.)

Transit has seen a drop in ridership of 80 percent.  Past experience, even today in China, tells us that it will take some time for ridership to recover.  And even if it does, there will be a lot less capacity to accommodate transit users, given the need for physical distancing.

Let’s be generous and say half the riders in that 80 percent drop return to transit.  The other half decide to drive.  They’ll certainly have the rationale: transit can be crowded and contagious, cars are clean and spacious, gas is cheap and roads are free.

There are also pluses and minuses to consider: how many will work from home, or not have any work to commute to?  How much road space, particularly curb lanes, will be repurposed, especially to allow more distancing for pedestrians, cyclists and restaurant patios?  How many job locations will disperse from the centre (and will that alleviate or worsen congestion)?

But here’s the critical question: what will be the impact on the roads and bridges of those additional numbers that do begin to commute by car, who will be competing for the modest amount of free road space available, especially if they all want it at roughly the same time?

Well, we should soon find out.

For that matter, it won’t be just commuters in vehicles.  Commuters in trains too.

Top state and city officials (in New York) are already contemplating the need for radically different routines, including transit systems with limits on occupancy for trains and buses. That could require staggered shifts for millions of workers.

I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to have rush hours,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates commuter trains to and from Manhattan.*

There really is only one practical way to address the resulting congestion, whether on trains, buses, roads or sidewalks.

Don’t have rush hour.  Flatten that traffic curve.

If in the short term, there’s going to be a net increase in driving, the best case would be a redistribution of traffic across the day and across the network.  Yes, it could in theory be done by road and transit pricing connected to apps that allow people to make informed decisions, adjusted as needed to flatten whatever peaks emerge (somewhat like flattening the covid curve to make sure hospitals are not overwhelmed).

But that assumes a social and political consensus (and the technology) to intervene, to rethink our priorities, make radical changes in how we live our lives, manage our transportation systems and respond to the previously unimaginable. A very unlikely scenario.

Except we just did.


*Why the Path to Reopening New York City Will Be So Difficult


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