New Mobility
August 12, 2020

Goodbye 85th Percentile~Hello Slower Road Speeds

Here’s the ugly secret in North America and we all know it is true~the number one priority in transportation policy is to let vehicles go fast.  As Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America observes “It has filtered into every level of implementation, down to the way we set speed limits. We raise the speed limit to suit the speeders, as long as there are enough of them and it doesn’t take that many”.

This is where the now antiquated 85th percentile system came from, which is defined as  “the speed at or below which 85 percent of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point.”  Think of that~instead of setting speed limits to what is safe,  decision makers based decisions on how fast drivers travelled  dependent on the visual “feel” of the road.  That’s exactly what we got in the 20th century, roads made for vehicle drivers with an increasing curve of road deaths despite enhanced vehicular safety systems.

Research conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway  clearly shows that alarming increases in pedestrian fatalities needed to be arrested.  And their research suggests a direct, very simple, cost effective approach: “IIHS research demonstrates that lowering city speed limits curbs the most dangerous speeding and can make the roads safer for everyone who drives, walks, or bikes.”

When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a “complete overhaul” of how speed is managed in municipalities, NACTO (the National Association of City Transportation Officials) responded. Municipalities base much of their road standards on the NACTO manual. NACTO  threw  out the 85th percentile system and is now embracing  the “safe systems approach” which like Vision Zero is based upon  no road deaths by any type of road user.

NACTO  recognized that their policies  often hindered setting road speeds that promoted  universally safe mobility, and they have issued a new framework to set safer speed limits on municipal streets.

Their document City Limits has a three pronged approach to safe streets. Firstly default speed limits for every street  with the suggestion of 25 mph (35 km/h) for major roads, and 20 mph (30 km/h) for minor streets; Secondly designating “slow zones” in areas that require slower road speeds; and thirdly setting corridor speed limits on higher volume streets using a “safe speed study” which looks at “conflict density and activity level” to set contextually acceptable speeds.

You can download NACTO’s handbook “City Limits” here.

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You would have thought that when the Vision party dominated the City of Vancouver Council chambers with their sustainable and green policies that they would have quickly ascertained what an important asset the City’s Sunset Nursery was.

This  private civic nursery tucked near 51st  Avenue and Main Street has been owned by the City since 1929 and is one of the most sustainable secrets in the city.  The magnificent flowers and plants that are showcased at Stanley Park and  Bloedel Conservatory are all grown in this nursery, and many of those plants overwinter in the greenhouses which are on site. It is staffed by knowledgeable gardeners that went through a multiple year  gardening apprentice program, and many of the plants are grown from leaf culture or from seeds right at the nursery.

It is in fact something that is so old it is new again~growing and nurturing plants on site instead of trucking from sources hundreds of kilometers away. It is a hidden secret gem in the City, and a few years back it was to be axed for “cost saving measures”.  The Sunset Nursery superintendent at the time  broke protocol by speaking directly to the Parks Board Commissioners on the importance of the nursery, the sustainability of growing and providing plants locally, and how the culture and management of extraordinary plants was what made the City of Vancouver parks and community centres different from any other city in North America.

She saved the nursery from being demolished. Of course she got a very stern letter of reprimand from her seniors for breaking protocol and telling the commissioners exactly why the nursery was important. Of course that letter needed to be mounted and framed  to show that sometimes you have to do the work right instead of doing the right work.

When the adjacent Sunset Community Centre  (designed by Bing Thom) was being built, city staff  tried to get a greenhouse/classroom attached that would provide a window into the nursery and also provide a way of teaching gardening skills to kids and adults.But there was no interest from the parks board  in incorporating such an innovation at that time.

Given the remarkable history and tenacity of the nursery staff it is no surprise that the current Sunset Nursery superintendent Bruce McDonald has adapted his growing stock  given the Covid crisis, and the minimal amount of ornamental planting happening this year.

This  CBC article by Maryse Zeidler  describes that staffing cutbacks meant that the plants usually grown at Sunset Nursery were reduced by 60 percent. Since the raised beds and facilities were already prepped for planting, Mr. McDonald developed an innovative program to grow vegetables for city non-profit organizations that are feeding the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

Most of the vegetable seed was expired seed that came from VanDusen Garden’s floral shop, meaning that the bounty included rare varieties of lettuce and tomatoes. Mr. McDonald also commandeered gardens at the city golf courses to  grow vegetables as well as VanDusen Gardens.

It is this resiliency that has made Sunset Nursery such a special part of the city in providing a visual bounty of plant life in Vancouver parks and community centres. For the city on the edge the plant life and plant culture is an integral part of what makes Vancouver unique and special.

Peter Wohlwend, the neighbourhood gardener that established the Blooming Boulevard program in Vancouver used to say that gardening and plants were so representative of who we are in Vancouver.

Gardening has no specific culture. Everyone no matter what their mother tongue  speaks the language of plants”.


Images Vancouvercourier


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This article in The Conversation  outlines the new understanding of the importance of greenspace  for mental and physical health and ties in the importance of natural environments for stress reduction and social cohesion.

Through the United Kingdom’s Green Network  health inequality can be reduced by ensuring residents have access to nature.  Calling this the “triple-win” this access  “encourages behavioural change, protects the environment,  and promote health and health equity.”

I have already written about the work that Scotland is doing in reframing cities and spaces around walkability in what North Americans are calling “the ten or fifteen minute city”. That describes being able to access schools, shops and services within an easy walk from each residence in a city. Scotland has decided that temporary items such as wider sidewalks and streets closed to vehicular traffic to encourage walking and cycling will remain, and those temporary reductions in vehicle speed will be made permanent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of access to greenspace, and is the foundation of a shift from a curative model of health to one that prevents illness, reduces inequities and is based upon partnership across health disciplines. “Purposeful travel” by sidewalk or by bicycle is the building block of basic routines outlined by the Scottish Government .

This work will be implemented in a new partnership between Public Health Scotland, local municipalities and the Green Network. As Public Health Scotland’s official announcement stated: “To be successful in achieving these aims Public Health Soctland promotes a whole systems approach to  better understand public health challenges and to identify collective actions”.”


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There’s some interesting online  courses coming up in Simon Fraser University’s City Program for this Fall, and they are already receiving applications.

To celebrate the City Program’s 25th anniversary this fall, we are launching a series of introductory-level courses in the core domains of urbanism. Our vision is to help learners gain foundational knowledge in these domains, build networks of diverse professionals, and have a better understanding of the processes between various departments that shape regions.

Kicking off with the course Planning for Non-Planners in September, the courses in the series cover fundamentals in housing policy, transportation and mobility, regional planning and community data. You’ll hear from leading regional experts in real time through online-supported learning and connect with participants from across Canada.

More professional development opportunities

Join us for other upcoming City Program courses:


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Andy Yan of Simon Fraser University’s City Program notes that cities are not prepared for bio-medical emergencies like the  Covid-19 pandemic, and is emphasizing the importance of  creating safer environments.

Patrick Sisson with Bloomberg CityLab describes the change in building form and interior design that happened with the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.  I have previously written about the remarkable innovations in public health planning that New York City adopted in 1918. 

That city had a lower fatality rate from the 1918 epidemic than other major North American cities.

The idea of light and air being important in building design was embraced  in the early part of the twentieth century by Alvar Aalto . That  translated into functionalism in designing a tuberculosis sanitarium. 

Spaces were designed to be easy to clean, large windows installed,  and minimal furniture used. This aesthetic was also embraced by Le Corbusier.  Richard Neutra   actually created a “health house” for a client concerned with fresh air and light which  was modelled after the clean lines of tuberculosis sanitarium design.

This connection between environment, health and design and the importance of  light and air also was also  a reason that radiator heating became popular in cities after the 1918 pandemic. Using radiator heating instead of coal or wood heating meant that windows could be open for fresh air and light while still heating the interiors of housing.

In New York City 80 percent of housing units are still  steam heated. The New York State Tenement House Act which was enacted in 1901  to deal with the atrocious tenement conditions stated that every room had to have an exterior window to allow for good ventilation as well as adequate light.

That followed up with a  1918 pandemic campaign  in New York City to have opened windows as the way to  ameliorate “influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis”.

Lloyd Alter, a thoughtful editor at TreeHugger sees the current pandemic as a call to redesign housing units.  Mr. Alter  suggests  a separate entryway to leave outer clothes and to wash hands, bathrooms with more partitions, and kitchens that are no longer open to other rooms.

Look for a return to a more minimalist design in new builds, along with a new emphasis on bigger balconies with flow through ventilated air into units. Expect that new buildings will feature every bedroom having an opening outside window,  closer access to gardens and outdoor areas, and better ventilation in apartment halls and common areas.  Proximity to parks and open spaces will also be on trend. Here’s a thoughtful compilation from Lloyd Alter on where the  pandemic will take design innovation.

Meanwhile take a look at this YouTube video from Toronto where the developer of  “The One” at Yonge and Bloor  thinks he is building an 80 storey “pandemic proof” condo building. The comments below the video are good comedic discourse on this building and the developer’s new endeavour.

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Here’s a brilliant idea~why not mount cameras on city buses and enforce the bus lane? That’s something that New York city has been doing with ABLE (automated Bus Lane Enforcement) and since last October have issued 40,000 warnings and violations.

Using Automatic Bus Lane Enforcement cameras on four major routes capture drivers that are caught by two different  buses on the supposedly reserved bus lane. While you can imagine transgressing vehicle drivers are none too happy about the enforcement, it has sped up bus route times by 34 percent on some routes.

As Dave Colon with NYC StreetsBlog observes “Under state law, drivers are given warnings for the first 60 days a bus uses an automated enforcement camera. After that 60 days, there’s a graduated fine structure, starting at $50 for a first violation and increasing by $50 every subsequent violation in a 12-month period, for a maximum of $250 per ticket.”

And here’s the interesting part~once vehicle drivers are nailed for being in dedicated bus lanes they don’t do it again. As Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dryly states People don’t get a lot of repeat violations. They learn the cameras are there and that it makes sense to stay out of the bus lanes.”

New York Transit bus acting  president Craig Cipriano cautions that it’s not the point of transit to write tickets, but to move buses and keep vehicles out of the dedicated bus lanes. You can view the YouTube video below where Mr. Cipriano in his  trademark New York City accent outlines how the bus cameras work .

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The Smart Growth Network in concert with the Maryland Department of Planning presents the next webinar in their Planning With Purpose series on Community Revitalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted how we live, work, play, and move around our communities. It also has changed how planners think about and prepare for the future, while navigating the impacts of social inequity.

Petra Hurtado and Jo Peña of the American Planning Association explain how APA is using its “foresight-first approach” in times of COVID-19, what the biggest pain points and potential solutions are, and what current developments may mean for the future of the planning profession.

Date: Thursday, August 13

Time: 10:00 Pacific Time

You can sign up for this webinar by clicking this link.


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Livable City announces the return of our first ever live online event where you can ask your questions around how we all can create the safe places that we need our cities and towns to be amidst the global pandemic and social unrest.

There’s a lot of discussion and a diverse set of actions taken attempting to remedy the lack of safe space to be outside in our cities and towns. But what do we mean when we say safe space. What is safe space? And who are these spaces for?

COVID-19 was originally thought to be the “great equalizer” but the data has shown quite the opposite. What’s going on here and what can and should be done to change this?We’ll try and get through as many questions as possible working them into our panel-style conversation.

We have three amazing people with a diverse set of experience in shaping, designing and creating these places with strong emphasis on human connection and diversity:

Jennifer Keesmaat: former Toronto Chief City Planner, mayoral candidate and urban planner.

Doug Gordon: previous podcast guest, all around great guy and co-host of The War on Cars podcast.

Erica Woods: global HR executive at Canonical with a heavy emphasis on culture and diversity, employee relations, recruiting, and delivery of people-oriented processes and solutions.

Date: Friday August 7 2020

Time: 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time

To register please click this link.

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Last winter the International Road Safety Symposium was held in Vancouver. That event discussed how to enhance road safety for all users as well as why the Safe Systems approach is the only way to evaluate and assess road design and use. I wrote about some of the innovative work discussed at the conference here.

Several countries in Europe have embraced the Vision Zero concept which is to aim for no road deaths by any users on road systems. Key to the Vision Zero or Safe Systems approach is to design for all road users (vehicular, transit, bike and pedestrian) , adopting lower speeds and emphasizing safety for all.

One of the conveners of that conference was Dr. Tarek Sayed who teaches civil engineering at the University of British Columbia and has been at the forefront on research to mitigate road crashes. Denise Ryan in the Vancouver Sun reports on one of Dr. Sayed’s latest research findings that show a very simple way to decrease crashes~just make highway lane markings bigger.

In a recently published study Dr. Sayed found that overall crashes could be reduced by over 12 percent and vehicles leaving the road could be reduced by 19 percent simply by widening the “longitudinal pavement markings (LPMS)” on the road. If highway markings are widened from 4 to 6 inches and in some strategic areas widened from 4 to 8 inches, crashes are reduced.

Eight years of data  was collected on crashes in specific areas in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. After road markings were significantly widened, crashes were dramatically reduced. In British Columbia, widened road markings reduced collisions by over 27 percent.

The study was conducted in three Canadian jurisdictions, B.C., Alberta and Quebec, in partnership with government authorities over a period of eight years, comparing before-and-after data. According to the study, the widths of the LPMs were increased between 2012 and 2013, and showed a dramatic reduction in accidents.  Total collisions in B.C. were reduced by 27.5 per cent.

As Dr. Sayed observes “Road safety is extremely important. We talk about COVID-19 all the time, but we have 1.35 million (people) getting killed on the roads every year worldwide…We want to design highways that are forgiving and will minimize the chance of error by the road-user. In this case we want to help the road-user to stay in his own lane by making the road markings more visible.”

It’s extraordinary that something as simple as wider markings can so significantly reduce vehicular crashes. Denise Ryan’s article also offers the sobering statistics which show how far behind Canada is in managing traffic crashes.

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Journalist Douglas Todd is well known for carefully examining both sides of issues in his writings in the Vancouver Sun. On the weekend Mr. Todd wrote a very topical opinion editorial asking why there was not a continuous path along the Fraser River in the Southlands area accessible to public path users.

Indeed the Greenways Plan that was adopted by City of Vancouver Council  25 years ago envisioned a pathway all along the Fraser River that would be available to residents. When the Coast Mountain Bus Company controversially took acres of  industrial land  on the Fraser River at 9150 Bentley Street to use for bus parking it was landscape architect Art Cowie and retired biologist Terry Slack that pushed for a walkway open to the public along this part of the Fraser River. It was always intended that as redevelopment occurred along the river’s edge that the city would negotiate a right of way open to citizens.

The City has been successful in that negotiation and public pathways have been provided  with two of the three golf courses along the Fraser River west of the Oak Street Bridge. Both McCleery  Public Golf Course and Point Grey Golf Course have provided a public easement along the Fraser River. With the redevelopment of Deering Island a public pathway was also installed along the water, and a public park created on Deering Island.

(And a quick aside-the City in an in camera meeting was offered Deering Island decades ago for one million dollars for park land. At that time the City determined that they had an abundance of park land on the west side, and the land instead was sold to Park Georgia Realty who developed 38 single family lots, with architect Michael Geller.)

There was one section of the Fraser River Trail greenway south of the Point Grey Golf Course that was inaccessible due to a large stream embankment. The Simpson Family in Southlands who had lost a son in an accident in the armed forces chose to honour his memory and paid for the public bridge which is accessible to walkers, rollers, cyclists and horse back riders.

This meant that the greenways trail proceeded west through  the ancient territory of the Musqueam First Nation, and that trail joins up to Pacific Spirit Park at Southwest Marine Drive. You can see the exact route for wayfinding here.

But there is the elephant in the room~moving eastward on the Fraser River Trail past McCleery Golf Course, the Marine Drive Golf Club has refused to allow public access along its share of the waterfront. Instead, the club sadly barricaded access with threatening signs, and you can get a sense of the entitlement in the comments section they have left at the end of   Mr. Todd’s article.

The Marine Drive Golf Club in this century tried to keep areas of the private  club for male members  only and as shown in court records intimidated female members who wanted to use that  space as well.  After women members won a court decision to have access to all parts of the Marine Drive Golf Club, the men in the club went to the British Columbia Court of Appeal to have that decision on equity overturned. The men won.

As Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail wrote in 2007:

the B.C. Court of Appeal, no less, had ruled unanimously that the men could play their cards and tell their off-colour jokes without having to share their tables with members of the opposite sex. The lounge’s no-women-allowed policy was not, in the court’s view, a violation of the B.C. Human Rights Code.”

You can read Mr. Mason’s article here which outlines the treatment faced by female members.

Given the rancour of the male members  to sharing spaces with women members, you can also well imagine what the Marine Drive Golf Club’s  response was  over a decade ago when City staff politely requested the consideration of allowing a public right of way at the club’s riverfront.

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