COVID Place making
May 23, 2020

Vancouver’s First ‘Slow Streets’ – Wall, Lakewood, Ridgeway

Here are some of the first images of our first Slow Streets. (Click title for all images.)

Thanks to Anthony Floyd:

Went on a tour of the Slow Streets this evening. Not all the barricades and signs were in place yet, but we met the crew working their way West, so they might be all in by the end of the evening.

South of Kingsway, on Lakewood and along Ridgeway, they are fillable plastic jersey barriers with the signs attached to one side. They are only at the entrances at major intersections, and at the end of that block away from the intersection. There are few to no barriers between major streets. These barriers are mostly in the middle of the street.

North of Kingsway, along Lakewood and Wall St the barriers are A-Frame construction barriers with the signs. These too are only near major intersections. The placement of these barriers is much more variable. More often than not, they’re on the side of the road (whether placed there or moved there) and could be easily overlooked. In my opinion these are even less effective here.

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It’s taken a few months, but now we have some action.  This just out from the City of Vancouver – slowstreets@vancouver.ca

On May 22, we’ll start installing 12 km of Slow Streets signs and barriers. Other routes across the city will be added in the coming weeks.

Slow Streets – routes for walking, cycling, and rolling that make it easier to exercise and access businesses in your local neighbourhood.

  • Motor vehicle access is limited to local traffic only.
  • People walking may pass each other using the roadway.
  • Drive slowly and watch for people on the road.
  • On-street parking, access for emergency vehicles, and waste/recycling collection is maintained.

Have your say

In a few weeks, we’ll be asking the public for ideas and feedback on how to make these routes more comfortable for walking, cycling, and rolling. Using input from residents and businesses, we’ll make adjustments and improvements at key locations.

Questions? Email us at slowstreets@vancouver.ca

It appears that this choice of route – entirely through the east side and a diversity of neighbourhoods – was seen through an equity lens.  That’s council-speak to make sure the voices of their support are heard.

This Slow Street route builds on the already-established leg-and-wheel networks – notably 37th Avenue, the Ridgeway Greenway.  Not only did 37th Avenue get priority when greenways were first funded in the 1990s, it was given extra special treatment with a lot of small interventions – traffic calming, parklets, art, landscaping – with funding that might otherwise have gone to an extension of greenways through the West Side.  But some residents there were fearful of the idea – something bringing outsiders through their neighbourhood – and didn’t really see a need.  Most of their streets were already lush and green.

The City happily spent the money east of Granville.

But after the Beach Flow Way was done in the West End, the next one this time had to be east of Granville too.

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Why isn’t there a Kits Flow Way – an allocation of street space that both takes the pressure off the overcrowded mixed-use paths through Hadden and Kits Park, and provides a designated, separated space to accommodate the dramatically increased amount of bike traffic in these days of the pandemic?  In other other words, a Kits equivalent of the Beach Flow Way.  (More discussion here.)

The answer I heard from City Hall insiders is that there really isn’t a need to have a traffic-calmed reallocation on parts of the adjacent streets because, with the pandemic and the closure of the parking lots in Kits and Hadden, there isn’t much traffic anyway.

Well, guess what.

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I have been writing about Open Streets, and how they are being used Post-Covid to make accessing services more comfortable for walkers, rollers and cyclists going to shops and services. There’s also a positive impact of Open Streets for businesses. Open Streets allow for wider sidewalk areas,  making customers  feel better about standing in line to access a business with appropriate physical distancing.  This provides enough space to wait on the street without  getting too close to someone simply walking by on a sidewalk.

The term “Open Streets’ refers to temporarily closing streets to through traffic, but filtering necessary local traffic, emergency vehicles, public transit, pedestrians, rollers and cyclists. Open Streets also provide separate road space for traditional sidewalk users who are going at a different pace than cyclists. Creating Open Streets also allows commercial businesses to use more of the sidewalk or the road way to conduct their business given the new physical distancing requirements.

There has been a concern that while the concept of open streets to facilitate movement during Covid times was admirable, what would happen if open streets became permanent? And isn’t that bad for business?

This is the truth about Open Streets. If people are accessing services through a filtered network that allows for expanded space for only transit, walkers, rollers and cyclists, each of those individuals represent one less vehicle on the road. Vehicle drivers win because there is less congestion.

And the data shows that businesses win too. This study done by Transport for London  shows that people walking, rolling and cycling and using public transport spend 40 percent more each month than car drivers. These numbers have also been replicated  in studies in Toronto and in New York City.

In London time spent on retail streets increased by 216% between shopping, patronizing local cafes and sitting on street benches. Retail space vacancies also  declined by 17%.

There is also an interest in thinking through shops and services at a local neighbourhood scale too where sidewalks are less crowded. These areas could also benefit from Open Streets. As local historian John Atkin notes on twitter “Thinking city structure, sidewalk crowding, community & ‘bubbles’. Lose exclusionary zoning, allow local retail pockets so we don’t overload the arterials. I haven’t had to trek outside Strathcona because we have 2 great shops + coffee to walk to.”

Creating “bubbles” of  services within an easy walking or biking distance in each neighbourhood adds a level of local resiliency.  It’s something we have zoned out of areas, making existing non-conforming retail pockets~like the one at 33rd and Blenheim in Dunbar~such an asset. The ability to access these commercial areas safely with cycle, walking or transit a priority would be a neighbourhood asset.

While cities around the world are developing filtered streets to accommodate the post Covid recovery, that’s no plan from  Vancouver yet.

Here’s another example of great work in the City of Newcastle Great Britain as written by Carlton Reid with Forbes.com. Newcastle which is bisected by a highway system wanted to “reassert the supremacy of the city over its traffic.” They embraced the chance to make a downtown plan that was “not anti-car, but pro-city”, ensuring that residents could easily and comfortably use their downtown and related businesses. Here’s how they did it.

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CNU – the Congress for the New Urbanism – has just provided an extensive list of cities that have transformed underutilzed streets with little traffic into temporary pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares, shared streets, bikeways, expanded sidewalks, and outdoor eating.

“Although these projects are temporary, they may lead to permanent changes in cities, Mike Lydon (of Street Plans Collaborative) said in a recent Smart Growth America presentation.

There are seven types of projects.

Here’s one:

Temporary bikeways. There is a huge surge of bicycling worldwide because people are avoiding buses and trains … and many cities are adding temporary bikeways.

Examples include Berlin, Germany; New York City, Paris, France: Auckland, New Zealand; Mexico City; Budapest, Hungary; Brampton, Ontario.

The article lists cities from around the world, as well as extensive references to other ones in the U.S. and Canada.  Except one.  One city is notable by its absence.

Us.

When Brampton gets listed and we don’t, that is embarrassing.

 

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Commissioner of New York City Parks Mitchell Silver sends  this unique approach to maintain physical distancing while sunning in Brooklyn’s Domino Park. This park is located on an artificial turf field next to a former sugar factory that was located on the East River.

The six foot diameter circles were occupied on a sunny Saturday with people sitting on nearby benches hoping to scoop up a circle should one be vacated.

As the New York Post observes, the new painted circles are being called “human parking spots”  and despite the dystopia of lying in painted circles on the ground, everyone adjusted to the required physical circle distancing quite well.

The physical distancing circles were in place to limit park capacity as outlined by Mayor de Blasio for the weekend.

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We’re well-trained: Keep six feet of separation – or two meters, the length of a bicycle, two extended arms, three steps back.   The length may not be that specific, but the point is: keep your distance.

But unfortunately, mass transit doesn’t work well with that instruction. Buses and trains never contemplated such a parameter.  Like restaurants at half capacity, some things just aren’t viable. Without occasional crowding, mass transit doesn’t have the mass.

Daily Hive

Unfortunately, fear and failure of transit will likely lead to another form of crowding – traffic congestion.   How soon and how much is still not clear – too many variables. It’s even possible that car use may not come back to previous levels.

But if it becomes clear that we have no choice – get back on transit in serious numbers or the region can’t function – then the challenge isn’t so much a technical one; it’s to  overcome this message:

 

Yet another ask of Dr Henry: under what conditions can we ignore that sign?

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Gordon Price and I have been discussing how internationally cities are responding to the Covid-19 lock-downs by making it easier for residents to physically distance the required two meters or six feet while using city streets and spaces.  These cities have also strategized how best to support businesses in their staged and in some places staggered reopenings. Key to supporting local businesses is making citizens comfortable in walking or cycling to shops and services, and designing the areas where consumers have to wait for their physically distanced time in stores comfortable and convenient.

One example of a Mayor and Council that are adjusting to the new normal and getting it done is the City of London Great Britain. There Mayor Sadiq Khan recognizes that the post Covid-19 recovery, single vehicle use and the challenges of physical distancing is “the biggest challenge to London’s public transport network in Transport for London’s history”.

Matthew Taylor in the Guardian writes about London’s struggle to keep the numbers of people using public transport down  for physical distancing.  London also has to  insure that public transit journeys are not replaced with car usage which would create congestion and increase air pollution.

London’s answer is to repurpose roads for walking, cycling and transit only as the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted, with one of the biggest car-free initiatives in the world. Private vehicles and trucks are also being banned from several bridges. Work on the plan implementation has already begun, and will be completed in six weeks. As well, the congestion charge for any vehicle accessing central London will increase from 11.50 pounds (20 Canadian dollars) to 15 pounds(25 Canadian dollars)  per trip.

That is what a municipal  co-ordinated approach looks like addressing how cities can thrive in post pandemic times. But that verve, the ability for Council to  assist businesses and citizens in a time of crisis is lacking in Vancouver. Gordon Price wrote about Council’s lack of enthusiasm in this article. It was noted journalist Daphne Bramham who so cogently stated the following in the Vancouver Sun:

“Vancouver  was not designed with physical distancing in mind. “Even with most businesses shut down, pedestrians have been forced to dodge into traffic lanes to get around line-ups outside groceries, pharmacies and liquor stores.

There are also challenges for citizens using regular walking and cycling routes for accessing shops and services or getting exercise. “Sidewalks on even the major bridges are too narrow for pedestrians to comfortably keep their distance. The seawalls and Arbutus Greenway are also too narrow and have no barriers between cyclists and pedestrians.”

While we do have great staff at city hall that can flexibly meld a post pandemic city for physical distancing, policy to do so must come from Council. The current Council is nearly half way through their four year mandate. Each Councillor comes with closely held social values. But being on Council means teaming to represent what is needed for the city as a whole, not  individual personal value sets. That means working together to approve badly needed policy and to show unified respect, care and attention to provide the concerted recovery direction businesses and citizens  so badly need. It’s leadership.

While Council last week agreed to expand Covid related outdoor restaurant seating, there’s no urgent turnaround on that information for opening businesses that require that assistance now. In terms of expanding streets for walking and cycling, Daphne Bramham notes that this was not even voted on, “because three council members didn’t agree to continue meeting past 10 p.m. and extending the sitting hours requires a unanimous vote.”  

These are not normal times. Leadership is needed to nimbly  provide a post pandemic plan for  opening businesses to thrive, and for returning consumers to feel  safe and comfortable.

Kirk Lapointe in Business In Vancouver identifies post pandemic plans as starting right at the sidewalk. “The contemplation of cities like Vancouver about extending restaurants and some retailers into the streets to give them a fighting chance of generating a business amid social distancing is a no-brainer. Should have been approved weeks, months, years ago. They serve as staples of a neighbourhood’s identity, and in this crisis, they are a threatened breed that the species cannot afford to lose.”

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Sandy James and I were both struck by Daphne Bramham’s recent column in The Sun.  She asked the question many have been wondering:

By the end of May, Seattle will have permanently banned cars from more than 30 kilometres of city streets, making permanent a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s imperative that people maintain physical distance.

In Vancouver? The city has closed a single street — Beach Avenue along English Bay — and parking lanes on 10 streets to allow space for people to wait to enter the few stores that are open. …

While other jurisdictions have acted boldly and swiftly, Vancouver council’s pandemic response has been slow and muddled.

It’s true, there’s not a lot of overt enthusiasm from Council on reallocating street space, even when it seems to be a win-win-win: good for local community, climate change, active transport and good health.  Council is supportive of all that, of course; they’re just not rah-rah.  Maybe it’s too Visiony, too associated with different politics and priorities. Urban design is not the Mayor’s forte.

It’s not that Council has failed to articulate its ambition.  With recognition of a climate emergency and the approval of Six Big Moves, Council committed to accelerating things we coincidentally need to do now to respond to the covid emergency.  Here’s what they moved just one year ago:

That Council accelerate the existing sustainable transportation target by 10 years, so that by 2030, two thirds of trips in Vancouver will be by active transportation and transit …

The pandemic response seemed the obvious time to compress that 10-year commitment into a month.  And it looked, briefly, that the City and Park Board were on their way.  In what seemed like a weekend (but must have involved a lot of preliminary planning), Park Drive in Stanley Park and Beach Avenue were turned into flow ways with cones, signs and not much consultation.

But in the weeks that followed, except for a few queuing lanes in commercial zones … not much.

As Daphne noted, that required ignoring a lot of what was happening in the rest of the world.

All through March and April, city after city announced a slow or open street strategy of some kind.  From Oakland to Milan, from Edmonton to Seattle, Vancouver was practically surrounded by ambitious plans and responses.  Yet in that time, no enthusiastic embrace from the Mayor of Vancouver, even when the mayors of Toronto and New York, after initial tepid responses, came back with more ambitious agendas for immediate action.  Not Vancouver.

Little response emerged from City Hall until late April when, surprisingly*, NPA councillor Lisa Dominato came forward with a call for action – and a motion to instruct staff to do two big things:

  • Expedite identifying and implementing reallocations of road space
  • Come back in the fall 2020 with options for mobility and public realm use.

The motion made it on to the agenda on Tuesday, May 12, with a briefing before the final vote expected on Wednesday.  CBC reported:

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, conducted via conference call, senior Vancouver staffers mapped out a vision for “short-term actions for long-term transformations” of city streets in response to the health crisis.

The coming weeks will see 50 kilometres of Vancouver roads designated as “slow streets” with traffic-calming measures to promote walking, rolling and cycling, while other side streets could be closed to car traffic altogether to make way for temporary plazas.

An easy vote, one would think – an opportunity for Council to reinforce the city’s leadership in sustainable transportation.  Vancouver has been a world leader in what are now called complete, open or slow streets – from the traffic calming in the 1970s, to the greenways and bikeways of the 1990s, to the reallocation of street space on bridges and arterials in the 2000s.  We had the experience, the staff and the political will – and here was a chance for the Mayor and Council to make their mark.

Instead, when the motion finally came up for debate, hours were taken up addressing the issue in the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood that,

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