Business & Economy
May 20, 2020

Why Open Streets Are Good for Everyone & What They are Doing in Newcastle

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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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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I have been pretty outspoken on the need to support  local retailers as they start opening up their businesses in the next phase the Covid Crisis. I have also been insisting that we need to look at the use of the city street in a different way to accommodate these businesses and to make potential customers more comfortable on the street.

Customers must feel safe and comfortable and be able to wait before entering retail premises with the appropriate physical distancing. Other people need to be able to walk or roll on the sidewalk with the same comfort of having that two meter spacing from others. That’s pretty impossible to accommodate on many city sidewalks that are at most 1.8 meters, or in the downtown where there are heavier flows of people on the sidewalk.

The City of Vancouver has not been nimble at working towards opening streets off the downtown peninsula for walkers, rollers and cyclists to access shops and services,even though there is the tax payer funded greenways network where walking and cyclists have priority. These streets could be easily filtered to allow for local and emergency traffic only. Similarly there has been no civic road map for businesses on how to open or use the sidewalk and/or adjacent parking lane to allow for physical distancing. That changed this week with Council’s motion to review street allocation for customer line ups, loading, and using sidewalk space with the appropriate distance.

There’s also a motion that the City reallocate  road space, such as high use greenways and streets…temporarily to ensure safe shared use…” 

Eight  Covid weeks in no one is holding their breath, but it’s a good start, as well as this week’s initiative to  create a “Council Covid-19 Recovery Committee” which provides a place to figure out what the “new normal” really is.

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Richard Florida’s observation, in M GEN: “The Harsh Future of American Cities”:

Much of our current aversion to crowds will dissipate with time.

… after the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, it took five or six years until people got comfortable taking trains again but that ultimately they did. “There was short-term adaptation and then no long-term change,” Florida said.

This American Experience episode on the 1918 Influenza pandemic takes that observation about trains to its global conclusion: humanity pretty much forgot about the pandemic altogether.  At least it dropped from the storyline of our 20th-century experience, very much secondary to wars, depressions and social changes.  We know dates like 1914, 1929, 1939, 1967 …  but 1918 not so much.

So which kind of date will 2020 be?

 

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Sun columnist Doug Todd, who has been writing insightfully about the housing market for years, reported this comment from a Toronto researcher:

 “There’s only so long they can hold on,” he says, before being forced to sell.

All it would take to create a sudden oversupply of housing would be for two per cent more owners in a particular market to list their dwellings for sale, Scilipoti says. “This will take time to play out,” he says, but the downward process is in motion.

Just 2 percent.  And I doubt it will take much time.  Ex-AirBnB listings back into the rental supply might be enough on its own in our downtown market – snowballs to start an avalanche.

Almost all solutions to unaffordability in our housing market seem to assume a massive amount of new or repurposed housing will be required, in turn involving major investments, rezonings, interventions, or some form of decisive change.  Well, we got a virus that seems to have done the latter, and it may mean we shouldn’t do much more until we see how the impact.

Those who want to change the fundamental economics of housing, and the social order that goes with it, are reluctant to acknowledge that small changes or interventions can make a substantial difference – like a rental incentive, a non-market housing program measured in the hundreds of units, a seemingly minor shift in the market, immigration statistics or interest rates.  When you want a revolution, a 2 percent adjustment doesn’t seem to cut it.  When rents seem out of reach, 2 percent doesn’t seem a sufficient stretch.

And yet that, in its way, will seem revolutionary.

 

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What will fill this:

Since we’re never going back to the pre-Covid world anytime soon, will we still have large conferences, or even small ones?  Why have conventions in attractive places, meant as much for socializing as exchanging?  Why deliberately bring people together to learn and bond, to show off their public faces, to see who fate might introduce them to? With splashes of alcohol, rich food and entertainment.

Well, actually, those reasons seem pretty persuasive.

Gatherings need to be special, even an extraordinary experience, and they have to be something that can only be experienced through being there, together with others.  That means they must appeal to all five senses: deliberate listening, constant conversation, light gluttony and human contact.  A time for show and tell and feel.

Zoom or Skype don’t do all that, because it’s not what they’re for.  Electronic communication since the telegraph has been about more efficient ways to share information, and now there are skilled generations who don’t need to be physically together just to exchange data or ideas, no matter how complex.  The tools are getting really good.  But they don’t substitute for light romance.

A conference to be special – to justify the expense and risk – also needs a ‘name.’  Someone on the billing.  Whether for a concert  or event, the personality needs to pull in the otherwise risk-adverse with enough celebrity status, polished presentation and performance, and something worth saying, in a setting that can’t be replicated on a screen.  Otherwise, it’s just a Zoom.

 

Thoughts from Jude Crasta in conversation.

 

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At PT we’re thinking about how the world is being reshaped by the impact of Covid19.  While there may never be a post-pandemic-free world (there never really was; we just didn’t want to think about it), we are going to adapt.  But how and to what? 

Already the ideas are flowing – an example from the New York Times on the office:

Those in the midst of planning suggest that the post-pandemic office might look radically different:

  • There may be limits on the number of people allowed in an elevator.
  • New technology could provide access to rooms and elevators without employees having to touch a handle or press a button.  Sensor-activated controls may also increase, reducing the number of surfaces that need to be touched in an office and allowing workers to use elevators and open doors with the wave of a hand.
  • Chairs on casters will permit people to roll seats a safe distance from colleagues.
  • Interest has surged in new materials such as those that mimic sharkskin, to which microscopic organisms have difficulty adhering.
  • Some old metals may experience a revival. Copper and its alloys — including brass and bronze — have been shown to be essentially self-sanitizing, able to kill bacteria and, early studies suggest, perhaps even the coronavirus plaguing the planet.
  • The ability to work from home at least a few days a week — long sought by many American workers — may be here to stay. “A big light bulb went off during this pandemic,” said Anita Kamouri, vice president at Iometrics, a workplace services firm. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, expects more than 25 percent of employees to continue working from home multiple days a week, up from fewer than 4 percent who did so before the pandemic. “I don’t think that genie is going back into the bottle,” she said.
  • If companies do allow more of their employees to log in from home, some may consider reducing their office footprint, which could have significant ramifications for commercial real estate. But if the amount of space devoted to employee workstations and other functions increases, demand for space could balance out.  There will be a higher value around spaces where we come together.
  • Lounges, cafes and other gathering spaces that sprang up to make collaborative work easier may become even more important if employees do more work from home and commute in for meetings.
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The current cover of the New Yorker, titled “Lifeline.”

Here’s my version – an image taken on March 17, 8 pm, on Swanston Street in Melbourne:

This courier – equipped with bike (maybe electric), smart phone and custom backpack – was one of many on the main street of Melbourne’s CBD that night.  It’s easy to understand why they’ve become a vital link between restaurants that can provide only takeout and customers sequestered at home.  They too are front-line workers, and their bicycles declared essential.

I have a hunch that, like our use of online communication, their employment will expand, their vehicles will innovate, their uses proliferate, and afterwards they will become an expanded part of the local economies of our newly reconsidered cities.

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Another wonderful image from Diane Sampson of a  British cars cargo from the SS “Mostun” Vancouver January 24, 1959 . This is from the Vancouver Archives Collection.

The Mostun was from Belfast and travelled a route from Belfast to Chemainus on Vancouver Island. In the photo  a Morris Oxford Estate is beside a Riley One Point Five , with a  Hillman Husky and Hillman Minx sedans behind.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s British cars were the first to market a small car that was economical as well as reliable. That market was eventually replaced by Japanese cars in the late 1960’s.

The vehicles often had their wheels removed and stored inside the car, and then packed in wooden crates. This method allowed for more cars to be packed into the boat’s hold. There is a story of a ship fire in Vancouver harbour on the ship Dongeday in 1952 that was fuelled by the wooden crates. The City’s fireboat responded and got the fire out, but unfortunately also doused the cars with a whole lot of saltwater.

 

 

Surprisingly 22  of these waterlogged and damaged Austin automobiles were dumped into Burrard Inlet near Howe Sound. A customs officer oversaw the operation of these vehicles being loaded on a barge minus batteries and tires and then winched into the water.

Of course Vancouverites saw the opportunity, and a tugboat crew was found dragging the seafloor trying to find the vehicles. A story in The Sun admonished “The legal situation is ticklish. The cars have paid no duty…and ownership is still vested with the company that had them dunked.”

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