Nature & Public Spaces
July 6, 2020

Will Vancouver’s Broadway become a Great Street?

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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One of the so-sad consequences of the pandemic is the loss of momentum immediately experienced by TransLink.  And not just with the reverse of the quite stunning increase in passengers. (Said CEO Kevin Desmand in September of 2019: ““If this trend continues … then over the four-year period from 2016 to 2019, we would have seen a 20% growth in overall ridership. It is pretty astonishing.”)

By March, an 80 percent drop.

But it’s not just in ridership where the momentum has been lost.  TransLink was in the process of delivering on its 10-year Plan, with significant increases in rolling stock, frequency, new routes and upgrades in its facilities. (Like this PT report on Joyce-Collingwood Station.)  Much is still going ahead, like the rolling out of the Rapidbus routes. But, on the North Shore, the R2 line literally started just as we all went into lock-down.  I took it shortly after it started – one of only two passengers for a good part of the trip (right).

Progress continues.  And one of the places where changes will be the most welcome is one of the most dismal transit exchanges in the system.  Dark, dank and polluted from diesel, it sits under the ICBC headquarters adjacent to Seabus at Lonsdale Quay.  Convenient but unpleasant.

Well, that’s changing – as these pictures from CNV Councillor Tony Valente reveal:

 

As Daily Scot would point out – a lot of grey.  But alleviated by LED lighting overhead:

Tony tells us that there’s more to come.  All it will need is a lot more passengers.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Michael Gordon writes …

We’re coming across a lot of predictions on how life will change after the current pandemic – such as “The Harsh Future of American Cities: How the pandemic will alter our urban centers, now and maybe forever”.

However, when I read sweeping statements about history, I do like to see some statistical foundation of the statement.  So I thought, let’s have a look at the passenger rail statistics (which admittedly do not account for ‘how people felt about being on a train.’)

In 1920, passenger numbers increased on the Canadian Pacific Railway passenger trains from 14.4 million to 16.9 million*. 

South of the border, the number of rail passengers increased from 1.1 billion in 1918 to 1.27 billion in 1920**.

My grandparents who were in their mid-20’s in 1918 never mentioned the Spanish Flu epidemic or how it changed things. I do recall lots of mentions of having their first car and learning how to drive in the mid-1920’s. But they still traveled and took the train when they were heading back to Ontario from Kamloops.

Travelling on a CPR passenger train in the 1920’s

 

Cleaning a CPR Passenger Train

 

*Harold Innes, 1923, History of the CPR, p. 198.

**USA government document (1958) Historical Statistics, Colonial Times to 1957, p. 430.

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Expect to hear a lot more of this: ‘Transit is contagious. Cars are clean. Gas is cheap. Density is dangerous. Let’s drive!’

So let’s try to get drivers on side in supporting transit with this message: ‘The more people who switch from transit to the car, the worse it is for you and everyone.’

Therefore, it will be very useful to know how many ‘switchers’ – from transit to the car – it would take for the road system to start to ‘fail’.

Given that we have accommodated growth in the region though the expansion of transit, and we already have a heavily used road system for motor vehicles, it likely won’t take many to switch from transit to driving to create significant problems overall for transportation.

Just imagine a worsening problem for goods movement and deliveries as we do more online consumption and the roads become increasingly full – beyond the pre-covid use.  We actually need more people to switch the other way – from cars to transit – just to accommodate the additional impact of home delivery.

Unfortunately, ‘switchers’ will assume that the per-trip cost of using the road will be the same as pre-covid – i.e. free – and will do what people did with the ‘free parking’ that became available at hospitals and in zones with meters or resident-only parking. They will fill it up almost immediately, they abuse it.

We know that the ‘freeway’ is not free, even if the marginal cost for use is zero. We’ve seen that ‘free’ is almost always abused, quickly making the real cost apparent. Congestion, pollution and injuries beyond what a balanced transportation system would provide are just others ways of paying.

Therefore, road pricing that helps pay for maintaining transit, given that it relieves the pressure on the overall road system and accommodates economic growth at lower cost, is a bargain.  Curb pricing too.

So this is what we need now from the modelers: Give us a sense of what the cost (in terms of congestion and loss of options) will be if switching occurs from transit to car. How much, how many and how fast will it take for our transportation system to get viscerally and objectively worse? It may not be a single number, but we need some relatively simple way to covey it.

What is it?

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The gifted and talented CBC videographer Uytae Lee has produced  a compelling short video about the crisis facing public transit after the Covid-19 pandemic. With an urban design background and a degree from Dalhousie University’s Community Design program, Uytae Lee has the “About Here” YouTube channel that has a plethora of videos about urban issues and planning in Vancouver.

In his latest video that already has over 3,000 views,  Lee looks at the issues around transit in the post-covid world, where those private vehicles will look like viable options for safe travel and less chance of virus contagion. He compares this next phase of the pandemic to that experienced in China after the 2003 SARS pandemic, where public transit usage plummeted from 40 percent of the population to 24 percent, while private automobile use skyrocketed.

Lee gets full points for referencing the region’s 1991 Transport 2021 Long Term Transportation Plan which laid out the framework for regional transit. At that time only 9 percent of people took transit and 83 percent drove. Current figure show that 20 percent now use transit and vehicular use is down to 65 percent.

If the  transit system is not well used in the post pandemic years it will not be able to sustain the level of service for those that rely on it. More private vehicles on the road create more congestion, pollution and is less equitable for society.

Jeffrey Tumlin, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is looking to Taiwan and Seoul for best practices in managing public transit in the post Covid period. Tumlin is referencing this article by Eric Jaffe that sees the health of public transit being as important as the reboot of the economy.

As Tumlin states:” If San Francisco retreats in a fear-based way to private cars, the city dies with that, including the economy. Why? Because we can’t move more cars. That’s a fundamental geometrical limit. We can’t move more cars in the space we have.… For San Francisco to come back as San Francisco we have to find ways to feel safe and comfortable in shared spaces or the city doesn’t work.”

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It was in the Sun‘s lead article today, but it might get missed:

There were just 11 new cases reported between noon Sunday and noon Monday — despite an increase in the amount of testing being done — and no evidence of any transmission on public transit, Henry said.

Two qualifications: (1) Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  (2) Over what time did that statement hold true?

Further, has there been any example of community transfer on transit, in Vancouver or elsewhere, and under what circumstances?

It seems obvious on one hand that crowded public transit should facilitate transmission.  But on the other, why aren’t there many more proven examples of it – hotspots in particular – given that some of the places where the virus has been most effectively contained – Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore – have some of the busiest transit systems on which their cities are dependent?   It’s a question that goes hand-in-hand with the density debate, as Sandy discusses in the post below.

If TransLink is to get back to anything like normal service in the next few months, it will depend on the public’s confidence (and willingness to follow protocols) in the safety (or minimal risk) of the transit system.

“No evidence of any transmission” is a very good place to start.

 

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PT: As predicted, the rationale for more driving (and priorizing road space for it) is underway – this one from our own Bob on whether to keep the Beach flow way:

 

Bob: This Bloomberg article suggests that the last thing we should be doing is removing road space:

…..The auto industry is already seeing a couple of positive signs in this regard. In the first two weeks of April. Cars.com’s unique visitors bounced back from late-March doldrums. According to a recent survey by the vehicle-shopping website, 20% of people searching for a car said they don’t own one and had been using public transit or ride hailing. They might buy a set of wheels to be safer from a pandemic that could linger well into the year, Cars.com Chief Executive Officer Alex Vetter said.

“Covid has pushed more people who don’t own a car to consider purchasing one,” Vetter said by phone. “The primary reason given was to avoid public transit and because of a lack of trust in ride sharing.”…

PT: Maybe if we try we can beat our previous record for carbon emissions.

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