Cycling
May 8, 2018

Burrard Bridge: The Last Piece (with pigeons)

This looks to be the final piece of the Burrard Bridge upgrade — a masterpiece of engineering design: Complete separation of multiple modes while simultaneously addressing issues of infrastructure, heritage, safety, means prevention and traffic flow.
A few blocks on the south side of Pacific from Burrard to Howe remained unfinished until recently.  Now, as the pigeons quickly discovered, even the grass is planted.

Bridge drivers are still figuring out the new lane flows.  Here, for instance, north-bound at Pacific, there are two right-hand-turn lanes.  But (very Canadian-like), drivers tend to queue in the longer line-up at the curb, not realizing they have a choice.

Which means there is underutilized capacity for even smoother traffic flows once drivers figure out their options.
We haven’t seen any data yet to compare the pre- and post-upgrade traffic flows — but anecdotally, bridge traffic seems to be flowing better. Certainly more safely, and presumably happier.
So where oh where are the ‘mageddon predictors, who maintained that taking away two lanes from the bridge deck for bike and ped crossings could only lead to (all together now) Carmegeddon!

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From Michael Alexander:
So a bunch of us rode across the Burrard bridge going north. After months of construction, workers are busy removing the fences and barriers on the east side, and the fabulous new bike lane and pedestrian walk is just opening.
 
As I cross the intersection with Pacific Boulevard, for some reason I drop my chain, so I’m standing there wiping my greasy fingers on the only thing available — the top of a traffic barrier– when a grizzled worker walks up  and hands me a paper napkin.
 
Flabbergasted , I just look at him and say thank you so much. And then I think about the riding experience we’ve just had, and I say, “You guys have done such a fabulous, fabulous job on this project.” And he says, “Well, everybody wants a fabulous job and they all want it done immediately.” and I said, “I can be very patient about about this because I know that really good work takes time and thank you, thank you, thank you.”
 
Then I joined my friends at Musette Caffé, the cyclist coffeehouse two blocks up Burrard, and over delicious Cortados, we talked about what fantastic public works Vancouver does, compared to other North American cities.
 

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Irony Alert: the barrier fencing – an addition that most heritage advocates and others feared – became the needed justification for the restoration of Burrard Bridge’s best heritage feature.

More backstory: Burrard Bridge was over-designed – at least for its time.  Since it was being built during the Depression of the 1930s, it could have justifiably been much more utilitarian.
But its origins were in the late 1920s, as another recommendation of the Bartholomew Plan, where the bridge would be a gateway to the west side, to the downtown and, from the water, to False Creek, even though that was still an industrial basin.  As a public works project, it was a chance to make an optimistic statement about the city.
So Sharp and Thompson, architects, were commissioned to come up with something special in the Art Deco styling of the time, with abundant references to the emerging metropolis of the West Coast, its nautical history, and subtly, a homage to the soldiers of The Great War, some for whom, like Major J.R. Grant, the bridge’s engineer, it was still a recent and personal memory.
Given the view to English Bay, even the concrete balustrades were designed so that at a certain speed for automobiles, the railings would seem to disappear.
Don Luxton, the heritage consultant, recognized the obligation to be rigorous in meeting heritage standards for such a singular engineering and architectural work, even at additional cost.  The balustrades had to be completely rebuilt, and testing for the new ones was extensive.  Three different precast concrete companies were commissioned.  Details had to be consistent with the original design, with a high level of finish (even ironically the original rough finishes in the form work, done with wooden planks.)


But there was no budget for the concrete posts and lamps that decorated the balustrades and provided pedestrian lighting.  Still, the bridge as much as possible would be restored to its original look … until those concerned with suicide prevention convinced council that barrier fencing (known as ‘means prevention’) should be added to the bridge.  The proposal horrified some, who could see that such a structure would profoundly alter the look and feel of the bridge deck.  Council, after hearing concerns but sticking with the requirement for a barrier, told stakeholders to come back with a design all could live with.
The first schemes were not good.  “We hated all of them,” says Luxton. “Guantanamo” was the description of architect Roger Hughes on the Urban Design Panel, dismissing the idea of a long horizontal fence of metal bars.  Without some vertical breaks, there would be no relief, no rhythm against the skyline.
But there was a solution: if the original posts supporting the lamps were added, the fence itself would not dominate so much.  And so the money was found to do so.
Luxton gives credit to James Emery of Iredale Architecture, the architect on the bridge project, with doing a masterful job of making the fence work.  He designed the lightest, most delicate structure that could possibly work, even though it was a challenge to construct because of its very lightness.  (The bars, for instance, are set far enough part to allow cameras to get a clear shot.)

The result in the end was better than everyone thought it would be. Some even believe it’s part of the original design.
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Don Luxton, the heritage consultant for the Burrard Bridge project, reflects back on how we got here – and how we almost didn’t.

There was no doubt the Burrard Bridge and its intersections were going to change.  That had been true since the 1970s when the expectation was that the intersections should function as much as possible like freeway interchanges – as did the Granville Bridge.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the City purchased the ‘Kettle of Fish’ restaurant and some adjacent land at the southeast corner of Pacific and Burrard in order to construct a separate exit ramp that would seamlessly join with Hornby, rather like the Seymour ramp does on the Granville Bridge.  An upgrade of the southern intersection maintained as much as possible the freeflow of traffic on curving arterials.
A capital plan passed by voters approved $50 million for reconstruction and seismic upgrade of the bridge – which was by now visibly deteriorating.  Pieces of concrete would fall off; rebar was exposed; sidewalks were eroding.
There was sufficient money to serve cyclists by widening the bridge with outriggers if council considered that a priority.  In response, the heritage community (being led by people like Don Luxton) sounded the alarm.  Such a change to the physical look of the bridge would hopelessly compromise one of the only art deco bridges in North America.
But one of the NPA councillors (yup, me) concerned with both changes in the look of the bridge and unnecessary costs for widening convinced a bare majority of his colleagues to at least try out an experiment: close one of the lanes for cyclists to see if that could work.
It didn’t.  The 1996 closure, pushed forward without sufficient planning and notification, was a media gong show.  Cell phones were just coming in, and affluent motorists, stuck in traffic, had time to call up the mayor’s office with their harshly stated opinions.


While the one-week experiment was a considered a failure (even though traffic, by the end of the week, had adjusted fairly well), it at least stopped any proposal for widening the bridge until further study has been done.  And boy, were there studies – seemingly endless ideas for different configurations and even additional crossings.
However, a study around 2000 of all the False Creek crossings concluded that cycling and pedestrian lanes were needed in both directions on each side of the bridge.  In the meantime, costs were escalating: outriggers went from $13 to $60 million in price.  But no decision was made – until a new council decided to try another lane-closure experiment:

By the time the Gregor Robertson’s Vision council tried new trial bike lanes in 2009, Price believes a few important things had changed.
The city had created a network of non-separated lanes on side streets, helping to support a growing community of cyclists who now wanted to use the bridge safely.
The engineering and planning departments also had a better understanding of how to integrate bike lanes without completely infuriating drivers.
And the people at City Hall knew that they needed to do a much better job of informing the public about the change.

  • CBC

 
All through the debate, Luxton and the heritage community were vocal in their insistence on not widening the bridge, reinforcing a change that was already occurring in the engineering department.  As Don notes, “Engineers are not monolithic in their thinking; they can be extraordinarily creative, given the mandate and resources.”
Finally they were.  The bridge would be have to be seismically upgraded, the deterioration addressed, bike lanes and sidewalks installed on both sides of the right-of-way, traffic capacity maintained, intersections redesigned for safety and separation – and all within in the original footprint of the span.
And of course, the heritage of the bridge enhanced, to bring it back more to the original look.  Except for one thing: there was no money to reinstall the decorative pedestrian lights and the posts on which they sat.

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“A civic triumph.”
That’s how Don Luxton, the heritage consultant for the Burrard Bridge project, characterizes the results.  And as both a heritage activist and professional consultant on over 30 years of projects, he has earned his perspective.

Don was brought in as part of the team with Associated Engineering, the lead consultants for the bridge project.  But he emphasizes that everyone, from city engineers to civic leaders and advisers, were determined to bring back a deteriorating piece of infrastructure to its former glory.
“From day one,” says Don, “we looked at it as a heritage conservation project.  Every intervention was assessed against heritage standards and guidelines for engineering works.”
Burrard Bridge wasn’t ‘value engineered’ to death.  When resources were needed, money was found – and people have noticed.  “Almost unanimously, Vancouverites tell me that it has turned out better than they expected, “says Don. “It feels more civilized, more European.  Pedestrians in particular no longer feel shoved to one side of a highway bridge.”
“From an engineering, traffic safety, functionality, heritage, aesthetic and civic perspective,  I’d give it an A plus.  It has achieved everything and more than we expected.”
This week, we’ll explore the heritage aspects of the Burrard Bridge with Don – and how the project has raised the bar for every subsequent intervention.

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A fascinating model (if you’re into this kind of thing) to demonstrate the impacts of intersection redesign at Pacific and Burrard.  (Thanks to Paul Storer, the Manager of Transportation Design at the City of Vancouver.)

The City aimed to maintain capacity of the bridge – but improve traffic flow to enhance safety while also accommodating other users, notably pedestrians and cyclists, with enhanced and separated rights-of-way.
When you focus your attention on particular movements at this particular time of day (for instance, the northbound traffic in the southeast lanes on the bridge), you can see right away how much less back-up there is.  On the other hand, there seems to be more in the southbound lanes on Burrard Street.
Another big difference is on Pacific, west of Burrard. Before the changes there was significant back-up for east-bound traffic wanting to get on to the bridge.  During construction, traffic often lined up for several blocks, sometimes to Jervis.  In the improved redesign, there’s very little congestion – again, at this time of day.
As real-wold results come in and drivers experience a much-improved traffic flow, it will be most interesting to hear from those who vociferously complained about the rebuild, especially because of that back-up on Pacific.  Negative comments were continuous, petitions were started.  ‘Take out the bike lanes!’
No doubt those with the loudest voices will acknowledge that perhaps they were mistaken.  No doubt.

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In 2014, Vancouver pioneered a first in North American intersection design: protected phasing. At the south end of the Burrard Bridge, each mode – vehicle, bike, ped – was separated and given its own phased lighting though Burrard and Cornwall.

Now the same thing will happen on the north end at Pacific.
The transportation engineers never hesitate in explaining why they could confidently reduce the number of lanes on the centre span of the bridge to vehicles without inducing intolerable congestion.  It’s because traffic flow is determined by the capacity of the intersections – effective meters on demand – not the number of lanes between them.  So they widened the north intersection to create more turn lanes while also extending the merge lane to handle the flow once on the bridge.

 
Vancouverites didn’t appreciate the significance of Burrard and Cornwall because all the attention was on the changes occurring further down the road – the closure of Point Grey Road to through vehicle traffic.  The spillover from that controversy created a lot of sensitivity among the stakeholders when the full redesign of the bridge and north intersection was being discussed – but the success of the southern intersection alleviated a lot of anxiety.*
That gives us a reason to post one of the best videos produced by Kathleen Corey and Brian Gould – Seacycles – that shows rather than tells how it all works so beautifully.

 
*What happened to all the outrage over the impact of changes to Point Grey Road?  It’s an old story: carmageddon predicted, and then never occurring.  If anything, traffic from Cornwall to Macdonald seems smoother than ever.  Lives have not been lost.  Chaos has not occurred.  So disappointing.
 
 

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One of the biggest undertakings in the Burrard Bridge project was one we never really saw.  And it had nothing to do with bicycles.

It was mostly below grade or underground.
The replacement of water and sewerage lines is a big deal.  And for many months whole lanes of Burrard Street south of Davie were taken up to do it.
We take for granted, thank god, this water system that is essential for our existence as a city.  But there has been a long-term commitment by every council to maintenance and replacement of those pipes – and this project reflects that.
More later.

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City Engineer Jerry Dobrovolny, when asked about controversy surrounding changes to the Burrard Bridge, notes that this has always been the case.
Prior to construction of the bridge in 1932, there was a referendum to approve the cost (probably in the late 1920s).  It was defeated.
Why?  Because the original design lacked room for pedestrian crossings and made no accommodation for streetcars.  Vancouverites weren’t going to settle for that.  The trestle across False Creek just to the east (removed in 1982) had been built only for the railway, and the people of Vancouver, even then, had higher priorities.  Like being able to cross False Creek on foot.
The Bartholomew Plan of 1929 proposed an extension of the streetcar system for a new bridge extending Burrard to Cedar Street (still the name of the road past 16th Avenue), providing for a new streetcar line along Cornwall to Stephens.

So the design by architect G.L. Thornton Sharp and engineer John Grant not only had sidewalks on the bridge deck but, in the piers below, cutaways to accommodate tracks for a streetcar line that, sadly, was never built.

 
 

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