Urbanism
April 30, 2018

Ms. Sinenomine~Why "Walkability" Needs to be Redefined


There has been a very valuable discussion on Twitter from Ms. Sinenomine about the use of the term “Walkability”.
She is well worth a follow, and presents a stalwart and stark view of how the language we use focuses away from the root of accessibility and universal acceptance. She states the obvious: we need to do better at ensuring that the most vulnerable have the same access and social equity to sidewalk pavements and public spaces, and we must start doing that now.

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Even the magazine The Economist is weighing in on the importance of Vancouver’s Chinatown as a historic and very special cultural place deeply rooted in the birth and development of this country.  One of the positive things that has happened with the impetus to build condominiums in Chinatown is the rise of  a new generation of articulate, smart and savvy young professionals that grew up in or coming to Chinatown,  understanding the essence of this place in a very rooted way.
Urbanist Melody Ma is one of those young professionals interviewed by the Economist, and talked about the Chinatown neighbourhood not really changing until after the 2010 Winter Olympics. At that time “the downtown area was forested with new condominiums” and prices have risen by close to 60 per cent in the last three years. While Chinatown was avoided by developers in the past, development applications such as the nine storey luxury apartments proposed for 105 Keefer threaten to undermine Chinatown’s cultural identity.

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It is very hard to believe that we still need to be reminded about the importance of food security and ensuring that our agricultural land, which in Metro Vancouver is the finest arable land in Canada, is protected for future generations.
Price Tags Vancouver has been tracking the unbelievable story of the City of Richmond Mayor and Council allowing mansions of over 10,783 square feet in size to be built on agricultural land that is over one half-acre in size. These “farms” are being bought at an agricultural land price as they are in the Agricultural Land Reserve, then redeveloped with large mansions and then quickly turn into multi-million dollar gated estates, exempt from the foreign buyer’s tax (they are on agricultural land) with a large land lift as these countrified estates demand top dollar for offshore buyers. These lands will never return to agricultural use and are now economically out of the reach of farming buyers.

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If you picked up Friday’s Vancouver Sun, you were treated to a front page advertisement from Hyundai in bold letters proclaiming that the 2018 Sonata was “Safe and Sexy”.
So what exactly does that mean? In the very tiny print, this vehicle is a “top safety pick” IF equipped with autonomous emergency braking AND LED headlights. It has been suggested that up to 80 per cent of low beam headlights might not provide adequate stopping distances at speeds above 40 miles per hour according to the American Automobile Association.  Pedestrian deaths were up nearly 10 per cent in the United States in 2015, but that was largely due to distracted drivers, not dim headlights. As many pedestrians in low light situations will attest, the light bounce of the new LED headlights make visibility extremely difficult when using crosswalks on streets.
 

The  pedestrian beware message is echoed by Mercedes in this 2017  commercial spot below that shows a group of muscle cars ponying up at a pedestrian crosswalk and forcing an unfortunate pedestrian to run fast or risk getting mowed down. It is all part of a campaign to sell vehicles as dominant users of the street and also reminds active transportation users that vehicles still have the last word in any interaction. And it is also a reminder that as autonomous vehicles roll out that it is not just the safety of the vehicle’s occupant that must be paramount, but the safety of the most vulnerable street user that must count too.
 

 
 

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Autonomous Vehicles (or AVs) were to make life easier with less road crashes and carnage. Nearly 38,000 people in the United States are annually killed on roads, and that number is rising. Autonomous vehicles would enable transportation for people who did not have drivers’ licences, and also dealt with the pesky problem of  drivers getting older. Statistics Canada figures from 2009 show that almost 28 per cent of drivers over the age of 65 are driving with some form of dementia. Autonomous vehicles would allow everyone to be mobile that could afford to use their services.
Transportation experts have continually pointed out that despite the positives of universal access to AVs there are some fundamental problems. Autonomous vehicles do not get rid of congestion, they just add to it. And while there may be less parked cars in downtowns and in cities, the streets may be designed to allow for the flow of autonomous vehicles and may not be inclusive of active transportation users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Perhaps that is the fundamental question: are we so engaged by this shiny new technology that human-powered active transportation and human based design of place and cities will be suppressed for the latest iteration of motordom?
In Tempe Arizona a homeless lady with her bicycle was struck and killed by an autonomous Uber. Sadly as reported in City Lab  by David Alpert, the police reported that the lady was not in a crosswalk, and the fatal road violence was blamed upon the dead victim. Nine other pedestrians had died in Arizona that week, but this death, by an autonomous vehicle was the one that garnered attention. But if all road deaths are reduced by 90 per cent, is that a reason to embrace this technology? “The woman was, indeed, not in a crosswalk. Bizarrely, there is a direct, curving brick path through the area, but it’s strictly ornamental: Pedestrians are forbidden from using it, and there are multiple signs posted to tell people not to use the path. The path follows what seems to be the most logical route to a nearby bus stop, and crosses the roads at narrower (and thus less harrowing) spots than the official crosswalk, which requires traversing seven lanes, counting turn lanes.This is the engineering reality of much of Tempe, and much of suburban America: Designers create inhospitable environments in which to walk, then try to prohibit walking in the least inhospitable parts of those environments. And often, when someone is killed, police rush to exonerate the driver.”
The Federation of International Pedestrians has been resolute in saying that no death is acceptable, and has insisted that autonomous vehicles be programmed to save all road users, not just the ones in the vehicle. There is an interest in adopting edicts like “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” which prioritizes people’s lives over the vehicle occupants. But as Alpert observes “We can insist that any pedestrian death is not acceptable, just as we do for aviation, where all incidents are studied intently, and commercial aviation deaths worldwide have plummeted from 2,469 people in 55 crashes in 1972 to just 44 fatalities—and none in a passenger jet—worldwide in 2017. There have been zero deaths on U.S. airlines since 2009.” 
It is time to stop justifying deaths on roads because of “speed” or “convenience”.  “Let this, the first recorded pedestrian killed by an autonomous car, set a better example for what we expect of our roads, and the technologies transforming them.”

 

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With a death of a pedestrian the seemingly relentless march forward of autonomous vehicles has taken a pause as reported by the New York Times.  From a legislative standpoint autonomous vehicles (AVs) are operating in a piece meal legal environment, and the state of Arizona was an early adopter, inviting these vehicles  to be tested on the state’s road network in a “regulation free zone.  “Then on Sunday night, an autonomous car operated by Uber — and with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel — struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Ariz. It was believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology. The company quickly suspended testing in Tempe as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. The accident was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, and governments are still trying to figure out how to regulate it.”
The Uber car, a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle outfitted with the company’s sensing system, was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel but carrying no passengers when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, on Sunday around 10 p.m. Sgt. Ronald Elcock, a Tempe police spokesman, said during a news conference that a preliminary investigation showed that the vehicle was moving around 40 miles per hour when it struck Ms. Herzberg, who was walking with her bicycle on the street. He said it did not appear as though the car had slowed down before impact and that the Uber safety driver had shown no signs of impairment. The weather was clear and dry.
There has been early discussion on the computer based “ethics” of the autonomous vehicle, and the fact that the vehicle was being designed to save its occupants first. Autonomous vehicles have been hailed as way to stem the annual deaths of over 37,000 (2016 figures) people on the road by safer, logical control. But the technology is only a decade old, and “now starting to experience the unpredictable situations that drivers can face.”
This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. While autonomous vehicle testing has temporarily halted with this death, investigators  are examining what led to this vehicle’s failure to recognize the pedestrian. Vehicle developers have expressed challenges in teaching the systems to adjust for unpredictable human behaviour. As a professor at Arizona State University expressed “We’ve imagined an event like this as a huge inflection point for the technology and the companies advocating for it,” he said. “They’re going to have to do a lot to prove that the technology is safe.”

 
 
 

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It’s no surprise to see that Elon Musk is getting a flat review for his concept of tunnelling across North America as this article from Fast Company discusses. There is a growing uneasiness of someone trying to solve a problem that never really exists. The aptly named Boring Company plans  a transcontinental tunnel to make personal cars go faster and quicker, so named by transportation writer  Jarrett Walker as “elite projection, the belief among relatively fortunate and influential people who what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”
When Culver City’s city council heard a 45 minute presentation on the first leg of the tunnel between Hawthorne California to West Los Angeles, it may have dawned on them that this new tunnel proposal replicates Musk’s own personal journey to work from Los Angeles to Hawthorne. “Conceived by Musk in 2016 in an effort to circumvent traffic, Boring Company’s putative purpose is to construct networks of subterranean tunnels in California, Chicago, and the East Coast, through which personal cars and multi-passenger “pods” would travel on electric skates at speeds hovering around 125 to 150 miles per hour, with no stops between origin and destination. Beneath the veneer of its otherworldly grandeur, however, the company has had little to show for itself, investing far more in publicity gambits—namely, its buzzing campaign to sell branded flamethrowers—than in its own blueprint.”
But what is the problem that Musk and his boring tunnel was trying to solve? And why does the Boring company not want any governmental subsidies or public investment? Is it to completely control the “boring ground” space?  “The evidence that the Boring Company will deliver on its central promise of mitigating traffic appears to be sparse. Theoretically, one or more additional layers of roads would reduce the number of cars on surface streets, thereby decongesting them. The company, however, has neglected to address the mechanics of the surface-level points of entry and exit above the tunnel—on-ramps, of sorts, that could far too easily cause jams.”
The way to reduce traffic is to reduce cars on the road, not to offer cars the chance to burrow below where they will still emerge into traffic once they pop up to the surface like prairie gophers. Relieving congestion means moving away from the use of the personal automobile, not  burrowing it. There are also suggestions that this private tunnel network will serve only the wealthy Los Angeles West Side, and include a tiered pricing model. Instead of connecting neighbourhoods that use transportation for shops and services, the Boring tunnel threatens to exclude  the poor neighbourhoods that will have no access to the tunnel. While the Boring Company continues to take up the time on the plan to privatize a car burrow below ground, municipal organizations should consider whether the private car is part of any answer to future smart movement and congestion.
 

 

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Below are excerpts from a review-essay in the New York Review of Books about a very disturbing new book called The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Liveright, 345 pp., $27.95). The article by Jason DeParle is behind a paywall. I have highlighted some key sentences.

‘In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein writes: “Residential segregation was created by state action,” he writes, not merely by amorphous “societal” influences. While private discrimination also deserves some share of the blame, Rothstein shows that “racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments…segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”
‘…Government agencies used public housing to clear mixed neighborhoods and create segregated ones. Governments built highways as buffers to keep the races apart. They used federal mortgage insurance to usher in an era of suburbanization on the condition that developers keep blacks out...
‘The demand for segregation was made plain in workaday documents like the Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting Manual, which specified that loans should be made in neighborhoods that “continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes” but not in those vulnerable to the influx of “inharmonious racial groups.” A New Deal agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, drew color-coded maps with neighborhoods occupied by whites shaded green and approved for loans and black areas marked red and denied credit—the original “redlining.”
‘…The FHA financed Levittown, the emblem of postwar suburbanization, on the condition that none of its 17,500 homes be sold to blacks. The policies on black and white were spelled out in black and white.
‘…De jure segregation is long gone from the books, but its significance is more than historical. The conditions it created endure. American cities remain highly segregated. Schools are highly unequal. Huge gaps in wealth persist between blacks and whites, largely driven by differences in home equity.
‘Among the government’s tools for imposing segregation, few were as powerful as public housing, which both reinforced color lines and drew them where they hadn’t existed. Public housing typically conjures high-rise black ghettos. But it started during the Depression mostly to help working-class whites. The first agency to build public housing was the Public Works Administration, which was launched in 1933…
‘Starting during the New Deal and accelerating in the postwar years, the government transformed American life with a campaign to promote homeownership and suburbanization. But the sale of the American Dream explicitly excluded blacks.
The FHA didn’t segregate America just one loan at a time. By underwriting mass developments, Rothstein writes, it created “entire subdivisions, in many cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white suburbs.” None was more celebrated than Levittown, an ingenious solution to the postwar housing shortage—thousands of affordable, mass-produced homes offered to veterans with no down payment. But only the government’s promise to insure the mortgages allowed William Levitt to secure the construction loans. “We are 100 percent dependent on Government,” he said. Among the FHA’s conditions, in Levittown and other mass projects, was that no homes be sold to blacks …
‘Blacks have about 60 percent of the family income of whites, but less than 10 percent of the wealth—a huge gap and one that impedes advancement. Nest eggs finance education; they tame emergencies…
‘The Color of Law ends at the Nixon administration. A lot has changed since then. The growth of the black middle class and better (if not great) fair housing enforcement has reduced segregation, although it remains high. A standard segregation measure, the “dissimilarity index,” peaked in 1970 at 79 (meaning that 79 percent of blacks in a typical metro area would need to move to achieve an even distribution). By 2010 the figure had fallen to 59. Cities are divided in new ethnic and economic ways. Latinos outnumber blacks, and segregation by income has soared—largely from rich families flocking to rich neighborhoods. The changing landscape affects access to opportunity in ways still not fully understood.’

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While Vancouverites has recovered from a surprising week of snow in February, people in Winnipeg are still digging out. But what is interesting is the difference in snow removal policy for sidewalks in Winnipeg as compared to Vancouver.
And guess what~Winnipeg actually has snow plows designed with the correct size of blade to shovel out walks and make pedestrians more comfortable on sidewalks. As reported on Global News   the City of Winnipeg  gives their crews a 36 hour window for priority cleaning, and that includes sidewalks, which just like roads are labelled priority one or priority two. After a blizzard this week the City of Winnipeg  will be clearing 2,900 kilometers of sidewalks stating “The sidewalks are done the same way as the streets”.
While Vancouver makes it the responsibility of residents to clean the section of sidewalk in front of their house, and makes business owners responsible for the areas in front of their store fronts, many witnessed that the  City of Vancouver did not respond equitably by  clearing their own snowy sidewalks adjacent to city parks and services.  City of Vancouver~if Winnipeg can clean up their sidewalks to make it safer for walking citizens, why can’t you? Kudos to Winnipeg for making it safer, more comfortable and convenient for pedestrians to  get around on sidewalks cleared of snow. After all, every trip begins with a walk, even in winter.

 
 
 

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From the Daily Durning~as reported in the Financial Post  “Foreign inflows are distorting Canada’s already constrained housing market and aren’t the kind of investment the country needs, the chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada said. “We do not need foreign capital using Canadian real estate as a piggy bank,” David McKay, said Tuesday at a bank conference in New York hosted by the Toronto-based lender. “If capital is coming in to sit in a home, unproductively, and is distorting your marketplace and the livelihood of your residents — no thank you.”
“Toronto, Canada’s biggest housing market, has been correcting over the past few months amid a slew of regulations put in place to steady booming prices and increasing debt. Toronto home sales fell 35 per cent in February from a year earlier, marking the weakest month of sales in nine years, though benchmark prices were up 3.2 per cent on the year, according to data released Tuesday by the Toronto Real Estate Board.McKay, whose bank is Canada’s largest mortgage lender, says he’s supportive of government taxes and other measures targeting foreign buyers, as well as other regulatory efforts to cool the country’s housing market. He’s seeing some impacts from these rule changes, with “a little bit more healthy dynamics.”
A surge of foreign money into Canadian housing had been adding “gasoline” to markets in Vancouver and Toronto, McKay said. He identified a “cocktail of factors” that led to unconstrained growth of Toronto and Vancouver home prices, including a growing population, land constraints, lack of supply and highly stimulative interest rates that caused people to funnel more disposable income into their homes in addition to foreign money.”

 
 

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