Vancouver Deputy Mayor Heather Deal has a number of portfolios – usually all the ways to make sure our City is becoming delightful – including Arts & Culture. She is passionate about the topic and a Councillor Liaison to the Arts & Culture Policy Council so I asked her to tell me more. She shared stories about her conversations with Vancouverites on public art. 1. Poodle on a Stick

Poodle (no official name) by Gisele Amantea got negative media when someone from the area complained that Main Street isn’t a poodle neighbourhood. Which is awesome because public art got people talking about the identity of their neighbourhood.

There were also complaints about cost and it not being a local artist (both based on inaccurate reporting).

(TP note: How many of our public art pieces have their own Twitter account? Follow @MainStPoodle)

When people complain to me about the poodle, I ask them what piece of public art they do like.

2. A-mazing Laughter

9/10 answer: A-mazing Laughter at English Bay – a Vancouver Biennale piece. So I ask them 3 questions about it:

Does it reflect the West End?

How much did cost?

Where is the artist from?

No one can answer that. Not one person to date.

(TP: I was able to answer all 3 – including who negotiated the counteroffer and donated it.)

3. The Third Piece

Then I ask for opinions about a third piece of public art. Very few can name one. Some come up with Myfanwy MacLeod’s The Birds in Olympic Village.

Some can name Giants by OSGEMEOS on Granville Island – another biennale piece from an international artist team.

4. I love it when people talk about our city.

Art is a great place to start that conversation. Learn about the hundreds of pieces of public art in Vancouver at the City’s website here.

5. Notice art.

Think about whether you like it or don’t. Look it up and learn about the artist and their inspiration.

Did you know that the poodle was made by an artist living in the region at the time and that it was inspired by the antique shops on Main Street? (TP: I had no idea.)

We also want to encourage people to think about what they like and want in public spaces such as art (murals, pieces, etc.) and what type of programmed space, festivals, and unprogrammed squares or plazas they’d like.

Ask yourself: Do you want to be entertained? Amused? Challenged?

Reminded of something in our history, negative or positive?

Awed? Do you want to be able to interact with it?

Does it compel you to take a selfie with it?

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Even though Adam Fitch is working up in Thompson-Nicola, he’s keeping his hand in when it comes to Lower Mainland issues.  Notably, on the op-ed page of the Vancouver Sun today:

The most appropriate solution (for rapid-transit to UBC), with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e. Surrey, etc.) and time frame (10 years from now to build the subway at a minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue to UBC. Compare this route with a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails.

And in my email box, with this proposal to elevate Robson Square:

  • A simple circular plaza, elevated over Robson Street – a large new space for gathering and temporary installations
  • Accessed by stairs and spiral ramps, contains numerous glass panels to minimize shading
  • Allows buses to pass through on Robson Street.
  • Provides shade and weather protection on Robson Street.
  • Enables pedestrian bridges over Hornby Street and Howe Street, to connect to adjacent buildings – Sears/Nordstroms, for example
  • An iconic piece of architecture.


[Oh look over there: Isn’t that Cornelia Oberlander reaching for a pitchfork?)

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PART 5, the conclusion, of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street. 

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.  Part 4 is here.


Conclusion: Conceptualizing and Understanding Transit

This isn’t just about Robson Street. It’s actually about how transit is understood, what its purpose is, and how it creates and interacts with vibrant, pedestrian‑oriented urban spaces.

One justification for choosing to close Robson to transit might be found in the Transportation Plan’s “hierarchy of modes.” According to this, Vancouver’s priorities for moving people are:

  1. Walking
  2. Cycling
  3. Transit
  4. Taxi / Commercial Transport / Shared Vehicles
  5. Private Automobiles

This is a strong policy statement, but there’s a danger of applying it too glibly. There’s a need to reflect on what transit is and how it relates to other modes. The placement of transit in the middle of the hierarchy is apt. When setting targets, transit is, along with walking and cycling, a desired way to move people. But, when it comes to planning pedestrian‑friendly spaces, transit is something to be pushed away, lumped in with private autos. The statement seems to be that as many people as possible should ride transit, but it should be kept out of sight.

First, this ignores the contribution transit makes to an active and vibrant pedestrian realm. Many urbanists are quick to praise Vancouver’s urban form—a “streetcar city” with walkable linear corridors throughout the city—but dismissive of Vancouver’s current transit network, and unaware of the geometry that sustains it.

The City’s summertime street‑closure program, Viva Vancouver, for instance, claims to be about “reducing cars on city streets,” but its highest profile “activations” take place on transit streets, particularly the Granville transit mall. The fact that our best pedestrian streets are also transit streets isn’t a coincidence, but at the moment it’s treated only as an inconvenience.


But, even more importantly, understanding modes as discrete choices ignores that a major purpose of transit is—as Jarrett Walker argues in Human Transit—to accelerate the pedestrian. Transit uniquely provides personal mobility that allows travel across the entire transit network as a pedestrian, giving rise to strong pedestrian spaces across the entire city. If we close Robson Square to transit, we’re prioritizing the pedestrian experience on one block over the experience of travelling across the city as an “accelerated pedestrian.”

Vancouver is on the leading edge of an issue that many cities are going to have to confront: in dense cities moving toward sustainable mobility, hard choices have to be made about how road space is allocated. A conversation about the purpose, role and structure of public transit needs to happen very early in the process; without that, we’re pretending that conflicts can be avoided and that “careful planning” will let us achieve everything we want.

If Vancouver can’t contemplate a public square with transit running through it, then it’s limiting the effectiveness and future ridership potential of transit service through some of its densest neighbourhoods. But, more broadly, if cities, urbanists, planners, architects and others don’t understand transit, then we’ll continue to be speaking different languages. The #5 Robson will be forever circling the square, and we’ll still be trying to square the circle of how to meet ambitious targets for increased transit ridership.

This misunderstanding isn’t deliberate or malevolent; rather, it’s structural. Vancouver is a wonderful and frustrating place for transit. We have an extraordinarily integrated transportation system, but it depends on complex relationships between numerous municipalities and regional and provincial governments. Everyone supports more and better transit, but a consensus on how to plan, deliver and pay for it remains elusive.

We have strong and ambitious goals for an expanded frequent transit network but few clear paths of how to get there. Robson Street is a small piece of this bigger picture. Building transit ridership in Vancouver depends on a fast, frequent and legible transit network, and building and maintaining that network is a challenge shared by all the players who have a stake in Vancouver’s transit system.

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PART 4 of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street. 

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.


Future Possibilities

The City mentions that Translink will be conducting a “service review” of the Downtown core, once again suggesting that “careful planning” will give us a better bus route if Robson Square is closed. But, in fact, a service review that focuses on building transit’s ridership is likely to find that Robson Square is an even more important transit route than it is today. Rather than “helping guide improved bus routes,” closing the street to transit actually means closing the door to possible improvements.

An immediate improvement to the #5 line, for instance, would extend it to Waterfront Station and route via Granville both ways instead of making a one‑way loop on Richards.

This requires no new trolley wire or other infrastructure, but it would require a commitment from the City to provide more consistent transit service on Granville (the reason the #5 has been routed via Richards is that when Granville is closed, all other southbound services are rerouted to Howe, but the turn from Howe to Robson is impossible. Because Granville is closed so often, Translink decided in 2011 to route the #5 via Richards at all times).


But the real gap (and opportunity) in Downtown Vancouver is that Yaletown and Downtown South are severely underserved. Keeping Robson Square open to transit allows for transit service on Robson and Davie to be extended east to provide continuous service along the entire length of their respective streets, creating a downtown transit network that provides direct and convenient connections between downtown communities and the broader transit network.


A transit network like this could support a better pedestrian environment and better public spaces, too. A decision to prioritize transit along with walking and cycling could lead to the development of a transit‑accessible greenway all along Robson, as the City once considered. Better transit service to the east side of downtown could go a long way toward redeveloping Larwill Park as a public square.

These are my concepts only, but the broader point is this: a review of transit service in Downtown Vancouver that actually attempted to increase ridership, legibility and accessibility would likely find that Robson Street needs a two‑way, frequent, continuous transit service. In fact, I don’t see a plausible way for any other line to effectively serve the east end of Robson, which currently has only one‑way loop service from the #17 line. Closing off the possibility of transit service through Robson Square permanently limits future options to build Downtown transit ridership.


TOMORROW: Conceptualizing and Understanding Transit

* Bold emphases mine.

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Further to the posts below on Robson Street transit (“Circling the Square”), Ian Fisher provides some data:

In 2011, the #5 Robson carried an average of 9,400 riders/weekday, and the #6 Davie 9,100. Both routes are scheduled to run at least every 9 minutes during the day, more typically every 5-7 minutes, though congestion can clearly affect the consistency of the service.

Better yet, he provides a link to data for all the routes of the bus and trolley system – here.  Just scroll down to find “005” .

Here’s a sample of some of the data:


As canadianveggie says:  “Statistical gold!”

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PART 3 of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.


Connections and Ridership Goals

This matters because transit in the West End is frequent and productive, but could be a lot better. Without strong and legible connections to the rest of the transit network, transit and walking (and cycling) in the West End will compete with each other to serve trips within the Downtown core, while the automobile will continue to be the mode of choice for longer trips.

The City wants two‑thirds of citywide trips being made by walking, cycling and transit in 2040. The West End is actually already meeting this target for work trips: 40% of residents walk to work, the highest of any neighbourhood in the city. But a closer look shows something a little bit puzzling: in one of Vancouver’s densest and most transit‑friendly neighbourhoods, transit’s mode share is no better than the city average: 24%. The Robson and Davie lines are very productive, but they could be doing a lot more. To reach two‑thirds of trips by sustainable modes citywide, the West End will need to have more than two‑thirds of all trips using these modes.

To gain riders, transit in Vancouver needs to build on its assets (network structure) and address its gaps (slow speeds). Unfortunately, closing Robson Street to transit disrupts the former and exacerbates the latter. Without a good connection to the Canada Line, transit trips between the West End and the Central Broadway corridor—which the City constantly reminds us is a major regional destination—are significantly less fast and less direct with Robson Street closed.

Transit route and infrastructure changes take time and money to plan, fund and program. At a time when Translink is severely strained and under immense pressure to become more efficient, closing Robson Street to transit means that planning efforts and funding will be used to mitigate a City‑created detour rather than to expand transit to build ridership.


TOMORROW: Future Possibilities

* Bold emphases mine.

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PART 2 of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street.  Part 1 is here.


Beyond Robson: Connections and Alternatives

The problem is summed up with a simple observation: the Robson line doesn’t just serve Robson! A transit line in a connective transit network serves a market far beyond just the areas that individual line travels through. The #5 isn’t just taking people from the West End to Downtown; through connections, it’s taking them all over the city, to major destinations like Central Broadway and beyond to the region.

The map above is a (simplified) schematic of the key parts of the transit network that the Robson line interacts with. The question is how to make this interaction as seamless as possible.

It’s impossible for a single transit line to efficiently serve every destination that its passengers might be travelling toward. This is why, if we want transit that effectively and efficiently attracts riders, connections are essential, and the optimum network structure is a grid. The most significant impact of closing Robson Square is that the Robson Line no longer connects with the Canada Line nor with the abundance of frequent surface transit lines that run on Granville. Connections with these services, which serve trips to South Granville, Central Broadway, the Cambie Corridor, the Airport, Richmond and beyond, will now have a 300‑metre gap, or 10 minutes of out‑of‑direction travel for every trip:



Can this problem be solved? The City’s survey about closing Robson Street, unfortunately, offers only this rather disingenuous message about transit (click to enlarge):

The message from the City, just like the VPSN and other groups, is: “don’t worry about transit, because the route will be changed.” Again, “thoughtful planning” will resolve everything.  But, of course, no routing options are actually shown in the City’s survey.

In fact, the only realistic “short‑term re‑rerouting improvement” that’s possible with Robson Square closed to transit is a minor modification to the trolley wire to replace the loop around Thurlow, Haro and Smithe with a left turn directly onto Burrard from Robson:

The astute observer will note that, despite the City’s text, this route does not serve the library, nor shopping on Granville Street, nor theatres. And the gap remains, with poor connections between Robson and Granville.

In the longer term, there isn’t a feasible better alternative. Georgia Street is so congested that the suburban buses that operate on it are slow, unreliable and routinely detoured onto Pender, and there would be safety and operational concerns with frequent turning movements at Burrard and Georgia.

The only other options are one‑way streets that would be no improvement over the current Pender detour. Moreover, any of these new routes would require a significant expenditure on new trolley wires—not to mention time for planning and engineering the route change.


Closing a street to private vehicles is a fundamentally different question from closing a street to transit, and it’s unfortunate that the two questions are being conflated here. Buses, especially trolley buses, can’t just go onto “some other street” at a whim. Transit, uniquely among transportation modes, requires efficient, legible and direct connections, because many trips aren’t made on a single vehicle. Again, this is a geometrical problem.

Here’s the bottom line: closing Robson Square to transit means perpetuating the current route, with only a minor improvement, and it means perpetuating poor transit connections between Robson Street and the rest of the transit network. That is the fundamental tradeoff here and, even if the street ends up being closed to transit, that tradeoff needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.


TOMORROW: Connections and Ridership Goals

* Bold emphases mine.

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Something new for Price Tags: an extended essay by a guest writer – Peter Marriott.

In five parts over five days, leading up to a report that goes before Council on Wednesday, Peter will analyse the issues related to the closing of the 800-block Robson to transit.  (Staff recommends reopening the street on December 1 but continuing work towards “potentially creating a permanent public square on 800-block Robson Street.”)


Circling the Square – Transit on Robson, and Beyond.

Having gone through a consultation exercise, the City is likely to start moving toward permanently closing the 800 block of Robson Street to traffic.

It’s a simple debate, right? Closing the street creates a vibrant public space, and those opposing the closure are the soldiers of motordom, who can’t fathom giving up any space for pedestrians. The closure certainly seems to be a popular idea, and there is a strong desire for a public square in Downtown Vancouver.

But one important question has been completely missing from the equation: Robson is an important transit street. What is to become of the Robson trolleybus?

The Vancouver Public Space Network, the loudest group calling for closing the street, tells us that a “better bus route” and an expanded Robson Square “aren’t mutually exclusive.” Elsewhere, they’ve written that “careful planning” can solve any transit issues that would arise from closing the square.

Unfortunately, though, if we’re not willing to accept a public square that frequent transit can run through, then we have a geometrical problem, and a better bus route is excluded by closing the street. “Careful planning” doesn’t change geometry. And this matters, because if we’re serious about drastically increasing transit ridership (as the City’s Transportation Plan purports to be), then we need to be serious about maintaining an efficient, legible and simple transit network.

The Robson Square saga underscores a bigger problem with transit in Vancouver. The Transportation Plan has a number of walking and cycling actions already in progress, but it largely adopts a “wait and see” approach to achieving its transit goals—in particular, waiting for Translink and the provincial government to build a Broadway Skytrain. The Plan leaves out the very significant role the City plays in determining transit’s speed, reliability and legibility by allocating and prioritizing space for transit.

Vancouver enjoys a broad consensus that transit is a public good. Everyone supports transit – but when transit’s geometry and purpose aren’t well understood, this support proves to be shallow.

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue against the closure of the street per se, but it is to illustrate why the transit question deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting. Neither the City of Vancouver nor the various groups arguing for closing Robson seem to understand what’s at stake for transit here. There’s been no consideration so far for how disrupting transit on Robson Street might affect the City’s ridership goals, no measurement of what the impacts might be, no thought given to how closing Robson Street constrains future transit possibilities, and no thought about how transit might be incorporated into a public square.

No other mode of transportation is so casually dismissed: the buses can just go somewhere else, right?


TOMORROW: Beyond Robson: Connections and Alternatives

* My emphases in bold.

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