Once more, the streets

December 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm | In johnson street bridge, land_use, street_life, transportation, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

While I promised myself, for sanity’s sake, to forgo paying attention to city politics, the City of Victoria‘s endorsement last night of a transportation proposal has me back at square one. Meaning what? Meaning I’m scratching my head, wondering what’s in the water around here.

The endorsed plan – proposed by BC Transit – would do a couple of really bizarre things that strike me as undesirable. The plan involves putting either rapid transit trams or rapid transit bus lines along Douglas Street, which is the city’s main north-south street corridor. Douglas Street is actually part of the Trans Canada Highway – further north, outside the city core, it becomes the highway. But in the city itself, it’s also just another main street that runs parallel to Victoria’s two other main north-south arterial roads, Government Street on its west and Blanshard Street on its east. At Douglas Street’s southern terminus you find Beacon Hill Park’s Mile 0 and the Terry Fox Memorial, site of many tourist moments. Before reaching the park, Douglas Street traverses Victoria’s Central Business District. As it provides an artery for the city, Douglas Street has four traffic lanes (two north-bound, two south-bound). There is on-street parking along much of Douglas Street’s downtown stretch, albeit on alternating blocks and sides of the street; and there are several blocks where no parking at all is allowed because bus service is heaviest here.

In the proposed plan, all on-street parking would be eliminated. Traffic lanes would be reduced from four to two, running side-by-side along the street’s western edge. Along the east side of the street, there would be two side-by-side tram or rapid transit bus lanes, one heading north, the other south, again: side by side. In the middle of the street would be a two-lane bike path.

Here’s  a rendering, as it appeared in last night’s (and today’s) Times-Colonist online:


I’m already getting into arguments with friends over this one. Some of my friends applaud the plan and point out that this is not new, and that BC Transit has been working on this since 1995.

To which I say, “it’s still a pretty shitty plan, sorry.”

I’ve never seen a tram arrangement like this, and really can’t understand why (in the case of this illustration) the south-bound tram should be orphaned away from pedestrian access. The only pedestrian access is via the sidewalk, and in this case the south-bound tram is removed from the sidewalk by a north-bound tram lane. I suppose if the trams don’t stop very often, you can build fancy stations to accommodate riders having to cross the tram tracks, etc. But shouldn’t the point downtown be that you have really frequent stops?

Nor do I get the logic of a bike lane down a median. In this scenario the cyclists will have to fight with cars and trams if they want to reach the curb/ retail frontage. That makes no sense. Maybe it makes sense for cyclists who don’t want to stop and are going to keep going until they reach …somewhere. But what if it’s a cyclist who’s hopping from one downtown store or venue to another? I guess he or she will be infringing on the pedestrian’s sidewalk space – and that always has the potential for trouble.

What I really dislike about this plan is how it suggests that if we could only get everyone into their proper slot (into the bike lane in the median, into the tram lanes side by side, into the car lanes side by side, and into the sidewalks – separated by an ocean of other transportation options) – if we could only get everyone to stay in their place, we could “solve” urban transportation issues. I’m not averse to that approach in areas where it’s imperative to clear the path for 50 to 60-kilometer per hour travel, but in a downtown, that’s not where (or how fast) we want to go.

I can’t help but think that rapid transit and cars are doing relatively well in this plan, but that pedestrians and cyclists aren’t. They latter two groups are asked to move like the former two: in straight lines, without stopping in any sort of way that could hold things up, without meandering, without trespassing or “jaywalking” – “jay-riding”? – into the other lanes of traffic. I don’t think that’s very urban. In every real city, pedestrians are constantly taking back their streets through everyday acts of disobedience: dawdling on the sidewalk, hitching bikes to parking meters (oops, I forgot we’re not even going to have parking meters under this new plan!), jaywalking, clustering, gawking, sitting around… Anything and everything in addition to “moving along” in an orderly fashion.

I dislike the extreme tidiness of this plan. There’s no mess here – probably because everyone is in their place. (And heaven help the poor fool who steps out of line…)

It looks suburban.

Finally, a word about the sad fate of the Johnson Street Bridge: those of us who fought to save the bridge suggested that one lane of the three traffic lanes on the current bridge should be given over to “multi-modal” transportation (read: bike lanes etc.). We were told by the rabid pro-replacement councilors around the table at City Hall that it would be impossible to reduce this tiny tiny bridge’s lane capacity from three to two. And yet these same councilors yesterday gave their assent to reducing the city’s main arterial road from four lanes of traffic to two, for a stretch of more than two kilometers. The hypocrisy staggers me.

Addendum: See also my post, Congestion is our friend (on, among other things, Gordon Price‘s talk on Motordom [<–slide deck on SlideShare]). From that slide deck, here’s an image (#26) of what an urban street (Commercial Drive in Vancouver) can look like – note the parked cars and general urban “mess”:

Congestion is our friend

April 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm | In cities, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, transportation, urbanism | 4 Comments

On March 31 Gordon Price spoke in Victoria about what he calls Motordom, or “auto-dependent urban form.” Motordom basically is the generative transportation paradigm that has shaped urban form (and dominated urban planning) since at least the mid-20th century. It’s now perhaps finally coming to an end (albeit with many many loose ends).

I’ve been intending to write a proper blog post about Gordon’s excellent deconstruction of Motordom.

However, … just a quick note today that touches on another transportation-related event I attended on Tuesday night (April 6), Going Beyond Gridlock- Green Party Sustainable Transportation Forum, because it fits so neatly both with some of the points raised by Gordon Price as well as with my concerns around a local issue.

At his March 31 presentation, Gordon noted that congestion is our friend. When roads are congested, the solution to that problem isn’t to build more roads. Instead, let the congestion be the impetus for developing transit and for giving people choices that let them get out of their cars.

At the April 6 meeting, every single speaker agreed that solving transportation problems does not mean building more roads, but rather taking car lanes away: transforming them into cycling or multimodal lanes.

No one at Gordon Price’s March 31 lecture could answer his question (in the photo, above), “Where is there a good example of an urban region that has successfully dealt with traffic congestion by building more roads and bridges?” Especially when he added the qualifier, “A place we want to be more like”?

And everyone at the April 6 Green Party-sponsored transportation forum agreed that building more roads fails to lead to transportation solutions that are sustainable. Everyone instead agreed that taking car traffic lanes out of the urban grid and converting them to cycling, multimodal, or transit lanes was the more sensible thing to do.

The obvious question for the City of Victoria is then: why don’t you apply this line of thinking to solve multimodal transportation issues on the Johnson Street Bridge? Specifically, why not look to Vancouver’s example?

In Vancouver, the city took a traffic lane on the Burrard Street Bridge and turned it into a cycling lane. In Victoria, we could easily try the same approach with our historic Johnson Street Bridge – an approach already suggested by Councilor Geoff Young, but poo-pooed by the Mayor and his friends on council. The latter include Councilor John Luton, who spoke at the April 6 event in favor of getting people out of their cars and preferably onto bicycles or other sustainable transportation options instead. He even made a point of showing images of the Johnson Street Bridge, which he considers a key piece in Victoria’s multimodal puzzle – except in Luton’s mind, only a new, expensive bridge will suffice.

It’s funny that those same politicians will flock to hear Gordon Price, applaud the critique of Motordom, agree with other sustainability experts that the best strategies include removing car traffic lanes from the grid, …yet adamantly maintain that the relatively tiny Johnson Street Bridge crossing has to stay at three car lanes. Come on, people: give your heads a shake. Take a lane out, remove the slippery steel deck, re-deck it with fiberreinforced polymer (FRP), and give it over to bikes. (Note: “Since FRP bridge decks are still considerably more expensive than concrete decks, they are basically competitive where light weight, corrosion resistance, and/or rapid installation are demanded. Accordingly, competitive applications are mainly found in movable bridges, historic bridges, and urban environments.” [source/PDF])

Much cheaper than a new bridge, better for the environment (think of all that new concrete needed for a new bridge, and the steel manufactured in China and brought to Victoria with bunker oil burning freighters – how sustainable is that?), and much better for the local economy (fixing the bridge would employ local people, building a new one would not).

Inbetween places

March 8, 2010 at 8:46 am | In cities, land_use, transportation, urbanism, vancouver_island | 2 Comments

I spent all day Saturday at a discussion / conference event hosted at Royal Roads University. To get there, I drove. I could have bicycled if I’d gotten up early enough and if my bike were in good working order (it isn’t). I could even have taken the bus – except that instead of driving for 20 minutes, I probably would have been on the bus for over an hour.

And so I drove, which is kind of ironic in light of my earlier blog post about how cars kill cities.

At the conference / extended conversation, we talked a lot about alternative strategies for building community (and communities) and about problems with the old models (obviously also including the car-centric model).

But here’s what really struck me (again) as I drove home along the (Old) Island Highway: the worst parts of car-centric (mis-)planning are the inbetween places, in particular strip-mall-lined roads.

Royal Roads is on an idyllic campus. Parts of the surrounding municipality are densifying and trying to create “village” centers. Some of the municipalities you drive through on your way back to downtown are beautiful, or quirky, or interesting: Admirals Road Bridge (anglers lined it both this morning and this afternoon); the Gorge Waterway; Esquimalt, Vic West, and so on.

But the inbetween places, which are neither suburb nor “village” nor rural, and instead are really the pure product of automobiles – those places are going to be big losers in any kind of new urbanism shift.

Right now, you either can’t reach them without a car, and if you were intrepid enough to bike to them, you wouldn’t want to. This makes them uni-functional (is that a word?), and hard to fashion to adaptive re-use. Cars and strip malls are in a deadly embrace, not a thing of beauty to behold.

The screenshot, below, of the Island Highway as you drive back toward either View Royal or the Trans Canada Highway, doesn’t convey the true “stripping” of the place (see Gordon Price, Strip Search, for more on the topic). In British Columbia, lush vegetation and trees tend to soften some of the ugliness, but believe me: aside from the nice trees, this strip is ugly… And admittedly, this particular section also shows a sidewalk, but merely sticking a sidewalk alongside a road does not a good pedestrian experience make. This is a car strip all the way. It’s quite clear that anyone on foot is disadvantaged, and that those who drive are not.

Island Highway, trees decorating the strip


I don’t think we could tolerate strip malls if we didn’t rely on speed to “save” us from them. How so? Well, you take them in with peripheral vision and at speed (car speed), because of course you’re driving – no one in their right mind walks along these roads. Basically, if you were to look at them full on, slowly  (say, while walking or biking), you’d be astonished (turned to stone), just as the gorgons turned to stone those who looked on them. Strip malls are ugly – the only way they survive is by being ignored, by not being seen. (And yes, I’ve read my Learning from Las Vegas, but reserve the right to say “Death to Strip Malls” anyway.)

Drive by quickly, don’t look. If and when you do leave the road to enter one of them, leave the safety of your vehicle only to hasten into the store at which you aimed your car. When you leave, carry not a trace of place-memory with you. As in dealing with gorgons, strip malls can only be managed by being blind to them.

But fanciful references to gorgons (and Perseus on a bicycle?) aside, my main worry really is about adaptive re-use.

(Winged bike clips. Mercury, not Perseus)


As I drove home, I thought of all the great things I heard at the conference – about eco-living and alternative strategies and connections and… And then, risking accidents, I took my eyes off the road and really looked at the strip malls.

Where to start with re-making them?

Notes: Traffic volume, hormone levels

April 25, 2009 at 2:22 am | In notes, transportation, victoria | No Comments

When I was at yesterday’s Committee of the Whole at City Hall, I listened to the City’s engineers talk about cars and vehicular traffic, and how it relates to the question of whether or not to keep Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge (also known as the Blue Bridge).

Out of the blue (this being the color of the day), their discussion conjured a crazy image in my head. It was as if, instead of describing cars and traffic volume, they were describing hormone levels. In my mind, I could zoom out, look down, and see the little cars driving through streets as though they were chemical hormones discharging through bloodstreams. Potent teenage hormones specifically, which could at best be placated (with roads designed to accommodate them), but which absolutely couldn’t be controlled (or self-controlled) through any kind of limitation.

In youth, love (well, ok: sex) will find a way, and in the traffic engineer’s heart, cars will …well, find a way. Force of nature, better get ready, it seems. (The grown-ups have left the building.)

Engineers + roads = true love.

Some Monday links

May 22, 2007 at 1:35 am | In architecture, cities, ideas, links, sprawl, transportation, victoria | 2 Comments

Via an affair with urban policy, I just discovered CitySkip (the blog), which posted some uncanny YouTube videos.

First, there’s a film by Colourfield Productions (Dortmund, Germany) about Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man characterised as an “art savant” and “human camera.” The film chronicles how he was taken on a 45 minute helicopter flight over Rome (which he hadn’t seen from the air ever before), after which he spent 3 days recreating the historic centre in its entirety on a 5 yards long piece of paper: At autistic man’s recreation of Rome. (Note: the video was removed from YouTube, but you can find it on this page.)

Next, there’s a film about City Repair Project‘s Village Building Convergence. The video is on the organisation’s main site, and also on YouTube: Transform Space into Place. At one point, Mark Lakeman (of City Repair Project) says, “you travel within the grid and you see where you’re going the whole time, there’s no subtlety or surprises.” The film at this point shows not just a straight road, but also the straight lines of the supermarket aisle. That was very clever (in a good sense).
Lakeman goes on to add a little history lesson about how the grid is based on Roman lay-outs, and that it’s designed not to facilitate interaction. I thought, “hmm, that sounds exactly like Edward Hall’s explication of Humphry Osmond’s work around socio-petal and socio-fugal space” (see my “proxemics” entry earlier this month), which is what I based my last article in Focus Magazine on. As it happens, I’m working right now on an article for the July issue that expands on environmental psychology (this time with a focus on Grant Hildebrand’s ideas — see The Origins of Architectural Pleasure) and possibly biophilia. (It’s pathetic — I only get 800 words per article, so I have to be very selective in organising my material. This should be a series, but then I have to consider how much I can reiterate — rehash — each month, for those readers who didn’t read the previous month’s entry… )

Third, there’s StreetFilms.org-The Case for Separated Bike Lanes in NYC (also on YouTube, but via CitySkip). It’s one of the best visuals (and “verbals”) I’ve encountered to strengthen the case for separated bike lanes.

Finally, via CEOs for Cities (blog), a link to a book review by Stephen Shapin in the New Yorker, What Else is New? How uses, not innovations, drive human technology. Shapin reviews military historian David Edgerton’s book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, which Booklist described this way:

The common view of technology as a matter of novelty, of invention and innovation accelerating into the future, is very limited, Edgerton says. To understand technology historically, consider technology in use, and some remarkable facts emerge. Highly touted new technologies, such as the Pill and atomic power, were derailed by unforeseen (AIDS) or unconsidered (nuclear waste disposal) developments and sidelined by the technologies they had supposedly made obsolescent. The huge twentieth-century surge in productivity depended on improving old technologies, and we see the effect in such places as China of the quick succession of technological revolutions that occurred over more time in the U.S. Maintenance consumes a much larger proportion of technological effort than innovation, nations a-building characteristically attempt to control certain technologies for nationalistic purposes, and war and killing are the wellsprings of the most consequential modern inventions. In short, the old ways–power by harness animals, nationalism, warfare, slaughtering for food–don’t fade away. They adapt, and that is the real big story about technology.

That really piques my interest. I checked our local library right away to see if it was available — and darn it, three people are in front of me in the queue to get the book.

Books. Another “old” technology!

Uses. That’s where I come in. Heh.

The Russians are coming? But will WE ever have a fixed link?

April 27, 2007 at 8:05 pm | In cities, futurismo, transportation, victoria | 3 Comments

The Times Online reports that Russia plans $65bn tunnel to America. Yes, not only does Russia plan a floating nuclear power plant (now there’s a bad idea if ever there was one), but now some folks there have a tunnel under the Bering Strait in mind. Ok, so you could eventually take a train from Paris to New York (via Siberia), but this wouldn’t be for the tourists:

Russian officials insist that the tunnel is an economic idea whose time has now come and that it could be ready within ten years. They argue that it would repay construction costs by stimulating up to 100 million tons of freight traffic each year, as well as supplying oil, gas and electricity from Siberia to the US and Canada.

It seems just as likely they’ll want our oil & gas — not the other way around.

But imagine a rail line from Paris to New York, though. Oh well, here on Vancouver Island we’ll continue to muddle on in splendid island isolation.

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