Yesterday urban planners Asher Mercer (Urban ID Consulting) and Edward Nixon (EN Consulting Group) hosted a walk along Queen Street as part of their project, The People’s Queen Street, which is attempting to reimagine the major east-west corridor as a public space prioritizing people. Partnering with the Toronto Community Foundation, Evergreen Foundation, the Centre for Social Innovation, and 100 in One Day Toronto, Urban ID Consulting and ED Consulting Group are organizing several events from summer 2014 until spring 2015 to help people experience the street in new ways and think about ways in which it could be redesigned as a better space for pedestrians.

Yesterday’s walk began at Neville Park, where the 501 Queen streetcar begins (Neville Loop) and continued all the way to Queen and Roncesvalles. Joined by intrepid walkers from Toronto Trails and Ontario Walks, a group of about 35 walkers crossed the city, stopping to think about development opportunities at Queen and Broadview, view historic Ashbridge House and Campbell House, and finish the day at Beaty Boulevard Parkette. The walk is about 17km in total, but I focus here on the first 5.7 km east of Broadview.

Neville Loop is a small unimposing turnaround for the streetcar (albeit with quite a long history as the City of Toronto’s easternmost streetcar loop) across from the Art Deco-styled R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which writer Derek Flack characterized as “one of Toronto’s most beautiful and mysterious buildings.” For our purposes, the westernmost corner of Neville Park provided a natural meeting place and amphitheater for Asher and Edward to introduce the purpose of the walk today and invite participants to submit their comments, tweets, and photos to the project website.

We began at a brisk pace on Queen, taking in some of the built form that spoke of an earlier main street. On the way, we passed a number of historic buildings, like Black’s Veterinary Hospital (founded in 1911) and the Ashbridge Estate, which are well known: Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay was named for Sarah Ashbridge, in recognition of her position in one of the city’s founding families. Other lesser-known marvels included the tiny Fox Theatre (opened in 1914) and the Beaches Library (whose original structure was a Carnegie library). Queen Street East has that intrinsically interesting pedestrian atmosphere of the early 1900s, with the recurring main street urban form of a two-storey brick structure with apartments over the shops, punctuated by unfortunate modernist intrusions, as I’ve shown in the photos below. You can tell the street was gradually widened, giving even the most charming main street areas very narrow sidewalks.

It’s also impossible to ignore the hipster influence on the street, as the traditional dry cleaners and butchers of The Beach give way to coffee shops and restaurants in the popular neighbourhoods of Corktown, Riverside, and Leslieville. The urban redevelopment of the New Broadview Hotel and the Riverside Square project (check out streetcar.ca for more details) will continue this character shift towards upscale urban living. Displacement of the current residents is seen as a necessity: Streetcar Developments has been working with the City of Toronto and Woodgreen Community Services to assist transition of the existing residents to other community housing. Aaron Knight from Streetcar met us to explain some of the changes that will happen near this historic intersection, particularly the south side of the street meeting Munro, which will be reinvisioned as a pedestrian and urban space open to the public.

From Queen and Broadview, the group continued west on to Campbell House, and finished up at Queen and Roncesvalles. If you have any thoughts on Queen Street, and how to improve its public realm and pedestrian amenities, share them with Asher and Edward at peoplesqueenstreet.org/queenstsurvey, on their Facebook group, or on twitter.

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The Fox theatre (opened in 1914 as “the theatre without a name”)

 

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches Library

Beaches Library featuring a one-ton sculpture of an owl (Philip H. Carter, Ludzer Vandermolen), was one of Toronto’s original Carnegie libraries

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library and Kew Gardens, offers a much better pedestrian realm

 

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East–but note the narrow sidewalk

 

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities at Queen and Northern Dancer Blvd. (named for the horse, as the Greenwood Racetrack was here until 1994, before it was demolished and replaced by Greenwood Park). I’m guessing the owner of this building would be able to attract tenants with some seating, bike racks, and public art

 

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Squeezed for space at Eastern Ave.–it’s difficult to get around the bus shelter. Why not just ask building owners to construct an overhang?

 

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beaches) just west of Eastern Ave.

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beach) just west of Eastern Ave. that could easily be improved with some seating–who doesn’t need somewhere to wait when meeting friends for a movie?

 

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

 

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven (see below for the north side view) makes the street uninviting for pedestrians

 

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view--the old main street shops

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view–the old main street shops. Again, note how little space there is for pedestrians, especially when signage and street trees are added.

 

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge's plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge’s plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake. Ashbridge’s Bay and Ashland were named after her.

 

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

 

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spilled out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spills out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display, taking advantage of its private space.

 

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Black's Toronto Veterinary Hospital, just west of Carlaw, (opened in 1911) gives a glimpse of the old main street

Black’s Toronto Veterinary Hospital (opened in 1911), just west of Carlaw, gives us a glimpse of how buildings used to meet up with the old main street: with a sidewalk, lawn, and garden.

 

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past, but the pedestrian realm is barren here

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past in the Woodgreen Pharmacy, but the pedestrian realm is barren here. Note the brick only faces Queen Street, obviously the higher impact was needed on this street over Coxwell.

 

Slices of Canadiana--Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar

Slices of Canadiana–Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar. In the Leslieville area now, the sidewalk is far too narrow for the amount of foot traffic the newer shops and services attract.

 

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly's adult entertainment. The New Broadview Hotel is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Development

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly’s adult entertainment and a residential hotel with long-time residents. The New Broadview Hotel, which dates back to 1893, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Developments. It’s the kind of project that could change the character of this intersection for decades in the future.

 

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“Time is Money. Money is Time.” street art at Queen and Broadview

 

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). Redevelopment will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). The redevelopment project Riverside Square will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

 

 

Members of our transport planning group at the Liège railway station: Roel ter Brugge, Jake Wiersma, Florian Langstraat, Andrew Switzer, Ori Rubin, Lucas Harms, Luca Bertolini, Xue Hou, and Guowen Dai.

Last week, our transport planning research group at the University of Amsterdam visited the Municipality of Maastricht (population 122,000), capital of the southernmost Dutch province, Limburgh. The city is built on both sides of the Maas river, has a rich history as a Roman settlement and early industrial city, and is strategically positioned near the Belgian and German borders. One of our PhD students, Jake Wiersma, has been working on the strategic vision for Maastricht in his position as a planner at the Municipality, and invited us to participate in a workshop.

As Maastricht’s traditional industries of mining, ceramics and pottery have declined, the city has regenerated several brownfield sites, including the Céramique potteries site near the town centre where several new housing blocks, a new Aldo Rossi-designed museum and new library have been built. The Entre Deux and Mosae Forum shopping centres, the area around the main railway station, and the walkway along the river are other recent developments.

Housing blocks on the former Céramique potteries site takes on a very different form from traditional Dutch housing

As Maastricht tries to curb its persistent traffic problems, it has converted roads to pedestrian-only routes and squares. This one used to bring cars right to the central Market Square.

However, the region is one of two in the Netherlands whose population will shrink in the coming decades (the other being the eastern part of the province of Groningen). It is also one of the more car-dominant cities in the Netherlands, partly because its elevation is not nearly as flat as cities like Amsterdam in the north. Persistent congestion problems on the A2 motorway have led to a two-level tunnel through the city, currently under construction. Maastricht is still trying to discourage parking in its inner city and improving other options, such as walking and park and ride options. Besides trying to decrease driving in the city centre, one of the planning problems is how to maintain accessibility for residents of the rural towns and villages.

Another issue is regional planning–Maastricht is perhaps the most international city in the Netherlands, with students and workers commuting daily from nearby German and Belgian cities. German is widely spoken, and French names and words persist in the Limburgh dialect (and, as you can see, in the names of sites and neighbourhoods). Companies such as BASF, Vodaphone and Mercedez-Benz have extensive bases in the city. However, until recently there has been no attempt to try and plan for the region as a whole. Like many regions in the Netherlands, there is a long-standing debate on the question of which scale is the most appropriate for planning things like transportation infrastructure or employment growth. How far does the “region” actually extend–as far as Aachen (31km east) across the German border, or across the Belgian border to Liège (25km south) and Hasselt (25km west)? Should the region’s boundaries remain within the Netherlands, perhaps including Eindhoven (70km north)? The city is currently trying to determine which of these neighbouring municipalities to include as planning partners in its strategic vision process: in our workshop, we broke into three groups trying to tackle the international, regional and local scales.

Liège-Guillemins, a mere half hour by train from Maastricht, is one of three Belgian cities on the high-speed rail route, and is linked to Brussels, Paris, Aachen, Cologne, and Frankfurt. Here you can see the contrast of the Santiago Calatrava-designed station, which opened in 2009, with the old city behind it.

Maastricht planners at the municipal and provincial levels must now put their shoulders to the wheel: it will likely be years before a regional vision coalesces, if Amsterdam-Utrecht and Rotterdam-Den Haag are any indication. Amsterdam and Utrecht, two cities that share commuters and population growth but are in two different provinces, have struggled to plan anything at the regional level. Rotterdam and Den Haag have making slow but steady progress in this direction with the RandstadRail and Stedenbaan projects. Maastricht must make extensive use of the polder model to engage all its possible stakeholders in this strategic vision process.

Cycling is growing in popularity every year, even in North America, where road engineering standards are often bike-unfriendly. Even in New York City, where residents fought hard against Janette Sadik-Khan’s bike lane proposals six years ago, 66% of residents surveyed by the New York Times now feel that bike lanes are a good idea.

As most of you know, I’ve recently relocated to Amsterdam. Among the red tape and endless legwork that go along with an international move, I’ve had some time to observe the workings of this famously bike-friendly city. In the process of riding my rusted-out beater bike to and from work, I’ve picked up a few tips on cycling in Amsterdam:

  1. Separated bike lanes and dedicated traffic signals make it a lot safer to bike in Amsterdam–that is, you’re unlikely to be hit by a car. Hence no cyclist (including the infant riding in the seat on the front of the bike) wears a helmet.
  2. While you won’t be hit by a car, your odds of getting sideswiped by the scooters and motorcycle driving at 60km/h in your 1.5m-wide bike lane are pretty good. Remember the driving school tip on checking your blind spot before changing lanes in a car? Ditto–you need to look about 6 inches over your shoulder before turning.
  3. There is a code of conduct among Amsterdam cyclists, e.g. occasionally giving a hand signal to indicate left turns, venturing slowly across a road if cars are nearby, timing your entry to a bike lane to merge with the 25 other cyclists.
  4. The code of conduct is very loose; cyclists are often quite aggressive, especially when it comes to allowing pedestrians to cross the street. Most near-collisions I’ve seen have occurred between bikes and scooters or bikes and pedestrians.
  5. It’s clear where the priorities lie–cycling paths are rarely obstructed by parked cars, garbage cans, or planters, but sidewalks often are.
  6. Locking your bike to a rack is optional–more commonly, the back wheel is merely locked to the frame. Bikes generally stand freely in any area of the sidewalk or square, blowing over in daily wind or rainstorms, and blocking sidewalks.
  7. Helpful bike route signs direct cyclists as they move about the city–assuming you know enough of  the city’s geography to know you’re supposed to cycle in the direction of Osdorp or Station Zuid or Oosterpark.
  8. The typical Amsterdam bike is black, rusty, and mono-gear with fenders and a chain guard. Bright colours are an advertisement: please steal my bike.
  9. Doubling your boyfriend on the back rack or carrying your large-breed dog in the front (I hesitate to call it a ‘basket’ when ‘milk crate’ would suffice) are commonplace during a weekday commute.
  10. An Amsterdam cyclist can perform any activity while biking: smoking, talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, unpacking a messenger bag, dragging a suitcase along beside them.

The city is built for reluctant cyclists like me: as one British expat told us, “The Dutch just bike to get around. They don’t necessarily enjoy it.” In a city that seems custom-built for bikes, it’s definitely the quickest and easiest way to commute, provided you have the guts to battle the scooters and motorbikes and the ability to duck quickly under an awning during sudden rain showers–as the Dutch do. Amsterdam cyclists don’t bike for fitness (smoking while biking?) As a Polish expat noted, “When I first came here and saw people biking in suits, and the women in high heels, it was as if they were going to the gym in a suit or heels. At home, biking is only associated with fitness.” With very good bus and tram service in the city (although the Dutch would disagree on this point), I suspect the major appeal of cycling in the Netherlands is its cost-effectiveness…it’s a thrifty culture!

Robson Square, redesigned and reopened for the Olympics

Spectators arriving at Aberdeen station, preparing for a 20-minute walk to the Richmond Olympic Oval

After all the media hype and local anti-Olympic sentiment, Vancouver is enjoying a rare opportunity during the 2010 Games. Not only does the city get to experience a real urban vibe as tens of thousands of tourists have flooded the streets, but it’s also experiencing another rare phenomenon: very little car traffic and extra service on transit routes. These changes have created a very different feeling as the city celebrates Canadian and international achievements in sport.

TransLink staff, as well as City of Vancouver staff and the folks at Metro Vancouver have been busy planning transportation alternatives for tourists, spectators, media and athletes for many years, all in preparation for the 16-day Olympic and 10-day Paralympic Games. Some of the big-ticket items are well-known: the Canada Line from downtown to the airport and the Bombardier demonstration streetcar linking Granville Island and the Olympic Village.

Olympic line streetcar at Granville Island

The Canada Line, which was saw ridership of 100,000 per day before the Games, saw 200,000 riders last Sunday. TransLink’s overall ridership has already reached 1.5 million per day: not bad for a region that normally has 1.8 million residents.

But there are also lots of lesser-known initiatives that have gone a long way towards making this a very sustainable Games: increased transit service on routes serving the venues, no parking at most venues, and bike sharing at some venues like the Richmond Olympic Oval.

Free bikes provided by Heineken Holland House at Aberdeen Station

Streets adjacent to most venues were closed to all vehicular traffic, including Wesbrook Mall on the UBC campus, which is hosting women’s hockey at Thunderbird Arena.

Spectators leaving Thunderbird Arena walking two blocks to the bus loop. No parking was provided at the venue.

There are special “Olympic lanes” on city streets dedicated to transit and vehicles transporting athletes, media, and officials. Robson Street was initially closed between Howe and Granville, but this was extended to Bute and Beatty Streets; Granville Street is closed between Smithe and Cordova Streets. The energy of the crowds in these main downtown streets is amazing, and there is a lot of added pedestrian interest, including a lantern display on Granville Street. The number of cars entering the downtown peninsula has dropped 30% since the beginning of the Games on February 12th, while over 4,000 cyclists per day cross the Cambie, Burrard and Granville Bridges into downtown.

In addition to this, Cultural Olympiad concerts and events have been happening all over the region, from Our Lady Peace playing a free concert at Richmond’s O-Zone to a 24-hour outdoor art gallery at the Surrey 2010 Celebration Site. These events were planned to begin in January until the end of the Paralympic Games on March 21, 2010. Because there’s so much going on in each municipality, local residents can actually get involved in the Olympics and its related events without making the trek downtown.

Richmond City Hall, with exhibits and big-screen coverage of the events, at the entrance to the O-Zone

Richmond City Hall at the entrance to the O-Zone, with exhibits and big-screen coverage of the events

Many Vancouverites, anticipating intense crowds and traffic, actually left the city during the Games. This likely means that there are more non-residents than residents in the City of Vancouver at the moment. In addition to this, some workplaces are closed, and UBC and SFU both have a two-week Reading Week to cover the Games period. The absence of this regular commuting traffic has likely contributed to higher transit ridership and much faster travel times. I took the #44 express bus from UBC to downtown on Friday at rush hour, and was at Robson Square in 15 minutes, a trip that normally takes half an hour.

The question is, why can’t we do this year-round? Keep the Olympic lanes as transit-only lanes; decrease parking in the downtown core, along our main streets and at key destinations; and increase transit service. Most locals would love to see pedestrianized zones on Robson and Granville in the core area of downtown. Of course, the vast number of tourists in the city and the energy that comes along with such a major sporting event will not persist past February 28th (Olympics) and March 21, 2010 (Paralympics). It’s been a fantastic 16-day party, truly a defining moment for Vancouver and for Canada.

Robson Street nightlife during the Olympics

There are a number of indexes around that measure how easy it is to walk in your neighbourhood. Each seems to have a different focus: pedestrian safety, urban design characteristics that encourage walking, accessibility to shops and services. However, the main agenda is the same: to increase walking in North American cities.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Barry Wellar (University of Ottawa) developed a Walking Safety Index that has been used by several municipalities in evaluating their intersections. Municipalities are encouraged to give signal light priority to pedestrians at intersections, design them to achieve safety, comfort, convenience, and well-being of pedestrians, and apply the WSI to transportation projects, official plan amendments, rezoning applications and site plans. Further, transit vehicles should be able to change signal lights, should be given priority right-of-way to enter traffic lanes, surface parking lots should be removed from areas served by transit, a moratorium imposed on road and street expenditures, and road maintenance budgets reduced to accelerate the shift from car to walking, cycling, and transit.

The World Bank developed a Walkability Index for its clients in the Far East. It aims to correct some of the walkability issues in developing cities by developing awareness in city planners and city officials, which will lead to better pedestrian infrastructure and safety measures.

Larry Frank, James Sallis, Brian Saelens, et al. have generated a Walkability Index to be used in planning and health research. This is based on extensive research involving the urban design qualities that encourage walking, including lighting, walking surface, intersection design, accessibility to services, pedestrian safety measures, and surrounding land uses.

A quick online version of this is Walk Score, which ranks your neighbourhood walkability in terms of distances to services, schools, retail amenities, etc. You type in your address (n.b., it works for Canadian addresses as well) and it uses Google Maps to calculate the distances to these services and amenities. UBC campus got 52 out of 100, “somewhat walkable”, not surprising since there is no grocery store within walking distance (yet: the Save-On is due to open in a few months). Walk Score also pegged the nearest library as 2.6 km away, because it only picked up the closest Vancouver Public Library branch and not the many UBC libraries within walking distance. It missed a couple of local restaurants and the green grocers. And while Walk Score lists parks and fitness centers, it doesn’t list bike paths. So there are clearly some limitations here, like Google Maps doesn’t have all small local business listings. Interesting, since WalkScore’s objective is to “help homebuyers and renters find houses and apartments in great neighbourhoods.”

Yellow Pages has a search function that lets you see how many businesses are within a specified radius of your house. On yellowpages.ca, go to “By Proximity” and enter an address and type of business you’d like to find. For UBC this search picked up 11 restaurants within 1km, 3 more within 2km, and 20 more within 3.5km (the main street closest to campus). Just as a comparison, I typed in Yonge and Bloor (a main intersection in downtown Toronto) and there were 242 restaurants within a 1km radius!

These various walkability indexes can be used by both planners and the general public to get a rough estimate of accessibility in local neighbourhoods. The last two could be particularly useful when relocating to a new neighbourhood or while on vacation, but it should be noted that they concentrate on retail or commercial amenities and not parks, bike trails, scenic or natural attractions.

Like many cities in North America, Vancouver is in a love affair with roundabouts. And why not: traffic engineers tell us they improve vehicle safety, increase roadway capacity and efficiency, reduce vehicular delay and emissions, provide traffic-calming effects, and mark community gateways. But hang on…isn’t this just another road design that prioritizes cars over pedestrians and cyclits?

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At a roundabout, pedestrians must wait until there is a gap in traffic to cross, placing them at a considerable disadvantage from traditional stop signs and stop lights. There is no designated time for pedestrians to cross, like a walk signal, which means at a busy intersection you can wait several minutes. And there are reasons to fear for pedestrian safety as well.

Studies shows that while the risk of serious vehicle collisions is decreased, this is mainly because they reduce collisions where cars run red lights/stop signs or drivers misjudge the gap in oncoming traffic while turning. The US Access Board, a Federal agency committed to accessible design, writes that “the research findings on pedestrian safety at roundabouts are less clear. There have been relatively few studies, mostly conducted in Europe, concerning pedestrians and roundabouts.” Little is known about the effects of roundabouts on the particular demographic groups, such as the elderly, children, and those with accessibility issues. Many drivers do not yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, and it might be difficult to tell if they plan to yield; as the traffic volume increases, the number of “crossable gaps” decreases.

The design of a roundabout also pushes the crosswalks away from the intersection, creating travel paths that are inconvenient for pedestrians, according to the New Urban News. New Urbanists have been promoting roundabouts for many years as a traffic calming measure, despite any evidence that they increase pedestrian safety.

In England, where roundabouts are commonplace, drivers are reasonably vigilant and yield to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the real advantage of roundabouts is that cars are not required to stop. Drivers generally like them for this reason; it reduces their travel time. But what does this do for pedestrians? It again places them at the bottom of the pecking order, and places them at considerable risk. It also lengthens their travel time considerably, as they must cross several directions of traffic, waiting for gaps each time. Compare this to a regular four-way signalled intersection, where the pedestrian gets a clear walk signal and does not have to determine whether it is safe to cross. In other words, the problem that cars supposedly have at four-way intersections (trying to judge the gap in traffic) is transferred to the pedestrian, who is not encased in steel for protection.

Path 1 shows the pedestrian at risk at four different instances; Path 2 (simply continuing straight through the intersection) shows two instances of risk

Path 1 here shows the pedestrian encountering traffic in two instances; Path 2 shows the pedestrian must cross four lanes of traffic. In all cases, since this is a roundabout, traffic does not stop and pedestrian paths are greatly increased from a traditional four-way signalled intersection.

Interestingly, public opinion on roundabouts is divided. Many drivers I know detest them, and find them difficult and confusing to use. A cab driver recently told me that he hated the new roundabouts in Vancouver, but one friend of mine defended them. She hails from England and says that the problem is simply public education: North American drivers just don’t know how to use roundabouts. When the issue of pedestrian safety is raised, she said, “I see nothing wrong with pedestrians having to wait a few minutes to cross the street. There’s way too much encouragement of pedestrians getting the right of way all the time, even when it’s unsafe.” 

I wonder what experts like Barry Wellar, a retired University of Ottawa professor who studies public safety and testifies at trials where pedestrians and cyclists are injured, thinks about roundabouts. Wellar developed the Pedestrian Safety Index, which some municipalities have been using to evaluate their busiest intersections. Similarly, John Pucher of Rutgers University discusses the many innovations in Europe designed for pedestrian safety, including advanced crossings for pedestrians, scatter crossings, grade-separations and separate pedestrian and cyclist signals. One of Pucher’s main arguments is that pedestrians and cyclists increase in number with increased safety precautions; he also argues that penalties for striking a pedestrian or cyclist are much harsher in Europe.

Surely we should be examining all the different safety aspects of roundabouts if they are to be applied everywhere from quiet residential streets to major intersections such as the one pictured in this article. My guess is the UBC roundabout, which was converted from a signalized intersection last year, will prove treacherous to the pedestrians (many of them seniors) crossing the intersection at 16th and Wesbook Mall to access the new grocery store, community centre, school, and housing in the area. But UBC already has plans for another roundabout, and like many municipalities seems content to let traffic engineers’ reports lead the way. 

The US Access Board makes several suggestions for improving roundabouts for blind pedestrians, including:

  • Landscaping, planters, pedestrian channelization, bollard-and-chain separation, railings, and other architectural features can delineate paths that lead to the crosswalk and prevent or discourage crossing at locations other than the crosswalk; a distinctive edge such as a raised curb
  • Traffic calming measures to ensure vehicles are travelling at low speeds, which influences whether or not they will yield to a pedestrian
  • Raised crossings to discourage vehicle acceleration
  • ‘Smart’ signals that can sense and signal a pedestrian’s presence
  • ‘Splitter’ islands with a detectable surface, which can be used as a pedestrian refuge
  • Public awareness campaigns encouraging drivers to yield to pedestrians

These measures can help counterract some of the pedestrian safety issues associated with roundabouts, but the fundamental question of whether they are advantageous for all transportation modes is not addressed. Pedestrians and cyclists are considerably disadvantaged by roundabouts as compared to traditional street crossings, proving once again that traffic engineers have a tendency to prioritize cars’ needs over non-motorized transportation modes. Hopefully we learn more about roundabouts through research and not pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

Arthur Erickson, Vancouver architect and “Canada’s most famous architect”, died May 20th at age 84. Quickly following the death of any artist, eulogies are the ultimate tribute to genius and innovation. Greg Buium, writing for CBC, is probably not the only Canadian for whom Erickson’s celebrity status has “faded into our collective memory”, though he seems quite taken with Erickson’s life work. Nicholas Olsberg, guest curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective Arthur Erickson: Critical Works, calls Erickson a Canadian visionary who has always known “how to make poetry out of architecture.” And Lisa Rochon, architecture columnist for the Globe and Mail, writes that Erickson “sought to inspire humanity through architecture–nothing more than that.” High praise, but is it justified?

While nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, modernist architecture is as controversial–and as unpopular in some circles–today as it was sixty years ago. Breaking with tradition, modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arthur Erickson and Eero Saarinen created bold, concrete structures that spoke of a new era of wide open spaces, cars, and speed. Traditional built form was sacrificed to make way for intensely high skyscrapers with repetitive windows, entrances disguised in non-hierarchical facades, massive size, and the new materials of concrete, glass and steel. Eb Zeidler’s Eaton Centre (1972), Mies Van der Rohe’s TD Centre in Toronto (1967), and Erickson’s Simon Fraser University Campus (1963) are some leading examples of modernist architecture in Canada. But you don’t have to go far to see the influence of modernist masters: simply take a trip to your local Veteran’s hall, public school, community centre, apartment block, or Canadian university (Waterloo, Victoria, SFU, York, or UBC for starters). Because modernist architecture took hold at a time of rapid urban expansion in the US, Europe, and Canada, there are examples aplenty. Le Corbusier’s ideas for cities of highrises, elevated on pilotis standing in parks, were adopted in the US, Canada, and Europe in the postwar era, particularly in the design of low-cost and public housing. His design ideas, and those of other famous modernists, became known as the International Style. But what architects hold up as an era of unrestrained experimentation with built form, planners, urbanists, and others condemn as damaging to the urban fabric of cities.

Jane Jacobs, in the Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), criticized modern architecture for its long, blank facades, pedestrian-hostile forms and massive scale. She also exposed the modernist-influenced planning codes, by-laws, and plans that threatened to re-design cities completely around cars, razing historic neighbourhoods to the ground and replacing them with multi-lane freeways. Indeed, Zeidler’s initial plan for Eaton Centre initially planned to demolish Old City Hall, the Church of the Trinity, closing off seven city streets; the modified plan was only slightly less devastating, and inspired a score of similar malls devastating city after city in Canada, as stores were pulled in off the street, then closed during the 1990s. It was decades before the Eaton Centre’s hostile, inward-looking form was modified, returning the Yonge Street facade to more pedestrian-friendly streetfronts. Van der Rohe’s TD Centre followed modernism’s trend to separate pedestrians completely from cars, with the first underground concourse in the city; the dark, labyrinthine PATH system was expanded from this site.

Designed for a machine age, modernist buildings often seem ill-designed for human use: the elevated “walkways” around Toronto City Hall (Viljo Revell, 1961-65) close the space off visually and force people to enter a major public space by walking under hideous low concrete beams. And once inside, one is met by…more concrete. The plaza is terribly designed, concrete, with little seating or vegetation to mitigate Toronto’s fierce winds, and little attention to pedestrians’ movement through the space. Try finding the entrance to Erickson’s Provincial Law Courts building at Robson Square in Vancouver (1973-79). The concrete pyramid, stepped back with planters and featuring a wall/ceiling of glass on one side, is massive, imposing and frankly uninteresting. Erickson’s adjacent Robson Square, which has been closed for four years for construction, is all bland concrete with one interesting water feature and thankfully, lots of stairs for seating. Where the Law Courts meet Hornby Street, one is confronted with an impenetrable low concrete structure with lines of planters. Yet to be absolutely modern, as Milan Kundera writes in Immortality, means never to question the content of modernity. It means to be forever hopefully about the grand ideas of modernity and to avoid looking at modernity as it is lived in actual detail. Rochon praises “the roar, almost deafening, of water cascading down the side” of the Law Courts, and Olsberg praises Erickson’s commitment to make the Law Courts reflect the transparency of the Canadian Legal System: “There’s that wonderful thing you see in the law courts, of the barristers out there on the balconies conferring with their clients. No one can hide.” Yes, not even from the noise ricocheting off the glass and concrete in a thousand directions; but the Courts are infinitely more beautiful on the inside than their facade would suggest.

Olsberg says that Prince Charles takes visitors to Erickson’s NAPP Laboratories in Cambridge, England (1979), a building Buium describes as having “a futuristic effect reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, to show them how innovative British industry is. It is doubtful that HRH could be more inaccurately described, considering his stance on modernist architecture and his advancement of traditional built form. The Royal Architect’s Association just awarded Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital the award for London Building of the Year in spite of Prince’s condemnation of the building, the latest in an escalating feud between the Prince and modernist architects in Britain.

Erickson’s masterpiece may well be Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (1976), which recalls the form of traditional native longhouses. Featuring a soaring Great Hall of glass and concrete, it highlights the collection of totem poles and other massive sculptures from the Haida, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Oweekeno and other First Nations. The Rotunda perfectly frames Bill Reid’s impressive sculpture “The Raven and the First Men”. Visitors enter the museum through beautifully carved doors completed by four master Gitxan artists. In this work, the architect managed to fuse form and function, modernism and the ancient past.

While modernist architects may revel in the Erickson’s design of Simon Fraser University, SFU students likely agree with Olsberg that even “architecturally well-versed people are made uneasy [by the design]…I think they find that it’s a little too fierce.” Rochon writes that Erickson “stripped architecture down to structural bones made of honest materials.” Yet this severity is more than a little inhumane: common myths about the university and its gloomy environs are that it has the highest suicide rate in the country, and that when it rains “it looks like the walls are bleeding.” Acres of dismal grey concrete, built low to the ground, with rows of tiny windows aren’t exactly a good fit for one of the rainiest cities in the country, yet Erickson once described concrete as “the marble of our time.” Many architects revel in the idea of designing an entire campus, as it is basically a miniature city, and the closest they will get to realizing a complete vision for a massive site. And like many a Canadian university campus in the 1960s, SFU was a blank slate.

Whether or not today’s modernist-leaning architects will admit it, many of Erickson’s buildings are quickly becoming relics of the past. Their love of the modernist style speaks more to a bygone era than the built form itself, for modernist architecture was built at a time when architects were finally free of the conventions of history. When new was considered inherently better. When the opinions of the masses, of those who lived in dense inner city neighbourhoods or worked in beautiful 1930s walk-ups, could be ignored in order to build the next monolith or freeway. When cities were destroyed to make way for the new, the bold, the futuristic. England’s architects fume because this type of innovation lasted but a couple of brief decades before public opinion converged upon them, and historic preservation and public meetings to discuss the effects of architecture became de rigeur. Many architects are now fighting to preserve well-preserved examples of modernist architecture, often clashing with the public. While we have no Prince Charles encouraging traditional building design in Canada, we have scores of architects, landscape architects and urban planners who counter modernism with neotraditional community design, transportation-oriented design and environmentally conscious architecture. People do matter, and architecture cannot afford to be mere sculpture any longer. In this context, many of Erickson’s most famous works become symbols of an anti-urban past.

So despite the praises of Buium, Olsberg, Rochon and countless other architects and critics, Erickson’s passing reminds us that to err is human. While he and other modernists may have been visionaries, they succeeded most in raising architecture to a form of sculpture. But sculpture is merely meant to be viewed and experienced; built form, however interesting and unusual its form, has a function. People use it; they congregate in it; they depend upon it to be functional and in many cases, inspirational. Elevating concrete to marble status in a grey, overcast environment may be artistic, but it is certainly not appreciated by those who confront its bleakness each day. Blank, open urban plazas devoid of vegetation and seating areas may comprise a blank canvas, but they will never encourage people to sit and stay awhile. Genius is said to be misunderstood; I count myself with those who misunderstands the supposed genius of Erickson, listening instead to the persistent practical knowledge of the inner city, its people, and its spaces.