The results of a two-year partnership, My Health My Community, give us a lot of insight into Metro Vancouver’s active transportation trends: 43% of residents say their primary transportation mode is walking, cycling, or public transit.

Transportation agencies and municipal transit providers do a lot of their own research, but most of this is not open data and is summarized in publicly available reports. In the absence of Census data or a national transportation survey, transportation researchers often have to collect their own data. The My Health My Community study surveyed over 28,000 residents in Metro Vancouver on their primary mode of transportation, health outcomes, lifestyle behaviours and neighbourhood characteristics.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Active transportation users have lower body mass index, walk more each day, and are twice as likely to meet the requirement for 30 minutes or more of daily recommended walking
  • Car users with longer commute times have a lower sense of community belonging
  • Transit use is highest among lower income, visible minorities and recent immigrants–it is 69% lower among parents with dependent children and 70% lower among households with incomes of over $100,000 annually

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 4.23.42 PMAnother interesting result is shown on this map which depicts areas with higher than average active transportation (the darkest purple) in relation to existing and proposed transit infrastructure–and there is a second map showing the same for car users.

My Health My Community is a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health, the Fraser Health, and the e-Health Strategy Office at the University of British Columbia.  The survey was conducted in 2013-2014 and the results are just beginning to be released. Dr. Jat Sandhu of Vancouver Coastal Health will be presenting the research tomorrow, April 30th at the SFU Segal School of Business, from 7:30-9:00.

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.

 

 

A couple of months ago, I reported that vehicle licensing rates among youth and young adults in British Columbia had decreased. Now Alberta is reporting a similar trend (“Driver’s licenses not a priority, say young Albertans,” CBC News, August 5, 2014). Alberta Transportation reports that the rate of licensed drivers aged 15 to 24 has decreased by 20% in the past 20 years, from 90% to 75%. While this isn’t as great a decrease as that seen in BC (ICBC reported a 70% decrease among 20-24-year-olds from 2004-2013), it’s pretty big news in Canada’s oil-producing province.

As in other younger populations, Alberta researchers have cited the prevalence of social media for interacting with friends and the higher cost of living that today’s young people must incur in rent and tuition. But access to transit is also mentioned, aligning with the results of several high-profile studies in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, and North Korea. Rather than just suggesting that car ownership is merely delayed a few years while millenials establish themselves, Dr. Alex de Barros from the University of Calgary suggests that young people may opt for more sustainable transportation options now and in the long run.

This week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Ontario Chamber of Commerce urged government to raise taxes to support road and rail improvements to help address the region’s crippling traffic problems. The Greater Golden Horseshoe, the most populated region in the country with 8.7 million (2011) people, has struggled with traffic issues for many years and Toronto is now considered one of the most congested cities in North America. In 2013, the C.D. Howe Institute estimated that congestion costs the regional economy $11 million annually. Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority formed in 2006, has a regional plan in place called The Big Move that aims to develop a broader range of transportation choices, but has faced challenges raising funds to implement the plan. Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government, elected June 21st, has promised to invest $29 million through the Moving Ontario Forward plan. But the fact that a group of prominent business people has endorsed higher taxes is indeed news.

In an article by Ian Merringer at the Globe and Mail, Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade said their 12,000 members have “asked them to be bold” in addressing congestion, which they consider their number one issue. Among their suggestions for managing traffic are highway tolls and a fuel tax that could be reinvested in things like transit infrastructure–last year, they recommended a parking space levy and increased regional sales and fuel taxes. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which has 60,000 members, noted that the government might now make faster decisions and “some politically unpopular decisions” to help relieve congestion.

Transportation demand management (TDM) measures can include tools such as fuel taxes reinvested to public transit, cycling trails and paths, programs to encourage non-motorized transportation, and many others. Cycling, for example, is becoming more popular in and cities throughout the region are implementing cycling trails to encourage commuters and those who make short trips to choose their bike instead. Toronto is currently implementing a network of separated cycling paths on many downtown streets, as part of a $300,000 pilot project.

Many transportation experts believe that building new infrastructure, such as public transit and cycling paths, is not enough to change transportation patterns–they must be combined with other TDM measures to make driving less convenient and affordable, such as higher parking fees or carbon taxes. However, these measures face major barriers in implementation in most of North America, where the vast majority of the population is fully entrenched in the car-oriented lifestyle–including urban forms that do not facilitate walking, cycling, or public transit use and popular perceptions of travelling without a car. Fear of injury is also much more of a consideration in North American cities; thanks to a collision involving local councillor and avid cyclist Mary-Margaret McMahon last week, a bill requiring all drivers to maintain a distance of one meter while passing cyclists may be reintroduced in the House of Commons. This step may be key in encouraging more people to cycle. In the Netherlands, as a comparison, the fact that drivers are much more liable for accidents between a motor vehicle and a non-motorized road user makes drivers much more cautious in general, and cyclists do not perceive cars as a threat at all.

A quick glance at the headlines surrounding the recent provincial election shows how politicized the transportation issue has become; for each candidate, their transportation plans were critical in public perception. Municipally, the ill-fated Transit City plan was a key issue in the election of Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 and lingering arguments over the Spadina LRT vs. subway continue to plague this fall’s mayoral candidates. As Chris Selley of the National Post writes, “Toronto is a city of cynical, gridlocked grumps,” where the prevailing argument seems to be that “nothing that we need will ever get built, and anything that does get built will be the wrong thing, and years late and millions or billions over budget.” Citing the recent discussion over the construction of the Union-Pearson Express train, scheduled to be completed in 2015 for the Pan Am Games, Selley points out that many of the arguments are unfounded. For example, the UP Express will be priced between $20-30 but the existing TTC and Airport Rocket bus will still be in place, allowing riders a cheaper option.

The problem seems to be, as Selley points out,

“Torontonians need to decide what they want the city to be…Instead of bitching about the city they want to have, Torontonians need to make the best of what they have, here in reality. The more improvement people see, the more they might get a taste for it – and the more they might be willing to pay for it.”

He writes that even those who want better transit “cling to bizarre small-town sensibilities for dear life: grace periods on parking tickets, parking on major streets as of 9 a.m., buses that stop for every sprinting would-be passenger. They want an airport link that’s cheap, and that stops eight times along the way so it’s fair to everyone, but also lighting fast. They want a city that runs like clockwork without inconveniencing a single person along the way.” It sounds to me like Toronto is ready for some Dutch-style gaming and simulations to help people understand the trade-offs that need to take place in urban planning and decision-making on a strategic level. So to the folks at Deltametropolis, here’s your next international case study!

 

Those of you following my blog have seen some of my recent writing about Dutch culture, as I navigate the murky waters of Amsterdam canals as part of my post-doctoral position at the University of Amsterdam. Today my article on Amsterdam cycling, “A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital”, is featured on Spacing Vancouver and also on the main Spacing website. For all the cyclists out there, you’ll probably accuse me of complaining about the conditions of paradise*, but for the rest of you it might be funny**. Check it out: Part 1 of the article appears today, and Part 2 will appear next Monday.

*Sample comment: “Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar…This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with.”

**Sample comment: “For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.”

Tree canopy on a Marpole residential street. The neighbourhood has a variety of commercial, industrial and residential land uses.

This year the City of Vancouver will be starting community plans for three neighbourhoods: Marpole, the West End and Grandview-Woodlands. In addition to the usual open houses and community meetings, the City has been using its new Public Engagement Division (within its Communications Department) in innovative outreach. This past weekend the City, local residents and designers coordinated walking tours of the three neighbourhoods as part of Jane’s Walk. The Marpole walk was hosted by Margot Long, landscape architect and urban designer, and local resident Jo-Anne Pringle. Lil Ronalds, the City planner working on the Marpole plan, and City Councillors Heather Deal and George Affleck also attended. For more info, check out my article “Get with the plan (Marpole edition!)” for Spacing Vancouver; others will be writing upcoming articles about the West End and Grandview-Woodlands walks, so stay tuned!

In mid-October, in between the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) conference in Minneapolis and a much-anticipated trip to Spain, I had the pleasure of witnessing the final doctoral exam of Ugo Lachapelle. Ugo came to SCARP under the supervision of Dr. Larry Frank, our Bombardier Chair of Sustainable Transportation. Ugo started his PhD the same year that I started my Masters at SCARP (2005), so it was particularly exciting to witness his exam and to hear that he passed and will graduate in the Spring of 2011.

Ugo chose to write his dissertation in the format of three papers, which could be published separately. His research focuses on the travel behaviour of public transit users and the relationship between transit and walking. Interestingly, the three-paper dissertation format, a relatively new innovation at UBC, has now been discontinued, making Ugo’s the only dissertation ever produced at SCARP to be published in this format. The dissertation, “Public transit use as a catalyst for an active lifestyle: mechanisms, predispositions and hindrances”, can be read here.

Ugo’s other work has been published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, in an article that examined whether people with employer-sponsored transit passes got more than the minimum recommended level of physical activity through walking. Ugo also published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year on how public health and transportation researchers study non-motorized transportation. His work, along with others spanning urban planning, public health and urban design, is a great example of the interdisciplinary nature of our research at SCARP.

Dr. Lachapelle is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University in the company of noted researchers Robert Noland, John Pucher and Devajyoti Deka. I’m sure he is also madly publishing his results, in between conference presentations at ACSP and the Transportation Research Board. Congratulations Ugo!

Update: Ugo will begin teaching at Université de Québec at Montréal, Département d’études urbaines et touristiques (Department of Urban Studies and Tourism) in Fall 2011.

In the past ten days, US policymakers seem to have achieved the impossible. On March 11, 2010, US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood pronounced the end of favouring motorized transportation over non-motorized transportation. And on March 21, 2010, the US finally passed its health care legislation. Aren’t these the first signs of the apocalypse?

Lahood, at this year’s National Bike Summit, announced his new Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations. Key recommendations for state DOTs and communities include treating walking and cycling as equal transportation modes, ensuring convenient accessibility for all ages and abilities, going beyond minimum design standards, collecting data on walking and cycling trips, setting a mode share target for walking and cycling, protecting sidewalks and paths in the same way roads are protected, and improving non-motorized facilities during maintenance projects. At this point of course, it’s a Policy Statement; it’s not law. But it marks the profound shift that is occurring in North America away from car-dominated discourse and policy.

On the health care front, the health care bill passed in the House December 24, 2009 served as the basis for HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. HR 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009, as I reported in an earlier post. Its main measures, taking effect six months after its passage, prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, prevents increased rates for children with pre-existing conditions, forces insurance policies to cover preventative care without co-pays, allows children to remain on parents’ plans until the age of 26, and bans lifetime monetary caps on insurance policies. In the future (by 2014), it will prevent insurers from charging higher rates for those with pre-existing conditions, expand Medicaid eligibility, offer tax credits to small businesses (fewer than 25 employees) who offer insurance, impose tax penalties on businesses with over 50 employees who do not offer insurance, impose a fine on individuals who do not have insurance, give tax credits to individuals who have heath insurance, and offer a state-controlled insurance option. However, it differed significantly from the bill passed in the House, HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, particularly in terms of financing and subsidies. Because they were so different, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the reconciliation bill. HR4872 was passed in the House of Representatives March 21, 2010, in a close 219-212 vote (216 votes were need to pass the bill). Not a single Republican supported its passage, but it doesn’t matter: the bill will be signed into law by the president as early as tomorrow.

Canada has also had a few firsts lately, although they are small potatoes compared to these major American policy shifts. One was the announcement that woonerfs are coming to Toronto. A West Donlands neighbourhood, currently under development, would include these Dutch streets, narrow, mixed-use affairs without curbs, which are thought to encourage pedestrian and cyclists while discouraging cars. Dutch woonerfs include traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and planter “bump-outs,” and the streets are more like outdoor urban social spaces than thoroughfares. The other was the announcement that Canada had opened the first school to ever require students to use non-motorized transportation to get to school. The Halton Public School Board just opened a new school, P.L. Robertson Elementary in Milton, where the students who live within 1.6 km (1 mile) of the school are required to get there on their own two feet, and parents are forbidden from driving their kids. 98% of the 700 students walk, bike, skateboard or ride scooters to school, while the remainder, who live more than 1.6km away, are bused. The school board is running the pilot project for one year, and hope to expand it to other schools soon. If it is a success, project manager Jennifer Jenkins knows that other schools will rapidly jump on board; the wealth of research on this topic shows how much is at stake with increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

All I can say is where is our national policy on transportation? Where is our Ray Lahood? And more importantly, where is our Obama?

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.