Great streets and the pedestrian realm: Inspirations from elsewhere, and some ideas for Vancouver

(Updated) What makes a “Great Street”? Does Vancouver have any truly “Great Streets”?

One mistake that urbanists sometimes make is to automatically think of monumental scales for a Great Street. This is when precedents from Paris (Avenue des Champs-Élysées), Berlin (Ku’damm and Unter den Linden) and Barcelona (Les Rambles) are mentioned:

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Strøget at Storkespringvandet, Copenhagen

Strøget at Storkespringvandet, Copenhagen

A monumental scale is not always necessary. Pedestrianized streets such as the Strøget in Copenhagen or the Kärntner Straße in Vienna are also “Great Streets”. There are secondary streets such as Avinguda de Gaudí in Barcelona that limit traffic and devote most of the street to pedestrians. However, Vancouver doesn’t have much of a tradition of pedestrian centred streets, notwithstanding a tiny part of Gastown.

Could a series of “public street improvements” turn Broadway into a “Great Street” or is a rethink of the amount of space devoted to pedestrians vs. vehicular traffic needed to reach this objective?

Barcelona Avinguda de Gaudí

Avinguda de Gaudí, Barcelona

Sidewalks and width of street right of way

One of the ways to measure the pedestrian experience is to look at the width of sidewalk allotted to pedestrians and to compare this to the road surface. Most of the major arterial streets in Vancouver have a “99 foot right of way”; a right of way is the distance between property lines on either side of the street. Often this scenario has 6 lanes of traffic, and sometimes 7 lanes (including the turning lane and/or median) devoted primarily to the automobile in Vancouver. This leaves very little over for pedestrians.

Sidewalks often contain a number of “obstacles” for pedestrians to navigate around (sandwich boards, lamps, parking meters, bike racks, bus shelters, fire hydrants and so forth). While these obstacles are often necessary, they do impede pedestrian traffic and further take away from the space allocated to the public realm.

Can wider sidewalks revitalize streets?

One of the possible solutions to address the space allocated to pedestrians is to have wider sidewalks. Arterial streets with heavy foot traffic are primary targets.

An open question is what is the width of sidewalk that is needed for a lively streetscape in Vancouver? Here’s a partial (and by no means complete) selection of streetscapes in Vancouver that may be worth studying in further detail:

  • Broadway west of Macdonald
  • Main Street south of East 14th Avenue
  • West 10th Avenue around Sasamat
  • Denman Street
  • Robson Street west of Burrard
  • Arbutus south of Broadway
  • Fraser at 49th Avenue
  • East Hastings and Nanaimo
  • Commercial Drive north of East 1st Avenue
  • 41st Avenue west of the Arbutus tracks
  • Water Street (Gastown)

Commercial Drive is an oddball in Vancouver, as the street has an 80 foot right of way and just four lanes of traffic north of East 1st Avenue. Many of the arterials have a 99 foot (30.2 metre) or a ‘chain and a half’ width, this width has its origins in the initial surveyed subdivision of the city lands (platting). As the City of Vancouver has essentially been built up, it’s not possible to move the street wall of commercials buildings back over a large area (it’s only possible in site by site redevelopments to require wider sidewalks). As it is not feasible to widen the street right of way, then the other issue to look at is how the width the roadway and the sidewalks compare (in cross-section) along arterials.

Is too much space allotted to the paved roadway? It’s certainly possible to reduce the overall width of roads in order to accommodate wider sidewalks. This can be done by removing or reducing medians, having fewer lands of traffic (for example, going from 6 to 4 lanes), converting traffic lanes into bike lanes, and by removing bulges in roads resulting from extra turning lanes (accommodate turning lanes in the 4-6 lane width allotted to roadway). There are plenty of precedents in cities all around the world that can be examined here and we hope to explore a few of these in a future post.

It’s worth considering that despite all of the ‘green’ rheotoric in official policy, the City has done very little to revitalize arterial streets. This may be because in order to do so, the City would actually have to narrow the road surface dedicated to cars. Perhaps the traffic engineers are firmly in control of policy after all.

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