Earlier this week, we had the immense pleasure of participating in a special Vancouver Design Week edition of PechaKucha Vancouver. That evening, we stepped on stage in front of 1,200 people at the Vogue Theatre and asked a provocative question: How do the design of our streets reflect our values, priorities, and aspirations, as we strive to build equitable cities that work for everyone, and not just those behind the wheel of an automobile?
Here in Vancouver, one third of our city's landmass is dedicated to roads, laneways, and intersections. This could easily be our city’s most squandered asset, used primarily for one purpose: the movement and storage of private automobiles. But what does this say about our values and aspirations, and what would happen if we started thinking differently about the design of our streets?
It hasn’t always been this way. Before the Second World War, our streets were a place for community, commerce, and connection. But in the pursuit of so-called freedom, we’ve systematically moved those activities off the street and into parks and private spaces, handing them over to the automobile.
As a result, our streets have become more-or-less out of bounds for anyone not behind the wheel of a automobile. This becomes particularly problematic when we consider the lived experience for our most vulnerable residents. Without fully intending to, we’ve systematically robbed our children and our seniors of both their dignity and their mobility.
This isn’t exactly a new observation; in fact, it was first documented by urban designer and theorist Donald Appleyard in 1981. He famously chronicled the decreased social cohesion that occurs when our shared space is designed solely for one use: moving cars. The more cars travelling along a given street, the fewer social interactions, with each neighbour having fewer friends and acquaintances.
More recently, Dr. Steven Fleming began mapping the consequences of high traffic roads on walking and cycling. To a child for example, the city feels like a hundred small islands, with what might as well be oceans between them. Street with limited safe crossings, engineered to provide drivers with the fastest way from A to B, often leave people trapped on the block where they live.
But in recent years, a distinct paradigm shift has taken place in car-clogged urban centres around the world. One that reimagines these corridors as places to stay instead of places to pass through. Places that encourage social interaction, physical activity, and new forms of commerce.
In cities such as like Boston, this movement is being led by social activists who are demanding more of their elected officials. They're using tactical urbanism, the temporary transformation and reallocation of a space with lighter, quicker and cheaper methods. This presents a more tangible way of prioritizing people over cars, often with little more than traffic cones, flowers, and a little bit of paint.
In San Francisco, these temporary installations have led to permanent change. What started out as a single day event where residents took over one parking space for 24-hours, in just over 10 years has transformed into almost 100 permanent parklets throughout the city, that can now be enjoyed by anyone all year round.
In our own backyard, the City of Vancouver has discovered the power of pilots projects. They help demonstrate the latent demand for better public spaces, and that the world doesn’t come to an end when we close a few blocks to traffic and open them to people. Organizations like City Studio and Vancouver Public Space Network also continue to challenge that status quo, and in some cases inspire, like our daughter's newfound love of piano.
Each year, there is a new example of those temporary projects leading to permanent change. From Alley-oop, Bute and Jim Deva Plazas, and Robson Square, demonstrating the possibilities has created beloved places to meet and spend time, where residents can’t imagine what it was like before when cars ruled these spaces.
As cities reimagine spaces for gathering, they are also reexamining how people move in those spaces. In Los Angeles, a city famous for being built around the automobile, Angelenos prove that if given the choice, they will leave their cars at home. Four weekends a year, hundreds of thousand participate in the quarterly CicLavia, and experience their streets on a more human scale.
The recognition that our streets aren’t set in stone is a global phenomenon, and the best example of that is in New York City. There, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her staff spend her tenure helping New Yorkers see the possibilities for their city. Her team would redesign a space overnight with little more than some paint, planters, and plastic chairs.
Perhaps the most iconic example of this is the now-permanent pedestrian plaza in Times Square. What was once a noisy, car-choked, and dangerous destination, is now a cherished legacy of Sadik-Khan's. By moving quickly, she and her team were able to push back against the cynicism and challenges, and show New Yorkers something they could touch and feel, instead of sitting around and arguing about.
Across the Atlantic, Paris has been bringing people back to the shores of the Seine by removing the cars and bringing back the humanity. Berges de la Seine, a 2.3 kilometre public park along the north bank of the river was once a direct expressway for suburban car commuters. When it re-opened in 2013, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë fulfilled a promise to give Parisians back their river, and provide an opportunity for happiness for all residents.
On the south side of the river, a similar story was evolving, but on a slightly longer timeline. Paris-Plages was a temporary artificial beach installed each summer in a space that previously moved 30,000 cars per day. Ten years of summer closures were enough to convince Parisians it was a worthwhile venture, and Mayor Anne Hildago permanently closed the motorway to traffic in 2018.
Change is also happening in some unlikely places here in Canada, even in Oil Country. For Calgarians, it was the construction of their first piece of beauty built solely for active transportation that would inspire their own pilot project. The Peace Bridge, which draws an average of 28,000 people across it each week, pointed to a latent demand for walking and cycling in a sprawling city with a motoring reputation.
Skip to the launch of Calgary’s downtown Cycle Track Network, an 18-month pilot project that was delivered two months early and $2-million under budget. Despite early controversy, the new network gave Calgarians of all ages a safe place to cycle in their city centre. In the fall of 2017, the network was made permanent by a vote of 10-4, proving pilot projects are indeed the Trojan Horses of increased urban livability.
Perhaps because of the success of pilot projects, some cities are becoming bold enough simply to reclaim roads without testing their ideas first. When the Light Path opened in December of 2015, a disused motorway on-ramp became the jewel of Auckland’s cycling network. Not only is a vital link in the system, but it is also a place to gather, socialize, and is rebranding the city as one starting to value its people over their cars.
Despite these amazing transformations, with the rise of autonomous vehicles, we now run the risk of doubling down on past mistakes. We may see this new technology as a step toward a brighter future, but so too did the post-war planners who ended up tearing the social fabric out of our cities. Quite simply, the difficulty with allowing technology to drive development is it lacks a key ingredient: humanity.
The decision now is what kind of future do we want: One that is content with letting the car continue to dominate, or one that acknowledges a truly happy city is one where people come first? Some cities may be further ahead than others, but what’s most important is they’re all headed in the same direction. Because the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.