Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

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Reflecting Elsewhere: Bike Lanes in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Bike Lanes Cyclovias
Bike lanes in Vancouver are sometimes derided as the quixotic obsession of a greenwashed mayor. The reality is that our infrastructure is barely keeping up with other major cities that have prioritized cycling mode share. London and Paris are well-publicized examples of this transformation. Buenos Aires offers another striking study, laying over 130 kilometres of protected bike lanes since only 2009, usually at the expense of automobile lanes or parking.

Porteño cyclovías are leaner than the Vancouver version, separated from traffic by narrow, yellow curbs plus occasional delineators. There are no planters or islands as seen in our alignments. This simplicity probably contributes to the speed with which they were installed, allowing rapid achievement of a functional network. The lanes are frequently punctuated by driveway access, but nonetheless feel safe to ride because they are usually installed on secondary roads. Many dodgy intersections remain, but this is a broader problem of the Buenos Aires street grid that is slow to amend. My travel companion informed me that a decade ago there weren’t even pedestrian signals in most neighbourhoods.
Palermo Bike Lanes Cyclovias
In fairness to Vancouver critics, Buenos Aires is a flat city, as are other popular examples of urban cycling across Europe. There is a legitimate argument about the extent of bicycle mode share that is possible in Vancouver given topography of the Burrard Peninsula. The ascent from Cambie Bridge to 10th Avenue is enough to leave any cyclist winded, far from the leisurely pedal of most Buenos Aires cyclovías. Our easiest separated commuter routes involve a hill or bridge of substantial grade at some point in the journey, enough to dissuade casual users. Famed West Coast athleticism may to some extent compensate for this natural disadvantage, but our mode share may ultimately find a lower ceiling than in cities that require fewer gear changes.


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Aestheticizing Vancouver

10th Avenue and Maple

Many commentators note that the critical politics that accompanied the reform movement and the planning programs of the early 1970s were supplanted by a much more individualized, consumerist orientation toward lifestyle, leisure, culture, and conviviality… Affordable housing sites remained undeveloped, and the new neighbourhoods were socially exclusive, lacking the land-use diversity, varied activities, services, and incubating businesses that create a truly urbane environment. More positively, there was a heavy investment in new parks, waterfronts, cycling and walking paths, greenways, and public art, which was matched by private investment in fitness clubs, cafés and bars, clubs, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique or festival shopping to create more convivial cities. For the critics, the contemporary urban preoccupations are consumption rather than community. Urbanity has taken on a particular aesthetic dimension through popular architecture, urban design, arts festivals, sports or cultural events, and local tourism.

— John Punter, The Vancouver Achievement

Written over ten years ago, in the immediate wake of Yaletown, Punter’s commentary rings true in other Vancouver neighbourhoods today. Boutique West Side condos and the forest of cranes near Main Street all promise an urban ideal of livability, rather detached from the street activities and community institutions that have historically defined great cities. Social vibrancy may perhaps develop in the absence of explicit policy to encourage it, but Yaletown does not inspire clear success in this regard.

A tension between aesthetic and substantive urban policy has dogged Vancouverism over the past two decades, without clear resolution. In demolishing such neighbourhood pivots as The Ridge, The Waldorf, and soon The Rumpus Room, housing development has been seen as an adversary of community, rather than a natural component of it. Driving this sentiment is not the mere physical dissolution of such locations, but the idea that new residents represent a commodified lifestyle found in billboards and advertisements, radically detached from the present social fabric. There is no reason it must be this way. Adequate policy to ensure mixed income levels among new residents would mitigate the rapid gentrification perceived to wipe away existing communities, and perhaps allow those communities to thrive from a larger local population. The aesthetic of the glassy yoga studio, the seawall jog, and fashionable patio can coexist with a real obligation to facilitate a mix of abilities and means. In the earliest days of Yaletown, this was indeed the case.

The aesthetic component of Vancouverism has brought it far. But to achieve a compelling urban experience beyond beautiful living, more imaginative policies directed toward mixed housing and land use are likely necessary. Between the ensconced resistance of East Side communities and the dispassion of West Side wealth, I fear the window for such ideas may be limited.

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York Bikeway: Curb Realignment at Yew Street

Yew and York Sidewalk Extension
Construction has started on the curb realignment at Yew Street and York Avenue, part of a broader suite of changes coming to York as it is refashioned into an east-west bike corridor. It wasn’t until I saw these changes in concrete that I realized the York Bikeway will be as much about enabling bicycles as calming traffic in the neighbourhood. Separated bike lanes will only run two blocks between Chestnut and Maple, but curbs will be modified as far west as Yew, and stop signs will be reversed along the full extent of York to Stephens Street.
York Avenue Traffic Changes
These are welcome changes, as they further discourage driving shortcuts between 4th Avenue and Cornwall. The steep grade of the hill, which offers spectacular views over English Bay, also leads to rapidly descending vehicles throughout the north-of-fourth grid. Even prudent glances up the road can sometimes fail to reveal a fast-approaching automobile, a particular hazard at Yew Street where pedestrian traffic is high. I’ve used York as a bike route prior to these changes, mostly to avoid Cornwall at the shallowest grade, and find the intersection at Yew also troubling for its poor visibility of downhill traffic. These cars will now meet a four-way stop at York.

It is not clear whether curb realignments and stop sign reversals will be sufficient to deter shortcut driving of this kind. Certainly the changes are less extensive than traffic calming measures found in the West End, and the hellish turn from 4th Avenue to Burrard Bridge increasingly encourages use of local streets. Summer will ultimately test the new arrangement.

City documents of the York Bikeway can be found here:

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Spring Forward

Kitsilano Spring March
If you were lucky enough to be out this Sunday, you can vouch that it felt like the first true day of spring in Vancouver. At Kitsilano Beach the procession reached a summer-like pitch, a teeming blend of conversations, runners, bicycles, and bystanders. The change to daylight saving time, which no one would really object to being permanent, has abruptly thrust the afternoons into sunshine.

Notably, the first blossoms have begun to emerge. This plum on the western side of Kitsilano Beach Park, famously twisted upon a rock, is among the earliest.
Kitsilano Beach Cherry Blossom

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Seaside Greenway: Tatlow Park at Point Grey Road

Point Grey Road Bike Lane Volunteer Park March 2014
The extension of Tatlow Park toward Volunteer Park is nearly complete, along with alignment of the new bike path where Point Grey Road once passed. The two parks will presumably remain separate in name to either side of the pavement. First Avenue no longer intersects Point Grey Road, and now effectively terminates at Tatlow. The lucky homeowners directly east of the park (pictured in my cheeky previous post) will likely owe a sharply increased tax bill next year.

Point Grey Road and First Avenue Bike Lane Plan Volunteer Tatlow Park
The flatness and open exposure of this new grassy strip in Tatlow Park — note there are no plans for trees — makes me think it will become an attractive summer alternative to the field at Kitsilano Beach.

I’m not clear on how the “daylighting” of Tatlow Creek is intended to proceed once the seaside greenway is complete. The idea has been mentioned in various city documents, as well as murmurs from the Park Board. The present ditch that runs through Tatlow Park seems to only flow water during heavy rain. Recreating a true runoff, as in Stanley Park or Pacific Spirit Park, seems wishful.


West Side Resident ‘Shocked’ City is Changing Something

Point Grey Road and First Avenue

This genre of Vancouver Courier story is really growing quite tiresome:

Green space paved for parking on Point Grey bike route

Shannon McRae says her mother would be shocked to discover the right-of-way directly next to the mini park named in her honour is being paved to create seven parking spaces. Other parking spaces being created, or are already paved, include three near the corner of Point Grey Road and Macdonald and eight on Point Grey Road near Trafalgar. Two more parking spaces are complete and adjacent to what’s known as Point Grey Park Site on Trafalgar Street.

A diagram of the park and pavement in question can be seen in my prior post about the Point Grey Road and Stephens intersection.

Residents indignant about new parking in the right-of-way would better direct their ire toward neighbours, who voiced concern for lost parking in the course of community consultation. The changes were clearly noted in city documents from July 2013. Why is this compromise, as brokered by the planning department, suddenly a cause for hostility toward the City? Should we instead pursue a line-item plebiscite on all aspects of the design?

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Vancouver Pillow Shots: English Bay Sunset

English Bay Sunset
A gentle measure of happiness derives from the return of evening sunsets in February, a reminder of winter’s end. Settled between the workday and dinner hour, the glow over English Bay is best enjoyed during a brisk seaside run. Crocuses have emerged, and the very first Accolade cherry blossoms have sprung opposite the Vancouver Aquatic Centre on Beach Avenue.

The sky has not yet achieved the lustre of spring, but March will slowly reveal it from our memories. Soon the extra layer will seem too heavy.

Previous Vancouver pillow shots:
The Naam (pillow shots explained)