A freeway-free city does not guarantee a walkable one

April 18, 2015 at 10:38 am

Of all the pretenses thrown around Vancouver urbanism/planning circles, “we have no freeways” is among the most unchallenged. No freeways traverse the 44 square miles of Vancouver proper (which is mostly true, as a small section of the Trans-Canada Highway does indeed enter the city’s boundaries), and someone will inevitably let you know this is why Vancouver is “so livable” or “Canada’s most walkable city” or something else along those lines.

But there are ramifications to being a city with North American freight demands, a large central business district inside the city, as well as a major bridge that moves traffic to the North Shore communities and beyond from all around the region (where most people still drive). The city is laced with a grid network of arterials that are unpleasant to walk along or across.

To give credit where its due, Vancouver does move a lot of people into its CBD and employment districts by transit, like many other North American cities. And a fairly large share of its own population travels on transit within its borders. You would think these factors, coupled with the lack of freeways, would make Vancouver a walking mecca on par with historic European cities.

This is the reality:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Vancouver’s downtown is one of the few parts of the city that is walkable and feels comfortable to walk around. There are a few neighborhoods here and there that are also comfortable to walk around, but they are isolate sections only reached by streets that look like the ones above.

Worse, these roads are designed to move traffic quickly. Signalized intersections with a flashing green light mean the signal is only changed when a person walking or bicycling on the cross street presses a button; that is, the lights are green by default. This is so traffic can move more quickly along the streets. Further, despite these streets being relatively narrow in terms of width, they pack in several lanes of moving traffic (4 or 6, depending on the time of day). The speed limit is set at 50 km/h (31 mph), but people normally drive at or exceed 60 km/h (37 mph). There is not usually a landscaped strip separating the (narrow) sidewalks from the roadway, and with few parked cars acting as a buffer, this means traffic is whizzing inches away from people walking or waiting for a bus. Finally, signalized intersections and painted crosswalks are few and far between when not in a commercial area, making crossing these streets difficult. Safely crossing can involve walking several blocks out of one’s way to safely cross these streets.

This does not stop at neighborhood high (commercial) streets either, which are often noisy due to four, five, or six lanes of through traffic moving at relatively high speeds. Neighborhoods like Marpole could make use of its wide sidewalks by having outdoor seating and other elements of vibrant outdoor public life, but there is little of it and I do not hesitate at thinking this is due to road noise.

Furthermore, there are no policy pushes by the city to put these streets on a “road diet,” as is being done in other cities around North America. This is likely because some of them are provincial roads or part of TransLink’s Major Road Network, which would make them similar to State DOT roads in U.S. cities. This is a disappointment.

Vancouver's share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

Vancouver’s share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

There are good walking streets in Vancouver. Notice that they all have one usable lane of through traffic:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

 

And here are some decent walking streets in other North American cities (also, only two traffic lanes maximum):

Capture d’écran 2015-04-18 à 09.27.48

Andersonville, Chicago. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

The point is that you can be a city with no freeways, but the cost could come in the form of a network of stroads (street/road hybrid, essentially a street that doesn’t work well for anyone) whose unpleasantness is spread across the city and therefore impacts more of its population. Few urbanists, myself included, like freeways running through cities. We can certainly do without them in our downtowns, their effects are incredibly unpleasant, and the history behind their construction is shameful. But it is disingenuous to assert that a city is somehow better off with several long, straight, high-speed arterials designed to move traffic quickly instead of one freeway which might be able to handle this traffic, giving way to narrower, calmer commercial streets through neighborhoods. It would also be less of a liability to run these arterial streets through the city if the it had planned its retail districts (i.e. neighborhood centers) on smaller streets.

This is an idea that should be thought over, not to make the case for building a freeway through Vancouver (which I do not think should be done), but instead to think about the ramifications of being a city in a North American region where the majority of residents still travel by car, despite efforts to reduce car travel by rejecting freeways and building transit instead. Unless it is balanced out with policies directed at taming arterial streets, it doesn’t appear to work all that well.